This poem is an attempt to expose an injustice, and in an...
Lucille Clifton is an African-American poet who went to visit Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina in 1989, and, not surprisingly, it was this experience which prompted her to write "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989."
This poem is an attempt to expose an injustice, and in an interview with Bill Moyers, Clifton explains what she saw that moved her to try to right that wrong.
She was part of a group which took a guided tour of the two thousand-acre Walnut Grove plantation, and while everything they saw was original, well preserved, and fascinating, the guide mentioned nothing about the fact that this family plantation had slaves. Not only was it obvious that a South Carolina plantation in the early 1800s would have had slaves, but Clifton saw clear evidence of this reality when she looked at the burial ground. She told Moyers:
Walnut Grove Plantation has the family burying ground, and on the sides of the roped-off path leading to that burying ground there are crosses and rocks and other things sitting on edge that to me clearly mark the graves of slaves.
Clifton spoke up and research proved her right; however, another disturbing fact came to light during that research process.
Slaves were property and therefore typically listed as inventory for a plantation; this plantation had ten slaves listed as part of its inventory. The female slaves were not inventoried, clearly indicating that they had less value than any other property they owned.
This narrative Clifton experienced is clearly written as part of the poem:
nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.
Clifton wants to know who these unknown, unrecognized slaves were, and she asks them to tell her their names so she can make sure they live on in her poem--not by name but in spirit.
tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.
The poem speaks to those who had no voice, no identity--the female slaves on that plantation. Here they are:
among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark some of these dark
some of these slaves
some of them did this
tell me your names
tell me your dishonored names.
The last lines are repeated in a particular rhythm, and it just requires a little imagination to hear it and see it.
Picture someone walking through the slave section of the burial site, pointing one at a time at the markers, stones, and crosses which obviously mark the graves of these unknown souls who deserved more. The visitor points at each marker and says, "Here lies..." and "Here lies..." and "Here lies...." The only thing missing is the names, but the visitor gives attention to each one as she walks by; it is the best she can do to show them the respect that every human being deserves.
These lines look like a list but are really a kind of rhythmical, respectful tribute to the unknown dead.
Clifton talks about the play on words in the last lines. Moyers asks her about them and she says:
I want them to recognize that only half the truth was being told.... That is unjust, and I'm into justice big-time.
The poet want us to "hear" her as she gives recognition to these unknown souls who lived and died on the Walnut Grove plantation. In speaking to us about them, she gives these slaves a voice.