Anthropology Magazine
Poem / Kinship

Maize and Okra

A poet-anthropologist recollects when Muscogee (Creek) people offered his formerly enslaved ancestors refuge, extending the bonds of kinship.
A person with many small, long, black braids tied up and flowing down their back looks out onto the water.

Delmaine Donson/Getty Images

Maize and Okra - Listen
1:40

I saw big momma once,
seated in a wooden chair with hair
braided all the way
like if you look downriver, you could
imagine the chillin’ playing—
after the grownups
came together
under moonlight,

sneakin’ off into freedom
into love, where maize
grew right next to okra.

Family say we have “Indian”
somewhere too far back to name.

That there is a place
down in the Black Swamp [1] A region of Marianna, Arkansas.
where we shared space
and stories about them finding us
near the creek, the land ours
for a time.

She was two years shy of a century
when we met, I was 5
and full of questions, her eyes
and crow’s-feet set deep within,
her voice a soliloquy
that spoke to when the Creeks [2] Members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation helped members of my family escape to freedom.
took us someplace safe,

where families were made
like baskets weaved together
in shades of black and red,
back then something sacred
was shared we had people.

Knew that kin didn’t always mean blood
that because of them,
we made it out the mud of it down yonder
’til we came on up. The fields open
with no one to tell us
when to till our fields
but our elders, them alone, only them
only us.

Jason Vasser-Elong’s research focuses on identity in a postcolonial context. He is the 2022 SAPIENS poet-in-residence. He studied anthropology and later received his MFA from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where he is currently a teaching professor in English and African American studies in the Pierre Laclede Honors College and a doctoral student in the College of Education. Vasser-Elong is the author of the poetry collection Shrimp. His essay “Treading the Atlantic” was presented at the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies conference as an introduction to the keynote lecture on postcolonial memory. He also presented that essay at the American Anthropological Association’s conference “Truth and Responsibility” in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2021.

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