The Sunday Poem: Gary Brower... Blackdom, New Mexico

Ever wonder how we in New Mexico turned out to be so different from our neighbors Texas and Arizona? For one thing, we turned back the forces of slavery at Glorieta. And check out this tribute to poet Maisha Baton, which delves into post-civil war history in eastern New Mexico. The story of Blackdom, though not well-known, is also part of our history.

Gary Brower lives in Placitas where he is one of the directors of the Duende Poetry Series.


(For Maisha Baton, 1938-2009)

She had her hands down into Blackdom,
felt the soil sift through her fingers,
felt it historically, archeologically, culturally.
She knew the Blackdom of New Mexico,
her adopted State of Grace,
knew places of mind and locations of land,
knew the spirit of the Spanish blackamoor slave-guide,
Estebanico, was still walking the dry, waterless high desert,
here, where the sea once covered the land
just as it surrounds the island of Hispaniola
where Haiti now lies in the ruin of disaster
that she did not see,
where tectonic plates shifted so suddenly
it caught people in the midair of survival acrobatics
so when they came down there was no place to land
except in la republique des cimetieres infinites
but in her day she had her hands down
into the roots of the Haitian family tree
just as she had lived between branches of the Tree of Water
created where three rivers come together at old Fort Pitt,
the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela joined
at a geographical vortex that also flowed
through the cardiac vortex of her body, mind and soul,
les trois rivieres de l'ame,
and it was there in Pittsburgh
where she knew her friend August Wilson
who told us in his plays, decade by decade,
how Blackdom in the USA got by in spite of the odds
and when she came to la tierra de Nuevo Mexico
she put her hands down into the land
where the downtrodden came to escape
racist oppression, political surpression, cultural repression,
build a place where they could be free,
just as Zumbi founded his escaped-slave
Kingdom of Palmeras in the Brazilian jungle ,
just as the Maroons found liberation
in the mountains of Jamaica,
just as the Gullah-speaking "Black Seminoles"
built their villages in Old Florida with the Indians,
later forced by the Seminole War to disperse
to the west into Texas, northern Mexico,
and Okie Freedmen towns that were journey's end
for the Trail of Tears they later walked with the Cherokee
and other tribes after Andy Jackson stole their lands,
diasporas within the Great Forced Diaspora from Africa,
Villages of the Fled created in distant spaces
away from societies of European enslavement
where people were money in the pockets of capitalists,
cheap labor who made landowners wealthy,
but she was here in la tierra del encanto,
put her hands down into the soil of History
at the New Jerusalem of Blackdom, New Mexico,
the homestead town dreamed by Frank Boyer
who walked from Georgia to escape into the Wild West
where Buffalo Soldiers kept the peace in some towns,
were used against Indians by the Anglo military command,
a cynical use of blacks against reds for the benefit of whites,
but Frank Boyer and cohorts came not as slaves
instead they came as homesteaders under settler laws
to populate the great territorial despoblado
looking for their State of Grace,
and they built their freedom from the ground up,
dug their water wells, drew up a platte-map of the town
with a square and public park in the middle,
so in 1896 Blackdom, New Mexico, came into being,
with schools whose teachers taught white neighbors
to be literate, where cowboys came to celebrate Juneteenth,
staying with black families for this celebration of freedom,
where barter of alfalfa and other crops created
an economy that served the community all around, there,
where the search for survival took root in southern New Mexico,
this is where she put her hands
down into the Mother Earth of Blackdom
at the point where History met the Myth of Utopia
where the Dream became the Reality of this village ,
till a plague of Texas locusts flooded into the Territory
they couldn't take when troops of the Confederate Cracker Army
sent by the southern White Feudal Elite
couldn't turn New Mexico into a slave-land
after their defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass,
but in the 1920s when Kluxers were triumphant
across the nation, voted into power in every corner
of the country, racist lynchings following in their wake,
these local Texas locusts who came to New Mexico
to exploit the rest of the Permian Basin
lynched Blackdom, denied water-drilling permits
to the town to get rid of it, bringing down
the Dream, the Reality, the Myth, but not the History,
and this is why she put her hands down into the dirt
of this town of black settlers to feel the Truth of these sojourners,
keep the memory alive, reveal the forgotten story,
and this is why she picked up her pen
as if she were a Buffalo Soldier rifling through the dust,
and in my mind's eye, I see her
sitting at the kitchen table of memory,
pen in hand, rescuing History from Oblivion,
writing her plays, poems and essays,
while in distant memory-echoes, Haitian drums
call to Ogun and Damballa Wedo in the music of Bukman Experience,
and in another corner of reverie, Nina Simone sits at the ghost of a piano
fingering the black and white braille of keyboard topography,
singing "I wish I knew how it would feel to be free"
along with memory-spirits of Frank Boyer and all the settlers
who traveled to Blackdom, New Mexico, from all over the nation,
while Nina at the piano, cloaked in her dusky voice,
plays to the rhythmic metronome of the heart
and from her State of Grace, Maisha hums along with Nina
as she sings from Jacques Brel's songbook :
"Ne me quittez pas, Ne me quittez pas, Ne me quittez pas ...."

*The ruins of the town of Blackdom, New Mexico, are mostly gone,
but there is a plaque commemorating it at the location, about 12 miles south
of present day Roswell. A museum is being planned to make sure the history
of the place is not lost. Maisha wrote about Blackdom in various publications,
including a chapter in the now-used textbook of New Mexico history. She was
instrumental in placing the plaque and instigating an archeological dig.

Views: 141

Comment by Margaret Randall on April 25, 2010 at 8:59am
Gary, I remember hearing you read this at Maisha's memorial. It is as powerful now as it was then. Thank you for enriching our knowledge of a little-known aspect of New Mexico history, and doing it so well!
Comment by Lucky on April 25, 2010 at 9:20am
This is amazing. Thank you.
Comment by Barelas Babe on April 25, 2010 at 9:58am
Since Maisha's passing, I find myself thinking of her now and then. Thank you for this powerful poem that packs quite a history lesson into its rhythm.
Comment by lisa gill on April 25, 2010 at 6:42pm
I miss maisha and much appreciated this poem.
Comment by Merimee Moffitt on May 23, 2010 at 1:40pm
Wow, this is Gary Brower's "Howl"! Such a fine memorial tribute to Dr. Maisha Baton, whom I never met, unfortunately, my egret head buried deep somewhere so often. Thank you, Gary, for the wonderful history and story of places . . amazing. A wake-up call to us all, about everything. I am so glad to hear there is a museum in the works for Blackdom history.
Comment by Merimee Moffitt on May 23, 2010 at 1:43pm
Gary, sorry it took me so long to get around to catching up on "Sundays"--I knew I would be happily surprised! thx again.


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