Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bill of Goods (Poem)

Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Last Sale of Slaves
Oil on Canvas,  ca. 1870
Missouri Historical Society

Bill of Goods

She's on the block outside
      Old Courthouse, the spot Dred Scott

first won then lost his claim to freedom.
      Young, healthy, female, octoroon,

her babe in arms proof too of potential,
      she bears both crowd's unbidding

and auctioneer's gin, hours idling to ante
      raise. Three dollars! Three dollars!

Three dollars! No less, no higher a spur,
      the fist impatient to stamp hard

Sold before the faces of liberty and justice
      on the buttresses of the porticoes.

The picture doesn't lie the way, later,
      the master's whip against tendered back

will run its parallel lines same as tracks
      of the Underground pointed due north

and one way out. Cotton bales and hemp
      rope make bed and binding for this one

named Jim, that other his wife, and her pride
      the six more from the single family

split unto hands holding person and property
      as one, no difference ever recorded.

© 2011 Maureen E. Doallas

This year in January a reenactment of a slave auction was held at Old Courthouse in St. Louis. I earlier had come across a discussion of Noble's painting, which is said to have been rendered in response to a slave auction described as "the last" held in the city. The image above is of the second of Noble's paintings, the first (created in 1865) having been destroyed by fire. 

You'll find several interesting posts on the history, significance, and disputed title of Noble's work here, here, here, and here. James Neal Primm recounted in his Lion of the Valley a scene in St. Louis in which bidding on the first of seven slaves reached just $8.00 after two hours, causing the auctioneer to remand the slaves to jail, where they were kept as their deceased owner's estate was probated. (The third edition of Primm's book is on GoogleBooks.)

The Missouri History Museum, where Noble's painting is on display, plans a comprehensive exhibition, "The Civil War in Missouri"; it will open November 12, 2011, and run until March 16, 2013.

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I offer this poem for the One Shot Wednesday event at One Stop Poetry, which each week invites poets to share and read each other's work. Be sure to visit the site late Tuesday afternoon and every Wednesday for links to the many contributors' poems.


Glynn said...

This poem pierces and tears, Maureen. Excellent.

the Missouri Historical Society is one of our favorite places in St. Louis. (And I have a copy of "Lion in the Valley" sitting on my bookshelf.)

Louise Gallagher said...

the subject of this poem is heart-breaking.

your rendering of the story touches my heart and heals the breaks.

Ami Mattison said...

Absolutely chilling, Maureen. You've used a deft hand on a difficult topic, and how you managed to work in the various atrocities associated with slavery is ingenious. Excellent, albeit heart-breaking, poem.

S. Etole said...

my heart breaks with this ...

Anonymous said...

Poignant poem. The old courthouse is less than three miles north of where I live.

signed...bkm said...

"holding person and property as one"....what sins this country carries...we still have a lot to learn....bkm

Brian Miller said...

it is a history we dont like to talk about the land of the free built on the backs of another...stirring write...

Joyce Wycoff said...

Very hard to read ... it is so powerful especially combined with the image. We may not be perfect but we have come far in some respects. Thank you!

Jerry said...

Let us never forget where we have been...some day I pray there will be a painting documenting the last sex trade transaction.

Kathleen Overby said...

I loved the pride loop. Picturing it, but wanting to look away. Thankfully, there were brave people who didn't look away, but took action.

Kavita said...

My god.. this is heartrending, Maureen...
It's a shame that we as "free" individuals, do nothing about the mindless slavery enforced on others!
The things we (humankind) do, in the name of pride.. (sigh)... tragic!

A very poignant read, my friend...

Shashidhar Sharma said...

Dear Maureen

Very good picturisation.... I enjoyed it so much..

ॐ नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya
Twitter @VerseEveryDay

Beachanny said...

You've deftly mastered the details and nuances of this. A horror most of the country wants to bury but the stains of those acts pass down to each generation. When the 60s civil rights acts passed, I thought we'd made such progress but the hate and prejudice went underground. The ruthless everywhere still exploit it. Timely and excellent work. Thank you. Gay