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The Jacob Lawrence Ekphrasis: Frederick Douglass Series


ISSUE:  Spring 2015

Panel 1. February 1818

Black runs wild in Talbot.
Runs like the river runs 
Through water,
Runs like a child 
Through childhood.

The women do chores 
In the middle of this.
Do the bulk of black living.
They hold stars on their heads 

Call the gold grain 
Or call the gold East
Call it ripe for the pluck, or 
Safe Passage. Say, make a move 
And call it gone

So much black everywhere
Ubiquitous on trees
Grows in a buzz 
On elbows, streaks 
The reeds, and strides across 
The plains. A crooked 
Hand out of the sand
Black hand of God, Save us.

But men approach
Holding what could be shovels
Or rifles, trying to dig 
Or shoot God gone, 
Right out of sight.

And still, here is this 
Baby, born unto this land 
In these matchstick 
Boxes, born unto the silt 
As bold as black lightning 
Or a black tree. He’s a quake. 
Cracking the Earth
From limb to limb.

 

Panel 3. The Flogging

Colonel Lloyd make the babies watch

Colonel Lloyd try to break the babies,
 makes everyone watch

Colonel Lloyd beat Millie until the sunset
 so everyone see how a woman spirit get broke

Everyone see Colonel Lloyd 

Everyone’s eyes wide to the white

Wide as Colonel Lloyd’s buck teeth

Everyone watch Millie tug at a tree

Everyone see Millie wrap herself around a gray trunk

Colonel Lloyd, red as the red, red as Millie’s dress

Colonel Lloyd’s red drips to the ground and muddies his boots

Everyone see Colonel Lloyd slip and Millie holdin’ on

Hold on, girl, hold on

All the lights is on and his whip is glowin’

But everyone see the brilliance on the top of Millie’s head

Everyone see Millie hold the hand of God in that there tree,

And so do Colonel Lloyd

And so do Colonel Lloyd

 

Panel 30. Face to Face: Lawrence and the Douglass Death Mask

Feel the comb, the scissors shearing 
Your goat-colored hair. Feel Mr. Dunbar
Lathering your face with rubber, and 

Petroleum jelly tears. He cries into the salve 
On your face and fight. He rubs you opal 
So not to scrub the eloquence off your skin. 

Your swollen mouth still chewing chains 
Or chewing granite. Your mouth, full of the print 
From last night’s speech, wants to rebuff:

Do you mean to lock me in plaster?
Do you mean to cripple this posture? 
This death is mine to own and preserve.

Your skin, no longer slavery’s dockyard 
Nor its blistering cannons. No longer the bright 
Brown of a town hall’s pews. Your mask, white 

And crusted, will stiffen into accomplishment,
Into hallmark, into a lion’s thick hide 
And heavy muscle. When the funeral beckons,

Your stern face will startle the church’s nave 
Until the guise rests in your home, in the hallway 
Near your swift and quiet collapse. 

O Frederick Douglass, Come home and settle, 
With a body, a pipe, and chuckle for your dear 
Miss Pitts. Rock back and forth so the floor planks

Creak as your foot taps an anthem. To the seascape,
To the searchlight, the beat guiding your first wife.
She waits with your mother on a road the ice and chill 

Of this country cannot reach. This death mask, holds 
Your self-made life and labor, validates the extremes 
Of manhood, and dignifies your slumber.

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