?

Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile PenUltimate Productions Website Previous Previous Next Next
Poem: "Two Sides of the Same Coin" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Two Sides of the Same Coin"

This poem fills the "slaves" square on my Hurt/Comfort Bingo Card.  It was also partially inspired by a discussion with catsittingstill about how much of Maryam's experiences derive from her father's side of the family rather than her mother's.  Well, that's what happens when people get kidnapped and shipped overseas as chattel property; they lose a lot of their culture, so they have very little of it to pass down.  For this poem, I researched British slavery and artifacts from the slave days, including this copper token.  The poem has been sponsored by catsittingstill.  It belongs to The Steamsmith series, which you can explore further on the Serial Poetry page.

WARNING: This poem mentions historic racism, classism, slavery, related artifacts, and the continuing impact on people's lives.  If such topics are triggery for you, then you might want to skip this.


Two Sides of the Same Coin


Maryam Smith strolled slowly through the market,
dressed down in a working man's clothes,
glad for the chance to pass as anyone or no one
while she shopped for odds and ends.
One never knew what bits of history or alchemy
might turn up in the booths and bins.

She passed tables of secondhand lace,
glass beads from Venice and solitary teacups from China,
green wine bottles used as candleholders,
and a barrel of broken gears at which she paused
to pluck out a fine silver wheel etched with symbols.

In a box of buttons and buckles,
a glint of copper caught her eye --
a token the size of a penny
and pressed from copper, but not a coin.

Maryam recognized the clasped hands,
a symbol of the British Anti-Slavery Society.
Slowly she turned it over to reveal
a kneeling slave with his hands in chains.
Words scrolled across the surface:
Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

She had seen its like once before,
when her mother Sarah had shown her
the little collection shared by the descendants
of those who had been slaves to the Smith family.
"My parents, your grandparents, wore these
when they came to England from Africa," Sarah had said,
pointing out two sets of iron shackles.
There was a string of clay beads shaped like animals,
and a broken shard of ivory etched with images,
contributed by other people in the community.

They had so little of their past, their people --
time and the ocean had swallowed most of it.
They clung to these fragments along with the songs,
the stories, the scattered words that survived.
Something of their ancestors would be remembered,
even if it was in pieces.

The token that Maryam held was brown with patina,
almost the same color as her bare hand,
and she paid the vendor's price without haggling.
Like her, it combined England and Africa,
images of hope and despair.
What was she if not history made flesh,
two sides of one coin?

Her mother's people had been slaves
and her father's people had owned them.
She could no more separate herself from either of those
than she could carve the bones from under her own skin.
All she could do was refuse to be a slave
to anyone else's ideals, for sometimes the world
held up evil as the law of the land.

Maryam closed the token in her fist
as she walked back to the fine home
that her father's status and her own alchemy
afforded her for her comfort.
It left its twin images, the clasped hands
and the cringing slave, pressed into her flesh.

She added the token to her own collection,
cradled in a glass case -- an ebony drumstick,
a gold bead from the crown of a captured princess,
and three keys of different styles for old irons.
Someday, perhaps, she would hire an antiquarian
to seek out such things and catalog them properly.

In the meantime, Maryam went to her workshop
to craft a special stand for the token
so that it could be displayed
with both sides of the story showing.

* * *

Notes

Certain points of divergence occur between historic-Britain and nether-Britain regarding racism and slavery in the United Kingdom.

1)  Ours: Madragana (b.~1230), a lover of King Afonso III of Portugal, was said to be of African descent, but this is generally considered to be unlikely.  She was an ancestor of Margarita de Castro e Souza of Portugal and Queen Charlotte of England.

     Theirs:  Madragana, a lover of King Afonso III of Portugal, was Moorish (probably North African Berber).  She was an ancestor of Margarita de Castro e Souza of Portugal and Queen Charlotte of England.  More tellingly, Charlotte's mother was not Elisabeth Albertina Herzogin von Sachsin-Hildburghausen; instead Carl I Herzog von Mecklenburg-Mirow discovered that an African slave was a deposed princess, fell in love with her, and married her.  Queen Charlotte consequently had a mulatto appearance; she married George III on September 8, 1761 and became the Queen-consort of England.  She was the grandmother of Queen Victoria (who is an octoroon, 1/8 black).  This background has contributed to racial integration in nether-Britain.

2)  Ours:  The British abolitionist movement pressured the government into the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which outlawed slave trading within the empire.  Then the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the British Empire as of August 1, 1834 -- after an apprenticeship period of 4-6 years.

