Seeing History in Harper’s “American History”

Michael S. Harper, Image Source: africanamerianpoetry.orgMichael S. Harper’s poem “American History” is a haunting nine line poem. The poem’s use of concrete images coupled with it’s compact brevity works to speak not only to America’s racist past, but of also to the treatment of history in America. The poem opens with reference to the Baptist Street Church Bombing. This 1963 attack by white suprematists on a church in Birmingham, Alabama resulted in the deaths of four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. The imagery of this horrific tragedy and the frank language used to describe it (“blown up” (1)) create for a poignant opening that immediately sets the tone.

Here Harper writes:

Those four black girls blown up

in that Alabama church

remind me of five hundred

middle passage blacks,

in a net, under water

in Charleston harbor

so redcoats wouldn’t find them. (1-7)

The speaker immediately moves from this image of the Baptist Street Church Bombing and connects it, through his own memory, to another horrific moment that took place in Charleston harbor. Here, Harper conjures up a vivid image of “middle passage blacks” (4) underwater in nets. While not explicit, it may be that this image is eliciting parallels to fishing – through reference of “in a net, underwater” (5) – as a means to speak to and admonish the commodification of enslaved Africans during this time period. 

De-militarization of Charleston, Image Source: Charleston County Public Library

While I was not able to find reference to this exact event in my research, Charleston has an incredibly long history of trafficking enslaved African peoples. It is plausible that Harper, in light of his reference to “redcoats” which is a term referring to a British soldier during the American revolutionary period, is referring to the British occupation of Charleston. This occupation occurred between 1780 – 1782 and, as historian and Citadel alumnus Alexander R. Stoesen points out, many slaves were removed from Charleston by the British during this period to be resold into slavery elsewhere as a means of monetary gain for the British troops (80). 

Harper ends the poem with the lines: “Can’t find what you can’t see/ can you?” (8-9). This line, while literally referencing the image of the enslaved people in Charleston harbor, also calls into question how American history is often presented. Coupled with the brevity of the poem, by linking the more recent hate crimes that occurred around the Civil Rights Movement to the racist past of Charleston and the more widespread horrors of slavery in America in the span of nine lines, “American History” can be read as a commentary on the amount of erasure that happens in the treatment of American history in America. There has been, and continues to be, a resistance to education on the reality of the American past, specifically, as is demonstrated in “American History,” that of the American south, through the use of erasure.

Harper’s “American History” acts, in some ways, as a history lesson in and of itself, reacting against the rampant erasure and white-washing that is so often the case. This didacticism arises in several ways. First, the tone of the poem is very matter-of-fact. This, coupled with the use of concise language in conjunction with historical images – “four black girls blown up” (1) and “middle passage blacks,/ in a net, under water” (4-5) – along with brevity, all work to teach or, at least, inform. The crafting of this poem works to put history directly in front of the reader and prompts us to “see.”

Did anyone else read Harper’s “American History” this way? What are some other themes present in this poem?

Works Cited:

Harper, Michael S. “American History.”

Stoesen, Alexander R. “The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780-1782.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, vol. 63, no. 2, 1962, pp. 71–82. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Oct. 2022.

One Response to Seeing History in Harper’s “American History”

  1. Isaac October 20, 2022 at 3:21 am #

    Very cool Kathleen! That link was also really neat. History is something that I find myself wrestling against. It’s like what Stephen Daedalus said in Ulysses, ” history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” I feel this sense of terror with history knowing that it reeks of power in the most negative sense often. Erasure is something you see with ideas in Greek history( take Heraclitus), but with American history it feels like we’re just trying to sweep away non-white bodies.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Skip to toolbar