In this poem, Rita Dove captures the world of Benjamin Banneker, a larger-than-life figure of brilliance who surveyed the District of Columbia, predicted eclipses, and argued against slavery with Thomas Jefferson.
Dove won the Pulitzer for her poetry, which often focuses on historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Persephone, and 18th- century violinist George Bridgetower.
In this verse, Dove’s speaker calls Banneker “a capacious bird.” A scientist at heart who farmed in Oella, Banneker is known for building a wooden clock that kept accurate time until after he died, providing the scientific heft behind the surveying of Washington, D.C., and for his discoveries and thoughts on astronomy.
One of his most famous writings was his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, mentioned in this poem. On August 19, 1791, the same year the Bill of Rights was ratified, Banneker wrote to Jefferson, urging him to extend rights to Black Americans and end slavery.
Banneker wrote, “but Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
Jefferson’s replied in a short, noncommittal letter that “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America.”
Banneker did not reply, but published their correspondence in his 1793 almanac. Jefferson ended the Atlantic Slave Trade as president, but freed only two of his enslaved workers in his lifetime.
by Rita Dove
What did he do except lie
under a pear tree, wrapped in
a great cloak, and meditate
on the heavenly bodies?
Venerable, the good people of Baltimore
whispered, shocked and more than
a little afraid. After all it was said
he took to strong drink.
Why else would he stay out
under the stars all night
and why hadn’t he married?
But who would want him! Neither
Ethiopian nor English, neither
lucky nor crazy, a capacious bird
humming as he penned in his mind
another enflamed letter
to President Jefferson—he imagined
the reply, polite and rhetorical.
Those who had been to Philadelphia
reported the statue
of Benjamin Franklin
before the library
his very size and likeness.
A wife? No, thank you.
At dawn he milked
the cows, then went inside
and put on a pot to stew
while he slept. The clock
he whittled as a boy
still ran. Neighbors
woke him up
with warm bread and quilts.
At nightfall he took out
his rifle—a white-maned
figure stalking the darkened
breast of the Union—and
shot at the stars, and by chance
one went out. Had he killed?
I assure thee, my dear Sir!
Lowering his eyes to fields
sweet with the rot of spring,
he could see a
government’s domed city
rising from the morass and spreading
in a spiral of lights….
“Banneker” is from Museum (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1983). Copyright © 1983 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.