The Ark of Return: City of Bones: Gem of the Ocean

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explained this year’s theme of “Women and Slavery.”

Women slaves played a key role in maintaining the dignity of their communities. Too often their leadership and brave resistance have been underestimated or forgotten.”

In honor of their memories, here is a passage from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean – spoken by his character “Aunt Ester” (ancestor) who was stolen from her life and sold into slavery as a young girl, the Aunt who watched her family die on that slave ship, and responded by adopting other men and women and children into a new family, a new ship of “Amistad,” the kinship of friendship, there in her fictive home of 1839 Wylie.

Take a look at this map, Mr. Citizen. See that right there…that‘s a city. It‘s only a half mile by a half mile but that‘s a city. It‘s made of bones. Pearly white bones. All the buildings and everything is made of bones. I seen it. I been there, Mr. Citizen. My mother live there. I got an aunt and three uncles live down there in that city made of bones. You want to go there, Mr. Citizen? I can take you there if you want to go. That‘s the center of the world. In time it will all come to light. The people made a kingdom out of nothing. They were the people that didn‘t make it across the water. They sat down right there. They say, ―Let‘s make a kingdom. Let‘s make a city of bones. The people got a burning tongue, Mr. Citizen. Their mouths are on fire with song. That water can‘t put it out. That song is powerful. It rise up and come across the water. Ten thousand tongues and ten thousand chariots coming across the water. They on their way, Mr. Citizen. They coming across the water. Ten thousand hands and feet coming across the water. They on their way. I came across that ocean, Mr. Citizen. I cried. I had lost everything. Everything I had ever known in this life I lost that. I cried a ocean of tears. Did you ever lose anything like that, Mr. Citizen? Where you so lost the only thing that can guide you is the stars. That‘s all I had left. Everything I had ever known was gone to me. The only thing I had was the stars. I say well I got something. I wanted to hold onto them so I started naming them. I named them after my children. I say there go Cephus and that‘s Jasper and that‘s Cecilia, and that big one over there that‘s Junebug. You ever look at the stars Mr. Citizen? I bet you seen my Junebug and didn‘t even know it. You come by here sometime when the stars are out and I‘ll show you my Junebug. You come by anytime you want. You got the stars but it‘s that wind what drive the boat, Mr. Citizen. Without the wind it would just sit there. But who drives the wind? What god drives the wind? That‘s what I asked myself but I didn‘t have no answer. So I just started singing. Just singing quietly to myself some song my mother had taught me. After that it was all right for a little while. But the wind did drive the boat right across the water. What it was driving me to I didn‘t know. That‘s what made it so hard. And I didn‘t have my mother to tell me. That made it harder.”

Consider the Legacy

The United Nations unveiled The Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the United Nations, entitled ‘The Ark of Return,’ designed by Rodney Leon, an American architect of Haitian descent.


2 thoughts on “The Ark of Return: City of Bones: Gem of the Ocean

  1. I had such a flashback when I read this excellent post. My father used to sing “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” as a ditty at times. “Columbia”, of course, is the United States and I wonder if that isn’t a throwback name, such that my children may not know about it.,_the_Gem_of_the_Ocean

    Columbia was depicted graphically as a woman, back before the US took on a male character (Uncle Sam). She eventually became the icon of Columbia Pictures. There’s so much to consider in our transition from a woman-nation to an uncle-nation, and probably some metaphor to be drawn in Her ending up as a corporate possesion.

    Finally, we recall that DC is the District of Columbia.,_D.C.#Foundation Sorry to go on so long, but I wanted to dwell on August Wilson’s title and all that it invokes, and the memory of my dad singing the song was such a vibrant moment – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vannevar, thank you so much! I’ll more thoroughly explore these lyrics and their implications – and their ironic contrasts to historical realities.

      Bram Reichbaum and I are reading the plays of August Wilson, and the history of each decade in which each of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays are set, as well as the work of other Pittsburgh artists, writers, musicians, etc. For *Gem of the Ocean,* set in 1904, the symbolism of the slave ship and of the journey to the City of Bones has blown us off our originally forward-moving course – we’ve been extending our studies far backward into the history of the slave trade, abolition, and the Underground Railroad. This piece of the puzzle you’ve shared here is really valuable, Van.


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