The brutal Middle Passage across the Atlantic is one of the most painful chapters in the history of forced African American migration. Thus Aracelis Girmay’s new poetry collection, The Black Maria—a haunting, blistering, vital examination of the African diaspora from 15th-century slave ships to Neil deGrasse Tyson—is a book of memories and seas.
Some memories are her own. Others are the memories of a people. The title of the collection—taken from the plural of the Latin word mare, meaning “sea,”—was used by early astronomers to refer to the dark, flat surfaces of the moon they believed were filled with water, a landscape as forbidding and alien as the Atlantic was during the five centuries of the West African slave trade, and as the Mediterranean and other seas are today for migrants and refugees.
Girmay begins with an introduction, “elelegy,” a word conjured up from the English elegy and the ululation sounds, elelelele, made in Eritrea and other parts of North and East Africa.
It is estimated that over 20,000
people have died at sea making
the journey from North Africa to
Europe in the past two decades.
On October 3, 2013, it is
estimated that 300 people died
at sea off the coast of Lampedusa.
Those on board the boat that
sank were nearly all Eritrean.
Girmay quickly dives into the recent history of Eritrea. She avoids accusation, taking an observatory perspective, giving all credit to the Eritreans who stayed, she being one of the Eritreans who left.
But the President
& his long memory, they think they know
better. They order the children. They cut the news
& power. They decorate the country with
paper offices & send the young
to forever-service where they carry guns
& patrol the streets & Badme
& the borders cut sloppily as beginner’s cloth.
The distant ugly sharpen their knives
& look greedily on, in wait.
You, cousins, are the children of the ones who stayed.
No one has to tell you about commitment,
about love, you who grew beneath
the eucalyptus trees
& the grey faces of the martyrs
framed on the bedroom wall.
The duality of human existence is examined in many of the untitled poems in the first part of the collection, but it is the story of the Luams—including the sister of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Alexander Pushkin’s great grandfather, kidnapped and sold to Peter the Great as a gift—that dominates the first section of The Black Maria.
There are four Luams: one is Pushkin’s relative, another lives in Italy, the third in New York, and the last in Asmara. Apart from Gannibal’s nine-year-old sister, all the other Luams are 36 years old. Girmay plays around with difference in geography and language to bring out their differences in experiences. She uses the word mai—meaning water in one language, flower, mother, ownership, and “what belongs to me” in others— to bring out this confluence of languages and cultures and experiences.
Through the Luams, Girmay tackles immigrant narratives, both current and past. We see immigrants arriving in boats to Italy through the eyes of the Luam in Umbertide. There is a hint of nostalgia, of homesickness that shows. And yet one gets a feeling of trepidation toward the sea.
luam, who says to the dead,
—sea near lampedusa
I saw the hundred
fishes from a distance
& this is what I knew:
they were not fishes,
they were you.
The second part of the book, “The Black Maria,” follows a series of estrangements, including the story of Neil deGrasse Tyson in his quest to become an astrophysicist and the racism that he has to encounter. When he carries a telescope to the roof of his house, a white neighbor calls the police. One cannot help but be reminded of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. Zinedine Zidane’s racial encounter in Citizen and what deGrasse Tyson encounters are almost similar, except that deGrasse Tyson, at the age of nine, doesn’t have the power to act like Zidane did.
The Black Maria, like many other books tackling immigrant stories, is a trove of memories. Some of these memories are like scars, affecting people for generations. Perhaps Claudia Rankine captures it best in Citizen when she writes,
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
And maybe this “John Henryism” is the memory Girmay brings out as she traverses the African continent, from the Congo under the Belgians to present-day Asmara, and back in time to Luam and Abram when black children were being abducted and sold as gifts. More than any other question, The Black Maria forces us to ask ourselves if anything has truly changed since then.
The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay
BOA Editions, Ltd.
Published April 12, 2016