Read the Receipts

As far as I know, we enslaved Joseph, Zebulon,

Cesar, Peg, her children Rose, Philis,

and her baby Philis. last was Joshua.  9 people,

1659-1808. Hard enough to admit,

and then

this summer, uncovered in the Phelps’ Barn—

stacks of receipts, bills of lading, “adventures”*

tied in six neat bundles. Signed Charles Phelps,

my 8th great grandmother Elizabeth’s only son,

who failed at law in Cambridge, ventured into

the export trade. One receipt reads

shipped in good order and condition

Phelps and Rand in ship called Great America

under master Jonathan W. in the harbour

of Boston and bound for Copenhagen

32 hogsheads of sugar weighing 15 tons 735 pounds.

Cane born of sweat, starvation, fingers sliced to shreds.

217,000 Africans in Cuba alone; few survived 7 years. 

Two crops a year, round-the-clock, sugar mills cannot stop.

By 1812, 600 U.S. ships sailed from Havana

with the sticky sweet, threading between

Napoleon’s dragoons, England’s navy

Every receipt stamped “citizen of United States”

to protect ships from seizure, sailors from capture.

Charles’ profit: $12.7 million in today’s dollars.

Untie another packet; receipts reveal

Georgia cotton, on the Rebecca.

What of the bent backs, families rent,

forced breeding, bruises?

No comments in his letters on the abolitionist

fervor bubbling in Boston. He worried about

his debts, cost of living, raising capital.

Records his 10 terms in the State Legislature,

wives who died, their 8 children. Says

he is “self-made.”

Not a nod to the lives whittled down

to sugar crystals, fingers that twisted

free each cotton boll, 200,000

to make a bale. No mention

of ships funneling millions of

Africans to plantations far from

the cool green of Hadley.

How the steel-blue Atlantic

laps against the unspoken

shores of our story.

Nancy L. Meyer (she/her) is a 2020 Pushcart nominee, avid cyclist, and grandmother of five from the unceded Raymatush Ohlone lands of San Francisco. Journals include: Gyroscope, BeZine, Book of Matches, Laurel Review, Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Sugar House Review, and Caesura, among others. Forthcoming writing will appear in International Human Rights Arts Festival, Outcast, and Kind of a Hurricane Press. She is published in eight anthologies, including Dang I Wish I Hadn’t Done That by Ageless Authors and Crossing Class by Wising Up Press.

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