For thirty-five years, February has been National Black History Month. Celebrations, rallies, and special events happen across the country in schools, parks, churches and other venues. I wrote the poem, CLARA’S AIR, on a warm spring evening four years ago and it was published online by Janet Riehl on her blog site www.riehlife.com that summer. To commemorate the sacrifices, endurance and accomplishments of Black Americans, I offer it up again.
Old Mom-Mom told her,“it’s a track without a train,
a railroad running north and, sometimes, underground.”
In the dead of night,with more stealth than wealth,
they slipped onto the barque of a Louisiana swamp.
Three dark panthers melding into the shadows’ thin cover,
where a white man at the helm did hover.
Fear and quiet made the slither of pole on green water
seem to shout upon the wild river.
Near to dawn, they put in at land, there to await,the next helping hand.
In a slimy cave they rested, in Mom-Mom’s lap, Clara’s head softly nested
Sullied water and moldy bread,a wormy apple or bright berries,
it was on these they fed.
Night two or was it more?
Gators snapping as carefully they stepped in mud and gore.
Sounds of tiger growls rent the air,
when the tree snake reached down to dust Clara’s curly hair.
Dawn found them on a sandy beach,
here to hide and keep watch all day against the sound of dogs at bay!
When Clara’s feet began to bleed, Mom-Mom tore her turban
to wrap those tiny feet beyond the scent of any breed.
Night after night, they traveled on. Hiding again at first light,
always searching for guide or clue to carry them from all they knew.
Until Clara wondered at seeking more, hiding from the searchers,
their dogs and gun, when hope itself had nowhere to run.
Hiding in cramped attics or soured hay, behind a secret wall,
under a bed or up a tree, caused them often to pray.
A thin soup, a crust of bread, an ear of corn to chew, where came the next meal, they seldom knew.
Drained of hope by pain and sorrow, their next stop caused them to burrow.
To Illinois-land they came, trackers’ hounds at their heels.
A house, a barn, a cellar, promised respite from their flight.
Thin, tired to the bone, with blistering feet and soul,
they fell into a restless sleep.
Awakened too soon and pressed below ground,
no light by which to see, the shifting dirt drifted down.
Clara, Old Mom-Mom and the others, too,
huddled against a sudden outcry,when a critter ran across a foot,
fear doubled and took root.
On and on they sat in silent dream, thinning air adding to their sleep
sending them into a well too deep.
Clara shuffled close to Mom-Mom’s ear,
“Air’s there. See the mole mice at they’s mother’s teats?”
“Hush, child. You wants the mens to hear?”
Old Mom-Mom’s voice faded,her lungs stretched thin.
“Y’all gots to smell the air,” Clara wanted to scream.
Tugging and pulling, she made Mom-Mom’s face fit the hole.
A gasp, another and then a whisper,“I declare, child, you’s right.
Dem moles is drinkin’ they’s mama’s milk, sure as we kin drinks the air.”
And so the time passed, each had the luck
to suck of Clara’s air until the last of the slave-seekers left.
The lid popped open from above and the whites declared,
“A miracle from God” that all still lived.
But, Old Mom-Mom and the others knew, it was Clara’s air
that saved the day and them, too.