Friday, February 22, 2013

Counting for Freedom -- the Amistad trials

     Josiah Willard Gibbs (Jr, 1839 – 1903) was an American scientist who made important theoretical contributions to physics, chemistry, and mathematics.  His father, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr (1790 - 1861) was an American linguist and theologian, who served as professor of sacred literature at Yale University.  Although the son is well-known in scientific circles, it is the father who interests us here -- he is the subject of a poem by New York poet Stephanie Strickland.
     The senior Gibbs was an active abolitionist and he played an important role in the Amistad trials of 1839–40. By visiting the African passengers in jail, he was able to learn to count to ten in their language, and he then searched until he located a sailor, James Covey, who recognized the words --the language was Mende -- and was able to serve as an interpreter for the Africans during their subsequent trial for mutiny. 

     Because counting is a process that can be demonstrated on the fingers, it presented to Gibbs -- and offers to all of us -- a way of transcending gaps among our various national languages, a link to understanding.  Here, telling of this, is Strickland's poem:

Jus Suum:  What Can Never Be Taken     by Stephanie Strickland

                    JOSIAH WILLARD GIBBS, 1790-1861

. . . that the question
can be tolerated--whether they be

a single moment, Gibbs said

(Josiah Willard, the Elder, Professor at Yale
of sacred books).  Language

is a cast of the human mind
Gibbs Elder said, visiting the jail

in 1839, to give theirs back
to them, on "our" soil:  transcribing

sounds, for words
for numbers, told to him

from behind their bars
when he held up his fingers:  1, 2, . . . 5, . . . 10;

then traveling to New York, by stagecoach,
ship, to the port, to seek--and find,

on a British brig, someone who spoke
Mendi and English,

that African men, Black mutineers,
might claim their right--should they

have had to?  Inalienable--
in an American court,

convened in Connecticut, New Haven,
where the slaveship was tied up.

Our courts,
he said.  The shame

to our courts, that the question could be tolerated

they be freemen--regaining their freedom--
or criminals, or property)

for a single


Strickland's poem is in True North (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).

 TODAY, in our United States, too many black men are behind bars.  
What are we doing to change this injustice?

Poet Stephanie Strickland majored in mathematics as an undergraduate and she uses mathematical imagery freely in her work  -- in a career that has included pioneering leadership in creating and understanding electronic literature.   Dates of previous postings of Strickland's work include:  6 July 2010 and 6 February 2011.

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