Poetry and the struggle for justice
Ghostly, for you, even though I speak,
Deign to lend an attentive ear,
To your duty now awake,
Listen to my pleading specter, listen.
These lines come at the end of a poem entitled “The phantom of justice, ” who has appeared in the August 1820 issue of The Emancipator, the country’s first newspaper devoted entirely to abolitionism. In the poem, Justice herself protests against the system of slavery as a betrayal of the spirit of the American Revolution.
Loud your fathers then complained
From the yoke of British slaves;
Also aloud, they then argued,
Freedom is everyone’s right
At a time when the last revolutionary soldiers were dying, this call for their defense of freedom came naturally. In setting out his case, Justice recalls that the nascent United States enjoyed an abundance and fame bestowed by heaven among the nations to dishonor itself by inflicting “horrible” misery and “oppression” on the “sons of sand. defenseless in Africa ”.
The voice of justice in the poem is anything but calm. Claiming that the enslavement system indeed murdered her, she threatens to “condemn to endless sorrow” those who violate her rights unless they listen to her now and give in:
Freedom gives the oppressed
Loosen it from its heavy chain;
Hear the moans of the afflicted
Soothe her sorrows, ease her pain.
The verbs in this stanza prescribe not only a change of attitude but a course of action: give, let go, hear, soothe and relieve.
During the pre-war period, newspapers and magazines featured poems that advanced a wide range of causes, including women’s rights, peace and temperance. For this reason, no reader of The Emancipator would have been surprised to find “The Ghost of Justice” in an article mainly devoted to essays, letters to the editor, reports from anti-slavery societies, stories of the African human trafficking and accounts of prosecutions on behalf of those enslaved. To these kinds of persuasion, poetry added vivid imagery and precise language that allowed readers to hear voices calling on them to feel better.
When Amanda Gorman delivered the inaugural poem on the Capitol Steps on January 20, 2021, she took her place in the long tradition of poetry written for truth.
Recited two weeks after the January 6 uprising, she insisted on “ice standards and notions / of what is right / is not always fair”.
This was the same point the anonymous poet of “The Phantom of Justice” made in calling on the nation to “set the world a righteous example” by fulfilling the promise of democracy.
Paul Lewis is Professor of English at Boston College and Editor-in-Chief of “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820. “