he would again the next day.
USAID and the U.N. had hired more
than 50,000 Haitians by late February to
work in the recovery efforts.
Lucke is no stranger to dire situations
— having had his life threatened in
Tunisia and his daughter’s health at risk in
Senegal and having worked in AIDS-ravaged Swaziland. Still, having been in
Haiti before, this tragedy became personal.
Poet Addresses Ancestors’ Slave, ‘Trying to
Get Straight What We Do to Each Other’
He gave his friend, the Montana’s
owner, a big hug after finding she had
survived. Her sister was trapped for five
days; pulled out badly hurt, she was doing
better after surgeries in the Dominican
Republic. But the owner’s grandson’s
body would be found two weeks later.
Shelby Stephenson ’60 describes his deci- “I felt I had to write about this,” Stephenson
sion to take up the story of a female African- says, seated in a chair in the backyard of the
American slave named July this way: “I would family homeplace. From the yard he can see the
hear stories that my great-great-grandfather had rustic three-room plankhouse where he was
slaves, and it’s as if I carried that with me all born. That’s a long way in time and fortune
these years. I really feel like I had no choice.” from the plantation that reached out over 1,000
The story began with a quill-and-paper doc- acres. “But I’m not the right color,” says
ument from Johnston County records and ends Stephenson, who is white, “and I couldn’t speak
with a volume of poetry, Family Matters: Homage from an African-American point of view. I
to July, The Slave Girl, winner of the Bellday wrote maybe 50 drafts, which are in the
Books poetry prize. The publisher specializes in Southern [Historical] Collection at UNC.
contemporary American poetry. Along the way, I can tell you, I often thought, ‘I
Lucke lost some friends. The “lovely
house” he had lived in, passed from
USAID director to director, was
destroyed. One of his American friends
from his work in Africa had gotten into
his car just before the quake hit. He saw a
wave on the pavement coming at him.
He was unhurt but lost everything.
Lucke’s closest connections in Haiti were
USAID employees. At least half of them
lost houses and family members. “I saw
them in a state of shock,” Lucke said.
“I had run out of things to write about, so I can’t do this.’ ”
started writing again about my family and For a poet with a long career, years of teach-wondering if I could turn that into poetry,” says ing and decades as the editor of The Pembroke
the winner of the 2001 North Carolina Award Review, it was uncomfortable to be stumped,
for Literature. “I had all my ancestors and infor- but it also pressed Stephenson into trying new
mation, but there was no romance to it — approaches. “I forced myself to read that
which is necessary for whatever poetry is. My legalese,” Stephenson says, pointing to the first
sister had done some research in the local her- page of the book, the text documenting the
itage center in Smithfield at the courthouse, slave sale. “I thought, this is not poetry. But it
and I saw a reference to the sale in 1851 by was. It became a culture, a collage.”
He lamented the loss of the presidential palace, such a point of pride to the
people. “Haitians are really special,
resilient, good people, and they just lost
everything — they didn’t have much to
lose,” he said.
George Stephenson to Seth Woodall of ‘a cer- Stephenson introduced the character of Pap’s
tain negro girl, a slave named July about 10 daughter, Obedience, and “let her make things
years old’ for a price of $400.25.” up.” He painted the past and the present going
JAN G. HENSLE Y
Lucke, said his friend Williams, had
been special to Haitians. “He’s the perfect
one for the United States to put in that
position,” Williams said while waiting in
the Tampa airport to get back to Haiti.
“We can all be proud of the work he’s
doing there under very difficult circumstances.”
By late January, a lot of people who
had been sleeping in the streets were in
semi-organized camps. Open-air markets
were selling produce. “We see sort of vestiges of things getting back” toward normal, Lucke said. “We have so many volunteers we hardly know what to do with
back and forth between fact and imagination,
all the time working toward the points in the
poem where the poet addresses July directly.
From the same homeplace where Stephenson
spends summer days watching bees, birds and
fields, he asks July:
Did you know your place
and my greatgreatgranddad’s too?
Rummaging around the homeplace,
pronouncing your name Ju-ly,
I hear my father — This Land will be yours someday —
what graveyard of bones —
the mounds and stones,
the “I owned” —
you there, Jart, Venus, Silvy, Clay.
Later in the poem, Stephenson writes, “The
money used to buy and sell you/presses into
my heart …”
Lucke, who majored in international
studies and now lives in Texas, says
USAID will accomplish the mission.
“Race is a buzzword,” Stephenson says, summing up the struggle and accomplishment of
his poem. “I thought I couldn’t do this, but
now I see I can. It’s all about trying to get
straight what we do to each other.”
“We represent a very strong and robust
country, and this is a neighbor of ours.
We’ll be here as long as it takes. We will
get it done.”
— Susan Simone
Shelby Stephenson ’60 drew inspiration from the family
homeplace in Johnston County as he wrote poems addressing
a slave his ancestors had owned.
— David E. Brown ’75
ONLINE: Hear Stephenson reading from
Family Matters at