Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit

A Poem for Belle Isle

I was asked by the Belle Isle Conservancy to write and present a poem on Belle Isle for the August 31, 2016 gathering of SOUP, a fantastic organization a fantastic organization that raises money for new projects in Detroit. This is what I wrote, with a few revisions since  

[now the sentiments expressed here are not necessarily the views of the Belle Isle Conservancy or SOUP – but they sure are mine].

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A POEM FOR BELLE ISLE

When I was young and my heart cried

I went to elder woman’s side

to tell her that I faced divorce

Ms. Millie told me, on her porch

 

“Go cry your eyes out on Belle Isle

The place we go to stay a while

to walk around and feel our grief

Among the rocks and river, weep”

 

She talked to me, as to a daughter

“Put your feet in Belle Isle’s water

wash away the hurt and fears

go out there and cry your tears”

 

Her remedy I came to know

was not just hers, but many sowed

that seed, from generations’ woes

just dip enough to wet the toes

 

The balm she often, so prescribed

was the not last time I would try

to cure my wounds or face my trials

to go and heal upon Belle Isle

 

But I am not the only one

to come to bask in Belle Isle sun

to walk upon the rocky shore

those days when you can take no more

 

In times of ache or loss of job

or episodes when life does rob

or cryin’ ‘bout a new heartthrob

Belle Isle is where we come to sob

***

The history of the Isle describes

The Ottowas, Ojibwa tribes

A-hish-in-aa-beg people dwelled

Upon the land – ’til they were felled

 

T’was later called the Isle of Hogs

They kept coyotes off the bog

then French and British fought to own

The island, for their kingdom’s throne

 

Those far off countries did exploit

But finally it was Detroit’s

Then Olmstead sketched it, day til dark

designed it much like Central Park

***

Our Belle Isle is a special place

for many folks of diverse race

But I must say, lest we forget

my people’s prayers have paid the debt

 

Back in the old Black Bottom day

they baptized in the olden way

All draped in white they walked on down

into the river, where they found

 

their newborn lives, washed free of sin

emerged upon the island’s rim

Down in the strait on Belle Isle’s coast

was where they caught that Holy Ghost

 

For years Belle Isle was thusly blessed

with Saints of God in all white dress

the Spirits, in the park did rest

and kept eyes out, for those distressed

 

and burdened by their lives’ duress

of racial ire and prejudice

Belle Isle was respite from the hate

oasis there upon the strait

 

But segregation on main land

moved to the island’s docks and sands

the yacht and boat clubs kept us out

engineered by those with clout

 

Yes, through the years the city’s trials

They made their way on to Belle Isle

Where Blacks and Whites enjoyed the breeze

But yet, they tarried with unease

 

On mainland there were poor conditions

violent racial competitions

Housing projects in demand

where soon we found that we were banned

 

We moved into Sojourner Truth

were met with bats and words uncouth

the Whites refused us to reside

they wouldn’t let us go inside

 

The city heaved with animus

oh no – ’twas not magnanimous

and skirmishes and hatred fanned,

the conflicts smouldering in the land

 

Months later, on the Belle Isle span

they broke out fighting, man to man

With racial rumors simmering

there on the Bridge in ‘43

 

Someone cried out!  There was a babe

thrown from The Bridge! or was it rape?!

the gossip-mongers spread this news

both White and Black fell for the ruse

 

They crossed MacArthur to the streets,

men who belonged behind white sheets

They made their way to Hastings Street

their hate exploded in the heat

 

Inflamed Detroiters, Black and White

Erupted into racial fights

They beat us ‘til so many bled

that Woodward Avenue ran red

 

When it was done, were many dead

the number’s thirty-four, I’ve read

I’m making sure here, that it’s said

lest we forget those days of dread

 

Then ’twas the time in hot July

that flames went up in Detroit skies

one fiery week in ‘67

the island turned its face from heaven

 

7,000 apprehended

overflowed Dehoco’s cells

then with civil rights suspended

Belle Isle park was made a jail

 

Drove them in there by the busload

locked ’em up near Picnic Way

turned the buses into jail cells

where they stayed day after day

 

Given water, piece of bread

locked upon the buses spread-

eagled, shackled, hardly fed

some even wished that they were dead

 

But then old Spirits came alive

and sent an angel, to arrive

when news got out Belle Isle was jail

Judge Crockett Sr. ordered bail

 

***

 

But sure, we all do recollect

the better times; we resurrect

our many Belle Isle reveries

those sweet collective memories

 

We’d all pile up in Daddy’s car

to try to find a place not far

we couldn’t go up North you see

not Detroit folks who looked like me

 

So summer days, was time to run

out to Belle Isle for summer fun

The Boulevard to Jefferson

our route to get to Belle Isle sun

 

Up to McArthur Bridge we drove

and on its banks, the Giant Stove!

a testament to our old town

in days when iron-works were found

 

from then we’d get up to the ridge

and tunnel under, to The Bridge

while driving through, in night or morn

we’d scream! as Daddy blew the horn!

