The Amistad in Ninevah
When I first saw the Freedom Schooner Amistad, I thought it was a pirate ship—a driftwood revenant, assembled by horseshoe crabs at the bottom of Sag Harbor Bay. They must have been angry down there, stewing in the shit from yachts, which my grandfather said were not supposed to be there at all. They polluted the wetlands, he told me, and blocked the view of Shelter Island. But I saw them as a gleaming necklace, tightening each year around the beach’s neck. I liked their expensive names, the symphony of their horns on holidays, the blind white of their hulls as they caught the summer sun. And the dim shapes that moved behind their film-strip windows: shadow puppets who never emerged for an ice cream cone or a magazine at the Five and Dime. Who were they? Agents of the general encroachment. Rich people, busy turning Sag Harbor into the next Hampton; and where we were, white people, buying up the black beachheads of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Ninevah. Developers moved so quickly that they might as well have been demons, perhaps the very ones who built Pandæmonium, hell’s capital, in Paradise Lost: “Anon out of the earth McMansions huge / Rose like an eructation, with the smell / Of swimming-pool chlorine and bug-spray deet.”
Against this tide, our Homeowner’s Association had erected fortifications. Or at least one: at the beginning of our street, Lincoln, a sign was staked that read “A Historical African-American Community.” The ship out there might as well have been part of the same effort, a drawing of invisible boundaries. It was a replica of La Amistad, the famous slave ship where Joseph Cinqué led a rebellion, later to win the freedom of himself and his shipmates in court. The Freedom Schooner, a floating museum, was touring the Eastern Seaboard, raising awareness of African-American history.
I was too young to have seen Steven Spielberg’s Amistad but if I had I might have caught the humor of the boat’s position. It was anchored spitting distance from the house of Johnny Cochran, O. J. Simpson’s famous attorney. (Cochran, cast as John Quincy Adams in a remake of Spielberg’s film: “If the shackle don’t fit, you must acquit.”) Not to mention the other proud beachfront houses, whose long staircases vaulted the dunes and stretched, like UFO gangplanks or proboscises, all the way down to the beach. It is one of the richest black neighborhoods in the country, and there was a certain irony to a slave ship floating in front of it. A black Mayflower, armoring the Bay in humble origins, lending those high houses their Horatio Alger arc. What did the Amistad mean in front of all that wealth?
But I was too young to think about that. What I knew is that I saw a ship, wooden like the ones from movies, with bright white trapezoids for sails. My father told me it was a slave ship and I was stunned. There I was with pail and water wings, and out there—in the wide water, which every summer became the theater of my imagination—was a real slave ship. I remember being afraid of it. I knew that my ancestors had been slaves, and I thought the boat might snatch me up, the way I sometimes dreamed the green-skinned god Osiris would pull me into the underworld. But most of all, still unfamiliar with the concept of a replica, I was surprised that something I had only read about in books was really there, a bright, marauding anachronism, aging the bay with its shadow.
I watched its squat hull nose the pleated indigo of the water, moving by what seemed to be a kind of peristalsis. It slithered between the motorboats and yachts, yawing left and right as it moved, seeming from the shore to elongate and contract like a snake. And it reconfigured the bay around it. The flip-flopped steps of unfamiliar beachgoers turned into the prowl of kidnappers; the buzzing rushes of the wetlands, where I liked to look for mussels, became a swamp where fugitives might hide; and the sumptuous pleasure boats, previously innocuous, formed up as though in flotilla with this dread mothership of American affluence.
It was only a replica. But it was also the beginning of wondering where I, where we, had come from—a journey through census records, history books, novels, poems, and my own imagination, along what Derek Walcott calls “the deep reversing road / of the diaspora.” Maybe such explorations have to begin with a little fiction: the ritual of an ersatz artifact, set out incongruously on the altar of nature, taken in by a child’s impressionable eyes. I saw the Amistad in Ninevah and knew, for the first time, that history had happened—that against all probability, the past was real.