By: Catherine-Esther Cowie
Let us celebrate the Black voices that continue to teach and inspire us every day as we make it a point to listen to them year-round!
Esther Cowie is the Assistant Director of Marketing for Erikson and a published author; she shares an inspirational story that celebrates and explores literary figure, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley.
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley harnesses poetry as a form of witness, as memory and, as I would argue as a war protest. Through reading her poems I became aware of the existence of Liberia and the Liberian Civil War which lasted from 1989 – 1997 and 1999 – 2003. 250,000 people were killed during the war.
Liberia has several historical connections with the United States. Founded in 1816 by the American Colonization Society to resettle freed American slaves along the western coast of Africa, Liberia is also home to various indigenous tribes like the Grebo, Kru, Basso, Gio, Mano and others. Liberia’s flag looks similar to the United States’ but with one star and six stripes. And one of its counties, Maryland, is named after the US state of Marylandi.
Jabbeh Wesley’s poetry explores the horrors of living through and the aftermath of war. African scholar and critic, Chielozona Eze, describes the significance of Jabbeh Wesley’s work: “Jabbeh Wesley is to Liberia what Primo Levi is to the survivors of the Holocaust.” In an interview with Jackie Sayegh & Dennis Jah, she talks about how poetry became her go-to art medium while on the run during the war:
I was writing prose before the war. Then I changed to poetry because poetry is easier to write when you have to run. It’s easier to write, to hide the blood, violence, torture through metaphoric images, through symbolism than fiction does. So I began to write in poetry mostly.
Within Liberia, Jabbeh Wesley is heralded as a literary figure who is the recipient of many awards including the President Barak Obama Award for her poetry from Blair County NAACPii. Although written in English, her poetry is infused with the West African oral tradition and Grebo myths and proverbs. Her poetry is not only African but American as well. Two years into the Liberian War, Jabbeh Wesley and her family relocated to America as refugees. In many of her poems she explores making a life in the suburbs of Michigan and then later in Pennsylvania. Her poetry resonates with those who have lived through the immigration/refugee experience.
The author of six collections of poetry, Jabbeh Wesley is relentless in exploring the devastating effects — physical, psychological and spiritual — of war. This unwavering commitment to lend her voice to both survivors and the dead inspires me as both a Caribbean-American and poet.
This is the city that killed my mother.
Its crooked legs bent
from standing too long
waiting so angry people can kill
No more grass along street corners—
so many potholes from years of war.
Immigrants from all over the globe
used to come here
on tender feet,
in search of themselves.
Abandoned city —
a place that learned
how to cry out loud even though
This is the city where I first learned
how to lose myself.
Windy city, blue ocean city.
They say a city on the hill
cannot be hid.
The city of salty winds, salty tears,
where stubborn people still hold
us hostage after Charles Taylor.
You should come here if you want
To know how sacred
pain can be.
iii Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems. (Autumn House Press, 2020).
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