Song of Exiles: A Reflection on the New York City Draft Riots of 1863
Hear, O Africa, cradle of humanity’s first dreaming, the cry of your oppressed children rises high above the ocean’s crest. Hear the whip crack, splitting the skin baked brown in your fire-stoked sun. Hear the clank of the shackles, the first time they close around free flesh and bone. Does not all humanity now find itself chained?
They will beat us out of us, with the languages that flowed off the tongue like the great river of home. Oh, how it flows on in dreams, like the cricket’s ageless serenade, like the heart’s rupture at the pounding of the drums. Are we never to stand upon the ground as anything other than cattle, yoked to a master’s plow?
All will bleed white, white foam and white heat, white cotton, cruelly soft on the stalks, and angry faces whiter than Hell’s rage as they rip your name away from you. Well, let them try to take it; there will be another day. They must bleed the heart white before they can scrape it away, and in the end your slavish name will be scraped from your shallow grave. For the generations live on; the dream lives on.
Run, run, run like that river that gave life to your village, run like the gazelles and the antelope, with flame-pricked amber eyes, that know what it is to breathe freedom through their nostrils, and see the world run wild. Oh, run, run like the zebra whose stripes never change, run till hooves unearth the sun-baked clay. Let your feet never forget what it is to feel free earth beneath them. Run like the wind whispering old stories of a tribal past through the jungle trees.
Listen to the spirit-rent music of a free-born exile, who will never forget the urge to dance to the rhythm which no chains can restrain. Sing the song of freedom or death, and listen in the night, listen for the drums. The warrior’s red dawning comes amidst the jungle-red pride of lions. Lift your children high, towards the Mother Moon, the Father Sun, speak their names to the sky and tell them of the worth bestowed on them by the Creator. Crimson claws are growing, for all suns that sink must rise again…
Hear, Erin gra mo chroi, island of the starved soul’s yearning, the cry of your children driven to the fern by the silver sword and the golden torch, gleaming in a northern lake’s smoke-stained waters. Hear the keening of your daughter as your sons face Cromwell’s slaughter. Let the prayer beads torn away from you forever mark Christ-wounded palms. Hear the whip’s tongue lash out tauntingly upon the back of pilgrims at Patrick’s Purgatory. Does not all humanity find itself purgated?
They scourged us out of us, with the language that lilted like a swan’s song on our lips, wilder than the ocean gale’s lament. The waves roll on in dreams, to Tir na nog, the island of eternity, and no hunger can touch the heart, pulsing to the rhythm and break of the drums. The Celt’s cry rises deep from the throat, and screams from the stones of ancient high kings, for you cannot own the land; the land must own you.
They struck you down, flesh from the bones they tore, and the bones of broth they robbed from you, and the naked tongue was parched, with the wails of those cut down around the Celtic cross. The blood ran in streams down your four green fields of sorrow and strife, and the grey geese fled the fray with the moonbeams burning off their wings. They ran liquid like the rivers of the silver trout of wisdom, over which once hung the golden apples of the sun and the silver apples of the moon.
Fight, fight so that they may look at your warrior painted eyes and see the suffering that made you strong. Let them hear how God made you mad, and how Man broke your hearts so many times, you hardly had any hearts left, and all your wars were merry, and all your songs were sad. Listen to the wind that shakes the barley, and the pipe skirling down by the glenside, and the bodhran beating like the martyrs’ hearts. Raise your children with dignity, to wear the green of God’s apostle to the Isle of saints. Let them glory in the knotted circle of eternal time, for all things that are taken must be restored…
And now we let our eyes, crusted by the callousness of cruelty, gave upon the scenes of New York. Oh, God, are we now doomed to fight the battle against each other, unable to see past our own prejudice? Have we learned nothing from the voices that screamed at us and the hands that beat us down, as we stood against the wind? Did the troubled waters we crossed, the floating coffins that brought us both here, in our turn, transform us into the beasts they made us out to be? Oh, what, for the gnawing of our bellies, have we become?
