A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
By Kevin Young
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307267641, 272pp.)
Publication Date: January 25, 2011
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Acclaimed poet Kevin Young gathers here a chorus of voices that tells the story of the Africans who mutinied onboard the slave ship Amistad. Written over twenty years, this poetic epic—part libretto, part captivity epistle—makes the past present, and even its sorrows sing.
In “Buzzard,” the opening section, we hear from the African interpreter for the rebels, mostly from Sierra Leone, who were captured on their winding attempt to sail home and were jailed in New Haven. In “Correspondance,” we encounter the remarkable letters to John Quincy Adams and others that the captives write from jail, where abolitionists taught them English while converting them to Christianity. In lines profound and pointed, the men demand their freedom in their newfound tongue: “All we want is make us free.” The book culminates in “Witness,” a libretto chanted by Cinque, the rebel leader, who yearns for his family and freedom while eloquently evoking the Amistads’ conversion and life in “Merica.”
As Young conjures this array of history and music, interweaving the liberation cry of Negro spirituals and the indoctrinating wordplay of American primers, he delivers his signature songlike immediacy at the service of a tremendous epic built on the ironies, violence, and virtues of American history. Vivid and true, Ardency is a powerful meditation on who we’ve been and who we are.
Kevin Young is the author of six previous collections of poetry and editor of five others. Jelly Roll was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and won the Paterson Poetry Prize; For the Confederate Dead won the 2007 Quill Award for poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a United States Artists James Baldwin Fellowship, Young is currently the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.