Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365
This poem by Robert Hayden is divided into three main, numbered sections, but within each section we find an assortment of fragmented quotations and allusions. In this way, Hayden introduces a number of different voices into the poem—and also many voiceless characters, the "blacks" who are treated as cargo on the slave ships.
Pivotal in the poem are the quoted, dated sections presumed to be taken from the logs or letters of slavetraders, the crewmen on the ships responsible for transporting all these unfortunate people. They describe the blacks as "rebellious," their moaning and suicide presented as a nuisance to the crews. What the blacks are saying is interpreted by a "linguist" as a prayer for death. Outside of their letters, we also hear from the slavetraders as a collective, dominant group, their prayers requesting "safe passage" as they bring "heathen souls" to be cleansed by Jesus. The contrast between these prayers and what is written about the "sweltering cattle" and their mistreatment is startling, a deliberate juxtaposition. How can purported Christians also keep "savage girls [...] naked in the cabins" to be raped, and abandon a ship full of "burning blacks" left chained in an inferno?
For the most part, the black people in the narrative go unnamed and unidentified from their fellows, but there are some exceptions. One of the girls over whom the crew of The Bella J fought was named The Guinea Rose by that white crew (not her own name for herself). "King Anthracite" is identified as one among several native kings encountered in Africa, who would "honor" traders with his tribal drums.
The crew of The Amistad, sailing for Principe, is described as having been killed by "murderous Africans." One of the members of this crew is named, Celestino. The narrator of this section is from Cuba, and is forced by mutinying blacks, led by a certain Cinquez, to sail for America.
Most notable in this poem is that its true subject, the black Africans who were enslaved and transported on so many "voyages through death," do not speak. They are ever-present, ever-suffering, but largely unnamed, and spoken about and for by the white men who control their fates.
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