Kevin Young


Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

  • 2011
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • Hardcover, Paperback
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A chorus of voices tells the story of the Africans who mutinied on board the slave ship Amistad. Written over twenty years, this poetic epic-part libretto, part captivity epistle-makes the past present, and even its sorrows sing. In "Buzzard," the opening section, we hear from the African interpreter for the rebels, mostly from Sierra Leone, who were jailed in New Haven. In "Correspondence," we encounter the remarkable letters to John Quincy Adams and others that the captives wrote from jail, where they were taught English and converted to Christianity. In lines profound and pointed, the men demand their freedom in their newfound tongue: "All we want is make us free." The book culminates in "Witness," a libretto chanted by Cinque, the rebel leader, who yearns for his family and freedom while eloquently evoking the Amistads' conversion and life in America. As Young conjures this array of characters and their music, interweaving the liberation cry of Negro spirituals and the indoctrinating wordplay of American primers, he delivers his signature songlike immediacy at the service of a tremendous epic.

Reviews & Praise

Writing in blues rhythms, Young achieves a hypnotic effect with repetition, puns, shifts in syntax, ellipsis, and use of the vernacular. Ultimately, his retelling becomes an eloquent examination of slavery as it's felt in the human soul. Highly recommended. Library Journal (starred review)

Many elements converge in Young's depthless and transporting poetic inquiry into the signal story of the Amistad rebels. Here is the much-celebrated poet's passion for music, teasing wordplay, life-raft irony, and plunging insights into African American resistance to tyranny and oppression. In this tour de force, the fruit of 20 years of research and creative effort, Young looks to two helmsmen, Cinque, the leader of the slave-ship mutiny who tells his tale in a libretto titled "Witness," and, in a ravishing cycle of extended sonnets, James Covey, a fellow North African who served as translator for the jailed rebels once abolitionists rallied to their cause. Young writes with electrifying insight and ringing concision about the spiritual conundrums the rebels faced when they converted to Christianity, and the determination they mustered as they learned English and fought for their freedom. In lancing poems in the form of letters, spirituals, a minstrel show, reading primers, scripture, sermons, and prayers, Young empathizes with the captured men and women longing for home, illuminates the cultural context in which their now-legendary drama unfolded and the clamorous exploitations of their struggle, and delves into the ways language conceals and coerces, reveals and liberates. Young's oceanic choral work calls for, and rewards, the reader's full and active involvement. Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

In several book-length poetry projects, Kevin Young has reexamined pivotal figures in African-American history and culture—Civil War soldiers, blues singers, and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, to name a few. His latest, Ardency, considers the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, which was taken over by a group of African captives known as the Mendi, who were later recaptured and tried in New Haven for murder, putting them at the center of the abolition debate. Young revisits these events in ways that a history book couldn't, telling the captives' stories in different poetic styles and through a parade of voices….By learning America’s language and adopting Christianity, the Mendi may have won respect from newspapers and freedom from the courts. At the same time, Young movingly suggests, this new knowledge left them irrevocably altered. Craig Morgan Teicher, Bookforum

[A] powerful and important book. Wyatt Williams, Creative Loafing