My Seneca Village
I know this book hasn’t published yet–November 1–but this is to serve notice that Nina and I are both extremely enamored of it, so much so that we have decided to put in on our shortlist despite the late publication date. We encourage you to put your holds on the book, or better yet buy a copy.
There are some pretty amazing writers in the field of children’s literature, and yet when Marilyn Nelson brings her A-game there’s really nobody else who can compare to her. CARVER is quite simply a masterpiece, while A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL is, arguably, word for word the most powerful book for a child/teen audience that I have ever read. And MY SENECA VILLAGE is cut from the same cloth. It’s a collection of voices from Seneca Village, Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners before it was razed to make room for Central Park. There is an introduction, a note on the poetic forms at the end, and assorted footnotes throughout that ground the collection in history. On the left-hand side of each page, opposite the poem, there are stage directions that help us visualize the narrator and their situation.
Several of my favorite poems from this collection are found poems.
Delivered by Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879), ca. 1845
Do the sons of Africa have no souls?
Do they feel no ambition? No desires?
Can a slave not be noble? A master be a fool?
Shall the earth be inherited by the fierce?
Shall ignorance continue to enchain
the ignorant, so their ignorance grows worse?
Shall we always be judged the lesser men?
Are we not equally able to achieve?
Not statesman, scientists, and historians?
Have we no heroes, gallant, fearless, brave?
No lecturers on natural history?
Are the distinguished extinguished by being enslaved
in this nation of freedom and democracy?
Lord, Ethiopia stretches her hands to Thee!
This is one of two found poems from the speeches of Maria Stewart, there’s another from a Frederick Douglass speech, and yet another from the text of the statute evoking the law of eminent domain to uproot the community to that Central Park could be built. These are all used to great effect and serve the purpose of grounding the reader in real history.
Here’s another one I like.
Matilda Polk, 1858
To know just how he suffered–would be dear
To know if, when, and where he breathed his last,
To know if his last word was my first name.
To know if some letters to me were lost.
To know if he lives: to know THAT, at least!
To know how long I must tend this guttering flame.
We’ve actually watched Matilda grow up and fall in love with Freddy Riddles. Freddy goes off in the world to have an adventure, but when Matilda doesn’t hear from him for a while, and then is forced to evacuate her home, the uncertainty of what may have befallen her beloved is a source of constant worry.
I hope these two poems will serve as a teaser and encourage you to seek this book out sooner rather than later so that we can discuss it more fully.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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