the heart of slavery’s horror

Louisa County Patrol Claims, 1770–1863
Kiki Petrosino

I pry open the files, still packed
        with liquor & strange brine.

Midnight seeps from the cracks
        slow pulp of arithmetic. Four or five

or six at a time, the white men draw
        along the Gordonsville Road, on foot

or on horseback, clustered close—
        each man counting up his hours, the knife

of each man’s tongue at the hinge
        of his own mouth. For ninety-three years

& every time I slip away to read
        those white men line the roadway

secreting themselves in the night air
        feeding & breathing in their private

column. Why belly up to their pay stubs
        scraping my teeth on the chipped flat of each page?

This dim drink only blights me
        but I do it.

Copyright © 2020 by Kiki Petrosino. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 4, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.

“I composed this piece after studying the so-called ‘Free Negro and Slave Records’ of the rural county where some of my African-American ancestors lived. Within this eclectic archive of handwritten documents was an entire folder marked ‘Patrol Claims.’ The folder contained no stories or statements, only receipts naming the white men who had patrolled the county roads, the number of hours they worked, and the money they were to be paid for their time. I realized that these seemingly dry, impersonal records were actually at the heart of slavery’s horror: the constant surveillance, by white men, of all people of color within a locality. My poem uses oysters as a conceit to capture this feeling of dreadful discovery; how it feels to pry open a dark hinge of the past.”

—Kiki Petrosino
Kiki Petrosino
Kiki Petrosino

The heart of slavery’s horror: the constant surveillance, by white men, of all people of color within a locality.


In cities, at least, we are today constantly under surveillance. Ultimately under the direction of white men, though a diversity perform the hands on work.

They do a much better job of hiding the cameras now, but we know they are there anyway. You can feel the mechanical eyes on you. Those robotic patrols now log each of us, who we are, where we have been, where we are going, who have have met. Facial recognition imprisoning us by invisible fences. Like those used for dogs in the yard.

Never again a protest allowed. The camera sees you, software recognizes you, robots come to take you away.

Among the myriad effects of the pandemic, might it save us from this?


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