Get prepared to dig into your mid-week longread: our friend Rowan Lynam got the amazing chance to sit with the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Natasha Trethewey. They talked poetry, politics and the future of African American voices in our community. They get deep, and stay there. Enjoy.
Lynam: I was thinking about ‘Native Guard’ after Charlottesville. A lot of your work deals with historical memory and what celebrate and what we don’t. I was kind of drawn to that work during this conversation about Confederate monuments. Can you speak a bit to how your work engages with those two kinds of histories: what we remember and what we don’t?
Trethewey: Yeah, that’s a great question, it’s actually been the driving force behind me being a poet. I’ve talked about the two existential wounds that I feel made me a poet, using the idea from WH Auden memoriam to William Butler Yates “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”
So, Mad Mississippi…my south, and to a larger extent my nation has national memory and national amnesia around race and, with ‘Native Guard,’ African American participation in the Civil War…[that] was my first wound. And the second, I think the deeper wound that made me a poet, was losing my mother when I was nineteen
But these things go together, and I didn’t quite realize that when I started being a poet. I knew I had to write about certain things. I knew, growing up as a little girl in Mississippi, that there was so much history that was erased or forgotten. I used to go out to Ship Island with my grandmother every Fourth of July to see visit the fort and just swim and eat barbeque. And not once during that time did the park rangers mention anything about the black soldiers who were stationed there who were guarding the Confederate prisoners, which would have been a very important history not just for me as a little black girl, but for everyone to know, because it’s our shared history as Americans.
There are so many ways, too, that narratives of white supremacy were inscribed on the landscape, and that, of course, is all the monuments. Monuments not only to Confederate Generals that were erected not immediately following the Civil War but because of advances in Civil Rights, but also monuments and the naming of roads and bridges after staunch segregationists, Klansmen. Everywhere around there were these things that reminded me that I was a second class citizen.
But, that other part of the wound, losing my mother when I was nineteen…I always used to believe that, you know, Mississippi was that big wound for me, but it wasn’t just Mississippi. It was indeed the South and the way the South, and the nation at large, remembers the Civil War. My mother was killed … on Memorial Drive in Georgia. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, right outside the of Atlanta. Memorial Drive that runs from the city of Atlanta straight to Stone Mountain, which is the site of the larges monument to the Confederacy.
So, I sort of came of age in that last year, in an apartment that we lived in on Memorial Drive, in the shadow of that monument. And my mother dying…for me that public and personal history was connected in ways that I didn’t even know at first. But I was driven to write by both of them.
That was a really long answer, I’m sorry about that.
Lynam: Long answers are the best answers.
Trethewey: You’re going to have some work editing that one.
Lynam: So, your work isn’t just about remembering, it’s about salvaging histories. Why poetry for that work?
Trethewey: Well, I always love hearing that question too, Rowan, because sometimes when I’m asked “Why poetry?” I’m often not sure exactly what the questioner is asking. But you made it clear, “Why poetry?” and because you’re in journalism, coming from your it matters differently to me, also.
I think sometimes when I get that question, people are asking “why not journalism? Why not history? Why would you choose this form for remembrance and to sort of contend with historical amnesia, instead of these other forms?”
I think about the poet Robert Hayden, who said that he wrote poems in order to correct a lot of the misapprehensions about African American history, but that’s not really the answer to that. A very basic way that I think about it, is that there’s an intimacy in poetry that can make one feel as though there is just one listener out there, and the voice of the poem is speaking directly to that listener. That kind of intimacy that makes you feel as if you are inhabiting the experience of someone else. Because it’s very quiet…it’s a space that allows for the connection between a reader or a listener, and a writer that touches not just the intellect, but the heart.
There’s also of course, what’s memorable about poetry … the cadences, the elegant envelope of form that a poem is that makes it a piece of language that might cut through the bigger spaces where there are a lot more words and a lot more noise. When I say this, it sounds as if I’m saying that historical writing or journalistic writing doesn’t do those things, and I don’t think that at all.
