“The Freedom Bell” by Henry Hart
Poet Laureate of Virginia, 2018–2020
When the Dean of our library at the College of William and Mary asked me to read one of my poems at a special dinner for a visiting librarian, I obliged. The guest was Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first African American to lead the Library of Congress. My poem focused on Williamsburg’s historic First Baptist Church, which is close to our campus, and on its Freedom Bell that President Obama rang after it was transported to Washington D.C. for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. After my reading, one of the directors of the church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, Ron Monark, greeted me. He told me about the campaign to restore the church and offered to arrange a tour for me that would include ringing the Freedom Bell. Not long after my visit to the church, Ron and his fellow board members asked me to write a poem for the Let Freedom Ring Foundation that would be filmed during a service.
The occasion of the filming on Sunday, February 9, 2020, was special for a number of reasons. First of all, it gave me an opportunity to meet many wonderful people in Williamsburg’s African American community. It also gave me the chance to introduce several distinguished guests to one of Williamsburg’s most treasured historical sites. At the time, I was hosting Erika Fabian, who had recently spoken at William and Mary about surviving the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and becoming a professional writer and photographer after escaping to the U.S. Erika attended the service with her relative Frank Shatz, a local journalist and a friend of mine who had also survived the Holocaust. Frank spoke to the congregation about his own struggles for freedom when he was imprisoned by the Nazis and targeted by the Communists in Eastern Europe. At the end of the service, both he and Erika rang the Freedom Bell. I remember this occasion well because it was the last time I read in public as Virginia’s Poet Laureate. A few weeks later, Covid hit and most public events were canceled.
Here is part of the introduction to my poem that I gave at the First Baptist Church. It explains why I wrote it and what I wrote about:
My poem was inspired by accounts of the founders of your church. I’m sure you know the story about how slaves and freed slaves met in a simple shelter called a “brush arbor” in the woods on Green Spring Plantation, not too far from Williamsburg, around the time the Declaration of Independence was being written. As you know, it was a long time before African Americans had those “unalienable rights … of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” promised by the Declaration of Independence. And it was a long time before members of your church had a proper building to worship in. Even though they risked being punished (it was against the law for slaves to congregate at the time), they continued to sing and pray in their brush arbor in the woods. They lacked freedom in their everyday lives, yet they declared their spiritual freedom in their songs and prayers. They refused to be silenced.
I wanted to pay tribute to the founders of your church with a song-like poem that emphasized their courage, faith, and hope for freedom. So I wrote a villanelle, which is a poetic form based on ancient songs. I began with an epigraph from a poem called “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American poet whose parents had been slaves. He wrote: “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, / When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,-- / When he beats his bars and he would be free.”
“The Freedom Bell”
Even without a church, they heard bells ring
in the forest clearing where they had to hide
and free their caged hearts so they could sing.
On the plantation named for a green spring,
grass buried the names of slaves who’d died,
hoping to build a church with a bell to ring.
Like the cold, clear water they longed to drink
while toiling in the fields, faith inspired
their caged hearts beating for the right to sing.
A man from town who heard them chanting
prayers from a hut of poles and brush, provided
his carriage house, but still no bell to ring.
Many fought for freedom from the English king
and won, yet our new government denied
a place where all caged hearts were free to sing.
The bell was silent when Doctor King
came to the Baptist Church and prophesied
that one day a new bell would let freedom ring.
Now ring that bell, and let each caged heart sing.
Many people who attended the service said they admired the poem and the way I delivered it. The poem had an afterlife, too. Seven months later, a singer in the First Baptist Church choir read the poem at the site of the original 18th century church where archaeologists had begun excavating. (Reports of the archaeologists’ findings continue to appear in major news outlets such as The Washington Post.) The ceremony included a performance by the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra and speeches by the director of Colonial Williamsburg and local ministers. The President of William and Mary attended, and other community leaders were there as well.
The occasion confirmed my belief that poems should be “public-facing;” they should respond to public events and appeal to the general public.
During my tenure as Virginia Poet Laureate, I also wrote occasional poems for the inauguration of William and Mary’s first female president at the college’s Charter Day, and for a special Independence Day celebration in Colonial Williamsburg. I found writing these poems difficult, but, in the end, satisfying. I’m used to reading poems to audiences of 20 to 30 people. There were several thousand people in the audience when William and Mary’s president was inaugurated at Charter Day. There were over 10,000 people at the July 4th event. Alas, a few minutes before the actress Anika Noni Rose was supposed to read my poem from the balcony of Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace on July 4th, 2019, a violent thunderstorm struck. Someone announced over the loudspeakers that the event had been canceled, and then we rushed to our cars in the drenching rain.