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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

Running man image from workshop poster

The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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A Word from a Petitioner to Congress (XHTML)


What! Our petitions spurned! The prayer
                Of thousands—tens of thousands—cast
Unheard beneath your Speaker’s chair!
                But ye will hear us, first or last.
The thousands that, last year, ye scorned,
Are millions now. Be warned! Be warned!
Turns not, contemptuous, on your heel;
                It is not for an act of grace
That, suppliants, at your feet we kneel—
We stand: we look you in the face,
And say—and we have weighed the word—
That our petitions shall be heard.
There are two powers above the laws
                Ye make or mar: They’re our allies.
Beneath their shield we’ll urge our cause,
                Though all your hands against us rise.
We’ve proved them, and we know their might:
                The Constitution and the Right.
We say not, ye shall snap the links
                That bind you to your dreadful slaves:
Hug, if ye will, a corpse that stinks,
                And toil on with it to your graves!
But, that ye may go, coupled thus,
                Ye never shall make slaves of us.
And what, but more than slaves, are they
                Who’re told they ne’er shall be denied
The right of prayer; yet, when they pray,
                Their prayers, unheard, are thrown aside?
Such mockery they will tamely bear,
Who’re fit an iron chain to wear.
“The ox, that treadeth out the corn,
                Thou shalt not muzzle.”—Thus saith God.
And will ye muzzle the free-born—
                The man—the owner of the sod—
Who “gives the grazing ox his meat,”
                And you—his servants here—your seat?
There’s a cloud, blackening up the sky!
                East, west, and north, its curtain spreads:
Life to its muttering folds your eye!
                Beware! For, bursting on your heads,
It hath a force to bear you down:
                ’T is an insulted people’s frown.
Ye may have heard of the Soultan,
                And how his Janissaries fell!
Their barracks, near the Atmeidane,
                He barred, and fired; and their death-yell
Went to the stars,¾and their blood ran
In brooks across the Atmeidane.
The despot spake: and, in one night,
                The deed was done. He wields, alone,
The scepter of the Ottomite,
                And brooks no brother near his throne.
Even now, the bow-string, at his beck
Springs round his mightiest subject’s neck.
Yet will He, in his saddle, stoop—
                I’ve seen him, in his palace-yard—
To take petitions from a troop
                Of women, who, behind his guard,
Come up, their several suits to press,
To state their wrongs, and ask redress.
And these, into his house of prayer,
                I’ve seen him take; and, as he spreads
His own before his Maker there,
                These women’s prayers he hears or reads:¾
For, while he wears the diadem,
He is instead of God to them.
And this he must do. He may grant,
                Or may deny; but hear he must.
Were his Seven Towers of adamant,
                They’d soon be level’d with the dust,
And “public feeling” make short work—
Should he not hear them—with the Turk.
Nay, start not form your chairs, in dread
                Of cannon shot, or bursting shell!
These shall not fall upon your head,
                And once* upon your house they fell.
We have a weapon, firmer set
And better than the bayonet:
A weapon that comes down as still
                As snow-flakes fall upon the sod;
But executes a freeman’s will
                As lightning does the will of God;
And from its force, nor doors nor locks
Can shield you:¾‘t is the ballot-box.
Black as your deed shall be the balls
                That, form that box, shall pour like hail!
And, when the storm upon you falls,
                How will your craven cheeks turn pale!
For, at its coming though ye laugh,
‘T will sweep you from your hall, like chaff.
Not women, now, the people pray.
                Hear us, or from us ye will hear!
Beware!—a desperate game ye play!
                The men, that thicken in your rear—
Kings though ye be—may not be scorned.
Look to your move! Your stake!—Ye’re warned.

*When the British entered Washington in the war of 1812-1815.