Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Lament for the Dead

Circumference Without Relief
                                       What does that tattoo say
                                    That’s my baby’s name
                                    What is your baby’s name
                                                - C. D. Wright, from “Body Language,” One Big Self

I was invited to participate in a poetry project about the endless supply of Black victims of police shootings. The organizer planned to commission a poem for every person killed by officers in the summer of 2015. This was deadline poetry: you’d be given the name of the deceased and asked to contribute a memorial to the web site within 24 hours of the shooting.

I wasn’t sure about the project but I understood the impulse to respond in an emergency, to acknowledge, to document. So I waited my turn. And then I forgot about it until, one night after a bad day at work, I received an email with a name and a few details:

            The deceased has been identified as Asshams Pharoah Manley, 30, of Forestville, Md., police said. The shooting happened around 11:20 p.m. when police say an officer went to investigate a car crash near Brooks Drive and Marlboro Pike. Police say Manley was running from the crash scene . . . Police say Manley was shot during a struggle over the officer's gun. . . . After being shot, police say Manley continued to fight with the officer. A second officer arrived and deployed a Taser, but police say Manley was not restrained until a third officer arrived. . . . Manley was transported to a local hospital and police say tests were conducted to see if he was under the influence of an illegal substance. The test revealed that Manley had opiates and marijuana in his system, according to police.

Police say, police say, police say. According to police.

Was there anyone to mourn him? Would his name disappear? And what was there to say?  Or, more accurately, what was there for me to say? I’d read some of the well-intentioned poems on the memorial web site. Just to graze upon the dead—no.

Silence might be best. But to bypass the chance to note this life did not seem right.

Then I thought about that name—“Asshams.” Muslims would know what that name meant, but I didn’t. So I searched and found that “As-shams” was a verse of the Q’oran.

In the police report they’d left out the hyphen in his name, calling him “Asshams” so it read like “ass” and “hams.” (“I want my ham,” says the holy fool in an August Wilson play, searching everywhere for justice, for what was owed.)

The mother and father of the deceased had given him this name, or perhaps he had taken it upon himself during a conversion.

Now I thought about his middle name—“Pharoah.”

The Pharoahs drove the slaves into Egypt. And by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept.

And “Manley”—that was a slave name, probably. Maybe, if he had lived, the deceased would have taken the last name “X” or “Ali,” or something else to go with As-shams, the way Malcolm Little and Cassius Clay changed their names. “Manley” was a name and also a word with a meaning. Like “Little.” Like “Clay.”

I went looking for the name Manley in the WPA oral histories of former slaves. They were very old people when their testimony was taken in 1936, the year my mother was born; not ancient history. Living history.

This Surah, a chapter of the Q’uran, is named for “ash-shams,” which means “it opens.” Its theme is to distinguish the good from the evil and to warn the people.

By the sun and its brightness

And by the moon when it follows it.

And by the day when it brightens it—

(When the most wretched of them got up)


Ptah (Hephestus) / Ra (Helios/Apollo) / Shu (Aelos) / Geb (Gaia) /
? (Demeter) / Osiris (Hades) / Set (Ares) / Horus (Zeus) /
Thoth (Hermes) / Ma’at

There are gaps in the record
These legendary Gods are followed by semi-divine rulers—
Pharoah to Slave to Pharoah to Slave—
The ships had names—Mercy, Happy Returns, Blessings, Constant Abigail—
The captured were nameless cargo
from Benin 
to North Carolina
then up to Maryland


My mother was named Melinda Manley, the slave of Governor Manley of North Carolina, and my father was named Arnold Foreman, slave of Bob and John Foreman, two young masters. . . I didn’t never stay with my mammy [during] slavery.

                            - Betty Chessier, enslaved in North Carolina

She never got to keep them. When her fourth baby was born and was about two months old she just [knew] she would have to give it up and one day she said, “I just decided I’m not going to let old Master sell this baby; he just ain’t going to do it.” She got up and give it something out of a bottle and purty soon it was dead. ‘Course didn’t nobody tell on her or he’d of beat her nearly to death. 

                            - Lou Smith, enslaved in South Carolina and Arkansas

I have a faint recollection of my grandparents. My grandfather was sold to a man in South Carolina, to work in the rice field. Grandmother drowned herself in the river when she heard that grand-pap was going away. I was told that grandpap was sold because he got religious and prayed that God would set him and grandma free. 

                            - Mary James, enslaved in Virginia