“I have tasted the language of death till it became the water of life.” –Ben Okri from Diallo’s Testament

This is my favorite line in the poem. It makes you wonder about all the different ways that a slave must have thought of death–hearing death threats, pondering suicide, the different details about how one could die. How does all this turn into the water of life? It could be about how despite depravity, one can learn to look beyond their situation so they can get out of it. This line could also be about English as the language of the oppressors and how a slave can learn the language as a way out.

I was on the last page of my journal and it prompted me to flip through all the stuff I’ve written. How fitting–new year, new journal. I realized that I hadn’t shared anything from my mini Europe trip. This particular line is from the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s from Ben Okri’s Diallo’s Testament, a poem about Diallo and his portrait (which is the earliest known oil portrait of a British freed slave..also the first kind that honors an African in Britain). According to the display, Diallo was an educated man in West Africa from a family that traded cattle and slaves. In 1731 he was taken to America as a slave and two years later, he somehow got to London where he mixed with high and intellectual society. He was released from slavery by public appeal.

I wrote down the entire poem in my journal:

Who can read the riddle of life
In this portrait of mine?
I am one on whom providence
Has worked its magic reversals.
Behind me are silent stories
Like a storm. I have worn
History round my neck like chains.
Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn.
I have tasted the language of death
Till it became the water of life.
I have shaped a little canvas of time
I have crossed seas of fires
And seen with these African eyes
The one light which neither empires
Nor all the might of men obscure.
Man is the sickness, God the cure.


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