My students and I were talking about Lucille Clifton’s poem “auction street.” I hope you know it, but in case you don’t, here is the entire poem:
consider the drum.
consider auction street
and the beat
throbbing up through our shoes,
through the trolley
so that it rides as if propelled
by hundreds, by thousands
of fathers and mothers
led in a coffle
to the block.
consider the block,
topside smooth as skin
almost translucent like a drum
that has been beaten
for the last time
and waits now to be honored
for the music it has had to bear.
then consider brother moses,
who heard from the mountaintop:
take off your shoes,
the ground you walk is holy.
As is typical with my students, they were unmoved at first look. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t worried either. My kids startle and bewilder me weekly. These are the same kids who were, one day, close to walking out of a discussion on Etheridge Knight, but, two days later, confessed to defending and even teaching Knight’s poems to their parents. What did surprise me this time was their inability to connect with Ms. Clifton’s subject: the slave auction block. I’ll tell you the truth. One student thought this was a poem about an auctioneer at an estate sale. Another said she believed Clifton was talking about one of those Amish livestock sales.
I like teaching these kinds of poems because we live near so many relics and landmarks that continue telling this particular narrative. In nearby Louisville, Georgia, you will find the oldest existing slave market in Georgia. When I first visited the site, I wasn’t alarmed to find it in the middle of the small town’s business district. But I was confused when my students—some of which are from the Louisville community—had no idea what the structure was or represented. It seems odd that a grandparent or church official or history teacher or cousin or coach had never shown or told them the story of this place that would seem to be, as Clifton says, holy.
On River Street, in the nearest big town, Savannah, there is a monument to slavery. Apparently located on the very spot where the first Africans were brought to be bought in the state of Georgia, the monument depicts a bronze family of four standing with chains about their feet. At the granite base, is a quote from poet Maya Angelou: “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.” If you walk south from the monument on River Street, you can follow a cobblestone path into the same underground pens in which human beings were stored. Even though I have stood in those dark, damp pens with my four-month old daughter, not a single student of mine had a clue that either of these two places existed.
I was grossed out. But so were my students. They asked why no one had ever shown them these places. I heard one student go, that’s fucked up and it’s only nine o’clock on Tuesday. That’s right about the time I abandoned my dreams of teaching Clifton’s use of half-rhyme. There goes my lesson on line-breaks. It would have felt unjust to talk about the way Clifton used the drum as a metaphor in the poem when these good people didn’t even have a clue that the drum was (with the exception of Congo Square in New Orleans) outlawed in every square inch of the South. And that’s where we’d start.