     Theirs:  Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg promoted racism, and disliked her son George III's wife, Queen Charlotte; she complicated their married life considerably.  Following Augusta's death on February 8, 1772, Queen Charlotte embarked on a concerted campaign against slavery.  By 1775, she had rallied enough support to pass an equivalent to the Slave Trade Act, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act several years later; slavery was officially abolished as of January 1, 1800.  This lacked the apprenticeship requirement but left the former owners obligated to assist slaves during a transitional period rather than turning them out on the street. 

     The society of nether-Britain in the Victorian Era is somewhat more integrated, although racism is still prevalent.  Queen Victoria, given her mixed heritage, takes a very dim view of racism (and sexism).

Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Current Mood: busy busy

18 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: October 20th, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
glass beads from Venice

Which I initially read as "glass beads from Venus" and was very puzzled :-) . I like Maryam's self-possession in dealing with both sides of her ancestry.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 21st, 2012 09:11 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>Which I initially read as "glass beads from Venus" and was very puzzled<<

*giggle*

>> I like Maryam's self-possession in dealing with both sides of her ancestry. <<

It seems to be central to her nature. Many people of mixed heritage feel torn between the two. Maryam blends and balances. It's a trait particular to both genderqueer folks and alchemists.
zianuray From: zianuray Date: October 20th, 2012 11:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Re: Octroon -- you would not believe how long it took me to realize what the song "Yellow Rose of Texas" refers to. Both. I think I was in my forties.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 21st, 2012 12:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Well...

We see the world not as it is, but as we are. I remember my grandmother once telling me to look at "the coon." I looked for a furry little forest critter. She was talking about a black man. Some oppressive language is very straightforward. Some is really rather obscure unless you already know what it means.
starcat_jewel From: starcat_jewel Date: October 21st, 2012 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Huh. I had no idea until just now, and I'm in my 50s. (In my defense, I don't think I've ever actually listened to the song and couldn't have told you any of the words beyond the title, although I certainly know the tune.) But the first hit when I Googled for the lyrics was this page, which provides both the absolutely unmistakable original words and the extremely-cleaned-up version that most people know now.

Also, ew.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 21st, 2012 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

Hmm...

Going back and looking at this, I can see how patchy my own exposure is. I think I've only heard the modernized lyrics. But I have seen the earlier ones printed at least in excerpt, and there have been discussions of the piece in some ethnic studies classes.
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 20th, 2012 11:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. I really like your Steamsmith work and am glad to be able to sponsor one of the poems, and I think you dealt with this difficult subject very well. Also the alternate-historical background you gave helps explain some of the differences--e.g. that Maryam can get her foot in the door at all, that Maryam's father was not ignored out of society over his acknowledged daughter, etc.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 26th, 2012 03:00 am (UTC) (Link)

You're welcome!

>>I really like your Steamsmith work and am glad to be able to sponsor one of the poems, and I think you dealt with this difficult subject very well.<<

Yay!

>> Also the alternate-historical background you gave helps explain some of the differences--e.g. that Maryam can get her foot in the door at all, that Maryam's father was not ignored out of society over his acknowledged daughter, etc. <<

More of that will come to light over time, as some of the other characters interact more and challenges work out. A lot of it has to do with the shifting complexities of European law; nether-Europe has somewhat more flexibility in individual choice of title holders and monarchs regarding how titles get passed down. But there are always grounds for argument.

Maryam's father did get the cold shoulder from a lot of people. It didn't hold entirely, because 1) he has enough title that working around it isn't practical for everyone, and 2) he just isn't the kind of man who's easy to ignore. Most of the time his behavior is morally impeccable, if sometimes socially controversial. And when it's not, he tends to admit his mistakes and fix them. That puts people rather badly off their script. You can throw mud on fine china, but it's not going to stick.
siege From: siege Date: October 21st, 2012 12:49 am (UTC) (Link)
The sort of stand I would build, would hold the coin edge-on to the front, with two mirrors at angles beside it, meeting in a V shape behind. This would display the coin's sides face-on (if reversed) to anyone looking from the front, and if looking from the side of the stand, one face would be visible on the coin and the other in a mirror.
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 21st, 2012 11:07 am (UTC) (Link)
What if you took a stand like that, rotated it 180 degrees (to face away from the viewer) and reflected the whole business in another, flat, mirror behind it? That would have the advantage of displaying both sides not-reversed, right?--though it would have the disadvantage of tending to obscure the original token--though you could set the whole thing a bit below eye-level so the token is still visible from the top.

Also if Maryam can afford or make some of the phos lights she can include little lights in the stand (or maybe near it) that light the token from a direction that makes the words and figures on the token very easy to see.

But it's kind of interesting that the arrangements to make the token visible without distortion obscure the original token, isn't it?

Edited at 2012-10-21 11:11 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 26th, 2012 03:05 am (UTC) (Link)

Poem

See my reply to siege about "Putting the Past on a Pedestal."
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 26th, 2012 03:02 am (UTC) (Link)

Okay...

