Between the Lines

Penha, James

A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors' Choice Award. Penha edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry. @JamesPenha

Three Caesars

Caesar 1741

Police grabbed
slave Caesar
for robbing a shop
in lower Manhattan where
with the conflagration at Fort George
and the burning of the Governor’s house
the specter
of insurrection
gripped New York
and the law traded an artful
teenaged dodger
Mary Burton freedom
from indenture
for testifying
Caesar was far more
than a thief much more
than a slave
but black
Caesar could not swear
back
could not speak
back
in his defense
dying many times
before May 11 when he hanged
once from the gallows and
hanged again to rot enchained
above Fort George.

Caesar 1785

William Gibbons
of North Carolina purchased
from Stephen Tinker in New York
for Fifty one Guineas One Negro
Man Slave Named Caesar
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
the said Negro Man Caesar
but nine years later
the certain negro Man Slave named
Caesar absented himself
to be in the State
of Connecticut where discovered
in 1801 he was returned to Gibbons
to have and presumably this time
to hold.

Caesar 1850

After “Caesar: A Slave,” circa 1850. Daguerreotype by an unknown artist.
Original in the collection of the New York Historical Society.

Caesar at sixty-two was too old
for the terms of the Gradual
Abolition of Slavery
Act passed in Albany in 1799
and so remained in bondage
indentured even when in 1841
slavery was finally outlawed
in New York because Caesar
his owner’s son decreed was
at one hundred and thirteen
too feeble to understand
emancipation but he could
for a daguerreotype
in the Bethlehem mansion
be set like Holbein’s Henry
one of his kind the last
with a scepter in his gripe
seeming master of his fate.