In Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind, “Tara” was Scarlett O’Hara’s family plantation, a symbol of the supposedly idyllic (for white people) Southern way of life before the Civil War. The poet Catherine Sasanov references this pro-slavery myth ironically, tragically, in the title of her chapbook Tara (Cervena Barva Press, 2008), not as a vanished Eden but as confession of white America’s original sin.
This exquisite, penitent chapbook unearths lives overlooked by official histories. Upon discovering that her Missouri forebears had owned slaves, the poet undertook the task of reconstructing the latter’s stories from the scraps of information in local records. The incompleteness of the narrative stands as an indictment of white America’s lack of care for black lives. Suburban development appears as the latest form of erasure of the graves on which civilization is built.
Most of the poems in Tara are also included in Sasanov’s subsequent full-length collection Had Slaves, which won the Sentence Book Award from Firewheel Editions and was published by Firewheel in 2010. Thanks to both publishers and the author for permission to reprint the poem below.
On Reading the Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writers Project
(for Elizabeth Herndon Sharp, 1839-1945)
Missouri, 1937. The year white folks armed
with pens, with paper,
come to excavate memory’s shallow grave. Get paid to sift the slavery from it.
Before the old mouths die out around their stories. So they can lay their words out to dry.
So fresh, the spit still shines on them. Light cuts and bruises insisting how
Black thought exits through the teeth–
Eye dialect, written by men, by women, who never read the Braille
whipped into an ex-slave’s back. Look at the way each word is strained
through the minstrel show in their heads: Honey,
mama’s gwan way off, ain’t never goin to see her baby agin.
They ask about belief in ghosts, get scared when surface
wanders towards them white: black girls perfect as a glass of milk
whole towns choose to hold upright, so the one drop theory won’t spill out.
In spite of dust storms, failed banks, plagues of locusts,
did the called-to-ask give thanks to Jesus for a present as perfect as this Great Depression
to make our past look good? In Missouri,
1937, they invite themselves onto 92 porches, eke child slaves out
of 80-year-old women, 90-year-old men. Pens poised for the moments
dripping with nostalgia. Pages buckling beneath the weight:
Ole Mistress, slopping children’s meals in a pig trough.
Old Master, dragging a sick man from his cabin,
throwing him living in his grave:
We’ll come back in about an hour, he should be dead by then.
(What children see while running errands.
What children wrest from beneath their eyelids
so they can drop to their knees and eat.)
Bloody footprints across the floorboards.
A toddler crawling into her mother’s coffin, Look at my pretty dress.
How close can I lean in and listen
70 years away from voices
bound into a book? Where my family’s slaves died out
outside its pages. Where no one came to slide a sheet of paper
underneath their words. In Missouri, 1937,
my father’s tucked into its southwest corner,
lives on a campus called the forty acres. He learns to think
he’s years, not blocks, away
from the last slave linked
to his family. She’ll wait till 1945,
while no one tries
to take down her story.
I’ve touched the edges of her unmarked grave,
beat my hands against its dirt and howled.
But why should she get up, answer now
this trace of slaveholder
in my blood: distinct though distant,
watered down. What runs this pack of words across
the thin ice of the page.