White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia

Every story has a beginning, and mine starts in Virginia. My book, White Blood, is a work of documentary poetry, taking as the starting point my own genealogical roots in the Commonwealth. My ancestors belong(ed) to the Black communities of central and northern Virginia. They survived centuries of enslavement and went on to raise their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in freedom. Because many of my Black Virginian ancestors were denied literacy, they left behind few written records of their lives prior to the twentieth century. I began writing these poems by conducting archival research, in person and online, to gain some sense of who they were. I visited libraries, museums, and historical societies. I also traveled to specific sites in Virginia where my ancestors may have lived. Far from "solving" the mysteries of my ancestors' origins, my search often led me to ask new questions about the past, and about how we tell stories. These poems come from a section of the book called "Louisa," after the county in central Virginia. Harriett and Butler Smith, mother and son, are two ancestors of mine who resided there. They, and the collective ancestral voice I call the “Free Smiths,” are inspired as much by the documentary silences in their histories as by the existing records of their lives. The poem “Mrs. A. T. Goodwin’s Letter to the Provost Marshal, 1866” takes its title and reformulates individual phrases from a handwritten letter filed at the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office in Louisa. The Bureau was established in 1865 to aid newly freed Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Origins of Butler Smith

B is for bright. A boy. No
              birthmarks but his hair

(inclined to straightness) &
              his nose (more like a white man’s).

B, also, for the bluets you dreamed
              crowding the drive leading up

to the old farm you’ve crossed
              two states to see. What’ll you do if

you find no parcel in the name of B?
              At the courthouse, in the relic room

at the indicated plat? So sorry you don’t
              already know the yard where chickens

pecked & patted under the eye
              of Granddaddy B. So sorry you missed him

on his way. He must be burning high
              above your head, a comet, or worse.

The story of a comet somebody told you.
              Wrong comet, wrong county.

Wrong dates spiraled into the roll book.
               A roll of microfilm for every year you can’t

confirm. How to confirm a certain smokehouse
               not marked on any grid?

Lucky B, spangled B
               this is not where you begin.

Message from the Free Smiths of Louisa County

You ask why we didn’t register as required
why we failed to appear before the Provost Marshal
why we avoided the courthouse, the census, the bank.

You ask where we sheltered while battles seethed
where our mothers gave birth, in which hidden houses
& why we didn’t register as required.

While so many perished in other counties
or raged with Nat in Southampton, how did we manage?
We avoided the courthouse, the census, the bank.

Whatever we had, we held. Whatever we knew
we told no one who counted. We kept back
our names. We didn’t register as required.

When you search for us now, you find silence.
You may trace us back to a moment. No further.
We avoided the courthouse, the census, the bank

with its clock, tracking everyone’s time but our own.
We chose inward passages. We kept deep counsel.
We didn’t register as required, which disappoints you.
Why do you trust the courthouse, the census, the bank?

The Origins of Harriett Smith

Old Master writes her name in his ledgers
              or might. It depends on what Old Master sees

what subtleties he tracks, which gifts. Suki walked
               to Jerdone, he writes, but you need to read

Harriett walked. You need her to come up
             from the quarter & step through the narrow

bell of Old Master’s attention, a light girl
             with ears bored for rings. But Harriett is prudent.

She never wastes her scant yard of brown
            ticklenburg or breaks her tools in the field.

For a whole page in his daybook, instead of writing
            about Harriett, Old Master counts

his glass decanters from France. He orders
            every hand to finish harvest without saying whose.

You search for Harriett until the yellow
            globes of Old Master’s script go dim, gummed

like the fallen seed pods about his house. Well, well.
            It’s a good thing you’re a finch now.

You were born to gorge.

Mrs. A. T. Goodwin’s Letter to the Provost Marshal, 1866

You ask why I raised my hand to that boy, why
I gave him some raps over the head, you ask
why I took my small riding whip to his shoulders
his head, why, you ask, when he would not cut logs
at the wood pile. You ask why I took him by the hand &
gave him some raps, when not one stick did he cut from twelve
to four. I told his mother, my milker washer, I told her
in plain words he must do better. I told her all this without
any improvement. She was insolent, which is why my son
struck her. He only struck her when she ran from her cabin
to pluck up the boy while I was giving him some raps
over the head & shoulders with just my small riding
whip. Understand, Sir, this boy had not cut more than
two scant handfuls of wood for my cookstove, but all
the family were engaged to me: his mother, the boy
to bring my horses to water, to cut wood, only yesterday
he said I shall not cut a stick of wood. I shall not touch it. So these
are the negroes we’ve raised, never abused a single one, always
had the kindest feelings, the kindest, so long as their conduct
were tolerable, so long as I did not have to stand
by my wood pile, smelling the wood pile, the smell of the sap
intolerable from twelve to four, the heave & snap of the clear
sap inside the logs, never holding still, so that I had rather stand
in the house, my hands sifting flour across a board, so that
in truth I had much rather be still, holding nothing but
my riding whip, dark & folded up small.