In today’s poem and story, characters envision new worlds created through violent uprising. The poem seems to imagine a distant future, after the fall of civilization—a brutal metamorphosis that has happened many times, as the title suggests. The story unfolds in imagined conversations between Frederick Douglass and John Brown, who really did meet and carried on a secret exchange before Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The men differ on what is required to exact justice and bring about a better world: should one offer one’s life, or one’s death to the cause?
An Old Story
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
—Tracy K. Smith
Who is this lady?
A former U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith was born in Massachusetts in 1972 and raised in California. Inspired by Emily Dickinson, she began writing poetry as an elementary school student. She earned a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia, and has written four collections of poetry and a memoir. Her collection, Life on Mars, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011; its science-fiction themes may have been in part inspired by her father’s work as an engineer on the Hubble telescope. In the New Yorker, Hilton Als wrote, “Part of the gorgeous struggle in Smith’s poetry is about how to understand and accept her twin selves: the black girl who was brought up to be a polite Christian and the woman who is willing to give herself over to unbridled sensation and desire."
JB & FD (Excerpt)
Wrong, you say. Wrong. In this nation where a man’s color is reason enough to put him in chains. Where cutthroats in Kansas murder settlers whose only offense is hatred of slavery. Where a senator is caned in the halls of Congress for condemning man-stealers. Why, in a nation where every citizen compelled by law to aid and abet slave-masters who seek to recover escaped “property,” is it difficult to separate right from wrong?
I tremble as I utter this chilling thought, Frederick Douglass, but what if no God exists except in the minds of believers? Would it not behoove us more, not less, to bear witness to what is right? To testify? To manifest, in our acts, the truth of our God’s commandments?
I make no claim to be God’s chosen warrior. I have studied an assault on the Virginia arsenal for a very long while. Devised a strategy I believe will exploit a powerful enemy’s weaknesses. Recruited and trained good men to fight alongside me and my sons. Weighed both moral and practical consequences. Asked myself a thousand times what right do I have to commence such an undertaking. Still, I would be a fool to think I’m closer to knowing God’s plan. We serve Him in the light or darkness of our understanding.
Stand with us. You would be a beacon, Frederick. Let Southerners and Northerners, freemen and the enslaved, see the righteous power, the fierce, unquenchable spirit I recognized in you the first time we met. Let the world know that you are aroused, aggrieved. That you will not rest until your brethren are free. Teach your fellow countrymen there can be no peace, no forgiveness as long as slavery abides. Accompany us to Virginia. Strike a blow with us.
I must die one day, John Brown, sure enough. But I feel no need to hurry it. I don’t reckon that ending my life in Virginia will make me a better man than one who chooses to survive and dedicates himself to serving God and his people. I shall continue my work here in the North. Offer my life, not my death, to my people.
I respect your well-known courage and principles. Nevertheless, I must speak bluntly, and say that I believe you quibble. You speak as if a man’s time on earth is merely a matter of hours, days, years.
In this business we cannot afford to bargain. To quibble about more time, less time, a better time. We are not accountants, Fred. Duty requires more than crying out against slavery, more than attempting to maintain a decent life while the indecencies of slavery are rife about us. To rid the nation of a curse, blows must be struck. Blood shed. I am prepared to shed blood. Mine. My sons’.
And my blood. And the blood of young Green here, fresh from chains, who, after listening to us debate not quibble, chooses to accompany you to Virginia.
Some days, I assure you, my feet, my mind rage. Yet a voice intercedes: do not give up hope for this intolerable world. Change must come. Like you, I believe the Good Lord in Heaven has grown impatient with this Sodom. Soon He may perform a cleansing with His glorious, stiff-bristled broom. I will rejoice if He calls me to that work.
I have made up my mind as you have made up yours, John Brown. And this man, Green, his mind. Godspeed to you both.
—John Edgar Wideman (Read the rest here)
Who is this guy?
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1941 and raised in Pittsburgh, John Edgar Wideman was a star basketball player as a high school student, and attended University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship. He was the second African American to be named a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford University, where he studied 18th century British fiction. Upon returning to the U.S., he studied creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He has published multiple novels, short story collections, and memoirs. Tragedies in his family life—a brother and son both were jailed for murder—often haunt his fiction and non-fiction. Heather Russell wrote that Wideman’s work “reflects African American traditions of storytelling within which myth, history, parable, parody, folklore, fact, and fiction exist in synergy. Storytelling functions as a bridge between both past, present, and future and between history, memory, and the imagination."
Write a story or poem involving a historical figure. Perhaps they’re a major or minor character in the piece, perhaps the narrator; maybe the piece is addressed from you to them.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com