Before the movie, Django, Robert Hayden, Fisk University librarian and Poet of the Library of Congress, wrote “The Middle Passage,” a poem in which he describes the experiences of the Atlantic slave trade in the voice of a trader. That voice, of the cruel perpetrator of a brutal, ignoble, inhuman, death-filled passage, is a voice that gains its poetic credibility by the sympathy–and horror–it elicits.
Imagine an African-American poet writing in Tennessee in the 1940s, creating a sympathetic voice for the human who loads hunger and death on his ships for profit, and hunger and death are the masks of human beings. Long before Django or Herman Cain (et al), African-Americans developed a cultural and oral tradition that dealt with the paradox of life and death staring at each other across the dark, reeking hole of a slave ship. Reports from Charleston say the ships could be smelled five miles downwind, and were cleaned with red hot lead rolled over planks to scorch the stench embedded in the wood.
Ironically, great white sharks changed their feeding patterns; slavery altered the ocean’s ecology as they followed the ships to feast on the bodies thrown overboard.
And like Samuel L. Jackson in the movie, Hayden described a black collaborator, King Anthracite.
A long, powerful tradition of memory and commemoration, of a faith born in the bramble, lies beyond controversy and the use of the N-word 110 times on screen. A painful truth became a passage of greater transcendence.
Long gone bones mark the trail of freedom. The long knives of white teeth flashing their suffering became a jubilee celebration, rejoicing as they sleep.