I don’t mean that at all, which is why it’s hard to answer your question. When I’m being flip and I answer that question, I say “cause I’m good at it.”
Something about it seems…the density and compression seem right to me. But I’ve fantasized about being a historian and a journalist, so it seems to me that maybe this is the best way I have to do the work that you might do, or that my husband, who’s a historian, does.
Lynam: This is really interesting to me, because you mentioned poetry being a quiet activity. Poetry began as an oral form and has kind of transformed from there. Do you prefer your works to be read aloud or silently?
Trethewey: Oh. Well I suppose, the preference would be for someone to hear the poem, whether they are reading it out loud or listening to me read it out loud. I find that I understand poems best when I hear them. So, when I’m teaching and I’m reading my students poems at home to prepare for class, I read them out loud. It’s a way of not just intellectualizing what’s going on, on the page, but taking the cadences, their rhythm, their breath into my own body.
Lynam: “Pastoral” from ‘Native Guard’ is one of my favorite poems of yours, and it’s one that an undergrad class I had emphasized. In that poem you describe taking a photograph in a dream in front of the skyline of Atlanta, but that skyline is blocked out by this idyllic pasture scene. Why do you think the white south, or white America in general, chooses to block that skyline?
Trethewey: So, that’s also a great question, no one’s ever asked me that. What I was trying to get at, and I think in a roundabout way I’ll be able to answer your question, was that Fugitive Agrarian movement that wanted to distance itself from industrialization and urban centers and to continue to sort of think about the farm and rural areas and the idea that the African American’s place was on a farm. And yet, they were also living in urban places themselves. So they were sort of glorifying this rural south while living in New Haven or New York or even living in Atlanta. So, I wanted to suggest that veneer of the farm with cows superimposed and blocking the view of the new south, which is what I think what you’re getting at, is blocking out the progress of what the new south was supposed to mean. That was for not just black people, but white people who would be able to get a better education and benefits that go with the switch from the old south to the new south.
Did you—forgive me that I want to ask you a question—but I’m wondering what kinds of things you talked about when you discussed that poem?
Lynam: What we kept coming back to is that Atlanta is a majority black city, and W.E. Du Bois talks about Atlanta with so much promise, you know. And the choice to block that out reflected something in the world of poetry – that choice was very deliberate. A lot of what we talked about were the implications of redirecting to the idyllic pasture and don’t look at this black city.
Trethewey: And don’t look at the promise of the new south. And I think, they put that bucolic landscape there out of a sense of nostalgia too, and of course we know that nostalgia is a longing for something that never quite was. Because it wasn’t simply this lovely bucolic place for everyone.
Just to tell you more about it, and you can cut this out, that poem came out of an experience I had at Vanderbilt in 2000. They were doing a conference about Southern writing at the millennium, sort of to rethink the some of the canonical ideas of the south that were in the fugitives I’ll take my stand. And things were crazy. Some crazy things happened that weekend.
Lynam: They all go crazy at the lit conferences.
Trethewey: Yeah, Exactly! So crazy things went on, but there was a moment where we all went to pose for a reenactment of the Fugitive Conference, where they had taken a photograph just like that. So there we were, in this moment all that time later, rethinking and hashing out where we were as Southern writers and yet, some of the old things were there, just under the surface
Lynam: A lot of your work, in salvaging these histories, is also asserting that black lives matter.
Lynam: How do you see yourself in context of social movements like Black Lives Matter?
Trethewey: Well, just to be clear and I can tell by your asking that you already know this, but it bears repeating I think. That the Black Lives Matter movement and the phrase Black Lives Matter is not an attempt to say that Black Lives Matter more than anyone else’s. So we don’t need to be told that Blue lives matter or these lives matter, because they already matter and we know that. The problem is, it doesn’t go without saying that black lives matter. And so you just need to attach to that phrase ‘just as much,’ because that’s all it’s trying to say.
