Shanta Lee Gander: Lucy Terry Prince and her enduring legacy
Editor's note: This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, Southern Vermont Landscapes is celebrating the history of women from our region, past and present, whose accomplishments deserve to be better-known.
Lucy Terry Prince wasn't just a woman of influence here in Southern Vermont. An orator, a mother and wife who shared a homestead with her husband Abijah Prince and their six children, Lucy was also a poet who left an indelible imprint upon American English literature with her only surviving poem, "Bars Fight." In addition to this act making her the first known African-American poet in the United States, the lessons we gather from her life during the mid-1700's-early 1800's are present reminders of our role of bearing witness.
Lucy and Abijah Prince's life have also inspired many legends and mistruths due to what is known and not known of their lives and as some of us know, history is often a game of following the clues. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's book, "Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend (HarperCollins, 2009), is based on years of research that sets the record straight. What we know is that while enslaved, while in her early 20s, she wrote "Bars Fight" which describes a raid on Deerfield, Mass., that left most either dead, wounded, and one member of the Allen family kidnapped.
We are not sure if she was a direct witness or was consumed by everyone talking about what took place. While this poem is the only known work of Lucy Terry Prince in existence, "Bars Fight" lived a life in oral history for about one hundred years before appearing in print in 1854 on the front page of the Springfield Daily Republican in Massachusetts.
In following historical clues, we can fill in the blanks of what we don't know by making observations based on the artifacts left behind. I've always been fascinated by the fact that "Bars Fight" is intent on naming each of the victims. The act of naming is perhaps the best way that Lucy could bring attention to her reality. In other words, in analyzing the poem, one thinks about what it means to have the privilege of being referred to by a name given at birth, versus the author of the poem, who might've had a different name if she was not kidnapped from West Africa.
Another facet to the poem is considering its audience. Just as we think of male gaze within the context of art history, there is also white gaze, under which African-American artists were under constant scrutiny. Would the lines of "Bars Fight" change if Lucy could imagine writing it sans white gaze as a free African-American?
Though that question is unanswerable, follow the clues and read the last lines closely: "Young Samuel Allen, Oh lack-a-day!/Was taken and carried to Canada." It is dripping with a certain lightheartedness, sarcasm, and wit that a reader can appreciate knowing Lucy's status at the time.
The other glimpses of Lucy we catch is through her appearances before the highest court in Vermont at the time, the Governor's Council. This was also during the time that slavery in the United States was still heavily in play.
Around the age of 60 years old, in 1785, Lucy traveled from the homestead she shared with Abijah to seek protection of their homestead from John Noyse. Lucy won her case and the Council also sought to put Guilford's local government on notice to protect the Princes and their property. Some years later, Lucy appeared before the council again, this time to fight for access to her land in Sunderland.
There are many things to appreciate about Lucy Terry Prince's story. Through the life of the Princes, we deconstruct the narrative of who was involved in building early America. If we look close enough, we discover that there are other voices and faces who create the mosaic and foundation of America.
Their story sheds light on the legacy of land ownership among African-Americans. Between 1865 and 1910, freed slaves and their descendants owned 15 million acres of land. By the early part of the 20th century, 14 percent of all farms were black-owned. There is a huge gap between these stats and today's reality of less than 1 percent of rural land being owned by African-Americans.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is how Lucy Terry Prince's actions of bearing witness and fighting for her rights pierces time. Her actions, more than 200 years after she penned the poem documenting the Deerfield Massacre and presented her case to protect her homestead, are relevant today as we think about the imperative to bear witness.
Her story raises a tough question: What does it mean to seek justice? This question is key especially within a world in which using the law is not always to your advantage as a person of color. The question of justice and rule of law remains within a landscape described by many legal scholars as a moment of Constitutional crisis.
As someone who continues to usher forth Lucy's legacy through lectures, connecting her legacy to the present, and the future, I do a thought experiment of "What Would Lucy Do?" What would Lucy do within today's context in which access to land and other resources have become nearly impossible due to systems of racism?
What would Lucy do within today's context in which any of her children could end up as victims of the criminal justice system due to doing anything — driving, working, engaging in any leisure activity — while black? Would Lucy survive childbirth within a context in which an African-American woman is four times more likely to die in childbirth because of the impact of collective trauma and current inequity?
What would Lucy do within a current context that dictates that if you are African-American from a lower socioeconomic status, you still fare worse than your white counterparts from the same class?
Given what we do know about her life, I know that Lucy would've fought. And given that we share the same passion for words, I envision that Lucy Terry Prince would break the cliche of the pen being mightier than the sword. In this environment, sister-girl would've joined pen and sword. She would've refashioned them as tools for forging new paths forward for all the voices that needed to be seen and heard.
Lucy Terry Prince is one of the more than 50 people being researched for the Brattleboro Words Project. Local scholars and community members are creating audio highlighting the deep literary connections of the Brattleboro area which will become part of audio-based Brattleboro Words Trail and maps. Learn more at brattleborowords.org
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