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Freedom Through Poem

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Freedom Through Poem Candace M. McKoy

Freedom Through Poem

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It was late at night. A young boy sat quietly in the corner of his room. While he called it his room, it was not solely his. It did not even belong to the other people living in this house. It simply housed his family and another family. He was grateful that his grandfather was a sound sleeper. The boy retrieved the thing he had been fixated on all day. It was a piece of paper. It was not food but, to this boy, it was just as valuable. He had picked the parchment up from the wooden floor of his master’s home. He let the crumbled piece of parchment sit in his joined hands and analyzed it. ‘It could be a letter to the neighbor,’ ‘It could be an inventory of the crops produced,’ he thought. He carefully peeled open a balled up piece of paper. He did his best to smooth the piece of paper as quietly as possible. He then reached down into a hidden compartment underneath a floorboard and pulled out an old pen. He then situated himself as best he could to prepare for the task he had hoped all day he would do. The boy poised his pen in preparation. He could feel the butterflies in his stomach fluttering madly. He began with the first letter ‘d’. He then scrawled the second, third, and fourth. He worked diligently under candle for several hours. This boy was Juan Manzano. From an early age, Juan Manzano studied in secret. He eventually taught himself to read and write. This would be a major accomplishment for anyone. For Juan, however, it was not only extremely uncommon but it was also illegal considering Juan Manzano was a slave in nineteenth century Cuba. And here is the rest of the story. Juan Francisco Manzano was born an uneducated slave in Cuba during the late eighteenth century. For much of his life in slavery, Juan Francisco Manzano worked directly under his first and second mistress. This involved taking care of small chores to ensure the comfort of the mistress. His first mistress was compassionate and exposed Juan Francisco Manzano to sewing

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and other crafts. His life drastically changed once his first mistress passed away. His second mistress was not as kind a woman as his first mistress. Juan Francisco Manzano suffered severe punishments from his second mistress and the overseer at his new farm. He also worked under the mistress of the household as her personal attendant. It was illegal in Cuba and several other countries in the Americas for slaves to learn how to read and write. His grandfather warned him about the dangers of trying to read and write. While Juan Francisco Manzano respected his grandfather, he was passionate about learning to read and write. At a young age, Juan felt learning to read and write would be the most beneficial thing he could do for himself. Juan would take scrap paper used by his master and practice writing. Juan also used the little money he received from his craftwork to buy writing utensils. His secret lessons were eventually brought to the attention of his master. His master did not punish him for trying to read and write. He simply encouraged Juan to abandon learning to read and write since it would not help him considering Juan’s status as a slave. However, he did not heed his master’s warning. Late at night, Juan would continue teaching himself to write and decided to become a poet. Juan was able to interact with a lot of writers and artists considering his master and mistress were affluent and often had writers and artists visit their home. This enables Juan to develop connections with notable writers and poets of the time. Juan Francisco Manzano soon became literate thanks to self-study. He was particularly fond of writing poems. He wrote most of his poems while he was enslaved. His poems focused on the hardships he experienced as a slave in Cuba. His first work was titled ‘Poesías líricas’, meaning ‘Lyrical Poems’. His work eventually made its way into Cuba’s prominent literature circles and to one of the most powerful literary experts, Domingo del Monte. Domingo del Monte was known by many for not only his great wealth but also his literary talent and ability to

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find literary talent. Monte was so moved by Manzano’s poem My Thirty Years, a poem that summed up Manzano’s feelings about his enslavement and hope for a better future, that he gathered together other affluent literature experts and raised enough money to buy Juan Francisco Manzano his freedom. Juan Francisco Manzano gained his freedom at the age of forty thanks to his poetry. He did not just accept his freedom. He continued to advocate for the abolition of slavery. He went on to write an autobiography. His autobiography is the only autobiography written by a slave in Cuba about Cuban slavery. He also published a collection of his poems titled The Poet Slave of Cuba. Juan Manzano became a celebrated poet and his work played a role in the abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886. It is possible that Juan Francisco Manzano could see into the future. Only he could have known that literature would be the key to his liberation. His life was forever changed from literature. And now you know the rest of the story.

Freedom Through Poem References

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Batwin and Robin et. al. Juan Francisco Manzano. Retrieved from Museum of the African
Diaspora website: http://www.moadsf.org/salon/exhibits/slave_narratives/juan_manzano_t.html

Manzano, J. F. (2001, March 4). Poems by a slave in the island of Cuba recently liberated. Retrieved from Documenting the American South website: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/manzano/manzano.html

Molloy, S. (1989). From serf to self: The autobiography of Juan Francisco Manzano. John Hopkins University Press, 104(2), 393-417. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2905146