1129: Hagar in the Wilderness by Tyehimba Jess

20240530 Slowdown

1129: Hagar in the Wilderness by Tyehimba Jess


I’m Major Jackson, and this is The Slowdown.

Sometimes the life of an artist is as compelling as the art. Take for instance the sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Her older brother made a fortune as a barber during the Gold Rush. In 1860, thanks to him, she attended what today is Oberlin College, the first institution to matriculate women and African Americans. But her education was thwarted when she was accused of poisoning two white classmates. Edmonia was Black and Chippewa.

What happened? Just before a winter sleigh ride, her housemates and their dates slipped into her room for a warm drink. Shortly into the trip, the girls became ill. A false rumor spread that Edmonia poisoned her friends. A mob convened and brutally beat her. A trial ensued. Her lawyer was John Mercer Langston, the great uncle of poet Langston Hughes. Edmonia was found not guilty, due to a lack of evidence. But Oberlin refused to let her return to school.

Here’s where the story gets inspiring. Edmonia moved to Boston. She befriended noted slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who introduced Edmonia to her sculpture teacher, Edward Brackett. She thrived as an artist and moved to Rome like other American women sculptors to pursue her career in earnest.

Her works centered around themes of freedom. She made busts of Garrison himself, John Brown, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. When she exhibited her sculpture of Cleopatra at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, she became the world’s first noted African American and Native sculptor of international renown. Even Frederick Douglass paid her a visit in her studio. Though she faded into history, she gifted the world works that challenged stereotypes of Indigenous and Black people as devoid of imagination.

Today’s poet pays homage to an artist who, with her own hands, made art out of heroic, mythical, and biblical figures, whose visions were worthy of the substance of stone.

Edmonia Lewis, Hagar, 1875, carved marble, 52 5/8 x 15 1/4 x 17 1/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 1983.95.178

Hagar in the Wilderness
by Tyehimba Jess

My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
An outcast who carved me
into an outcast carved 
by sheer and stony will
to wander the desert 
in search of deliverance
the way a mother hunts
for her wayward child.
God of each eye fixed to heaven,
God of the fallen water jug,
of all the hope a vessel holds
before spilling to barren sand. 
God of flesh hewn from earth
and hammered beneath a will
immaculate with the power
to bear life from the lifeless
like a well in a wasteland.
I’m made in the image of a God
that knows flight but stays me
rock still to tell a story ancient as
slavery, old as the first time
hands clasped together for mercy
and parted to find only their own
salty blessing of sweat.
I have been touched by my God
in my creation, I’ve known her caress
of anointing callus across my face.
I know the lyric of her pulse 
across these lips… and yes,
I’ve kissed the fingertips 
of my dark and mortal God.
She has shown me the truth
behind each chiseled blow
that’s carved me into this life,
the weight any woman might bear
to stretch her mouth toward her
one true God, her own
beaten, marble song.

“Hagar in the Wilderness” by Tyehimba Jess from OLIO © 2016 Tyehimba Jess. Used by permission of the poet and Wave Books.