I put this into a poem, along with some other people's suggestions.

"Putting the Past on a Pedestal" is a free-verse poem about Maryam and her servants figuring out the best way to display the token, through several rounds of tinkering.
91 lines, Buy It Now = $91
paka From: paka Date: October 23rd, 2012 06:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Out of curiosity, how's alternate-Britain affect the alternate-US civil war and alternate South Africa?

So much of the war and the Emancipation Proclamation was driven by the possibility of Britain interceding on the side of the CSA because they wanted the cotton but hated the slavery. With Britain a little more on the side of hated the slavery, how's that work?

And, so much of the conflict between Brits and Boers in SA was set up by the movement of Dutch settlers north to avoid the British prohibitions against slavery. With those prohibitions more distinct, do the Brits try stomping into Boer country far earlier than they actually did - and do they do so with native African allies?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 23rd, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well...

>> Out of curiosity, how's alternate-Britain affect the alternate-US civil war and alternate South Africa? <<

It didn't even get that far, really. The colonies got their collective ass kicked by the indigenous nations -- Cahokia is an empire and holds roughly the middle third of what would be America. So when the colonies rebelled, the UK just said, "Fine, you're on your own." It wasn't as profitable to try and keep them in nether-Earth as it was in historic-Earth. The United Colonies of America managed to cling to the northeastern part of the continent but not much else. And they did some slaving, but not as much.

Nether-Africa has some badass empires and kingdoms too. It's less of an easy target, not as good for active slavehunting. But one thing that remained the same was the selling of war captives.

South Africa is Zululand -- unusual in being based primarily on military rather than alchemical prowess. England poked at them and decided it wasn't worth the massive effort to conquer, and negotiation was just easier.

But Spain was almost obliterated by an altercation with Meso-America, and the Dutch aren't as powerful either. So there are still a lot of British holdings around the world. The details are just somewhat different.

Yes, I have pages and pages of notes for this setting that haven't made it into poems yet because Maryam is still working on a personal level more than a political one. With "One Man's Renaissance" and "To Attend a Ball" there are hints of her moving upward through the circles of society; and with "Cheques and Balances" she gains more political influence, starting at the level of her own holdings.
paka From: paka Date: October 23rd, 2012 09:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

Question, did the Zulu empire arise in the way that it did historically (backwater nowhere suddenly becomes expansive imperialist state thanks to charismatic leader) or did it show up earlier?

Okay, so Britannia rules the waves a lot more because instead of them breaking Spanish power, the Aztecs did it for them. Next question; I know that a lot of why the Spanish were able to take over Peru that easily is that the Incas had just had this huge, nasty civil war. Did whatever went on to the north stall Spain just enough that Pizarro and his guys showed up before a civil war (which didn't happen) or long after (such that the Incas might have regrouped?).
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 23rd, 2012 09:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

>>Question, did the Zulu empire arise in the way that it did historically (backwater nowhere suddenly becomes expansive imperialist state thanks to charismatic leader) or did it show up earlier?<<

Shaka Zulu was a significant part of that, so the development is probably similar.

>> Okay, so Britannia rules the waves a lot more because instead of them breaking Spanish power, the Aztecs did it for them. <<

The two global superpowers in nether-Earth are the United Kingdom and China. The other empires don't share the same interest in naval expansion; they're more interested in terrestrial power. Oh, and France is subordinate to England because Joan of Arc took a different side and finalized that running conflict.

>>Next question; I know that a lot of why the Spanish were able to take over Peru that easily is that the Incas had just had this huge, nasty civil war. Did whatever went on to the north stall Spain just enough that Pizarro and his guys showed up before a civil war (which didn't happen) or long after (such that the Incas might have regrouped?).<<

I'm not sure of the exact timing. What I know so far is that the Aztec, Mayan, and Inkan empires are all in working order. The Aztecs nailed the Spaniards with a plague that wiped out the Conquistadors and most of the population back in Spain. So, nobody messes with the Aztecs.

As more of the other cultures come into story-focus, I'll refine the details and the timelines.
starcat_jewel From: starcat_jewel Date: November 1st, 2012 02:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

The Aztecs nailed the Spaniards with a plague that wiped out the Conquistadors and most of the population back in Spain.

Whoa. Do you mean that there was something indigenous to the Aztecs that was as nasty to the Europeans as measles/smallpox were to the South American populations in our history, or are we talking about an early form of biological warfare here?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: November 1st, 2012 07:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

That one was alchemical biological warfare. However, the Americas do have populations capable of sustaining communal diseases, so there is a two-way germ exchange in this history.
18 comments or Leave a comment