George Washington’s Wars with his Slave, Ona Judge
George Washington is a familiar figure in American history. Revered as the father of the nation and the first president (not to mention the general who led the colonies through their revolution), his legacy has lately become more tarnished. He was always known as a slaveowner, but in recent years fewer people have been willing to brush over that part of his history. To some, it seems he can only be one thing or the other, only hero or villain.
Enter James Chichetto. In beautiful, rich verse, he presents us with the Washington so many of us grew up hearing about: the war hero, the statue of a man who rose above the rest to become the president all others would be measured against. At the same time, however, he presents us with Ona Judge, an enslaved woman kept by Martha Washington. Her words provide a counterpoint to Washington’s, never directly calling him out but always reminding the reader of another narrative which has been for too long overshadowed. The two voices weave in and out, never quite speaking to one another but always in tandem. To leave one out would be to forget a part of history.
Perhaps, this book says, George Washington (and American history itself) is too complex and contradictory to be boiled down to being one thing or the other. Perhaps we can be inspired by the wondrous even as we are repelled by the horrific. Perhaps, out of the combination of both, we can learn to be better.
Chichetto’s poetry is beautifully written, with a clear love for his subjects. I enjoyed the flow of the verse, and the rhymes that occasionally sprang out from the lines. The poems never felt as though they were stretching for a rhyme, or altering themselves to fit the form of verse. Instead, the verse let itself be shaped to fit the poems, which is as poetry should be.
The one trouble I had was with getting into the book at the very beginning. For one thing, it can be dense for such a small book. It’s not the sort of thing you dive into; you have to approach it on its own terms, and that may mean going into it slowly. For another, some of the early verses rely on knowledge of Washington that I did not have, which made them harder to follow. This book, while very good, might be best enjoyed by those already familiar with his biography.
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