Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Power of a Poem

                At breakfast this morning we were talking about cats. Then Malachi started talking about ancient Egyptian cat mummies.  We remembered how we had seen one at the Academy of Natural Sciences when we lived in Philadelphia.  Then the kids remembered how there was a real human mummy there too.  Between bites of my husband’s blueberry buttermilk pancakes my nine year old son commented, “Isn’t that just wrong, to have someone’s body in a museum.”  I breathed.  How much should I tell them?  Tell them the truth.  “Yup, it is and some people have worked hard and are still working to get people’s bodies and body parts returned to their people and given a proper burial.”  I then told them about my friend Diana Ferrus who showed my sister and me around the Western Cape of South Africa when we visited in August 2001.  Through a friend of a friend I got connected with her and she took us under her wing to poetry readings, cultural events and drives out in the veld to visit her friends and family.  She also told us the story of Sarah  Bartmann and read us the poem she wrote for her “I’ve Come to Take You Home.”  Sarah Bartman had been sexually exploited as a “scientific curiosity” both in her life and death.  After her death in 1815 she was dissected and a plaster cast of her body as well as her skeleton and pickled brain and genitalia had been on display in the Paris Musee de l’Homme as evidence of the link between ape and man.   They remained on display until 1974 and in the museum until their return and burial in 2002.  I spared my children the graphic details of her exploited life and simply said that people viewed this Khoisan woman as a freakish animal and that her bones and parts of her body were at the museum.  Then I read them Diana’s Poem, a love poem offering peace, comfort and gratitude to a body that had not yet been honored.   Then I read them the details in Diana's book about how Sarah Bartmann's body was returned to South Africa.  An 1850 law declared that all museum artifacts belong to the French state and could not be returned.  Though there had been pressure put on the French government to return her remains to South Africa, even a plea from Nelson Mandela, there had been no real action to change the law.  A French Senator was moved to introduce a bill to make it possible for Sarah Bartmann's remains to be returned.  When he found Diana’s poem on the internet, he decided to include it in the bill to show how the people were "emotionally and psychologically affected by her remains still being in France."  With her permission, her poem was translated into French and read before the senate.  They voted unanimously to return her remains and included the poem in the published bill.  This was the first time a poem was included in a French law.  I wonder how many other laws include poems?  Diana was among the South African delegates that went to Paris to fetch Sarah’s remains and bring them home.  One year after I visited her, Diana read her poem at the burial of Sarah Bartmann.

                  In a rare moment of grace, the children were listening.  I pleaded, “Do you see what one poem can do?  It can bring justice!  It can help change a law! It can help right a wrong!”  Malachi asked me “Is that why you write mommy?”

Read more about Diana Ferrus and Sarah Bartmaan here:  (this website is still under construction)