Kory Wells: “The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgment”



The Assistant Marshal Makes an Error in Judgment
—From the Ninth United States Census, June 18, 1870, Macon County, North Carolina

Even though he has read and reread
best he can the instructions
sent direct from Washington;

even though he employs
a sturdy portable inkstand,
quality ink he blots dry
with unpracticed diligence
on strictly confidential,
wide white sheets;

even though important scientific
results depend upon his questionable
Rs and too-short Ls, tedious
recording of Name, Age, Occupation,
and Color;

Assistant Marshal J.T. Reeves, who some call
carpetbagger, now sits amiably on the porch
with one Willis Guy, farmer, age 59,
and reads back to Mr. Guy
all he has written, so mistakes may be
corrected on the spot. The marshal is not
from around these parts, and Mr. Guy, 

previously known as
Mulatto, previous to that known as
Free Colored Person, if asked would claim
Catawba, Cherokee, even the dark Porterghee,
but figures it best to keep his silence
at the government man’s ditto of Column 6. Like that,
Mr. Guy and all his kin become
White. Mr. Guy would admit he isn’t
as good at letters as his children,
but squinting sideways at the marshal’s ledger,
he knows the unmistakable difference between W and M.


About the Author: Kory Wells is a poet, writer, storyteller, and advocate for the arts, democracy, afternoon naps, and other good causes. In 2017 she was named the inaugural poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she also founded and manages a reading series. Her poetry collection Sugar Fix is available from Terrapin Books as of September 2019. Read more of her work at korywells.com.


More by Kory Wells: 

Untold Story

When the Watched Pot Boils


Image Credit: “Harrison’s Columbian inks, black, scarlet, red, blue” (1846) The Library of Congress

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