By Vivian Zhu
11th grade, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, IL
Second place contest winner

With lines from "The Blue That Enchanted the World" by Caroline Gutman and Latria Graham, a Pulitzer Center reporting project

I. Lowcountry, 1750

Among the black gum trees, live oaks, & scrub brush,
crop rows disguise indigo capillaries: observe the blue

                                                   birthed by bones. People were brought across a sea
                                                   to plant the crop of their motherland: indigo

watered by bloodshed & blisters, its blue
a pigment to be extracted for gold.

                                                   Between bricks, ridges of drying mortar
                                                   emit a hue the color of the ocean:

riptides mapping a morgue,
each brick an hymn for the hands

                                                   coaxing color from clumps of dye,
                                                   limbs stained blue from the stems of plants.

Lips dry beneath the smothering heat,
possessing no tongue save the one the land provided:

                                                   powder spilled over cracking hands,
                                                   the throng of mosquitoes buzzing

over the noise of bodies
filling graves. Each tomb is tinted blue

                                                   gold—the price to buy a body,
                                                   the price of burying one.

II. Liberty, 1783

History is one long blue hour
sown between bouts of bloodshed:
the land ravaged by loyalists & patriots,
indigo fields lying fallow like soldiers slaughtered
in rows. But the crop survived three centuries,
its blues enduring in song:

And it won’t be long
And it won’t be long
And it won’t be long

This is the way indigo spreads:
seeds passed from hand to hand,
making their way up & down
the South Carolina coast.

III. Palingenesis

Revival begins with recognition:
                  The sky was bluer in the sixties,
we say, dismayed by the soot-stained
                  horizon, a byproduct of machine-churned
shirts dyed in shades of synthetic blue.

Whispers crescendo through the rising wind:
                  Nobody talks about indigo anymore;
Nobody grows it anymore;
                  So many people think it’s just ink.

Slowly, like seeds taking root,
                  the land’s heart thrums again.

Our hands unearth history from layers of sediment,
                  & indigo finds its way into the cluttered yard of a gardener,
the sun-dried sanctuary of an herbalist,
                  the hue of an artist’s palette.

Here: a blue renaissance, ink traversing fabric
                  & canvas & paper until everything is blue
-stained from traversing the network of a legacy, restored.

The wind rustles through the land’s beating heart.
                  Leaf-ridden arteries whisper in the air
like an echo resounding against the bones of its past self.


                                                 listen: all of our hands returning this blue to home.

Vivian Zhu is a rising senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Chances are, she’s currently procrastinating on calculus problem sets by watching an unhealthy amount of spoken word. She’s always been captivated by the transformative power of words. Through this poem, she aims to shed light on the underreported facets of history and preserve the legacy of colors. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, and eating tangerines.

Read more winning entries from the 2023 Fighting Words Poetry Contest.