Here is the poem, one of several sonnets included in Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color:
for Ruben Ahoueya
Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? by ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot--
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.
The poem’s speaker appears to be a young girl of color explaining that “Today in America people were bought and sold.” She emphasizes, in a way that perhaps Miss Crandall herself might not be able to do, the horrible reality of slavery. Such a weighty issue spoken with such matter of fact candor certainly disturbs and unsettles our contemporary ears. The opening line is blunt, straight-forward, repulsive, yet also unapologetic, perhaps even bold. It does not shy away from reality. In fact, because the topic of slavery and the auction trade is not what one would expect from the voice of a child, this authorial choice adds to the poem’s ability to destabilize a reader’s experience.
The tone of the speaker's voice sounds as if she were not, in fact, a child but, instead, a teacher beginning a class, posing a premise that now must be examined. The speaker ponders, “If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,/how much would she be worth by pound? by ounce?” At this point in the poem, this question is directed outward, as if to an audience or a classroom, and we have been offered a math problem to solve, almost as though, being math, the problem can be solved—all the while hinting at the larger, more complex issue in the room that really can’t be solved: the blunt fact that “Today in America people were bought and sold.”
Though much in this poem interests me, I want to focus for a moment on Nelson’s use of rhyme, sometimes exact, sometimes slant, and how it helps to reinforce the tension between “worth” as defined by the slave trade, the auction block, and “worth” as defined by the speaker's voice. Though Nelson’s first rhyme (sold/gold) makes an obvious sense, “gold” being a stand-in for money, her next rhyme (wench/ounce), I would argue, is rather jarring. Of the two words, “wench” is less familiar and stands out, so much so that it can be seen as the dominant word of the two, tilting the balance (remember that gold, like slaves, was weighed) toward “wench” and not toward “ounce,” a word which gestures toward the idea of weight and, by extension, the typical indication of a slave’s value, or "worth." Interestingly, the word "wench" refers to a country girl, a servant, but the word's origin calls to mind the idea of a child gaining her own legs, something that will certainly be the case with this poem's speaker by the poem's conclusion.
The next rhyme, in particular, brings together the idea of “wealth” and “myself,” momentarily taking the issue of worth out of the public definition (auction block) and locating it within the private definition (“myself”). With the next rhyme, though, Nelson brings together “me” and “free” as if subliminally supplanting the very notion of people being “bought and sold.” The self (“me”) is, in fact, “free,” and since Nelson locates this rhyme at the very center of the poem, lines 7 and 8, with an equal number of lines above and below, she must intend for this idea to be central, literally and figuratively, to the poem’s argument.
The next rhyme (lot/fought), also a slant rhyme, brings to mind the idea of the auction again: the word “lot” is often used to indicate something or, in the horrible reality of this poem, someone on which to bid. Notice how the word “fought,” paired with “lot,” calls forth the idea of resistance, at once suggesting the grandfather’s physical, muscular strength (something else that would have added to his “worth”) but also, within the context of the struggle for freedom, suggesting how rhyme itself fights to reassert the very idea of “worth.”
Rhyme, of course, a staple of sonnets, is to be expected; but seldom do the specific rhyming words seem to contribute to the central tension of a poem, and less seldom do they create a narrative of their own that is traceable down the right hand margin. More often, rhyme appears to be a tool, albeit useful, for scaffolding a poem and creating periodic moments of closure. In Nelson’s poem, though, her use of rhyme, I would argue, drives the poem. Even the last rhyme (blood/bid) is so rich in implications. After recounting a story of her grandfather’s conquering strength, the speaker asks, “How much do I hear for his majesty in my blood?” Given the history of attitudes regarding even one drop of African blood, the fact that she claims “majesty” in his blood is both emotionally resonant and wonderfully assertive. Not only does she steal the language of the auctioneer (“How much do I hear…”), but also she elevates herself as the only person who can “bid” on herself and win the auction. Her “self” contains a “wealth” that she alone is in possession of, so that “me” actually is “free,” a lesson that seems offered to all of us regarding our own innate, non-negotiable “worth.”