My family never forced me underground.
Nobody ever made me kneel at the coal-
face altar and worship, on my knees,
that grimy god with its coal-black soul.
A child in body and heart, nobody ordered
me to squirm down diminishing seams,
much too narrow for men or machines
and fitting only for the smallest child.
Fitting indeed, an early coffin, made to
measure, lying in wait for the slightest
slip of the rocks above or below. Tight
fitting, indeed, no wiggle, wriggle room.
Billy Blake, my mate from Trinidad,
younger than me, saw the black faces
of miners emerge from the mine, enter
the pit-head baths and come out white.
He, too, wanted to be white. He dug
underground, grew even blacker, went
into the showers, gouged his black skin,
drew rivers of blood, never changed color.
He died when the roof above him fell
without warning. They pulled him out.
Brought him to the surface. Prepared
him for burial. Wrote on his tombstone:
“His body was as black as night,
but oh, his soul was white.”