“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever written,”Dr. Shelby Stephenson said of “Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl” (Bellday Books, 2008).
Dr. Stephenson’s latest book of poetry is a 58-page tribute to a 10-year-old slave once owned by his family. The story begins with a bill of sale that was registered in the Johnston County Courthouse on January 11, 1850.
“.. in consideration of the sum of four hundred and thirteen dollars and twenty-five cents to me (George Stephenson) in hand by Seth Woodall of the County and State .. do bargain, grant, sell and convey unto a certain Negro a slave named July about 10 years old.”
“She was 10 years old and that’s about all we know,” Dr. Stephenson said.
The lack of other written records of “July” presented a blank page that drew upon the poet’s imagination and historical knowledge. Penning a story of “family matters” presents a difficult issue.
“When you write about your family, there is a risk,” Dr. Stephenson said. “My father was nine when great grandpa Manley died. Manley’s father George sold July.”
Research for the story comes from generations of Stephensons who lived at the home place where Dr. Stephenson lives today. Every character in the story is real (except one, he notes). It is drawn from memories, stories and the land itself.
“This man, George, I have a copy of his last will and testament. He is buried 200 feet from the house,” he said. “It’s possible that July is there too in the slave section of unmarked graves.”
There is also the question of race and slavery. Delicate issues of Southern history aside, Dr. Stephenson said it was a story that had be told.
“As long as we have good intentions, I don’t know if you can offend anyone,” Dr. Stephenson said.
Dr. Stephenson also labored over the story’s narrative.
“The more I got involved with the story, the more I asked myself ‘who’s going to tell the story of July?” he said. “I just didn’t think I could do it, but I had to do it.”
The chapters, with titles like “One Still Work and Cap,” “Candy Man,” “Separate Equals” and “Coffin, Seeds, Inventory,” evoke colorful images from the past in the South. Mules, hog killings, tobacco, swamps, fields and scratching a living from 22 acres are threaded into the verses.
Dr. Stephenson, who has taught English at UNCP for 30 years and edited the literary journal, Pembroke Magazine for 29 years, has his first reading from “July” at Quail Ridge Book Store in Raleigh in October.
A week before the event, he remains unsure which selection he will read.
“I have no idea what I’ll read,” he said. “I will probably start and stop.”
When asked how long he worked on the poem, Dr. Stephenson did not have an answer. He has been writing this poem all his life.
Other books by award-winning poet Dr. Shelby Stephenson include “Middle Creek Poems,” “The Persimmon Tree Carol,” “Poor People” and “Possum.”