A friend sent me a new book called A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland. The author is a black poet, scholar and Air Force veteran named DaMaris B. Hill and her book—her soul stirring and deeply moving book— is part poetry, part history and part memoir.
“These poems honor Black women who have had experiences with incarceration,” Dr. Hill writes in her introduction.
“This book is a love letter to women who have been denied their humanity,” she continues.
That includes her grandmother, Harriet Beecher Spruill-Hill, for whom she wrote the book’s first poem, as well as a lyrical piece of prose.
“Her smile whiter than seashells, her breath the scent of tobacco. As narrow as a Carolina pine with worries `’bout the rage of white folks,’ she died gifting me her photos. The only stories she could write.”
Hill beseeches us to remember that our recent struggles have deep historical roots.
“The Black Lives Matter movement and the Blue Lives Matter movement and the All Lives Matter movement are shrapnel in the long and rarely acknowledged American presumption that Black people are less than human. As a result of this presumption, Black women have been heavily invested in abolition, protest, and resistance movements aimed at the acknowledgment of Black humanity.”
She doesn’t mean starting yesterday.
She moves from woman to woman to woman—a historical note, and then a poem, or sometimes several poems, about a black woman that was “put away” for one reason or another.
“Let these women dance among your days and with your nights. Dream better lives,” Hill writes.
Her voice is unforgettable. Listen to the first verse of her poem “Black Bird Medley”:
blue veins vine my wrists, rosaries stitch my palms
I pass through Eastern a yellow canary
my voice, an ebony tongue. hail mary,
no grace. Black soul in the middle like psalms,
my mother’s bible stories, a broken heart’s balm.
my lips carry her cello harmonies
Listen to the poem’s last verse, too:
black bird, oriole,
can do anything, but sing
alone. She needs sisters
black-winged melodies, the souled
contraltos of dark angels.
Hill wrote the poem about Amanda Powell (alias Annie Wilson), a black woman convicted three times of larceny and incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary in the late 19th century.
Discovering poems about Joan Little and Assata Shakur in Hill’s book was like being in a distant land and running into people I grew up with. Both have deep roots here on the North Carolina coast.
Joan Little is from Beaufort County, N.C., a place I know well, 50 miles from where I grew up. When I was in the 9th grade, she was in the county jail in Washington, N.C. In that jail, she killed her jailor with his own ice pick when he tried to sexually assault her.
That was in 1974. Little was charged with first-degree murder. A lynchpin in the civil rights, feminist and anti-death penalty movements, her case became famous around the world: books were written about her, songs sung about her.
I thought she had largely been forgotten, but Hill remembers.
Fact is everything that crawls ain’t looking to be a butterfly, she writes in her poem, “Joan Little.” She is talking about Little’s jailor.
Hill also writes eight poems about Assata Shakur— the black revolutionary who escaped from a federal prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba.
“Revolution is the taste of honey and the revenge of the hive.”
I mentioned Shakur here on this blog last summer when I posted my series “The Color of Water.” Among other things, that series looked at North Carolina’s historically African-American beach communities.
Shakur mostly grew up in New York City. But her family’s roots were on the North Carolina coast and, for part of her childhood, she lived with her grandparents in Sea Breeze.
In her autobiography, Shakur wrote about Sea Breeze with great love and tenderness and not a little humor, too. She did not sound like the desperate and hateful revolutionary that her captors made her out to be.
“They want to hear you sob their scriptures,” one of Hill’s poems about Shakur’s incarceration says.
Another ends: You disappeared/ like the Jew, Elijah, a black woman/emancipated by the wind, like a pumpkin/seed dancing in a prayer. Under the canopy/of your name/everything is green’s first gold./You are more beautiful than your enemies,/remember.
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