There are so many ways that we are told constantly that black lives matter don’t matter as much as other lives. That’s been the history of this country, and it’s an ongoing history.
A poem that I wrote that preceded that movement, but anticipated it, is a poem from my collection ‘Thrall,’ called “Miracle of the Black Leg.” It’s a poem very much about the series of artwork that you find in many countries – in paintings as well as altarpieces and written narratives—about the myth, the miracle of the black leg. The myth is about the patron saints of medicine, brothers Cosmos and Damien, who were told by an angel that there was a white sacrosanct, a member of the church, who had a diseased leg and they wanted these patron saints of medicine, these brothers who cared for the sick, to administer to him. So they told him where they could get a black leg to replace his diseased white leg.
Now, what’s interesting about the myth (or the miracle, but I call it a myth) is how the imagery changes over time. In some versions, the brothers are inside a graveyard with shovels and a hacksaw, getting the leg from a dead man. They’re grave robbing to take this limb.
In other versions, they have actually taken the limb from a live “donor.” The first time I saw an image of that, I walked away from my office with so many questions swirling around in my head. Who was this donor? How did he come to give his leg to somebody else? Why was his wholeness expendable, for someone else’s?
In each of the paintings, what you see in terms of the composition of the image, is always the white body is on a plane higher than the body of the black person donor. Even if there are three panels, you see the white patient up on some kind of platform or bed receiving the leg, and you see another panel of the black person on the ground – in a grave. So one’s always up high and closer to heaven and one is always earthly.
It was very much, to me, an image of who can be plundered, who can be made use of in the service of others. That’s why it precedes the phrase “black lives matter,” and yet that was exactly what I was trying to write about.
I think I’ve always been writing about that, in a sense, by trying to remember and re-inscribe the narratives that have been lost, or forgotten, or erased, or ones that haven’t been inscribed into the historical record at all and deserve a just telling. Because they matter just as much.
Lynam: Along the same lines, Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” is a kind of warning about the damning slide into “savage servility” that takes place when we allow historical memory, in this case, a Union monument, to be imperiled. How does your poetry work against that slide?
Trethewey:When I first started writing poems as a graduate student, before I really knew well enough what my abiding themes would be, I started writing about my grandmother. My grandmother, who was born in Mississippi in 1916 and obviously lived through Jim Crowe and the Civil Rights Movement, saw a lot of change from a pretty rough vantage point in Mississippi. Her generation and the community she was from, where I was born and where my mother grew up, had been an African American community since after the Civil War. This is where freed slaves had gone to settle. There were people who carried with them the historical memory of that time and that place. And they were starting to die off.
And I was the kind of child who liked to sit and listen to them talk. I wanted to keep their stories, and I wanted to keep alive something that they connected me to, that I had no other way of accessing. Because there weren’t monuments for that part of the story.
I had these living monuments, who were dying.
So, I started first by trying to create –and I wouldn’t have called it this then, though I know it now—my own kind of living monument in words. That living monument lives on, the way I think that those big monuments do when we don’t let them crumble.
I don’t think that monuments are static. I don’t think that they are mute, in a sense, because I believe that every time we look at them, we bring something to animate them and interact with the past in certain ways. Now, what story they’re going to animate is a different question.
Lynam: It’s my next question.
Trethewey: Okay! But that’s what I’ve tried to do, to create a living monument in words that will help us continue to remember.
Lynam: How do you see that warning of Lowell’s, this need to keep monuments from crumbling, in context of people who want to preserve Confederate monuments? What do you hear when people say “you can’t take down these monuments, you’re removing history?”
Trethewey: There’s so much to be said, but I have to start with something and give credit to the person who said it. It was my good friend David Wong, who was here to give a reading at the American Writer’s Museum last week. He just published a book about the Civil War, a novel called ‘The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,’ and he kind of gets a question like that too. The wonderful answer that he gave is about all the other histories that are erased or submerged beneath that history.
