- Elizabeth Alexander's AmistadReading the Black History Poem through the Archive
The historian laments caesuras in the historical record; the artist can offer deeply informed imagining that, while not empirically verifiable, offers one of the only routes we may have to imagine a past whose records have not been kept precious.—Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior
Elizabeth Alexander cites the New Haven Historical Society as the location where her Amistad poems began. She writes, "Of course, I have long known the story of the Amistad rebellion, but there at the historical society I saw things new to me" ("The Negro Digs" 464). These "things" the poet saw are letters, newspaper clippings, silhouette illustrations, and other archival documents: the material traces of a history she remembers knowing. This fixed and local repository of documents opens the poetic imagination to a historical event that resonates across centuries. Like her precursor, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Alexander enters the archive to construct a black history poem that might alter the way we remember our complex and multiple American past(s).1 The twenty-four Amistad poems telescope out both temporally and spatially, enacting the remembrance of an event which was never only local, but also transnational, both a product of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and ultimately also subject to the laws of Britain, Spain, and the United States. To briefly summarize, in 1839 the slave ship Amistad was traveling from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the Africans on board rebelled, killing the captain and cook. Though the rebels were attempting to return to Africa, through navigational deceptions by Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez (the two Spanish men who had purchased the Africans from a barracoon in Havana), the ship ended up off the coast of Long Island where it was captured by United States officers. The Africans were transported to New Haven, Connecticut, and a trial ensued in the Circuit Courts.2
Ultimately at issue in the legal case was the geographic identity and/or status of the rebels: if it could be shown that they were recently kidnapped from Africa, then their transportation was in violation of Spain's 1817 law prohibiting the slave trade, and they were naturally free. But if they had long lived in Cuba, then Montez and Ruiz had claim to them as slaves and legal property. In 1840 Judge Judson ruled that "the Amistad captives were 'born free' and kidnapped in violation of international law," and he ordered that President Van Buren provide for their transportation back to Africa. Van Buren's Administration appealed the decision up to the United States Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the Africans in 1841. This court ruled that the rebels were ''kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom" (qtd. in Linder). [End Page 1041]
Elizabeth Alexander employs the genre of the history poem to represent issues of language and translation, central to the Africans' freedom. Both the law and poetry use local (vernacular) arguments to make larger, more global claims. Local custom and specific uses of language determine what words mean. But both the poetic stanza and the legal case hinge on multiple, sometimes conflicting, interpretations of particular words. As I will show, the archive of the legal case of the Amistad, like the poetry that represents it, attended to the truth, falsity, and common understanding of the meanings of papers, documents, and names.3 My purpose here will be to examine the ways that a contemporary poet writes what she calls "a black history poem" about this event, drawing on legal documents, court testimonies, and the popular press representations of the event. I hope to show the ways that Alexander uses the poetic imagination to intervene in, comment on, and subvert these multiple archives and to demonstrate the slave ship as space of agency, relation, and identity. Alexander's use of prosody—the pauses, breaks and caesuras central to the music of the poem—draws the flat documents of the archive into a complex time/space that allows the now to interact with the then, the here with the there.