An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

The State House Aflame 1833

Fire can burn brands
on a slave's skin
as he changes hands
like cattle. And chattel slavery
in a capital city
is as old as fire and man.
Milledgeville's no different.
It's twelve noon,
and the assembly's just adjourned;
the State House is aflame,
and water won't reach the heights
a slave can. Sam's a bondsman.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire…

Without a word from his master, Sam fights the flames.
The townsfolk fearing Sam might slip and fall
from that tremendous height
look on with agonizing solicitude.

As he tears flaming shingles from the steep pitch
white folks move official records, furniture, and money
from under that roof
to a safer place, safer than any
Sam and his issue yet know.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,
We don't need no water…

We cannot pass in silence
over the exemplary conduct
of a negro man named Sam,
the slave
of Mr. Marlow, of this place.

And the legislature
will reward Sam's fast action,
heedless of his own safety, by appropriating
$1,600 for the purchase
of his freedom
from John Marlow.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire,
We don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn

 

Published in Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).

Published: 27 February 2009

© 2009 Sean Hill and Southern Spaces