November 22, 2011

Fortune and Turner: I will be free!

Timothy Thomas Fortune published his poem "Nat Turner" in the Cleveland Gazette on November 22, 1884. Certainly, Fortune would have felt a kinship with Nat Turner. Fortune was himself born enslaved in Florida, about a half a century after Nat Turner's birth. Turner led a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. He was executed only a few months later. The two men were never alive at the same time.

In Fortune's poem, Turner is a larger-than-life heroic figure. A reader can't help but admire and fear Turner, whose eyes flash with fire as he makes only one strong demand (or prediction): "I will be free!" Tension is built in part by the changing pattern of lines in each stanza:

He stood erect, a man as proud
As ever to a tyrant bowed
Unwilling head or bent a knee,
And longed while bending to be free:
And o’er his ebon features came—
A shadow ’twas of manly shame—
Aye, shame that he should wear a chain
And feel his manhood withered with pain.
Doomed to a life of plodding toil,
Shamefully rooted to the soil!

He stood erect; his eyes flashed fire;
His robust form convulsed with ire;
“I will be free! I will be free!
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he.

Virginia’s hills were lit at night—
The slave had risen in his might;
And far and near Nat’s wail went forth.
To South and East, and West and North,
And strong men trembled in their power.
And weak men felt ’twas now their hour.

“I will be free! I will be free!
Or, fighting, die a man!” cried he,
The tyrant’s arm was all too strong,
Had swayed dominion all too long;
And so the hero met his end,
As all who fail as Freedom’s friend.

The blow he struck shook Slavery’s throne:
His cause was just, e’en skeptics own;
And round his lowly grave soon swarmed
Freedom’s brave hosts for Freedom’s armed.

That host was swollen by Nat’s kin
To fight for Freedom, Freedom win,
Upon the soil that spurned his cry:
“I will be free, or I will die!”

Let tyrants quake, e’en in their power,
For sure will come the awful hour
When they must give an answer, why
Heroes in chains should basely die,
Instead of rushing to the field
And courting battle ere they yield?

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