This place, they said it was the land of the free. And yet…is it truly so? The dream has become our nightmare, and the lights of their cities have blinded us, and the depths of their dirt turned our souls to lifeless clay. Dark skin, fair skin, are we not all used, each in our own turn, for the benefit of others who sit enthroned, with the drink of mint or claret, rich and running in their hands, wrapped hard around the cold glass? Cold, cold as the core of their eyes. And we are all grown hot in the blood, empty in the stomachs, and numb in our hearts. We will strike and steal, cripple and kill…we will do anything to stay alive, and rise up.
Christ, what are we now but the demon ghosts of a shattered morality? Is this not the ultimate victory for the oppressors? That we have now followed their examples? Oh, God, have we not beat ourselves out of ourselves upon the irons of hatred, broiled over the coals of desperation? We are deaf to the orphan’s cry, if they are not our orphans; we are blind to the old man’s wounds, if he is not our father or our grandfather. We form for ourselves a clan, to keep ourselves safe, at the expense of our neighbor. Have we not dug the dagger out of our own flesh, merely to pierce it into that of another?
Are our filthy rich tormenters laughing, laughing like hyenas as they view us from a distance, in this jungle of slums and dirty laundry and no need to apply? Those who beat us down must be laughing, laughing like all of hell. Oh, sweet Jesus, what have we become? Everything is running red, red and raw like the blisters of so many shattered memories. We are afflicted by the sting of the black thorn in the Mountains of Mourne and the snarls of the wild brush in Africa’s tundra.
Once upon a time, we could all sing, and God, were the drum beats that beckoned us so very different, were our heart beats not pounding in unison, when the languages they tore from us rolled off our tongues, and we begged the clouds to rend and send down the rain? Did we not beg, beg in our own ways, to be freed from the curses laid upon us? Did we not simply want those things that make us human, the chance for honest work, to fill our children’s bellies, to not be cast out, split apart, torn away from hearth and home, and all that made us what we are, down to the blessed root of us?
Have you not learned, O America? When our blood boiled, and blood was freshly shed, it was hate and fear and the workings of tailored tongues that twisted our minds and sucked out the blood of our hearts. We could not see the image of God alive in those dark eyes, nor hear the drums anymore, that should have reminded us that we were brothers in purification through pain. All we heard were the rantings of those who would have us fight, struggle to reach the top rail, just to make it through, one against the other.
But we are all the same, all slaves in a city of sweat, cast in a cauldron of the great and the grand. For out upon the fields, by Christ, we are dying, and bleeding out upon Pennsylvania’s soil, beneath the emerald flag, and we fight other poor boys used to digging in southern sod, raised to see rights in terms of taking the rights of others, though they have so very few themselves. But are our tongues so very different that we could ever forget what it is to thirst, both for water and the Spirit? No, no, they tell us, we cannot see ourselves in the other. But we are branded, all of us, by colors and contrasts, and the summer heat is melting us like wax in the seal of those who rule. Does that not unite us if nothing else?
Freedom, they say…that is what they say this fight is about. But it is no easy thing to swallow. We have learned, from many a fight, the quest for freedom bleeds you dry, and can you ever hope to claim it, if it bleeds you dry of love? If we are to ever come forth on the other side as anything better than beasts, we must find what was lost. Oh, put a clean heart in us, lost in the midst of our miseries, in our tangled trails of tears! We want to live, to work, to pray; we want the freedom they promised, and which they now throw back in our faces. Work it through with us; do not cast us away. For if you do, you will cast yourself away as well.
But perhaps it is always the song of the exile that is the freest sound of all. For do we not bring a part of our native shores with us, sun burnt and sun abandoned, and it clings to us like a cloak? Yes, we bring the best and the worst of us, but we also bring hope and change for the future’s rising. And if we can see our way clear, as the river cuts through our villages, perhaps our song will become one. And it will be a song that makes all hearts one, and makes all eyes see kinship in the eyes of others. Ebony as the womb-like African sky, or emerald as the fern’s fierce flowering, can we not find the soul of them, the song of them? My God, my God, murdered on the tree…oh, let it be so.
By Avellina Balestri