Ellicott City is a town thick with history. And history is a tale told by the victors.
In this poem, Lucille Clifton speaks, instead, for the victims.
Clifton, who won an Emmy, a National Book Award, and the Robert Frost Medal, wrote this poem for her collection Quilting, which contains many poems about history and slavery.
In “i am accused of tending to the past,” Clifton personifies history, by writing it as “a monstrous unnamed baby.” The speaker of the poem says she’s raising the baby to learn names and dates. And beware, the speaker says, this history baby is going to travel and speak the truth.
One of the truths is that while the town’s founders never enslaved people, the farms that produced the wheat for their mills were worked by people who were abused, debased, and never paid for their labors.Slaves worked plantations at Doughoregan and Blandair.The Dorsey and Warfield families enslaved hundreds of people. Oral history tells that Harriet Tubman ushered formerly enslaved people through Howard County, hiding them in cemeteries and near the Patuxent River in Freetown, near Cedar Lane.
Clifton lived in Howard County for many years, and knew its lore.
In an interview in her Columbia townhouse living room, with antique Black dolls lined up on shelves, Clifton spoke about whitewashing history.
“To pretend that now everything’s okay, it would catch me unawares too often,” Clifton said. “It would trivialize my history. There were a lot of people, who were not able to talk about it, to whom great harm was done. When I speak I speak on my behalf, and on their behalf as well. A student at some college said, ‘Why don’t you all not think about your history and we can go on now, move on into a new world.’ But it isn’t my history, it’s our history. And as long as America does not believe that our shared history is what has made both of us what we are, all of us, somebody has to say something. And I’m a poet, surely I can say something.”
i am accused of tending to the past by Lucille Clifton i am accused of tending to the past as if i made it, as if i sculpted it with my own hands. i did not. this past was waiting for me when i came, a monstrous unnamed baby, and i with my mother’s itch took it to breast and named it History. she is more human now, learning languages everyday, remembering faces, names and dates. when she is strong enough to travel on her own, beware, she will.
“i am accused of tending to the past” from The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. Copyright © 1991 by Lucille Clifton. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.