The Witness Stones Poets
At the Florence Griswold Museum’s Juneteenth celebration, Conn Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence Kate Rushin read “Fishing for Shad,” a poem she wrote about the story of Jack Howard, who was born enslaved in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1795 and was willed to another person at the age of 14.
“I don’t know where I belong
but I know I don’t belong here.
I don’t know much
but I know what is right.
I don’t have much
but I have myself.
I’m not a man yet
but I’m not a child.
I don’t want much
but I want more than this,” she recited.
Rushin was one of four acclaimed Connecticut poets to participate in the June 18 event, which also featured the Nat Reeves Quartet in a celebration of jazz and poetry. Rushin and fellow poets Marilyn Nelson, Rhonda Ward and Antoinette Brim-Bell read a verse cycle written in collaboration with the Old Lyme Witness Stones Project, about 14 African-descended persons once enslaved in Old Lyme.
Through research, education and civic engagement, the Witness Stones Project seeks to restore history and to honor the humanity and contributions of enslaved individuals. As part of the project, local students and teachers analyze primary source documents to learn about individuals enslaved in their own communities; each project culminates with the laying of a Witness Stone Memorial to honor the life of a specific person. A memorial stone for Jack Howard, the subject of Rushin’s poem, was installed at 5 Lyme Street in Old Lyme on June 4, 2021.
Rushin hopes her poetry gives people a greater understanding of the role of enslaved people in the creation of the country.
“I want everyone to appreciate all the work that formerly enslaved people put into building our communities and our state and our nation. And I would like everyone to have a greater appreciation for those contributions from the past and contributions here in the present,” she said.
Rushin is the author of The Black Back-Ups (Firebrand Books). Her “The Bridge Poem” appears in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a ground-breaking feminist anthology. A recipient of the Rose Low Rome Memorial Poetry Prize and the Grolier Poetry Prize, her work is widely anthologized.
Earlier in June, Connecticut College made Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Americans, an official holiday for Conn employees. Members of the community were encouraged to reflect on the meaning of the holiday through the exploration of online resources and by attending local celebrations, including the Florence Griswold event, a screening of The Slave Narrative of Willie Mae hosted by Connecticut Landmarks, and Juneteenth Family Day at the Amistad Center in Hartford, among others.