slave history professor, Jess Provencio

Plein-Air-10Barrio, 15X22, watercolor, Gary Buhler


slave history professor

Jefferson was the third president of the United States
through DNA testing it has been proven
he fathered children with his slave Sally Hemmings
starched shirt still crisp on his fourth trip of the day
he gives morning history lessons on the 206 line
his badge has only four numbers
a testament to how long he’s been driving
Jefferson Boulevard

Adams was the second president of the United States
his son John Quincy Adams was the sixth president
neither father nor son owned slaves
he gives directions in both Spanish and English
thanking every rider on his bus
getting out of his seat to help an elderly woman
as she struggles to manage her bags
Adams Boulevard

Washington was the first president of the United States
he owned 18 slaves at Mount Vernon
his wife Martha brought an additional 200
when someone complains he is too cheerful
he jokes about forgetting his medication this morning
his eyes hidden behind sunglasses     impenetrable
no one can tell     if he is having the last laugh
Washington Boulevard

Jess Provencio


Review by Pamela O’Shaughnessy

This poem is a character study with an edge. The “professor” in this poem, we learn soon enough, is a long-term bus driver with a penchant for talking about the slave-encouraging habits of early U.S. presidents. He may be real. He is described realistically, starched shirt, badge, Spanish-language ability, cheerful attitude behind his shades –

What he says isn’t cheerful news, isn’t anything we passengers want to hear. He delivers it without offense, though, lightly, so that we have to take it in. “Washington owned eighteen slaves at Mt. Vernon.” We’ve heard this information before and filed it far back where we won’t feel it any more, and here it is on a bright morning in some unnamed city as we ride to work, maybe. It doesn’t go away, it’s part of our daily lives, this history of slavery.

I like the line, “his eyes hidden behind sunglasses impenetrable”. This driver isn’t going to let us go about our business without his reminder. He won’t do us the courtesy of condemning the slavery himself, either, we’re going to have to acknowledge it ourselves. He’s a teacher, all right.

I enjoy the structure of the poem, riding along on the bumpy bus from stop to stop. It’s only much later that I realize that the stops are named for the presidents he’s telling us about, Jefferson, Washington, Adams. He’s just the tour guide. It’s up to us to draw the conclusions.

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