Celebrating Poetry

First page of "Margaret Garner and Her Child" by John L. Buckner.

First page of “Margaret Garner and Her Child” by John L. Buckner.

April is National Poetry Month in the United States. This recognition of the poetic arts was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, and in celebration of all things poetry, as well as Amistad’s literary holdings, we will be posting multiple blog entries regarding our poetry-related holdings this month.

There is no better announcement to make as part of our poetry series than the posting of the new online finding aid to the Buckner-Barker Family papers. The Buckner-Barker Family papers pertain to several generations of an African American family with multi-generational ties to Kansas. The collection consists of typescripts of poems authored by John L. Buckner, but also contains photographs; newspaper clippings; a privately published book of poems by John D. Barker, son-in-law of John L. Buckner; as well as an interview and other documents that relate the family history.

The majority of the collection consists of typescripts and hand scripts of poetry composed by John L. Buckner, who was born in Canada and married Lynette Phillips, who was born into slavery in Kentucky. Buckner was self-educated and penned many poems, including several in the epic form. The poems demonstrate his knowledge of world history, the Haitian Revolution, the racial oppression of his time, and a keen sense of his African heritage.

Show here is the first page of a poem entitled “Margaret Garner and Her Child” by Buckner. The poem relates the story of Garner, an enslaved woman in Kentucky whose story of the 1856 killing of her daughter – rather than allowing her daughter to return to slavery – became a celebrated and notorious narrative of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Garner’s story became the basis for numerous artistic interpretations including of Frances Harper’s 1859 poem “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio,” Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting “The Modern Medea,” and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, as well as being the focus of numerous historical analyses.

The first page reads in part:

She fled from slaverys cruel grasp,
From bondage terrible and vile
And in her arms were tightly clasped
Her only darling child.

She reached Ohio’s swolen flood,
The waters deep and dark,
Behind her bayed the fierce bloodhounds –
She heard their dismal bark.

Although undated, Buckner’s poem represents an early poetic treatment of the Garner theme. Given his marriage and wife’s upbringing in Kentucky, he likely would have been familiar with the various tales of Garner’s story. Buckner’s work provides an example of late 19th century African American poetry in the Amistad Research Center’s archival and library collections. Look for more examples in upcoming blog posts…

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Image from the Buckner-Barker Family papers. May not be used without permission.)

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