“I Am Silas”

Looks like the story of Andrew and Silas Chandler is now the subject of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, which appears in the collection, Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration: Poems and Photographs, Past and Present. There is something satisfying about the story of Silas making it into such a collection and some of the stanzas are quite beautiful, but it is unfortunate that Komunyakaa makes so many mistakes. More to the point we are presented with the story of Silas as the loyal slave whose world is defined by service to Andrew and the Confederate cause.

I can only imagine what sources this poet consulted in addition to the famous image. A number of specific claims in this poem were called into question in the essay that I co-authored with Myra Chandler Sampson for Civil War Times. You can download it here. Below is a reading of the poem by Komunyakaa at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

[Uploaded to YouTube on April 21, 2014]

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13 thoughts on ““I Am Silas”

  1. Rob Baker

    This reminds me of Frank X Walker’s Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York

    He tried to give a voice to a voiceless person of history, York, who was William Clark’s slave.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      It’s commendable that he is trying to give voice to a person of history, but unfortunate that the narrative leans more toward myth than history.

      Reply
  2. Myra Chandler Sampson

    I see their plan is to keep telling the same old tired “faithful slave” tales. So they find a professional whom I see as equivalent to Clanence Thomas or better yet the black confederate flag waving H.K. Edgerton. After all of the facts that have been presented with original documents in so many different forms such as Keven Levin’s research here on cwmemory.com, articles in Civil War Times, PBS History Detective as well as Ron Coddington”s book, African American Faces of the Civil War and a trunk load of newspaper and magazine articles, why would a man with his background, without a shred of documents promote such a feeble fairy tale?

    Silas Chandler’s family is united with the truth. I say to you James William Brown AKA Yusuf Komunyakaa, I am Myra Chandler Sampson, the Great grand daughter of Silas Chandlee and you sir are NOT Silas Chandler nor do you hold ANY of the PROUD values that Silas Chandler stood for, lost an eye and almost his life for. You do not speak for Silas Chandler.

    Reply
  3. Julian

    I think that you are being a weenie bit harsh on this work – given that it may be yours and Myra Chandler’s research that brought the subject into the anthology as much as any SCV website

    it is an interesting piece and it would have passed my notice but for your blogging

    I would also note that

    1) There are 15th century documents that suggest that Richard III was a cultured man who was considerate and fair in his rule more so than other kings of his time – yet Shakespeare’s Richard III – essentially a piece of political propaganda – remains a memorable artwork and the scheming manipulative title role is one that actors from around the world covet to this day and the influence can be felt in so many other creative productions e.g. House of Cards- a good artwork can manipulate the historical record and still deliver an emotional punch – but of course historians from the school classroom upwards need to be able to distinguish between the creative and the historical narrative – but an outstanding creative artwork can actually say something intelligent and appropriate about history – but of course not always …

    2) Yusef Komunyakaa – who has made the political act of dropping his “slave name” – has a distinguished record as a major US poet of the present day who certainly does not shy away from modern realities – and also reflects elements of jazz and precurses contemporary slamming and hip hop poetry in his rhythms – and through his poems as a reflection of the experiences of an African American Viet Nam vet he is well qualified to go into the emotional territory of Silas Chandler’s life and ponder the role of African Americans who for whatever motivations expose their own lives for a country that sometimes has not paid a just fee for that sacrifice – and it is a dignified attempt to breath life into Silas; by no means self serving

    3) there are some internal cues in the poem that also suggests it is not your every day “Black Confederate” website story
    - 4th verse Andrew – he – signed up for the CSA army – but we are not given any precise assumptions about what Silas’ motivations were

    the last verse suggests that Silas’ bravery and service had a hollow outcome – he gets tarnished silver – whereas Andrew’s health and welfare has already been paid for in gold

    infamy with Judas’s regalia – is that the reference to the CSA as traitors and Silas too is one of those traitors or that perhaps Silas in fighting against the army that was seeking to avenge his people was the Judas – either way not your usual Black Confederate narrative

    the first few verses are ambiguous – is that Silas’ life as a teenage slave or is it the two boys going out in the countryside to camp and hunt – the latter perhaps idealistic and euphemised – but there is nothing that belittles Silas

    elsewhere

    & we shadowed each other
    as if of the same wet mother.
    The boy owned my surname

    is I don’t think your standard Lost Cause happy slaves twanging banjos round the cabin door imagery – there are definitely references to possession and chattel status – as we know that Silas’ surname is not all that Andrew owned and also that the ties across genders and races extended to the sexual – if they were fed from the same breast – did they share a father? – this of course becomes speculation – but again its not the usual narrative

