Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Too late for the tour and the history lesson,
too late in the season on this southern plantation,
and the ancient, front-line cedar soldiers
backed up by a strong regiment of hollies
are not telling what they know.

I walk on the old brick, caulked with thin moss,
but soon overlaid with a thickening vision
    of feet, brown and bare, trudging with toil
    out to the fields and the kitchen;
    of feet fair and slippered, skipping in fun,
    tapping the tune of a debutante ball;
    or of feet hard and booted, strutting to hunt,
    commanding the land, parading to war.

Looking forward, from youth and life, how easy to wear
    soft slippers of pleasure or safe boots of power.
But looking back from age and death, better to have had
    the bare feet of feeling, in touch with the ground,
    in true company with man.
Let me pray not to be the shameful ghost of the owner,
    but rather the noble phantom of the owned.

On tiptoe, I peer into the windows
    of the slave’s cabin and then the master’s mansion;
But in both the spiders have webbed the corners,
    and the inner shutters shade their private rooms,
    or perhaps the glass is too antique.
For the only face that stares back,
    and the only civil war left to fight
    is my own.

—Ellie Shumaker

Photo by David Hertle on Unsplash. Image cropped.