So, for example, the way that so much of Native American history on the landscape has been erased. You can go to Mississippi and go to Mound Bayou or a couple of places where mounds still remain, but even the names, the words of former tribes are just a shadow of a larger history that, in many ways, is forgotten.
You know the poem ‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ by Robert Hass, in which he says “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” So what you have is just elegy after elegy in these words, but nothing of this other history that’s been erased and written over.
I’ve never wanted to erase history. What I’ve wanted to do is tell a fuller version and show how our shared histories as Americans overlap and intersect. Not two trains running on separate tracks, but woven together.
So with monuments, I think we have to consider a couple of things about them: when they were erected and the purposes for which they were erected. Monuments that were erected to say “know your place, black people,” and monuments that were to white supremacy and white domination and white rule, those were messages sent to black people because of advancements in the Civil Rights Movement. That’s what’s being remembered.
I feel that there are certain monuments that could be moved to a museum so that we have a sense of the history that they were there to mark, and we should know that that’s why they were there. Some I think, could remain with additional materials; Historical markers that also tell the story of why that monument was erected so that you get that fuller version of history.
An example is, my first teaching job was at Auburn University, and at the center of the town right in front of the gates of the university, there’s a little historical marker that says something like “after the Indian’s left” in regards to the founding of Auburn.
Trethewey: “Left,” exactly! Nothing about Indian removal, nothing about the trail of tears. So if you didn’t know the history of why the Indians left, that marker doesn’t tell you that. It makes it seem like they just got up one day and said “Man, this place is a drag, let’s move West.”
So, I think we need to tell a fuller version of history, and sometimes that means putting monuments in a museum with a lot more contextual information, sometimes it means keeping monuments and telling a story. It’s like going to Monticello, now. The story at Monticello has changed from what it was 25 years ago, when I went for the first time, when you couldn’t even ask about Sally Hemmings. That was taboo.
Now it’s part of the narrative that the docent will tell you at the beginning of the tour. We don’t need to bulldoze Monticello; we just need to tell everything about Monticello.
Lynam: If you could build a monument for anyone, who would you build it for?
Trethewey: The easy answer is my mother. And that’s what ‘Native Guard’ was; it was an attempt to build that monument to her in words. I’ve gotten better at it, I think. When the book first came out, the dedication read “to my mother, in memory,” and it was that monument that I had imagined.
And then the book won the Pulitzer and there was all this attention around it, more than I ever could have imagined. But what it made me realize was that I had erected a monument to Natasha Trewthewey’s mother, because I hadn’t named her. So, I had actually continued a pattern of erasure by not calling her by her name.
When the book came out in second printing, you’ll see now that it reads “to my mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, in memory.” Now that is the monument to her.
Lynam: In ‘Thrall,’ you emphasize the processes of learning and the sources of knowledge that we have. How can we supersede the white standards of knowledge? Now, Ta-Nehesi Coates gets a lot of questions about hope and where to turn for that kind of knowledge, and I don’t want to place the burden on you, but I would still love to know your insights.
Trethewey: So you’re absolutely right about what I was trying to contend with, about what is learned and the kinds of received knowledge that we get from all sorts of places. That includes science, a lot of 19th century pseudoscience. But I was specifically looking at, as a starting point in that collection, the Enlightenment and 18th Century philosophers like Kant and Hume, who first codified racial difference and racial hierarchy.
So think, all these philosophers writing about the Enlightenment, which gave us so many good things, are also codifying racist ideas that we inhale like air. We learn them in school.
I can remember sitting in classrooms and learning something that was telling me that I was less than. And it was the whole history of ideas; it was the very production of knowledge, the very bedrock of so much of our thinking, was telling me that I was other and that otherness was also less-than.
Also, sitting in a history class — I wrote about this in ‘Native Guard’ in “Southern History,” being told things that were not evidence-based. They were more what the Daughters of Confederacy wanted when they commissioned the writing of the textbooks about the Civil War. They were meant to tell a certain version of the story that made them look better, but not true history, not the facts.
