As I was reading the last few chapters of “Clap When You Land” news broke of a horrible plane crash in Pakistan that I can’t help but find similar to the crash that acts as a catalyst in Elizabeth Acevedo’s novel.
The crash that inspired Acevedo was Flight 587, which due to pilot error and mechanical failure, crashed in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens shortly after take off.
The flight was en route to the capital of the Dominican Republic, and as Acevedo writes in her author’s notes at the end of the novel, ninety percent of the passengers were of Dominican descent, many of whom were returning home. She shares her personal experience as a young girl as the New York Dominican community was shattered.
Twenty years later, Acevedo was able to use that tragedy and the stories from her community that came out of the event to craft a poetic novel of family, of resilience and the strength that can be found when one is able to meet their history head on, even if in grief or anger or betrayal, and make it their own.
Now, in a city on the other side of the world, another plane destined for another capital city has crashed into a heavily populated area. Mechanical failure is again seemingly to blame, with reports of malfunctioning landing gear preventing a safe landing at the nearby airport.
But that certainly won’t comfort the families of the 99 people on board or the dozens believed to have been killed on the ground. Families who, like Acevedo’s main characters, will oscillate between denial and hope and heartbreaking grief in the weeks ahead.
One further tragedy of Flight 587 is how it was overshadowed by 9/11 as it occurred two months and one day after that event. When the cause of the crash was ruled pilot error and not terrorism the story seemed to be abandoned by the media and many of us not affected by it probably have little or no memory of it even happening.
I would hope that our memory of Flight PK8303, overshadowed this time by a global pandemic, is not so short as it was in 2001. But as Acevedo proves by so powerfully and poetically capturing the dynamic and turbulent grieving process of her characters, and her own memories and experiences two decades ago, there will always be those who remember, who transform their memory and heartbreak into something tangible and shareable, and in doing so welcome those of us not touched directly by tragedy into their community.
Known more commonly as S.E.K. Mqhayi, Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi died July 29, 1945. Mqhayi was a Xhosa dramatist, essayist, critic, novelist, historian, biographer, translator and poet whose works are regarded as instrumental in standardising the grammar of isiXhosa and preserving the language in the 20th century. Xhosa is an ethnic group of people of Southern Africa mainly found in the Eastern and Western Cape, South Africa.
Among those who revered Mqhayi’s poetry was Nelson Mandela, who described him as the “poet laureate of the African people.” Mandela was proud that he had not only seen twice in person, but had on one occasion, heard Mqhayi recite his poetry.
Mqhayi’s addition of seven stanzas to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, which was originally written by Enoch Sontonga in 1927, was adopted by several African states as their national anthem including South Africa, Namibia and Zambia.
In reading translations of some of Mqhayi’s work, I found “The Sinking of Mendi” a 1943 poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi during World War I after a collision which resulted in the deaths of 646 men. The dead were predominantly black South African troops from the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps on their way to serve in France. Most had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim.
According to Alan Straton’s article ‘The Cold Sea: Mendi Poems’, “S.E.K Mqhayi who was the Imbongi ye Sizwe (National Bard) of the Xhosa people at the time of the First World War felt deeply about the disaster as he had played a formative role in the recruitment campaign through a poem that he wrote calling men to arms titled, ‘The Black Army’.” Mqhayi intended to keep the “memory of this event alive in the oral narrative of the Xhosa communities in the Eastern Cape during the Apartheid years when black historical events were written out of the history books.”
Oral histories passed down from survivors and witnesses tell that the men trapped aboard the ship as it listed and sank into the fog covered sea were calmed by the words of Isaac Williams Wauchope, an interpreter and former minister, who called out to them:
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”
The captain of the boat that collided with the Mendi, which sailed away rather than offer aid to survivors, was later found to have been operating recklessly in the thick fog. As he was responsible for the deaths of 646 men, his license was revoked for one year.
Mqhayi also wrote to lament the westernization of Africa as he lived through the culmination and collapse of European colonization of the continent.
“Human movement in search of land grabbing land from chiefs.
Using the word of God as a tool
and instrument to rule kings and nations.
An education so inferior became an institution to prepare slaves
for new masters.”
He saw that the education the missionary schools provided was meant to erase his people’s history and prepare them only to be subjugated and enslaved by ignorance. He understood the importance of his cultural history and advocated for it though his poetry and prose.
Mqhayi ultimately hoped to inspire his people to future greatness by reminding them of all they have achieved in their cultural history, striving for “students of History to have a critical eye on the events that happened thousands of years ago, have a broader perspective of events around him and get armed for what is to happen tomorrow.”
For more on S.E.K. Mqhayi and the Sinking of the Mendi check out the links below.