Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, many people know the broad outlines of the Amistad story. It was one episode in the transatlantic slave trade that became well documented because it ended up in the U.S. courts, with a former U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, arguing the case of the enslaved Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Amistad was the name of the ship used to convey 53 Africans from Cuba to a Caribbean plantation after they had been captured by European slavers in Sierra Leone, West Africa. On July 1, 1839, the Africans rebelled, killed the captain and the cook, and seized control of the ship. Though they ordered to be sailed back to Africa, the ship was deceitfully piloted further west and finally apprehended off the coast of Long Island.
The Africans, many of them Mendi people, languished in a prison in New Haven, Conn. while the case was litigated. The dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1841, with the court ruling in favor of the Africans. Thirty-five of them were returned to Sierra Leone; the others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.
The Amistad story is now the subject of an ambitious and eloquent poetic sequence titled Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, 2011) by Kevin Young, an African-American poet who teaches literature and curates the literary collection at Emerson University in Atlanta.
The St. Louis American spoke to the poet about the Amistad case, the anxiety of influence when working in the shadow of Steven Spielberg, and whether or not he feels comfortable, as a poet and professor, telling black youths, “Be me.”
The St. Louis American: The book jacket flap says Ardency was written over the course of 20 years, so I take it you started this journey before the Spielberg film. How did you react to the news that the subject of the book you were working on was going to be a major motion picture by the guy who made Jaws?
Kevin Young: I never saw the movie, so I continued working on my piece. I always knew it was a longterm project. I was glad he called attention to the Amistad as a case, but it didn’t change what I was planning to do or doing. He wasn’t the first person to do something on the case and neither was I, so I thought I was in good company, if anything.
The St. Louis American: The subtitle of the book says it was “compiled from authentic sources,” which sounds a little tongue-and-cheek. Did you do archival work to research the poem?
Kevin Young: Sure. You can’t write history and not know your history. The longer title page for my book is in part taken from 19th century accounts of the Amistad. I was riffing off that as much as the idea of authenticity. I was interested in the form of a chronicle, while at the same time looking at New World history, like the way the conquistadores imagined what the New World was like, with exotic animals and exotic peoples.
The St. Louis American: A lot of the poem is written in the voices of Africans, like Cinque and the Mendis’ translator, James Covey. What documents did you rely on to get a sense of their voices?
Kevin Young: This whole project started with letters written from prison by the Amistad prisoners. It started with their voices, as much as the idea of mediated writing from jail – what you could say, what you don’t say, what stays unspoken in those letters. Over and over, they say, “I want be set free.” That was a powerful testimony to their willingess to write about it, and also write around it.
I hope with this book to talk about the living aspect of history and culture. I want to connect the experience of the Mendi in the 19th century to challenges of race, culture, language and violence in our own time. I didn’t want to write something old-timey. It’s not about the past, really; it’s about America and African America.
The St. Louis American: The poem weaves in quotes from spirituals, and it’s very musical. Has anyone done song settings of these poems?
Kevin Young: No, but I hope so. I hope so soon.
The St. Louis American: I was surprised to see the emphasis you placed on phrenology, even in terms of the book’s cover art.
Kevin Young: It was thought by some to be a science then; clearly, it was a pseudo-science, where you measure and feel people’s heads and then judge the bumps for corresponding characteristics. There are famous studies that show phrenology was racially motivated and racist. But I was fascinated with how Fletcher, the phrenologist for the queen of England, visited the rebels and examined their heads. He almost compliments Cinque, saying he had strong faculties. I was fascinated by the history of phrenology and how it is tied up with the history of science and racism and racialism. Covey talks a lot about the bizareness of having your head searched for intelligence.
The St. Louis American: You have an interesting day job.
Kevin Young: I have a named professorship. I’m the Atticus Haygood Professor of English at Emory University. I am a full professor and have been for a long time now. I’m also the curator of a large poetry library of 70,000 volumes of rare and modern poetry, the Raymond Danowski Poetry Collection, and for the past few years I have been curator of all of the literature collection.
The St. Louis American: My mentor was Gerald Early, the African-American writer, and he used to say it was difficult for him to tell young black students, “Be me!” because it took so many years to become a professor and the financial rewards of writing aren’t much. Can you say the same as a poet? Can you tell kids, “Be me?”
Kevin Young: I have a different take on that. It amazes me, being a poet. It allows me to travel and meet people and teach and write the books I’d like to write. In that sense, it gives me great freedom. I wouldn’t say, “Be me!” or not be me, but if you commit your life to poetry, or anything in life – if you do well, especially in terms of education – no one can take that away from you.