You mentioned Du Boise earlier, when he was working on Black Reconstruction, he couldn’t get access to the archives that white historians had access to. So it was a difficult task for him to write such a brilliant book in which he calls out white historians for not telling the evidence-based history that they could find in those archives.
So, where to turn?
The idea that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery – well, that’s not case when you read the South Carolina secession papers. So where do we go for knowledge? I think we have to go to evidence-based knowledge, you are searching for evidence and the facts.
Lynam: ‘Thrall’ also engages with perception. You describe a series of paintings in which mixed-race families are depicted, and where mixed-race children are often made to look more like objects than like people. How did those pieces speak to you and your own experiences with perception?
Trethewey: When any of us looks at a painting, or out the window, or has an experience, no two people will see it the same way or tell the same story. So definitely, how I perceive those images has everything to do with my own internal life and my relationships with my mother and father.
But before I get to that, in my own research I turned to a lot of different sources and one of them was Ilona Katzew who has a couple of books about the Casta paintings. As an art historian she uses the methodology that art historians have used to identify themes and motifs in paintings to understand how we are to read the paintings. One of the things she talks about is the different ways in which these blended, mixed-race people are presented. And in the early part of the 18th century, in many of the paintings that I wrote about, there is an equality in the images in how people are presented. But by the later part of the 18th Century, for instance any time you see a painting that is a mixture of the white father, the black mother, and the mulatto child, it’s a scene of some kind of domestic violence. The woman is often holding a knife and going after the white father while the child is trying to hold her back. And the more these images were shown to the people who existed in that historical moment, the more it told them something about the character of those people.
They were not reflecting the truth of the character of these people, but shaping how these people were viewed in the society. That’s sort of what metaphor does: it tells us how to think, it doesn’t only reflect what we’re thinking.
Because I wrote about the ones in the beginning, I knew when I started writing about them that I was drawn to them because they were a kind of image of my own blended family. But only the writing showed me what I really thought about what I was seeing.
So for example, as I began to write about them, I began to notice more and more that I was focusing on the relationship between the white father and the mulatto child and the position of the black mother in the painting.
I use phrases like “so black she has no face” or there’s one in which the mother is so black like that, that she almost blends in with the background of the canvas, so that she’s almost rendered invisible. So she’s being made invisible, and then there’s the father and the child. And often the father often seemed to be in a position of transience, there’s one in which he’s still in his coat and he’s rolling a cigarette, so either he’s either just come in or he’s just leaving. We don’t see him as being fully invested in being in the domestic sphere or he’s distracted when he’s in it, he’s not looking at the child. Or, he’s doing some subtle gesture that someone else might read as simply tenderness but that I also read as a kind of possessiveness, a kind of ownership of.
And that was very interesting to me because there was a moment where, with my own father who was a poet too, where I began to feel that he was participating in a kind of public erasure of my mother. What I mean when I say that, is that it was so easy for people to say “Oh, you’re a writer because your father is a writer,” as though my mother had nothing to do with it. And that’s an innocent enough assumption until you unpack it
And then you begin to think that if I connect it to what people used to say to me when I was a child, where often white people would say to whenever I did anything well, “Oh, that’s your white side.” As if nothing good or successful that I would do could come from my black mother or my black grandmother.
And then it’s also patriarchal, as if the lineage of my ability to write and my success comes directly through the white father.
That bothered me, and the way that my father began to somewhat participate in that publically was erasing my mother. Without thinking of it, I began to see that reflected in those paintings. And indeed, it’s there.
But also, there was a way I was trying to push back against it. There’s another poem in which I’m describing the very dark figure of the mother, she’s in a black cloak so she’s very black and she’s slightly foregrounded like she’s advancing the way a pendulum would swing, or spilled ink spreading on a page, or an eclipse.
That was my way of suggesting that I’m a writer because of that deepest wound, losing her, she eclipses everything for me.