    4) other times out of love songs

    half-whispered on a hilltop,
    or blues down from the Delta
    the whole lonely climb to West Point

    - is this a reference via Silas of the relationship of African Americans to the US military down the generations because via the military – and even despite as aspects of its own internal culture – men and women from the Delta and the culture that begot the blues have made that “whole lonely climb to West Point”

    if so this makes the inclusion of the poem in the collection and the reconstruction of an image/interpretation of Silas Chandler even more noteworthy

    here as the audio is a little unclear is the whole work from the PBS website
    and I put it here as fair dealing for review in tribute to both poet and subject

    http://www.wskg.org/pbs/weekly-poem-yusef-komunyakaa-reads-i-am-silas

    I Am Silas

    We worked the thorn bushes
    & front garden, hunted quail
    & jackrabbit deep into the woods,

    dipped fat hens into boiling pots
    to pluck the speckled feathers,
    picked mayhaw & blackberries

    beside a bog, shucked yellow corn
    into grain barrels, & horsed around
    in the snowy clover at sunset.

    He was a buckaroo at sixteen
    & me at seventeen when he signed up
    for the 44th Mississippi Cavalry,

    & we shadowed each other
    as if of the same wet mother.
    The boy owned my surname,

    but I hadn’t ever said sir or mister
    & he never called me manservant
    or slave before we teamed up

    with Johnny Rebs yelling across
    the border of Cicasaw county,
    before we fought our way

    to Belmont, Shiloh, Chickamauga,
    & Crooked Tree. My Bowie knife
    will never rust because the blade

    knows blood. Sometimes dreams
    come out of verse in Revelations
    & other times out of love songs

    half-whispered on a hilltop,
    or blues down from the Delta
    the whole lonely climb to West Point

    winding into pine & shrub oak
    where the sapsucker & God Bird
    live by infernal grace & fire.

    Once I dreamt in a canebrake
    faces of the First South Carolina
    & I could no longer stand guard

    over our sleeping shadows.
    The pale horse & the dark horse
    shook in their trace chains,

    & that was when a bullet
    caught up with Andrew Chandler
    & Yankee soldiers took us to Ohio

    To save his right leg I paid
    the camp doctor a gold piece
    sewn into his gray jacket,

    & we were sent to Atlanta
    in a lucky swap. Sometimes,
    if you plant a red pear tree

    beside an apple, the roots tangle
    underneath, & it’s hard to say
    if you’re eating apple of * pear.

    When we came back to runagate
    crops going to seed & bedlam,
    I was ready to bargain for a corner of land.

    But history tried to pay me
    in infamy with Judas’s regalia
    & a few pieces of tarnished silver.

    [should that be "or" J]

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the comment. You are certainly entitled to your own interpretation of the poem.

      …and through his poems as a reflection of the experiences of an African American Viet Nam vet he is well qualified to go into the emotional territory of Silas Chandler’s life and ponder the role of African Americans who for whatever motivations expose their own lives for a country that sometimes has not paid a just fee for that sacrifice – and it is a dignified attempt to breath life into Silas; by no means self serving…

      My only concern is with your assumption that Silas chose to “expose” himself in this war. Silas was a slave who served two white Chandler boys during the war. There is no wartime evidence that Silas chose to leave his wife and family for the war. Perhaps I am just too closely connected to the history of the subject to see the full value of this poem. Thanks again.

      Reply
  4. Brad

    Julian stole my thunder although his comments are much better than mine particularly his first point; the beauty of poetry is that it doesn’t always have to be true, e.g. Richard III. Myth making should not be discounted or looked down one’s nose.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      …the beauty of poetry is that it doesn’t always have to be true, e.g. Richard III.

      No doubt.

