Book Review

POETRY MONTH: Bars Fight by Lucy Terry Prince

potentially significant if unexciting 18th century ballad

cw: colonialism, slavery

Bars Fight is, according to the brief note in this brief publication, the oldest known work attributed to an African American writer, i.e. a Black person whose ancestors were forcibly transported across the Atlantic, living in the United States of America.

Lucy Terry Prince did not have this text published in her lifetime (which was c. 1730 – 1821), instead it was passed down orally – though with Prince’s authorial attribution – until it was published in a book called History of Western Massachusetts in 1855.

How accurate the claim made by Renard Press is, as to Prince’s ballad’s socio-cultural significance, I don’t know, as there is no attribution or referencing provided to offer any proof of the statement; I’m not saying I think it’s a lie, I just feel that if it is true, there’s probably more to be said about Prince than is included here.

Bars Fight is a 28 line ballad about the successful attack on some white settlers by a group of indigenous people defending their lives and way of life. Renard Press presents this on a concertina of paper between two hard cardboard end pages, and the book is roughly (maybe exactly?) A7 sized. The poem is on the front of the paper, and on the reverse of the concertinaed pages is the brief note detailing the history of the text as mentioned above, and summarising the history of the fight that the poem describes.

In those 28 lines, there isn’t much to cling onto without the contextualising provided, but although there is more narrative attention given to the white victims of this response to colonial violence, there isn’t necessarily more sympathy given to them.

As someone who was born an enslaved person, Terry Prince is understandably not explicitly pro-white, but she is also not explicitly (here) pro native-American.

The battle she’s describing is implicitly understood to be known by the reader, in that it talks about the fight with a with a presumption of knowledge I didn’t have until I’d read the note.

As a piece of literature in itself, Bars Fight is not phenomenal. However, if this truly is the earliest confirmed piece of writing written by a Black person on the northwest Atlantic landmass, then it is of major significance. The piece’s age and the gap between its composition and publication could mean, perhaps, that the content’s power or potency was diminished by repetition, retelling and accidental editing, BUT, the fact that there is a named writer means that Bars Fight is of importance.

In – and, sadly, beyond – Lucy Terry Prince’s lifetime, Black people in the United States of America were routinely – and legally – treated inhumanely, so the fact that this woman is able to have her name printed – as sole writer – on a book almost 300 years after her birth (and 200 years after her death) is definitely something to celebrate.

Order Bars Fight direct from Renard Press via this link

September 8th, 2022

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