My father certainly contributed to my being a writer, he was one of my first teachers and I admired him and his poems so deeply. And yet, to erase my mother as part of that equation hurt me, and I think made me begin to see those paintings such that they could tell that story for me.
Lynam: I feel like this calls to mind Du Bois’ “double consciousness.” Is that something that you consciously consider when you write or is it just so much a part of your experience?
Trethewey: I think so much a part of my experience, and I did think a lot about that in working on my second collection, ‘Bellocq’s Ophelia,” because Ophelia is completely immersed in this idea of the double consciousness. She is constantly being looked at, both as an exotic curiosity because she is an octoroon, a black woman with white skin, and she’s also very beautiful. In a brothel, people are constantly checking her to see if they could find half-moons in her fingernails and all the things that are supposed to reveal if you have black blood.
And that’s very much like what I experienced as a child, constantly being questioned “What are you?”
So, she’s constantly being looked at and she knows she’s being perceived in different ways depending on the person the viewer looking at her, and always needing to push back against that. You see that kind of twoness. You know yourself, but you also know how the world is perceiving you because of the metaphors of race and difference.
Lynam: You’ve spoken a lot in previous interviews about Barack Obama and what it’s like to live those eight years of the first black president. And he’s a biracial man, but now as a nation we refer to him exclusively as African American.
Trethewey: Well, I can remember in the beginning when he was first on the scene, he was biracial. People kept referring to him as biracial.
Lynam: Why do you think that changed?
Trethewey: Well, here’s my theory, because I can tell you about it from my own experience. Here’s a story to tell it to you.
When I went to high school, I was bussed into a white high school and in my senior year I was crowned Miss Reid Ann High School in the pageant.
Trethewey: Well, thank you. At that moment, I was the first black Miss Reid Ann high school until ten years later when another young black woman was crowned and then they said she was the first one, and I was mixed race. So they changed it.
They changed it because the story had to be different to fit some pattern that they wanted to tell. And who’s invested in doing that? Either I was first black something a lot of the times or I wasn’t, depending on who needed me to be what for their own purposes.
I think that when Obama was being called biracial or mixed-race, for some people that might have been more palatable. I think that’s how he was being presented at first to white people, “Oh, well you know, he’s part white. He gets you too! You don’t have to worry that he’s just going to be all ‘black lives matter’ because he gets you too! He’s part white!”
But then, if you say he’s black, well then, maybe he doesn’t get you.
Black people also take part in deciding what they want him to be sometimes. At first he wasn’t black enough for some black leaders because he is biracial, and then he was black enough. And I think it’s almost like the way it is in literature sometimes. The mulatto character in literature can serve as a kind of foil to tell us about the other groups by existing in this difficult middle ground.
So, it’s shifting, but there’s also the part we haven’t talked about, which is self-identification. As far as I know, and I’ve heard him, he identifies as a black person as I do. If I’m trying to be very specific because I sense that the person I’m talking to needs clarification, I will say that I’m black and biracial, but I identify as a black person.
Sometimes I think the stories can illustrate things better than what I can tell you the meaning of them is. So I’ll tell you another one.
I also constantly encountered white people that would say “Why do you call yourself black? You’re not really black, so why do you say that?” And behind that, what they’re asking sometimes is, “When you don’t have to? When you could be something better than that? Instead of having to be fully black, you can actually only be part black, which means you can be half of what I am? And isn’t it better to be white like me?”
Which means they know something about why it might not be the best position in America to be black. So there’s so much embedded in a question like “Well, why do you say you’re black?”
I’m not diminishing my white father when I say I’m black, I’m trying to signify something about the truth of our American past. We still live in a nation with a one-drop rule.
Lynam: How do you think America en-mass is doing when it comes to our perception of our own history? We’re having these debates about these monuments and there are these cultural forces like Black Lives Matter, but still we’ve elected Donald Trump. But still we’re in this position where racism is so much a part of our day to day experience.
Trethewey: It’s so odd to hear that phrase – it’s one moment that I want to check out of that ‘we,’ when we say that “We elected Donald Trump.” I’m like, we? No. Y’all are responsible for that. You did that to us.
