Remembering Mine: Suck on the Marrow by Camille Dungy

A follow-up to Dungy's debut collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, her second book Suck on the Marrow consists of historically-based fictional accounts of former slaves and free blacks. It's a braided narrative told from the perspectives of Joseph, a freeman abducted into slavery, his wife Melinda who becomes with the abolitionist movement after Joseph’s disappearance, Molly and Shad who work on the Jackson Farm in Virginia where Joseph ends up, Dinah and Rebecca at the Jennings Home, and other characters. Many of the instances can be traced to actual historical figures embroiled in “the peculiar institution” such as Ida B. Wells’ account of a woman lynched by being sealed in a barrel punctured by nails and a woman who escapes like Henry “Box” Brown.

Each poem addresses this forced servitude and the small rebellions staged by women. There are letters that Joseph imagines writing to Melinda. “Lesson” is a haunting poem about the differences between the children whom slave women were permitted to care for and their own often-neglected children. Dungy breaks the short poem into two overlapping columns that place these children side by side. “Code” explores how Miss Amy punishes Lena when her husband, Lena’s master, sexually assaults her. “At Madame Jane’s” explores how Rebecca is at least paid for sexual intrusions in a brothel after escaping slavery. Each of these poems explores a different facet of black womanhood during this era of American history. This book could easily sit on the shelf beside Women of Plums by Dolores Kendrick and Linda Brent’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

“Complicit” is a poem written from Melinda’s perspective after Joseph Freeman has been abducted into slavery. She is silently boycotting the products that use slave labor while her employer talks of rounding up black people being liberated and returned to Liberia. In these 4-line stanzas, you can feel Melinda’s tension and the relief that she feels when she can wear cotton in the summer and not wonder if her husband’s hands have touched the cloth that she uses to make shirts for “the little Cartwright men.” If you only read the italicized on the right hand side, sounds like Melinda’s appealing to the others to boycott too.


“We’ll have to round up all these free men and send them back to Africa.” Friends
of Mrs. Cartwright’s, Colonization Society folks who think she ought to be informed,
say Liberia is waiting. They ask, “What other way?” They ask what other chance there is
for the colored race to hope for true improvement.

Mrs. Cartwright says, for her part she’s glad to know I’ll always be on hand
in Philadelphia. Quick as it’s said, I’m sent to market for common width calicoe
I’ll sew into work frocks for her in-house girl and fine shirting muslin
from which I’ll fashion shirts for all the little Cartwright men.

A year into Joe’s absence I burned my petticoats, flannels, all of 
Jacob’s trousers.  I couldn’t let the skin he touched touch cotton
and wouldn’t let my mouth wet rice. I ate nothing sugared, cultivated
a taste for boiled water so I could wean myself from tea.

My employer looks to Rev. Finney to learn which acts will prove her faith. She gets by
quite alright since Mr. Cartwright’s textile ventures have begun to do so well
(she told the ladies who came today for coffee).  Her help is handsomely remunerated
to assure loyalty (she added after I’d removed myself and all their untouched cakes). 

The production of sugar for a family of five requires several months’ labor
from one slave.  I still eat little but greens, tubers, beans, and fruit.  The free goods
my grocer sells.  I suffered through summers in wool and 
owned no kerchiefs until the Committee opened a free labor store

Tara Betts is the author of Arc & Hue. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. She represented Chicago twice in the National Poetry Slam and appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" and Jessica Care Moore's "SPOKEN." Her work has been published in Essence, Callaloo, PMS, That Takes Ovaries!, Bum Rush the Page, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologies, among other publications. You can find her on twitter as @tarabetts and at

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