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November 6, 2015

Poetry Friday--The African Burying Ground

Several years ago, in digging up a Portsmouth, New Hampshire street for a public works project, workers uncovered human remains. The location was identified as a slave burying ground from the 1700s. Work halted and what followed was an effort to remember, honor, and to re-bury those whose final resting spot had been disturbed. To learn more, visit the African Burying Ground Memorial Park website. The brass and granite memorial at the park was designed by artist Jerome Meadows from Savannah, Georgia.

Photo by Michael Venditozzi.

On October 23, a special poetry/dance/shadow play performance took place in a small theater in Portsmouth. This multi-disciplinary effort was the brain-child of Mr. Meadows, who also produced similar performances in Savannah as part of the "Blank Page Poetry" series. Portmouth's performance was titled, "Words & Shadows: Truths that Arise Remembered."

The poetry was solicited by the Portsmouth Poet Laureate, Kate Leigh. Local poets were instructed that if their poems were selected, they would be expected to participate in the performance by reciting their work and incorporating some choreographed movements. The selected poems included one by a six-year-old first grader, who, as the program informed us, "wrote his poem one morning at the African Burying Ground."

The video below begins with the shorter performance that took place outdoors at the African Burying Ground Memorial Park the day before the theater production. The street noise is very distracting, so please skip ahead to 3:20 for the theater performance. To see the young poet, go to 31:40. It's not the best recording, but it will give you an idea of what was involved in this tribute to the slaves from the "Live free or die" state of New Hampshire.

I did not submit a poem for the "Blank Page Poetry" project, but I did write one.
The African Burying Ground, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Here beneath
The pavement
The soil
The remnants of shroud
And coffin
We did our work.

We consumed your flesh, your bones.
We reduced you to nutrient form
So that you would live on.

Not as free man or slave.
Not as white or black.
Not as rich or poor.
Not as theist or atheist.
Not as man or woman.
Not as old or young.

Not as anything but energy.

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved.

Visit Katya at Write. Sketch. Repeat. for today's Round-Up of poetry links.


  1. Wonderful, life affirming poem, Diane. Fascinating story about finding the human remains. Thanks for the video!

    1. Thanks, Jama, I wanted it to be thoughtful without being depressing. I can't imagine what life was like in the 1700s, never mind how much worse it probably was for a slave.

  2. The shadow performances were powerful, Diane. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful to see that little boy there too. I love your poem, the idea that we are all together in the soil. It's wonderful that much came from this discovery.

    1. Thanks, Linda. As I mentioned in response to Jama's comment, I couldn't imagine the life of a slave. I wanted to emphasize how we are all alike--especially in death. Bacteria know nothing of skin color.

  3. Moving post, Diane. I had no idea about the burial ground....wonder how I missed that? Thanks for sharing.

    1. Next time you're in Portsmouth, seek it out. Supposedly there is always a fresh flower in the hand of the slave woman, a subtle but moving detail.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing about the poetry homage paid as part of a cultural/historical healing. Bravo! Only regret is that your entire state didn't have the opportunity we had today--reading your powerful poem. I love all the "Not as..." lines, as well as your ending-energy trilogy. I like that "Heat. Light. Power." had the last word. God bless you!

  5. You should have submitted it, Diane. The ending is so uplifting and powerful.

    1. If it had been selected I would have had to perform. I'm not someone who performs well in front of an audience!

    2. If I lived closer I would have done it for you. :)

  6. Fascinating. Marilyn Nelson's book about the African American settlement that was bulldozed to create Central Park (My Seneca Village) is top on my TBR stack right now. History that's been buried needs to come to light.

    1. I've written up an order card for My Seneca Village, however, we've come to that time of year when the director says, "we going to have to watch the budget..."