Gretchen Eick

Gretchen Eick
3 Poems

Monument Heroes

When I visited the Lorraine
Hotel in Memphis,
where Dr. King was murdered,
I happened upon a small square where
stood a triumphant statue of a mounted Confederate.
Nathan Bedford Forrest, who made millions
selling black families apart, carrying them to the
Deep South land taken from Creek, Chocktaw,
Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Seneca.
Forced-marched west from their homes,
their trails of tears watered the land with blood.

I railed to anyone who’d listen.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was a criminal.
He should not be venerated.
He topped the charts of internal slave traders,
the most lucrative business in Virginia
and North Carolina. A human trafficker.
He led Confederate troops to Fort Pillow
to kill black soldiers in the US Army
and their families sheltered there.
Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan,
Confederate veterans who used the weapons
they kept when they were defeated
to kill and terrorize our newest citizens.

My anger at Forrest’s statue was
personal, individual, and unorganized.
But this 400-year pandemic won’t end
until each hate-filled person does not
produce even one like him or her,
until the virus’s replication rate
is reduced to less than one.
That requires long-haul commitment.
It is not enough to be individually virtuous.
We must be massively, collectively anti-racist.
These deaths must not be in vain.
Say their names,
learn their stories:
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor,
Alatiana Jefferson, Eric Garner,
Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald,
Tamir Rice, Walter Scott,
Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark,
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile,
Stephon Clark, Botham Jean,
Elijah McClain…on and on.
They are your family,
our siblings,
our children.
The young people
with monumental determination
insisting No More
are the real heroes.

 

The Moment I Knew This Was a Time Unlike Any Other

The mountains that surround
this city have fled
an assault of clouds.
They left in their stead
bandaged plateaus,
blinding white like
the steam that rises
from the river.

Soundless swallows
part the bleached sky,
riding the air like
rodeo cowboys or
precision kamikazes.
They plunge down,
buzz the ground,
pull up just in time,
frenzied and frantic,
forked tails like
devils’ pitchforks
stabbing the air.

Below my window
five people stand in line
six feet apart,
faces masked,
hands of white plastic.
They are silent.
Unrecognizable.
They wait
to pay
their bills.

 

 

Black Lives Matter

Black lives mattered to my grandmother.
Born in 1886, she welcomed her daughter’s
brown-skinned friends to her home.
I, the child, watched,
intrigued by the people who visited.
Grandma owned Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography,
A Colored Woman in a White Woman’s World.
I found it on her bookshelf and kept it, loving her
stars, her underlining and notes in the margins.
She knew Terrell’s fight against lynching and
Jim Crow, and that she urged black women to speak out.

Grandma had two sons. One opposed my
foreign study at a university in West Africa.
He’d served in World War II’s segregated army
where courageous black pilots flew beneath
the planes of white pilots to draw German fire
and protect white boys like him.
He urged his brother to keep me home
and away from dangerous black men.

Grandma’s older son knew enough to disagree.
In 1939 he’d happened upon a Hitler rally
and was forever changed by the race hate
he heard there. As a local pastor he
wrote letters to the editor and met with police
to protest their practice of stopping persons of color
who drove through our town.
The NAACP attended his funeral. They said he’d
brought church members, managers at Ford and GM,
to his office to meet with them to talk equitable hiring.
Black lives mattered to my father.

I followed their values, was one of five white students
at an African university, spent a week at a historically
black college in Durham, North Carolina where I saw
white men in pickups with gun racks and Confederate flags,
roar through black streets foulmouthed and full of threat.
Half a century ago
I taught history in New Haven in 1965, the first year
Black and white kids attended middle school together.
I learned Black American History that I’d never been taught,
and it changed how I understood my country.
When I included that history and literature in my classes,
a quiet young man recited Langston Hughes’ “Let America
be America Again,” his eyes shining. The American past
included him. Whites, Blacks and Latinos learned together
that Black lives matter.

Until Dr. King’s assassination,
when fear took over and democracy failed.
Hijacked by a few who knew the power of chaos,
daily fire alarms set off panicked exoduses from school
and brought in police armed with guns.
After an alarm one of my black students entered my classroom,
his face stricken. “Jan and Suzy just came around the corner.”
He gestured to the hall. “They saw me, screamed, and ran.
What did they think I would do to them?
Only his blackness had mattered.

My grandmother and my father knew Black lives matter.
So did I.
But my family profited from white privilege.
We each inherited enough for a down payment.
It was money we never worked to earn.
Still, I didn’t work for reparations
to give black families down payments,
a catch-up of wealth for those
whose labor built this Nation.
We rested on our confidence that we cared
and wanted change.
It was not enough.
Grandma believed Black lives matter
almost a hundred years ago. She passed
her conviction to her son and grandchild.
But it was not enough.
I see it now.
White good intentions
are not enough.
The persistent young people organizing now
in the streets and throughout the culture
know that individual convictions don’t
bring profound change, that
Black LIVES must matter more than BLACKNESS.
Are you ready to be the change?
To follow and fund them?

 

Gretchen Eick worked on Capitol Hill as a foreign and military policy lobbyist, earned a Ph.D. in American Studies (University of Kansas, ‘97), and became a Professor of History. Her book on the civil rights movement—Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972 (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2008) won three awards. They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story (University of Nevada Press, 2020) tells the history of Indian policy 1860-1940. Three-time Fulbright Scholar, widely traveled, since 2015 she has published 4 novels. She lives in Kansas and Bosnia and Herzegovina.