Oghenetega Jewo


I hear they’ve been through hell, and the fire made them black and since they belong there, that’s why we send them back.

Cephas Afolabi



here it all begins, between sun-drenched rows of sugar cane,

multitudinous acres of plantations

stretched taut like tarpaulin over the caribbean.

knives swinging at the stalks,

sharper than the double-edged blade of enslavement,

scourged backs bent under scorching heat.


slaves side by side, in atmospheres clogged with palpable grief—

bleeding every other thing but blood,

sweat leaking uncontrollably from dust-coated pores

impermeable to blood cells—

erythrocytes the color of coal, scarred from the sojourn through hell.



the slavers realize with unmasked glee

that after adequate whipping

the black skin morphs into an artwork of grotesque beauty.

the way the melanin in branded skin cells rebels against dermis,

to traverse unrestrainedly, the scarifications littered across their battered bodies.



mandibles rendered dysfunctional by the speculum oris

send susurrus of supplications

afloat on the prevailing westerlies.

pleading for black blood to be spared, not smeared on the earth like libations,

not like communion wine.

aching for a ceasefire between the blood on scourged torso and the crimson soil.

how much blood fertilizes sugarcane ’til it becomes so sweet?



for how many decades have people enjoyed cups of hot cocoa

sweetened by sugar cubes

that could just easily have had the same metallic taste

as blood?     or scythes?     or weeding-hoes?     or manacles?



according to an article: in the seventeen thirties, sixteen-year-old eliza lucas

                                 whose father was lieutenant governor of antigua

was put in charge of her father’s south carolina plantations.


         he sent her indigo seeds from antigua.

                                she did not know how to grow and process  indigo,





birthing a terrific indigo boom.

the indigo fever and dependence on slave labor did not end in south carolina.



somewhere in the universe,

someone will wear a jean, dyed in indigo, mixed with traces of slave sweat—


and as if nature knows the best cruel jokes

the color will fade gradually, like the untold tales of those

cursed by fate to be stolen from sleep, and carted on transatlantic voyages to grow indigofera.



cocooned in those fields,

coal-black tribal-marked faces ensheathed in silt and grime

only revealed

the end product of burning,

not the flames that fuel it.



still they lit bonfires.

still their undying spirits morphed from the flames like butterflies.

still their lethargic limbs did not forget dance steps.

they tied the knot, gave birth to babies wrapped in kanga cloth under wooden sheds

carved out of cotton fields, the distant kin of coal mines.



it was january one, eighteen sixty three,

when the sky took on the color of a fire long dead

and president lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation,

beckoning scattered ashes from three years of civil war.



it’s been more than a hundred years now.

years of splintered wood, broken streetlamps, and tear gas canisters on cracked asphalt—

shattered homes, fragmented hearts, news headlines and funerals,

half-torn placards, held high, reading: black lives matter—

tear drops falling onto cold concrete like severed body parts,

muffled screams shoved back into windpipes, like bones through fenestrated throats.



an african-american final year college student is preparing her dissertation,

making research on the history of slavery and black exploitation.

she reads of henry “box” brown, and the underground railroad.


she stumbles across the widely-acclaimed: …all men are created equal.


and she

wonders, maybe

just maybe,

her ancestors weren’t mere men after all,

or the universe had a cruel way of reminding them that they were.