We sought to liberate the slave
from the cruelness
of sun, field and lash

but did not consider
the eternal enmity
of former owners in defeat.

We could have swept
the Old Dominion state
clean into the ocean.

Cleared it
of plantation owners
and the white working class.

The radical Republicans
desired something
akin to that response.

Mr. Lincoln desired
a new testament ending
rather than an old one.

So we honored
the terms Grant delivered
and filled no more coffins.

But it was we
who suffered future retribution
for simply breathing free air.

copyright © 2023 Kenneth P. Gurney

Lack of Consent

A man trades two slaves for a horse.
I do not have to tell you about his Mississippi accent.

I do need to relate to you that he asked not one question
about how the receiver of the two slaves
would treat them

while the man with the horse sought assurances
the horse would be treated well.

We never think of a horse or a cow as a slave.
Or whether our treatment of them
will affect our entry into the kingdom of heaven.

The owners who argued slaves were livestock property
never stood trial for the crime of bestiality
no matter the numbers of mulatto children underfoot.

Or were arrested and tried for rape
for those owners who argued slaves were merely lesser people.

copyright © 2022 Kenneth P. Gurney

Peaking at Fifteen Million Acres

Forty acres and a mule
was part of General Sherman’s
special order fifteen
to allot land to some
some freedmen.

Sherman encouraged
his army quartermaster
to give mules
to the new farmers
to increase their chance
of success.

The freedmen expected
that land to be theirs
from that day forth
with the force of law
and the Union army
behind the order.

But special order fifteen
was a war order
and peace came
a few months after
it was issued.

With the end of war
Lincoln was assassinated
opening the way
for Tennessee’s Johnson
to be president
and politics to alter
what Sherman wrought
in good faith.

Title of the land
was not issued to the freedmen
and they were told
that they were now paid laborers
instead of land owners
(instead of slaves).

Over the next fifty years
African Americans used their wages
to purchase unsettled land
in the Southern states
that once formed the Confederacy.

They had to purchase their mules too.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney


Paul traces
his genetic ancestors
back to Maryland
the Eastern Shore
a grand house of slave owners
and halts the historic search
at the shores of the Atlantic
not wishing to know
what atrocious portion
of feudal England
taught them
this historic violence.

He would not be welcome
in that house.

He may have met a young
Frederick Douglas.

He wonders if their faces
would look familiar to his mirror
or if their privileged countenance
would cause them to appear as strangers.

He checks himself.
His own barely acknowledged privilege
in these days of John Floyd
and Black Lives Matter.

He plans to go there one day
once the Eastern Shore pandemic
is safely in the history books
so he may stand on that land
and see how it bore up
to the unchristian mistreatment
of the people who harvested the fields
and carried milk to table
but were not allow to share
in the bounty.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

In This Memory

In this memory
that was not my memory
I purchased a slave
a newspaper
and a poetry book.

The slave was young.
An African woman
with only a few
words of English.

The newspaper was published
a week before in New Orleans
but my copy I purchased
in Richmond on the James.

The poetry book
was written by an anonymous man
with an engraved portrait
of his youthful features
and no listed publisher.

In this memory
that was not my memory
I drank too much whiskey
suffered from a fatty liver
and smelled like stale cigars.

Being tired of these
uninvited thoughts
I turned my mind to the garden
and weeded between
rows of vegetables.

With dirt under my fingernails
and a clear mind
I returned inside my home
and sat down
to reread favorites
from Leaves of Grass.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

Father Of Our Country

Once I learned
George Washington’s
wooden teeth
were not maple
or ash
but created mostly
of teeth yanked
from the living mouths
of his slaves
and that in his life time
he required
four sets of these
strange dentures
fitted with some ivory
brass and gold
I knee-jerk wished
he choked to death
on a cherry pit
after he returned
to Mount Vernon
from Fort Duquesne
even with the consequence
we would still hoist a pint
in salute
to the English crown.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

Hours After Sumter

The great wrong, our original sin,
the wound that discolors our freedom claimed—

we will pay now with the stony gaze
of men who blankly stare at the sky above

all to wield the axe that slices the fetters,
the bonds and shackles that hold a million men

unable to collect the reward for their long labor
in fields far from their continent without cold.

Alas, the dead we will tally, with numbers
far greater than those spouted by the glory seekers.

And how our hearts will tremble
when some once quiet town’s name is uttered,

where the trenches dug demand long rows of supine men
whose names remain unmarked on any wood or stone.

Oh, how I fear the widows’ tears; how they may flood
the land now hardened with patriotic fervor.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

Red White And Black

When cotton was king
a people was enslaved and declared subhuman.

When corn was king
the McCormick reaper freed a million men

to serve in the Armies of the Potomac,
Cumberland and Tennessee.

Southerners’ mental gymnastics
won all the the eighteen-sixty Olympic medals.

Hypocrisy recognized by a few
caused them to teach their slaves to read and write

for the importance to know the gospels,
to come to know Jesus and salvation.

Do not dismiss the bravery of this act.
In most southern states that was a capital offense.

Before the black man was brought to the Americas,
the red man was enslaved and worked to death.

Columbus promised Isabella and Ferdinand
boat loads of New World riches,

but found only one valuable commodity
in abundance to enrich Spain.

No one heeded the Pope
when he spoke out against this practice.

How shabby our collective Christianity.
How spartan our application of the golden rule.

copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney


Poetic license allows the Olympic medal to be awarded in 1860, when the modern Olympics did not start until 1896.

Documentation of the enslavement of Native Americans is in the book The Other Slavery, by Andrés Reséndez.


It is as though
I remember
my voice call out
the auction
for the buyers
of slaves
on the wharves
of Charleston Harbor
and my hand
bang the gavel
then sign
the bill of sale.

copyright © 2019 Kenneth P. Gurney


I was thinking about how both guilt and trauma can pass through the generations. My ancestors were northerners and did not own slaves as far as the family record reveals. But as white people of that era, they benefited from slavery in lower prices on products produced through the labor of slaves.

I have read about the descendants of Auschwitz survivors suffering a from PTSD even though they themselves did not experience the trauma first hand.

Having read this, I wonder if this trauma can be passed on to friends and family. I wonder if care dogs become traumatized in the act of their service. I have not searched the internet for information at this time.

Brighter news. The bee balm is in full bloom and the garden is abuzz.

Love & Light