Walter Rhett

Before Django

“The Middle Passage,” Tom Feelings

Before Django
Before the movie, Django, Robert Hayden, Fisk University librarian and Poet of the Library of Congress, wrote "The Middle Passage." In this poem, he describes the experiences of the Atlantic slave trade in the voice of a slave trader. The voice of the cruel perpetrator of a brutal, ignoble, inhuman, deathfilled passage, gains its poetic credibility by the sympathy and horror it elicits. Imagine an African-American poet writing in Tennessee in the 1940s. A poet who creates a sympathetic voice for the human who loads hunger and death on his ships for profit, and that hunger and death are the masks of human beings. Long before the movie, Django, African-Americans developed a cultural tradition that dealt with the paradox of life and death staring at each other across the dark, reeking holes of slave ships. Reports from Charleston say slave ships could be smelled five miles downwind. They were cleaned with red hot lead rolled over planks. The heat scorched the stench embedded in the wood.

Walter Rhett

Before Django

Ironically, the ships changed the feeding patterns of the great white sharks. Slavery altered the ocean's ecology as the sharks followed the ships to feast on the bodies thrown overboard. And like Samuel L. Jackson in the movie, Hayden described a black collaborator, King Anthracite. A long, powerful tradition of memory and commemoration, of a faith born in the bramble, lies beyond controversy on the screen. A painful truth became a passage of greater transcendence. Long gone bones mark the trail of freedom. The long knives of the flashing white teeth of their suffering became a jubilee celebration, rejoicing as they sleep.

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