“Exodus: Gilliam Coal Camp, West Virginia, 1949” by L. Renée

L. Renée


Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, Photographer

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep
Martha, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea
Oh, Mary, don’t you weep.
—Aretha Franklin

On the day before Junior Mary
graduated high school, she told
her mother Mary she wanted to
serve and protect, not in a maid’s

or nanny’s uniform, but in Army
greens. At seventeen, she wanted
to witness something other than coal
and dirt and mountains and trees—

something as infinite as water
surrounding them islands she had
seen in her mama’s Lifetime
magazines—God’s green earth

not besmirched by dark dust, dark
rocks awakened from millennia
of rest by explosives. The ocean’s
cerulean gloss sparkled like a sequin

dress Junior Mary sought to slink in.
She imagined the water’s cool kiss
pecking her skin, how free it must be
to float and not feel your own heavy

labor, a body beyond debt, a mind
without worry. She imagined the security
of military wages that didn’t nickel
and dime you like coal bosses did:

a fee for electricity, a fee for fuel coal,
a fee for doctor’s visits, a fee for blacksmiths
to maintain the sharpness of metal picks,
a fee for oil to put in a miner’s lamp—

deductions subtracted from every pay day
leaving you in the red or with meager
balances. She did the math, gave her mama
enlistment papers to sign. Big Mary did not

weep. The family had had enough domestic
work; the military wasn’t no different.
You’d still be cleanin up some white folks’
messes, Big Mary had said. The Army

wasn’t no place for a Black woman.
After all, Truman had just let women in
last year. How a Black woman gonna
protect a country that ain’t never cared

about her years of service, the many
generations of Black women who worked
without pay until they were dishonorably
discharged into soil. At least in these hills,

everybody knew who the white Devil was:
the coal company’s lust for money traded
for breath, just like them slavery-time
body-snatchers, who smuggled cadavers,

drenched them in whiskey
for preservation, to be used by medical
schools, the Black body always traded
in a black market, always a price—

the only thing named—attached to
the toe. Round these hills, everybody
came out black and poor after a day’s
work. You could call a mountain

a mountain, a spade a spade.
Your faith might convict you to say
move, and you might could see
some version of the Red Sea parting

your troubles with a lucky lotto pick.
You knew you could sit anywhere
on the bus Mr. Dick Arnold drove
from coal camp to coal camp,

that you could stand in the same line
as white folks at the company store
where y’all all bought the same milk jugs
and coffee tins for the same price,

which would be deducted from weekly
wages if put on credit, or paid for by scrip,
all of which replenished that devil’s coffers
again. At least in these hills, you could holler

when the fire broke out and trust
somebody would hear your screams,
watch neighbors dash for ladders, pass
well-bucket water from one man down

a line to the next, put out the threat
with dozens of hands, dozens of mouths
crying out to the God of Moses, the staff
of their tongues parting flame from wood,

smoke curling up nostrils like frankincense,
or some other burnt offering of praise
for that half of roof that could be saved,
at least on that night when the gas lamp

wick licked Big Mary’s cotton drapes
and made ashes of the pale pink roses
patterned upon them. Big Mary did not
weep, for she knowed the pride of

an honest day and the sorrow in it too.
Another day’s journey when somebody
ain’t turn up dead was something to give
thanks for, when a girl barely old enough

to sign her own wedding papers ain’t made
a widow like Martha, staring off at the tipple
’spectin to see her man there by the rail car,
but jarred back to the present when she hears

coal pinging the metal containers like rain,
like the fat wet blanket that made dirt slick
and muddy, a bad sign the girl had told
her man, begged her man to stay home

on what was his last day on earth, and like
a man fixin to feed his family, he did not
listen, and now he was in the earth, buried
deep inside earth’s muddy pocket, tucked

away and maybe rocked in the rocks
that swung low and carried him home
in that ol’ shiny chariot that did not drown
in the Red Sea. At least in these hills, death

had an address and if you listened hard
enough, looked for the signs in dreams,
it rarely could put the sneak on ya.
But Junior Mary ain’t want her mama’s

at least, she wanted the most, the brightest
city lights that couldn’t be snuffed out
by a poor mouth exhalin what little air
had been waitin in dim hallways

of blackened lungs, rattlin like an ol’
car engine that can’t turn over, can’t do
nothin but whir and whine and grind
and click, the bad starter of it all,

the bad start for which there is no
replacement part, just chains of title
chains of parents bought and sold,
bought and resold, souls wore out by

the wear and tear, their bodies counted
as coins in accountant’s books and
insured in policies you still can find
online by typing words like Slavery Era

Insurance Registry California or Aetna
Slave Insurance or Nautilus Mutual
Life Insurance on Slaves or U.S. Life
Insurance on Slaves, where you might

discover another Martha, age 14, a house
girl valued at $1,000, or Ann, age 15,
valued at $1,000, or Amanda, age 15,
valued at $1,000 or Henry, a blacksmith,

age 19, valued at $1,200, on January 13,
1860, when Charles Meyer, the slaveholder,
bought himself some insurance on who he
thought he owned for a term of two months,

and the insurance agent, David Bishop,
added a hand-written note that Aetna would
not be liable for any consequences arriving
from smallpox or exposure to the same

arriving to any of the above mentioned slaves
who have not been vaccinated, should they be
moved from Missouri to the South
by steamboat during the policy’s term,

because Black folks always get forced
to migrate for white men’s enterprises,
and rarely do people call those enterprises
what they are: blood banking, because

a Black person always loses their life from
that exposure, the deadly accruals in arriving
to any place without consequences, without
a claim to your one and only life,

your balance sheet constantly in the red,
indebted to a system that hangs freedom
like bait from a rod that spoils the child
into thinking what they could be spared

from on something as flimsy as freedom
papers and a new address, on something
as flimsy as enlistment papers and a new
address, but I’m digressing now, Junior

Mary ain’t know all that. Still perhaps
her bones quaked with all her ancestors’
bodies, the body’s inheritance, all the molecules
that give instruction, messages rising up

on silken arm hairs like goose pimples,
beloveds whispering, as they do to flesh,
telling her to let Pharaoh’s coal go, to flee
the dirt roads as black as the night sky,

as blue-black as Big Mary’s heart would be
in the morning when she found the note
left by the ol’ coal stove: Mama, I’m leaving
on a bus with Martha to Ohio. They got more

opportunities up there and she got an aunt
we can stay with. Don’t be mad. Love you.
Mary wept.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


L. Renée: “This poem emerged while I was conducting genealogical research on my maternal family’s migration from the tobacco fields of Southwest Virginia to the coal mines of Southern West Virginia to Ohio, where I was born. I was stunned to find a photograph of my Aunt Mary inside the Gilliam Mine company store in the National Archives’ collection. I was and am taken by her gaze directly at the camera, which was attempting to capture her. Photographer Russell Lee took several photographs of the coal camp where my family lived, and I shared them with elders while I collected oral histories. At the same time, I learned about insurance policies on enslaved people that had been digitized and made available online through some local disclosure laws. While scrolling through them, I discovered a policy on a 14-year-old girl named Martha. I had a physical reaction. I thought of all the ways Black girls becoming women are surveilled and catalogued. I thought of all the ways we dream of and work toward creating our own escape routes. Then I heard Aretha telling me not to weep, though I did. I’m perpetually humbled by the sacrifice of ancestors who endured so much to make us possible. This poem is an attempt to render them, especially Black Appalachians often excluded from the narrative, visible.” (web)

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