History 1961

Safely sheltered in the Bronx
At the only all-girls public school
Its gates like an iron moat around our virginities
We studied geography
(Which was of no interest to me
Because I had rather daydream over
Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” song
While fantasizing about my
Young and handsome math teacher).
And in the boredom of latitudes and longitudes
The mimeographed purple dampness of handouts
Whose inhaled scent made me heady with delight
I had to puzzle over a blank map of Africa
(A place that seemed to me to be
Too similar to the figure of South America
To be even remotely interesting)
And fill in the names of all its countries.
Our teacher with her bluish-gray hair
And reading glasses pinching her nose
Intoned into the fresh, crisp April air
(For which we yearned
stuffed into that dusty classroom)
“Last year was the Year of Africa
When seventeen new nations were born.”
And our assignment was to fill in those seventeen names
(Like bored priests at too many baptisms)
Of countries we did not know
Did not care about
Would not dream of
Because our heads were full of
A sparkling new president and his beautiful wife
And learning a new dance called The Twist.
Yet there was one country easy to find on that map
Its name evoking mystery and mayhem
The pounding of zebra-fur drums
The stomping of dusty warrior feet
And the glare of brightly painted shields and faces
Long, shining, sharp spears
(Or was this only Hollywood’s fevered dream
Ingrained in celluloid for us?)
Congo Congo Congo
Yearning for independence
And one remembered name
(Because it seemed to echo
Our teenage love of rock ‘n’ roll)
Lumumba Lumumba Lumumba
How were we to know that
While we tapped our feet
To the music of his name
While we snapped our fingers
To melodies he represented for us
(So deeply disliked by our parents)
He was being stood up against an afromosia tree
Buried in a shallow grave
Congo Congo
Hacked to pieces
Dissolved in acid
Burned to ashes
Lumumba Lumumba
To expunge his memory
And how were they
(Tshombe, Mobutu, Munongo, Soete)
To know that
Lumumba (whisper whisper)
Would never be forgotten
In the rhythms of
American teenagers
Identifying the Congo
Congo (whisper whisper)
On maps in the Bronx
New York
The United States
One brisk April afternoon.

About the Author

Sandra Salinas Newton is a Professor Emeritus of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College. Her books, Enjoying the Arts: Poetry (1977) and Enjoying the Arts: Film (1978), were published by Richards Rosen Press, and her short story, “The Balikbayan,” can be found in Philippine American Short Stories (Giraffe Books, 1997). She earned her B.A. from The City College of New York, her M.A. from Hunter College, and her Ph.D. from Fordham University. Dr. Newton has attended a number of writing conferences and workshops, most recently with the Writers’ League of Texas. She has also been an art reviewer and freelance photographer, and in her free time she plays blues piano.