Marilyn Nelson’s “Worth”

Today in America people were bought and sold:

five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”

begins Marilyn Nelson’s sonnet “Worth”.

By beginning with the word today but then taking the reader back in American history to a time when humans were literally “bought and sold,” Nelson creates a sort of holographic effect. Read one way, I put myself in the place of the speaker, a young African-American woman who could herself be sold and puzzles over how human worth can be established. Maybe valued by weight like a sack of potatoes?

If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
Or maybe her value should be based on pedigree like that of a horse?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
Or I turn the hologram, and the time is now–today. I hear the poem ask how we sell ourselves, how we value ourselves. Especially if we come from people with a fraught history and still live in a world where we are judged by superficial classifications such as color and gender.
Can’t we choose to take our worth from a history of majesty rather than from a history of oppression? The poem concludes with the lines:
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.
Marilyn Nelson, “Worth” from Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems, 1996-2011. Copyright © 2012 by Marilyn Nelson.  Unless I have permission, I will not publish entire poems on my blog since it would violate copyright laws.


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