My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson
Seneca Village is real. Or was real. Bordered by West 82nd and 85th streets (89th Street in the book’s introduction), between Seventh and Eighth avenues in New York City’s Upper West Side, “Seneca Village was Manhattan’s first significant community of African American property owners.”
Founded in 1825, the community – which would come to include Irish and German immigrants and even a few Native Americans – would last for just 32 years, “completely erased by the creation of Central Park” in 1857. During those three decades-plus, the multi-ethnic, multicultural community had 264 residents, according to the 1885 New York State Census; within its borders were three churches, a school, several cemeteries, multiple businesses, some 70 homes, and even an apple orchard.
Mega award-winning poet extraordinaire Marilyn Nelson found this “portrait of a community” growing in her mind: “For several years I lived, with great delight, a sort of parallel existence, with characters I made up to fit the names and identifying labels I found in census records of Seneca Village.” Her imagination led to creation, bestowing possible lives onto long-forgotten names, resulting in an illuminating collection of stories of joy and hardship, hope and failure, bounty and loss. Her Seneca Village is undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking, intriguing, fascinating books I’ve read this year.
Village founders Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis – the first African American landowners there – are, respectively, “a proud man that comes home with a decent wage” and a “conjure-man” who “offer[s] what I see / of what’s to come.” Levin Smith presides over the “African Mutual Relief Society,” while Sarah Mathila White braids hair and shares the town’s news. Charlot Wilson stays bedside, keeping company as the dying succumb to 1832’s cholera epidemic. Mathilda Polk draws much attention as a “high-yellow” young woman, the product of “peoples who hate each other … / the lamb and lion [who] lay down side by side.” Irish immigrant couple Joseph and Margaret Cavanaugh who escaped famine, stand together “Counting Blessings” over their eight children, “none of them shivering, everyone fed.”
The decades pass, people marry, birth children, grow families, bury loved ones … until they are all forced to leave by “The Law of Eminent Domain” – with language just senseless enough for Nelson to create a penultimate “nonsense poem … made up of phrases taken from …” the actual legislation itself.
In her “About the Poems” afterword, Nelson explains the various poetic forms she used to bring her Village to life – reflecting the diversity of the community though a wide variety of rigid, playful, metered, lyrical verses throughout: “Poets are interested in stuff like this,” she muses. “Maybe you’ll find it interesting, too.” Such understatement indeed.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult