The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor

There’s a lie the status quo likes to tell, and it’s that other possibilities don’t exist, and have never existed: this is the only possible.

This was the truth that struck me so forcibly this time last year when I did not do Martin Luther King Jr. in the library, but used other people, other stories, instead. The most powerful story was Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Eric Velasquez. I told these Jewish students to imagine that they were told by a teacher that Jewish history had no culture, no contributions to the world: there were no artists, no scientists, no writers, nothing good came from us. They were angry. I told them that was what happened to young Schomburg: the lie the status quo told him was that he was in an all-white world, it had always been this way, and must be this way. It was all too easy for the kids to relate to his story, and it energized the room with a feeling of kinship, anger, and a thirst for knowledge. What stories were not being told? Schomburg found all of these wonderful stories in mysterious places called “archives”? What else might be there?

If I had those same kids again, this is the book I’d read them, because The Possible Lives of WH, Sailor, by Bushra Junaid comes into this view of history with the resonant richness of a range of possibilities, with all the ways we can look at what we know and all the questions we can ask.

Bushra Junaid sits down in front of the teachers of the world and says, “We do not know all of the answers, so let’s not say we do.” Bushra Junaid turns to the students and says, “I have a story. Here we have a figure of mystery. What do we know? What can we say? We can say so much– and yet we know, for certain, so little. Let’s talk.”

The story in this beautiful poem of a picture book is of the discovery of the remains of WH, all we know of his name. In 1987, the year of my birth, a coffin was uncovered on the Labrador coast, and, when an osteologist and a conservator from Memorial University investigated, they deduced that he was a young man of African heritage, in good health, but missing a forearm– could that have been the cause of his death? Experts thought he was probably a sailor, maybe a midshipman, and buried in the early 1800s. Even this much, as Bushra Junaid explores in her poem, is tentative, and even this much provides a wealth of possibilities.

Most remarkable, however, this poem is not “about WH,” and is in no way peering into him, nor is it voyeuristic. It is one of the most delicately respectful yet robust yet intimate texts I’ve read in recent years; Junaid address WH directly, claiming his kinship, musing about all there could have been in his life. She gives everything a turn: tragedy and success and achievement are all given a chance in her thoughts, and she brings herself into the process honestly, “Some may say I’ve got no skin in the game, | Yet if it’s really all the same, | This child of the diaspora would like to claim | You as kin.” But through it all is a sense of warmth and grief: we will never know WH directly, but, she repeats in her firm refrain, “It’s time that you were laid to rest again.” Let him rest, she asks us.

There is a quiet paradox here. On the one hand, we are so glad to have met WH, to have Junaid able to tell us about him. And yet, on the other hand, we look at it all laid out on these pages and agree with her: yes, let him rest now. We feel no detachment, as with ancient stones in the desert; we would like to see him respectfully laid to rest with a marker, with words on a tombstone, perhaps with some verses from this poem inscribed nearby.

Junaid unfolds so many possibilities: Was WH born free and enslaved, or was he born a slave on a plantation? Was he born closer, maybe in Nova Scotia, to parents given a plot of poor land after fighting for the English in the American Revolutionary War? We see, running through her words, which rock like a boat on gently rolling waves, so many ways that Black lives have always been part of the world we live in, whether in the USA, Canada, or anywhere in the world. And I do not see how any reader can go through this book without seeing the world in a richer, more nuanced, and more colourful way.

You will have noticed, in this, that Junaid reduces nothing, neither history nor language nor story. She is certainly concise: not a word is wasted. Her focus on WH means that the book is precise and exact; it is not sprawling. But she uses a wonderful blend of colloquial and elevated grammar and vocabulary, a rich and textured palate of words that will have students sounding out the text and exploring words that, if young enough, they may not know: diaspora, traverse, grit, and so on. The sentence structure working with her gently rocking, yet robust, poetic form carries all the dignity she wishes to confer on WH, and may likewise challenge young readers. My expectation, born of experience, is that it’s the kind of challenge children will love– it tells them she trusts them and is in no way patronizing or condescending. This is, in a word, a tour de force.

I want to leave you with her words, and I want you to please think of sharing this book with any child you know, in a classroom or library or your own home– or, perhaps, you want it yourself. It’s a beautiful poem. And so, here is the link again.

All these things we can’t possibly know–
They have only made my curiosity grow
About all the possible lives you may have lived.

I don’t know from whence you came,
And I don’t know your rightful name, but you

Respect is due. It’s time that you
Were laid to rest anew.


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