The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:49

The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century

Published in Poetry

This poem was commissioned by Culture Matters as an act of solidarity with Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (above) who has recently suffered racist abuse for having the audacity to play Juliet in 'Romeo and Juliet'. See here. For the story of Rachael Baptiste, the black singer and actress who played Juliet in the eighteenth century, see here.

The True Story of a Sable Maid’s Appearance in the 18th Century

by Jenny Mitchell

My skin’s not black as night but close, yet I played Juliet. When chains were held
towards my feet, I danced across the stage – a quadrille at a ball – and though
his skin is white – not dove but tanned, Italia close to Africa – my love
was booed into the wings when first he saw my face and said –

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
beauty too rich to use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows –

The rest was lost as slow hands clapped till rebels in us both said Kiss. A long, slow
grind with hips as well, my Romeo alert between the folds of a white dress,
diaphanous enough, they said, to show I was no virgin child but broken
by a team of men as all black girls are damned as whores.

Those villains in the audience threatened to bombard the stage, then pull it down.
And with the weight of envy on their heads, they also called for blood,
expecting mine to run black as the heart they said I had. To save our lives,
my Romeo and I ran to the balcony where he adored me more with this –

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief.

We gulped a drink, but black or close enough is never weak so death
was not our fate. No poison in the end but Romeo and me asleep. Believing
we were robbed of life, the audience walked from the hall with howls
that echo still, insisting on a clear divide when white descends from black.