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The Graves of a Household

One group of victims shown in the Long Night’s Journey into Day film are a group of mothers who all have shared in the pain of losing their child to violence of South Africa’s police. Not only was the story of these mothers heart wrenching in its own right but in the larger context of the sheer number of similar stories all taking place around the same time is unfathomable and deeply distressing. The day-in-day-out, for lack of a better term, hell of life takes it toll. There is one thing that these mothers have though; the truth. Above all else they were able to get the truth and know that their boys were not really the “terrorists” the media portrayed them as. This reminded me of the importance of the truth – no matter how bitter, hard to swallow, or fresh the wound is the the truth set these mothers on a path to freedom. Immediately following their reaction to the videotape of their children one mother was seen being much chipper and happier. When asked if she was feeling okay she replied “[o]h, yes, very much better, because now I know so much more.” In this instance knowing more does help even if it is of this traumatic magnitude.

Hearing the stories of these mothers reminded me of a Romanticism poet by the name of Felicia Hemans. Hemans’ poem “The Graves of a Household” speaks volumes to the inverse scenario that these mothers could have faced had they never known the truth. A life of misery and want and wait for the children they raised to come home — never to know where or if they are alive. These five stanzas stand to highlight what I am writing about:

The same fond mother bent at night
O’er each fair sleeping brow;
She had each folded flower in sight,–
Where are those dreamers now?

One, midst the forests of the west,
By a dark stream is laid,–
The Indian knows his place of rest,
Far in the cedar shade.

The sea, the blue lone sea, hath one,
He lies where pearls lie deep;
He was the lov’d of all, yet none
O’er his low bed may weep.

One sleeps where southern vines are drest
Above the noble slain:
He wrapt his colours round his breast,
On a blood-red field of Spain.

And one–o’er her the myrtle showers
Its leaves, by soft winds fann’d;
She faded midst Italian flowers,–
The last of that bright band.

The truth these mother found was sharp, jagged, and painful. But it was a truth that most others do not ever have the opportunity to find. The TRC helped bring this truth to light, to set the record straight on who these mothers children were, and to bring the mothers some closure. It is not a good outcome, there cannot be a good outcome to something as violent and brutal as Apartheid. But it was a better outcome for these mothers than the mother in Hemans’ poem — a life of wanting, waiting, and wondering that never frees the mind.

Smith’s “Declaration” Offers a New Context

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration” was the poem’s structure. I have never seen a poem have that spacing and style, so I decided to do some additional research and learned that “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry. Meaning Smith used a pre-existing text and took out most of the original words to make something new. The pre-existing text in this case is the United States Declaration of Independence, and she eliminates most of the original words so that the Declaration of Independence can be viewed from a context that’s different from just the original colonies tearing away from Britain. This new context is able to use some of the significant themes the original text offers and apply them to different ideas. Smith is using her poem to illustrate the hypocrisy of the document because slavery was so prominent when it was written. The hypocrisy exists because the Declaration of Independence advocates for the inalienable rights of every person, yet slavery remained prominent for many years after the text was written.

            Smith emphasizes the transitive verbs while leaving out the content making them incomplete in a sense. Some examples of this are “plundered our-,” “ravaged our-,” “destroyed the lives of our-,” “taking away our-,” and “abolishing our most valuable-.” In all of these examples there is no content provided, but it is because of this that we are able to look at the pre-existing text differently. Our new context fills in the content left out by Smith. All of those verbs fall in line with how people treated slaves during that time, and using the Declaration of Independence’s own words really highlights the contradiction. The writers of the old text failed to see their own faults in the society they created, and the examples “taken captive,” “on the high seas,” and “to bear” supports the idea that Smith wants us to see this contradiction. I believe Smith’s overall message is that we cannot excuse the hypocrisy of our history just because of how impactful the Declaration of Independence was in forming our country.