August 1, 2012

Whitfield: song of the unfettered slave

From an early publication,
courtesy of The Classroom Electric
On August 1, 1834, Great Britain abolished slavery in the West Indies. The anniversary of that event made August 1 a day of celebration for African American abolitionists in the United States — one which was more meaningful than the Fourth of July. On August 1, 1849, an anti-slavery gathering in Buffalo, New York included a presentation by James Monroe Whitfield — a free born African American who was a barber by trade — who read his poem "Stanzas for the First of August":

From bright West Indies' sunny seas,
     Comes, borne upon the balmy breeze,
The joyous shout, the gladsome tone,
     Long in those bloody isles unknown;
Bearing across the heaving wave
The song of the unfettered slave.

No charging squadrons shook the ground,
     When freedom here her claims obtained;
No cannon, with tremendous sound,
     The noble patriot's cause maintained:
No furious battle-charger neighed,
No brother fell by brother's blade.

None of those desperate scenes of strife,
     Which mark the warrior's proud career,
The awful waste of human life,
     Have ever been enacted here;
But truth and justice spoke from heaven,
And slavery's galling chain was riven.

'Twas moral force which broke the chain,
     That bound eight hundred thousand men;
And when we see it snapped in twain,
     Shall we not join in praises then? —
And prayers unto Almighty God,
Who smote to earth the tyrant's rod?

And from those islands of the sea,
     The scenes of blood and crime and wrong,
The glorious anthem of the free,
     Now swells in mighty chorus strong;
Telling th' oppressed, where'er they roam,
Those islands now are freedom's home.

*Further reading: The Works of James Monroe Whitfield: 'America' and Other Writings by a Ninteenth-Century African American Poet, edited by Robert S. Levine and Ivy Wilson (2011).

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