 

And just before we’d bbq

and grown folks started drinking brew

they’d sit on down to have a bite

and Daddy’d stop to fly a kite

 

We loved the big aquarium

and flower -filled solarium

and picnics, parties, that will last

in memoirs of our childhood’s past

 

It isn’t hard to reminisce

on all our dates or even trysts

We all remember that sweet kiss

while riding ‘round the park in bliss

 

Or way back on the Lighthouse end

A quiet moment, with a friend

or even art that’s there to see

the Dossin’s stain-glassed masterpiece

 

Or weddings in the Flower House

where those betrothed became a spouse

Or family reunion days

to celebrate our DNAs

 

Or pony rides in olden days

with horses that we rode for pay

Or maybe we were in canoes

Traverse the inland lakes, lagoons

 

We rode the Slide when it was new

And took our kids to see the Zoo

Watched athletes bounding over hurtles

went to see — the Giant Turtle!

 

Remember winters, when we’d skate?

Upon the ice and then we’d wait

for summer; we’d shake off fatigue

play after work in baseball leagues

 

Some played handball on the courts

Belle Isle has had so many sports

the island was our special port

for we weren’t welcome way Up North

 

For during summers, long and hot

Belle isle’s the only place we’ve got

especially those who cannot pay

for leisure places, far away

***

But years, no budget funds to spend

It wasn’t hard to comprehend

why Belle Isle suffered lack of care

and many stopped their visits there

 

the island looked the worse for wear

forlorn, tall grass was everywhere

few lavatories, too much trash

folks thought it cool to Belle Isle bash

 

But it’s not true what haters said

that Belle Isle had been left for dead

It always was a wondrous place

For we who never left her grace

 

Decisions made to sign a lease

for thirty years, to keep the peace

upon the land and on the Isle

the State and City reconciled

 

The deal was done to let the State

take over – but right out the gate

came down so hard, you see – the cops

went overboard on traffic stops

 

then not just scofflaws, many folks

were scared away, it was no joke

for what they did was alienate

they ran folks off, made some irate

 

they mixed up kids just having fun

with knuckleheads out doin’ wrong

Guess they all look alike you see,

no difference was between them seen

 

and ran the black youth off the strip

though it was fine for white kids – hipster

beaches, blunts and bacchanals

were all ok – now black kids gone

 

Mud Bashes were more welcomed than

the Hip-Hop dancin’ on The Strand

Newcomers carved out their own beach

while young Detroiters had to leave

 

They made so many family’s flee

Things went too far, as one could see

that for a while it was all off-track

Some felt unwelcome, that’s a fact

 

But now there is a balance back

restoring confidence, in fact

to welcome us, both White and Black

and all who want the island back

***

But some land’s covered in cement

from yearly auto race events

and giant berms that block our way

too many months a year they stay

 

And rumor has it, there are those

who want our island for their own

to turn into their private isle

not now, but in a future while

 

I say to them, that if they should

old Holy Ghosts will rise for good

Those Spirits raise from the lagoon

To take your hands off our heirloom

 

For now new black folks dressed in white

do gather there in early light

assemble during crepiscule

to be immersed into the pool

 

They walk right down into the waves,

tradition, since we were enslaved

ancestors honored in the surf,

who used to walk on Belle Isle’s turf

 

The rich will come to rue the day

they try to plunder Picnic Way

Regret the day they try to keep

Belle isle from us, to make us weep

 

No good will come from what they reap

The Spirits will rise from the deep

Rise from the creeks and streams and fjords

Revenge is mine, thus sayeth Lord

 

We call the Spirits of Detroit

to wrestle not with who’d exploit

for battle’s not with them you see

but unseen principalities

 

Now that the island’s more diverse

I summon all who hear this verse

to coalesce to keep Belle Isle

for all Detroiters all the while

 

 

No private island shall they make

exclusive playground for to take

restricted land just for their fun

no longer here for everyone

 

For there’s still places to explore

and now, so much has been restored

The Fountain, Fish House, we can see

Their beauty’s no hyperbole

 

Today we savor Belle Isle’s peace

and watch the crossing ducks & geese

The Boat and Yacht Clubs renovate

(and they no longer segregate)

 

The island’s quiet, right for bikes

And walking, running, evening hikes

A place for nationalities

The burkas, bubas, and saris

 

Each dawn Belle Island is reborn

the rowers set out in the morn

so quietly their vessels glide

the oars do pierce the morning tide

 

at Belle Isle’s daybreak, full of dew

the early hour’s mist in view

and flora, fauna fanciful

the morning mist, so magical

 

Our island is a hallowed place

repository of the grace

bestowed, on Detroit’s human race

Yes Belle Isle is a sacred place

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Copyright – Marsha Music, 2016

 

 

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