Amistad Poetry

The forced immigration of people from Africa has inspired many poets.

One of these was Phillis Wheatley. She was born around 1753 in Africa (one source I’ve read said she was from Gambia and another said Senegal), taken captive and brought to the United States when she was around eight. Her mistress taught her and soon Phillis was writing and publishing poems of her own. Here is one in which she is reflecting on the experience of being taken captive in Africa and brought to America:

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Tought me benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.


Another was African-American poet James Monroe Whitefield who wrote the following poem a few years after the Amistad affair, in 1853.


Moving into the twentieth century, here are a few excerpts from a very long poem, “Freedom’s Plow” by Langston Hughes.

… A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came from across the sea
Bringing the Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new-
To a new world, America!

With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams.
In little bands together,
Heart reaching out to heart,
Hand reaching out to hand,
They began to build our land.
Some were free hands
Seeking a greater freedom,
Some were indentured hands
Hoping to find their freedom,
Some were slave hands
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
But the word was there always:

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.


Last of all (before the children start considering how to write their own) we are going to read several Amistad poems from Elizabeth Alexander’s collection America Sublime.  A few years ago this remarkable poet visited Dalton, a very exciting day indeed!   I first got to know her work when another poet,  Natasha Trethewey, came to work with us at Dalton. Here’s  a persona poem the class wrote with her based on the following description of Sarah Margru Kinson (from one of these original profiles of the Amistad captives in John Barber’s book).


What I remember of home is this:

green – green mangoes, green snakes, green bananas:
brown – my mother, my father, myself, the tree
trunks, the brown earth, the color of my language,
the only language I had
to describe these things.

Often I think of
how I came to be here:

my father pawning me, waving goodbye,
his face crumpled, tightened, looking
away from me.

I felt my captor’s white, cold hand
tighten around my wrist as if
he were a solid ghost taking me away.

Now I wish to see again
the green rice fields,
my father’s brown face,
clouds in the sky —
the only white things,

to hear someone speaking my language,
someone saying


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