African immigrants, Genocide in Idi Amin’s Uganda (1971-1979), Poem “Leviticus” by Hope Wabuke, Refugee immigrant communities in America, The Body Family: Poems by Ugandan American Poet Hope Wabuke, Violence against black bodies in America
My Poetry Corner October 2022 features the poem “Leviticus” from the poetry collection The Body Family (Haymarket Books, 2022) by Hope Wabuke, a Ugandan American poet, essayist, and critic. Born in the United States to Ugandan refugees, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Film and Media Studies (1998-2002) at Northwestern University, Illinois, as well as an MFA in Creative Writing (2004-2007) at New York University.
In The Body Family, Wabuke explores her family’s escape in 1976 from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide and the aftermath of healing in America. She focuses on the nature of personal trauma juxtaposed against national trauma. In her interview with Julie Brooks Barbour for Connotation Press, the poet explained:
“I look at the national trauma of the genocide in Uganda as part of the legacy of colonialism in Africa by European powers, and the national trauma of violence against black bodies in America that has been ongoing since the founding of this country. These two violences are interconnected. There is a global culture of anti-blackness that is manifested, whether in post-British colonial Africa or in America, where the black body is erased, and what is layered upon it are negative stereotypes of blackness. Both are an erasure. Both are a disappearance. A large part of my writing is to get past these layered stereotypes, to unerase the erasure.”
Wabuke’s opening poems “If Not David” followed by “:Goliath” introduce the reader to Idi Amin (1925-2003) who had learned his lesson well from the British: kill the other / take what is his. Idi Amin’s portrait in “:Goliath” is ominous:
names given: His Excellency Idi Amin / the Butcher of Uganda // Conqueror of the British Empire / in Africa & Uganda in particular // Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor / Big Daddy // President for Life / Lord of All // the Beasts of the Earth / & Fishes of the Sea […] first instance of torture: / 1962 Turkana massacre / (burying alive, beating to / death, etc.) overlooked promoted / to head of armed forces: 1963 // awards: Distinguished Service / Order Victorious / Cross Military Cross. Doctor of Law / seizes power: (backed by Israel & Great / Britain) 1971 // number of wives: 4 mistresses: 30 / abused: 34 // number of soldiers employed in special / death squads: 18,000 // number of villages wiped out: unknown // kill count: 300,000 / or: 1 in 26 people // special focus: educated, Christians…
Wabuke’s father, both a Christian pastor and college professor, was put on Idi Amin’s kill list. When her father got word that he was next, he fled with his wife and daughter. In “Breath,” we learn how the trauma held within their bodies had stunned them into silence.
they never speak / of the dead the massacres / at school friends / and family disappeared / how they got / word they were next / the crossing to Kenya / then / America / what happened / in the after / to the / left
In “Refugee Mind,” the poet shares her tangled mess of becoming an American in the face of her parents’ silence about their trauma, their culture, and their lineage: for there are always storms coming / rootless apart you break. In a conversation with Stacey Waite for the Tupelo Quarterly, Wabuke said: “I had always felt an absence in my body to know my body family and our history, but my parents did not like to speak about it, understandably, because of the post-traumatic stress of living through and escaping a genocide.”
Using her father’s point of view in “Judges,” Wabuke explores the disconnect between her Ugandan father and his American children:
his American children all they say is can you not just love us can you not just take us back to Uganda to visit so we can know ourselves learn who we are & how to love ourselves love !?! had he not taken them out of Amin’s genocide out of love […] dear God had he not done enough had he not been enough had he not tried his best had he not brought them here to safety had he not survived were they not all still alive
It was only after her son’s birth that Wabuke could fully appreciate her parents’ choices in doing everything within their power to keep their children safe. Except that they became parents during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. The featured poem “Leviticus” shows her father through these new lenses of understanding and gratitude. Inspiration for the title of the poem came from the Biblical Old Testament book of laws, she told Chioma Nkemdilim during an interview for The African Book Review in May 2015:
“A lot of the Mosaic code—and our modern sense of morality—come from [Leviticus]. So I was thinking loosely of the law according to my father, what, according to him, are the rules for living. For him, it is working. My father comes from a culture where the measure of a good man is how hard he works. He started working on the family farm when he was three. He is now in his sixties. He has never taken a vacation. Like many immigrants, this is what he needed to do to survive in this country.”
The opening verses of “Leviticus” reveal the tension between father and daughter over their differing relationships with their work and chosen paths in life.
at work still when the day rises again sunlight dipping into your hollowed ribs you are not eating grey-haired man my teacher my dark mirror of what I want & do not want to become how I have watched you want me different genetics will win you are a scientist you have told me
Absorbed in his work, her father neglects to clean his home and cut the grass. She questions their role in his life when he doesn’t hear the words we hurl against the shuttered window / that is your life. Concerned for his health, she pleads with him: please take care of yourself. Other dangers exist. Dangers she knew well, growing up in a black body among whites in America.
that day we found you in the street fallen unconscious eyes blooded shut nose so broken you could not breathe & you would not get help how you said if I am going to die from this I would already be dead
To read the complete featured poem “Leviticus” and learn more about the work of the Ugandan American poet Hope Wabuke, go to my Poetry Corner October 2022.