Across the Sea
Two ships sail west across the Atlantic.
The first carries what the shipowners call "cargo," men, women, children stolen from their homes and turned into property, a notion propped up by the shipowners' religion.
The second carries passengers, many escapees from empires Russian, Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, men, women, children fleeing pogroms, poverty, hatred for their religion, hatred embedded in a religion descended from theirs.
The first ship carries "slaves," a word for people forcibly bought and sold, who some history books tell us had a better life in the United States than in their "primitive," "warlike" villages back home, who other history books tell us came from civilizations older than Europe's.
The second ship carries "immigrants," a word for people voluntarily leaving their homes to, as history books tell us, "seek a better life."
The people on the first ship have skin colors from brown to black. Their "owners," with their paler skin, assign them a different "race" to justify their "ownership" of these human beings.
The people on the second ship have skin colors from pale to tan. They have different religions, come from different countries, but the pale "natives" assign them many "races" to justify keeping them outside the privileges of those who came here earlier.
The passengers on the second ship are greeted in New York Harbor by a statue whose inscription welcomes the "tired," the "poor," the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
The statue does not welcome the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free on the first ship. The statue did not exist when their ship sailed into New York Harbor. When the ships ceased to sail west with their human "cargo," the people consigned to slavery continued to bear children, still called property by their "owners."
A great war ends the institution of slavery, but many of the people freed are kept enslaved by terror and their former owners' power and "tradition."
The children and grandchildren of the people on the second ship melt into the privilege of whiteness even if they do not acquire the privilege of wealth. The melting pot absorbs their culture and heritage and turns it into novelty.
The children and grandchildren of the people on the first ship, as people of color, are not allowed to melt into whiteness, although some do acquire the privilege of wealth.
Some unknown number whose lightness of skin does allow them to melt in, melt at the cost of losing their families of color and their heritage and culture.
Two ships sail west across the Atlantic, the skin color of their human cargoes imposing vastly different futures by forces beyond their control.
This feels a bit labored to me, like maybe it should be an essay rather than a poem. I don't know.