      Reply
  5. Julian

    I do not know you Myra Chandler – and our postings have crossed – yours came up whilst I was writing my post about the poem and which suggested that it was more positive – and I am not seeking to contradict your viewpoint I wrote it without seeing yours – but have a second look at the poem and its text – it is not so naive and exploitative as you fear – slavery is not entirely euphemised – there is no direct ascribing of motivation for Silas to “join up” nor is he ever described as a “black confederate” – Silas ended up cheated – he ” was ready to bargain for a corner of land” – but he did not receive his an equitable outcome. –

    I believe that it is NOT a loyal slave narrative – how could it be with that writer

    I believe that your great grandfather has not been [yet again] used as he is on others’ websites

    but that is but one reading

    The author is a highly distinguished US poet – with a reputation that matches the top of US poets of all various ethnicities – he is also a highly distinguished member of the African American community. His creative artworks proffer insights into US culture and history for all Americans and an international audience – he is also an African American war veteran and partly this poem is about the contribution of African Americans to all wars that the US has fought – and Silas becomes a symbol to tell this story which is by no means a dishonorable positioning of your great grandfather
    Komunyakaa has many distinguished honours – a Pulitzer Prize, a professorship and unlike other people who create fictions about your great grandfather – there is no motivation to use and exploit your great grandfather for his own ends as he is already has achieved far more than most of us can dream of

    Finally it could well be that the diligent and dedicated work that you and Kevin have done on straightening the record has brought your great grandfather to notice as much as any “heritage website” and thus placed him within a major anthology exploring the effect of the Civil war on the US psyche

    I may be many things but a) I don’t want my posting to be seen as critiquing yours and feel I must go on the record to say that
    b) I am passionate about the insight that creative artworks can bring to our reality – there are myriads of artworks in all media that use historical people that seek to speak for or as these people – but they are interpretations they do not impact on the integrity of the real historical record but sit alongside it and if they are outstanding may be resonate with the historical record – and I think the intentions here may not be so demeaning and malign as you fear

    but then one can take a post modernist stance and there is no truth only the myriads of interpretations made by writers and readers – some better – some worse – some honourable and some dishonourable

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Julian,

      I certainly don’t want to speak for Myra, but let me say that you make some excellent points.

      b) I am passionate about the insight that creative artworks can bring to our reality – there are myriads of artworks in all media that use historical people that seek to speak for or as these people – but they are interpretations they do not impact on the integrity of the real historical record but sit alongside it and if they are outstanding may be resonate with the historical record – and I think the intentions here may not be so demeaning and malign as you fear

      but then one can take a post modernist stance and there is no truth only the myriads of interpretations made by writers and readers – some better – some worse – some honourable and some dishonourable

      I guess I am wondering about the process of collecting background information for this poem. The reference to a bowie knife indicates that the author is familiar with the famous photograph, but it is likely the case that the weapons and knives were studio props. It is unlikely that Silas possessed one during the war. The age of Silas and Andrew is wrong as well as the reference to a coins stitched in the uniform.

      You are correct that poetry about historical subjects is open to wide interpretation, but I would like to know whether the author believed that he was doing justice to the history of Silas. If he does than perhaps his methods for collecting information about this subject is flawed. There are enough indications in the poem to suggest that he consulted some of the more popular sources that offer a flawed view of the subject.

      Reply
  6. Julian

    In light of the intentionality of Silas C and whether he was able to exert any choice over the matter of being exposed to enemy fire – therein lies the ambiguity of the idyllic first pages and the verse that claims
    but I hadn’t ever said sir or mister
    & he never called me manservant
    or slave before we teamed up

    I can see how those lines cut across the direction of the evidence that has been gathered by yourself and Myra, and thus is cause for concern. I possibly did not acknowledge the reasons behind that concern

    But on the otherside one could note that institutions such as Princeton and New York Universities whereat the poet is employed, or the Smithsonian Museum who commissioned the poem as part of a cycle by outstanding present day US poets to address the war, would not willingly condone a position of belittling Silas Chandler via a poem and I would myself make the assumption that this was not the poet’s intent – but this is my personal opinion and I am an outsider in these debates making observations

