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About this Poem 

“The Sisterhood of the Good Death, a syncretic Catholic-Candomblé order consisting of (only) elderly women, founded by freedwomen in Bahia in the 1820s, purchased and freed perhaps thousands of people before Brazil’s slaves were emancipated in 1888. Since that time the Sisters have served the poor. My book The Cachoeira Tales describes a pilgrimage made to their mother-house several years ago.”
Marilyn Nelson

Hilaria Batista de Almeida, Provider

Sisterhood of the Good Death, Bahia, Brazil
August 14, ca. 1850

Tomorrow, after we’ve led the procession
following Our Lady of the Good Death
back to our chapel, two hundred Sisters,
in our white eyelet headwraps and dresses
and the company of the Ancestors,
will dance a Glory samba, with our neighbors
like us redeemed, and those we work to free.
We’ll dance as if we don’t know aches and pains,
to celebrate the best death of all time.

No death is easy, but some deaths are good.
The free die good deaths. The people we free
will be put down with honor and music.
The best death was the one Our Lady had,
passing directly from breath to glory.
Glory is ours, too, just one death from now.
What dies lives on no longer slave, but free:
The same essence, wearing another face,
like an orixa changed into a saint.

Tomorrow is Our Lady’s Assumption Day.
Today we sit in our rooms to prepare,
searching the dark silence to find glory.
My still hands, thick from cutting sugarcane…
and there it is, that flood of thanksgiving.
These nimble fingers that can tell from touch
the best tobacco leaf and when to stop
rolling a cigar smooth on the table,
this year helped free thirty Yoruba slaves!
 

Copyright © 2015 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2015 by Marilyn Nelson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 29, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.

Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson

Born in 1946, Marilyn Nelson is the author of over eight books of poetry, as well as many collections of verse for children and young adults. She currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem
The Lutherans sit stolidly in rows;
only their children feel the holy ghost
that makes them jerk and bobble and almost
destroys the pious atmosphere for those
whose reverence bows their backs as if in work.
The congregation sits, or stands to sing,
or chants the dusty creeds automaton.
Their voices drone like
poem

Epiphany Davis, 1825

I set up my cash box and my bones and cards
on Broadway, most days, offering what I see
of what’s to come. For a donation, words
fall from my mouth, surprising even me.

Uncle Epiphany doesn’t forecast death
or illness worse than gout or a broken bone.
The sailors stop. They
poem
We slept, woke, breakfasted, and met the man
we’d hired as a tour guide, with a van
and driver, for the day. We were to drive
to Cachoeira, where the sisters live:
the famous Sisterhood of the Good Death,
founded by former slaves in the nineteenth
century. "Negroes of the Higher Ground," 
they called themselves