It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911.
The sun falls out of heaven like a stone.
The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined
sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded
with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns
that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard,
gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw
countless bridges across rivers, lay roads and carve
tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.
From the deep and the near South the sons
and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander
into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten
the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces,
they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking
in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive
carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined
with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women
seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and
the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning
and shaping the malleable parts of themselves
into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel
of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement
which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct
as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble,
to give clear and luminous meaning to the song
which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.