Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater


by Dionne Brand




On looking at the photograph of Mammy Prater, an ex-slave,


115 years old when her photograph was taken




she waited for her century to turn


she waited until she was one hundred and fifteen


years old to take a photograph


to take a photograph and to put those eyes in it

she waited until the technique of photography was


suitably developed


to make sure the picture would be clear


to make sure no crude daguerreotype would lose


her image


would lose her lines and most of all her eyes


and her hands


she knew the patience of one hundred and fifteen years


she knew that if she had the patience,


to avoid killing a white man


that I would see this photograph


she waited until it suited her


to take this photograph and to put those eyes in it.




in the hundred and fifteen years which it took her to


wait for this photograph she perfected this pose


she sculpted it over a shoulder of pain,


a thing like despair which she never called


this name for she would not have lasted


the fields, the ones she ploughed


on the days that she was a mule, left


their etching on the gait of her legs


deliberately and unintentionally


she waited, not always silently, not always patiently,


by the time she sat in her black dress, white collar,


white handkerchief, her feet had turned to marble,


her heart burnished red,


and her eyes.




she waited one hundred and fifteen years


until the science of photography passed tin and


talbotype for a surface sensitive enough


to hold her eyes


she took care not to lose the signs


to write in those eyes what her fingers could not script


a pact of blood across a century, a decade and more


she knew then that it would be me who would find


her will, her meticulous account, her eyes,


her days when waiting for this photograph


was all that kept her sane


she planned it down to the day,


the light,


the superfluous photographer


her breasts,


her hands


this moment of


my turning the leaves of a book,


noticing, her eyes.