    There is also seen a desire for emphasising a “shared” heritage – the image of light and dark horse, pear and apple trees that is controversial and not always a belief that meets acceptance in present day culture – but also look at the strange beauty of the rest of the oeuvre of Komunyakaa’s work – and the way he lights upon moral ambiguities and dualities yet also emphasises the physical beauty of nature – I would suggest that he produced some of the best poetry inspired by Viet Nam period and he does not dodge the dark sides of US history

    http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/komunyakaa/prisoners.php

    http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/komunyakaa/tu_do_street.php

    http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/komunyakaa/a_break_from_the_bush.php

    http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/komunyakaa/facing_it.php

    http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/komunyakaa/slamdunk.php

    for me perhaps the most enigmatic verse is

    Once I dreamt in a canebrake
    faces of the First South Carolina
    & I could no longer stand guard

    is that a reference to PTSD ??? – Viet Nam preys on Komunyakaa and yet it was after and because of that service that he accessed a tertiary education that had been out of bounds for his ancestors

    Reply
  7. Julian

    Sorry to burden/appropriate the historical memory/presence of Silas yet again but the iconic photograph inspired this find and thus this thread is possibly the most relevant node of connection to share this news
    Firstly – the famous Andrew and Silas photograph captures attention. The public imagination is fired in various ways from the racist to a utopian vision of an imagined fictive 19th century society of diversity – and too for what may be drawn of the character and lives of the two protagonists from across the picture plane – which then has to be cross checked from the written record. This British picture by an unknown artist (no longer attributed to Zoffany who would be known to many US scholars through his images of George III) has moved from obscure to celebrated with much debate about the positioning of the two sitters, the levels of their heads and eyes, their gestures – with one comment being that Dido – the Afro-Britain is portrayed as more vivacious than her cousin Elizabeth – therefore the image emphasises her – on the other hand – she inaccurately is rendered more like a servant/slave with her turban and her action of carrying fruit and flowers. Or perhaps it is like the later Eva/Topsy comparison white as culture and restraint in comparison to non-white as child of nature and spontaneity
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg
    But this image has far more tangible relations to the remembrance and historiography of the ACW than being another charismatic image of young people from different races. A film – Belle – based upon the life of Dido Belle will open next week. This film draws upon the same emerging cadre of diverse British talent in film and media as did 12 Years a Slave (and perhaps its release has been delayed so it fronts the academy awards in a different year to 12 Years a Slave so its personnel will not have to be judged against a similar but powerful product and have a tough time competing for awards) its director is an Afro-Britain female director and is her first move into the high art genre of the period film – not a genre that is always accessible to ether female or non-Caucasian directors. Belle joins Amazing Grace and 12 Years a Slave in the British cinema’s exploration of slavery. Dido and Elizabeth are cousins, and brought up together as daughters in the household of their mutual great uncle, Lord Mansfield, the British chief justice who established a ruling in 1772 that slavery was illegal in the British Isles (but not in British colonies), leading to a strong abolitionist theme in the film, as the ruling was the first step in the total abolition of the slave trade. It is now speculated that the presence of his half African great niece brought up as a lady in his household may have influenced his ruling. He also sat on some of the proceedings around the trials for the Zong massacres when slaves were thrown off a slave ship in mid sea supposedly to ease drinking water shortages – although he stressed the commercial rather than the human rights aspects of the case. Dido appeared as a character advocating justice for the drowned slaves in a British theatre piece about the massacres. Certainly in real life and very unusually for a woman of any race in the 18th century Dido acted as a private secretary at times to her great uncle (this role usually devolved onto males) and assisted him with his correspondence. His will affirmed that Dido was a free citizen and not to be treated as a slave. Belle will be distributed in the US by Fox searchlight. Belle is Dido’s surname from her mother, an African enslaved to a Spanish family – but in a US history and memory context the title has a more electric resonance than within its original UK context
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJ3VUbfJWD0
    http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/news-and-features/features/movies/e3i636315f1da4c330baec30b20845a0404

    Reply
    1. Jerry McKenzie

      Thanks for posting this Julian! I’ve heard of her before and am glad the story will be told to a wider audience.

      Reply

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