D. A. Powell reads and discusses Frances E. W. Harper's "Bury Me in a Free Land"
Bury Me in a Free Land
Make me a grave where'er you will, In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill; Make it among earth's humblest graves, But not in a land where men are slaves. I could not rest if around my grave I heard the steps of a trembling slave; His shadow above my silent tomb Would make it a place of fearful gloom. I could not rest if I heard the tread Of a coffle gang to the shambles led, And the mother's shriek of wild despair Rise like a curse on the trembling air. I could not sleep if I saw the lash Drinking her blood at each fearful gash, And I saw her babes torn from her breast, Like trembling doves from their parent nest. I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey, And I heard the captive plead in vain As they bound afresh his galling chain. If I saw young girls from their mother's arms Bartered and sold for their youthful charms, My eye would flash with a mournful flame, My death-paled cheek grow red with shame. I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might Can rob no man of his dearest right; My rest shall be calm in any grave Where none can call his brother a slave. I ask no monument, proud and high, To arrest the gaze of the passers-by; All that my yearning spirit craves, Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
—Frances E. W. Harper
This poem is in the public domain.
Hi. This is D. A. Powell. And this is The Poetry of America. Today is the 15th day of January, 2013, anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visionary American, spiritual leader, and civil rights advocate and organizer. If Dr. King had lived in continued good health he would be 84 years old today. His courageous campaign for political and social justice is part of the legacy of American identity—our continued journey toward liberty, equality, and freedom in all its noblest articulations. Not only did the United States have to win its independence from the British crown, but it has had to continue that fight internally and externally to protect the rights of all its citizens and to enact laws to preserve those ideals. Dr. King is perhaps the most notable example of moral courage in the face of adversity and the struggle to gain and defend those rights. In his speeches, King recalled the figure of Moses: “I just want to do God’s will,” King says, “and he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I have seen the Promised Land.”
King wasn’t the first advocate of freedom and equality to invoke the leader who brought the slaved Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. The song “Go Down Moses” attributed to Nat Turner was in all likelihood composed by a black slave and its popularity among abolitionists and captives bound in servitude attest to the spiritual power of Moses’ story. Underground Railroad conductor Harriett Tubman was nicknamed Moses and the tale of Moses delivering his people from captivity appeared in numerous African American stories and poems. It is this emancipating Moses whose voice Frances E. W. Harper summons in her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land.”
Born Frances Watkins, Frances was the child of free black parents living in Baltimore. Following the death of her mother, Harper lived with her maternal aunt and uncle. The uncle, a clergyman, ran a school for black children and it was there that Harper learned to read, write, and sew. But more importantly, she learned the importance of civil rights and she became a life-long advocate and worker for social reforms. After moving to Ohio, she became the first woman teacher at the Union Seminary and she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society for whom she became a popular orator. Frances Harper’s first book of poems was published at the age of 20, but it is her later poems on miscellaneous subjects that enjoyed wide-spread popularity, going through 20 printings, and included the popular poem “Bury Me in a Free Land.” After her death in 1911, Harper herself was buried in the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, outside Philadelphia. The cemetery was originally a potters’ field, but it was converted to a burial place for African Americans who wanted a space where they could honor their dead with funerals that incorporated customs and traditions brought from Africa. A place where markers could be placed in respect of their generations who came here in chains and who fought for the rights and freedoms of their descendants, and indeed of all Americans. A tireless suffragist and abolitionist, Harper saw the transformation of this country from a land of inequality to a place of promise and hope. “Bury Me in a Free Land” reminds us that America includes many kinds of journeys out of oppression, captivity, exploitation, and tyranny. And that we still have so very far to go to protect our rights and freedoms for all.
We must bear away the body to another place—Oscar Wilde, Salome Then said I, Here am I; send me.—Isaiah, 6:8 The product of poor radiography, this one rectangular window through which the faintest of flowers might be seen. As each plastered, vegetative eye awoke in traction, and sought to be dismissed from the unreliable dispensary to which it was tied, so too did I petition to be moved into any upper room that might have me. Let the next who comes invite me so: If night can take it, shall we thread it like a spider, glance around its unlit cistern complecting our moonstruck strands toward the vortices we’ve kept from thus exploring. Let him knock with a promise of books. Good looks, cut-away collar, skinny black tie. The pocket protector with his name engraved. For the bandages were still to be unwound. Had I ever thought about being saved? No. I had only ever thought about being spent. And unmended in my bones, I fostered such attraction to this ardent host, himself the aseptic argent lancet brought to pierce me in my side. It was his first penetrating glance that filled me with a sudden surge of blood, wrack, rent & bungle of my corpus. Let me say I stank like the rim of hell in all my lust and would have blushed at my own heat if not for the shameless eagerness in his eyes. The world is full of lovely but tragic boys. Get me on the joy bus, I said. Nobody ever really rides the joy bus. He prepared a place for me in empty houses, received me in the shaded summer lawns, wrapped in our own light jackets at the riverbottoms, hid in manzanita clumps, the brake, the brittlefern, in the foyer of a Pentecostal church where we took our gladness to spite the pious, took the praise of God as an offering of our bodies, each of us crouched in the doorway in turn, mouth to the vine, lips to the eucharist, flesh of my astonished flesh. Jon, my elder; Jon, my boy. The body is dead to us: naughty, then gone. Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jon; I will kiss thy mouth. Let him be born of every ash that glows in the oil drums of winter parks. Let lesions disappear, let brittle bones be knit. Let the integrity of every artery be restored. There is no God but that which visits us in skin and thew and pleasing face. He offers up this body. By this body we are saved.
—D. A. Powell
D. A. Powell
D. A. Powell (1963- ) was born in Georgia and attended Sonoma State University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (2012), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Powell is the recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently teaches at the University of San Francisco. Photo credit: Trane DeVore.
Frances E. W. Harper
Frances E. W. Harper (1825-1911) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her first collection of poetry, Forest Leaves, was published in 1845, and many of her poems appeared in abolitionist papers. Harper began giving anti-slavery lectures and poetry readings throughout Northern America in 1854. She published several more collections of poetry and a novel, Iola Leroy, was released in 1892.