I think that we are so…”we.” So many Americans don’t know much about history, they get the facts wrong. Sometimes it’s an ignorance that is rooted in the half-truths that we’re taught in schools and sometimes it’s willed. Willed forgetting, willed blindness, willed amnesia about things.
And that’s perhaps the more insidious of the two. Because we can do better about teaching the facts of history, it’s harder to contend with people who will their ignorance and will their amnesia because they’d rather not have to contend with historical fact because the lies serve their sense of self and their place in the world better than the truth does.
Lynam: Speaking to that a little bit, right now on the left there’s this big debate between Bernie people who want to talk about class and economics exclusively and the white democratic establishment and democrats that want to go beyond economics and talk about racism and discrimination and how all those things are connected. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that divide and on the way that race and class interplay.
Trethewey: That’s another one that played itself out in my family. My father, my white parent, was from a poor working class family in Canada. He used to tell a story about seeing his grandfather, whom he adored and thought of as big and important and not stooped, but standing tall. His grandfather was a blacksmith, and my father recounted being in the shop with him when he’d be shoeing horses and the rich man in the town came in and his grandfather went from being upright and over 6 ft. tall bent and have a posture of deference. Even his voice changed.
My father, in that moment, saw that he was from that class of people, the servile class that had to bend in a kind of servile reverence to the rich man. Because that was his experience, my father did have a hard time seeing how blackness added to that equation that he described. For him it was all about class.
For that reason, he couldn’t see the nuances of class within in the African American community, where my mother was from. In that community, it was Mississippi, they were poor, working class to an extent. My grandmother was a drapery seamstress, a great uncle was a bellhop at a hotel and a cook, and another went on to become a pharmacist. People were more educated in my mother’s family, whereas my father was the first to go to college in his family. On my mother’s side, my grandmother hadn’t gone, but two of her siblings had gone to college and had professional degrees.
That meant that our class status was higher than his, and in the black community where my mother was from, my great aunt Sugar had helped found the church, they were very active. My great uncle’s son was a landowner and owned several properties and was a landowner. So in that community, they were the pillars of that community. They were the people who had more and did more, because of that privilege.
My father saw them as exactly the same. He saw blackness as poor, but he also didn’t see that in one community they were of a higher class than he was and that race was the thing that was keeping them from further opportunity that required the kind of dissembling that his grandfather would do.
He couldn’t see that, and it seems to me now that the way some people miss that those things are linked. Economics in America are certainly all linked together, but race is a factor that changes it. It changes opportunity, it changes whether or not you can buy a house or what medical care you’re going to get.
Lynam: I’m interested to know how you’ve navigated the worlds of academia and literature, which are, as all institutions it seems, so steeped in racism and patriarchy.
Trethewey: Well, it’s something that I’ve always been conscious of. I think part of it is being aware that you’ll have to navigate it and being prepared for that. I’ve always known that because I’m black and a woman that I would have to be aware of where opportunity was limited and be willing to navigate that field.
Lynam: On opportunity, how you perceive the landscape for African American writers and poets, particularly women, right now in the publishing world. What is it like out there right now for African American writers?
Trethewey: Oh, it’s another Renaissance. When I won the Pulitzer in poetry, it had only gone to three African American poets before me – Yusef Komunyakaa in 1994, Rita Dove in 1987, and Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950.
But since then, you’ve already seen Tracy K. Smith, Gregory Pardlo, and Tyehimba Jess win the Pulitzer in poetry. That’s as many in the past decade as there had been for sixty years. Black writers and black voices are publishing amazing work out of the top publishing houses now. It’s an incredibly exciting time.
Rowan Lynam is a journalist and poet living in Charleston, SC. A Medill grad at only 22, Lynam is a rising voice in social justice journalism and lover of literature with a 17 lb. cat named George.
Natasha Trethewey is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and again in 2014. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is a former Poet Laureate of Mississippi