Natasha Thretewey is a famous American poet. She was born on April 6th, 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her life was shaped by the incidence of her birth and a few crucial events that happened in her early life. Her mother, Gwendolyn, was black and her father Eric was white. Natasha was a child of a biracial marriage, which was illegal when she was born in 1966. In “Miscegenation” she wrote about her parents’ journey to Ohio in 1965 for a marriage that was illegal in their home state Mississippi. “They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong–mis in Mississippi. ”Her birthday coincided with The Confederate Memorial Day, celebrated by some Southern states. Later in life when she was aware of the fact she wrote: “…here is this Holiday glorifying the lost cause and white supremacy and there I was, a Black and biracial child born on that day.” Natasha as a child lived a dual reality. Later, she writes about this experience. “…skipping between those houses gathering sunshine-yellow daffodils in the cocoon of her extended family; and then out on the streets experiencing the tension of being mixed race. With her father she was accorded respect, with her mother sneers and threats. A cross was burned on their lawn.
When Natasha was six, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Atlanta, Georgia. She moved far away from her loving and supportive immediate family, far away from her grandmother, aunts and uncles who adored her. Soon after they moved to Atlanta, her mother remarried and her stepfather was an abusive man who beat and disrespected her mother. Natasha, as a child and teenager witnessed the constant terror and agony in their home, and lived in fear and humiliation.
Thirty-five years ago Natasha’s stepfather shot and killed her mother outside their home in a suburb of Atlanta. Natasha was only 19 years old when the tragedy happened and she spent a long time trying to forget. “I wanted to forge a new life for myself that didn’t include that past, but of course that was impossible.”
After her mother was killed Natasha vowed never to return to Atlanta. “I took with me what I have cultivated all those years: mute avoidance of my past, silence and willed amnesia buried deep in me like a root”.
Trethewey started writing poetry as a freshman in college in response to a personal tragedy and as a way to accept the reality of her mother’s loss. Her mother would become an inspiration to the poet and her loss awakened her creative and innovative energy.
Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book “Native Guard.” In this collection of poems she retells the event of The Black Civil War regiment that was assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Later, the Confederate soldiers were memorialized on the island and there wasn’t a single gravestone posted for the black soldiers, never mentioned, forgotten as if they had never existed. The poet brought that important event back into focus and she wrote:
“ Some names shall deck the page of history
As it is written on stone. Some will not.”
She weaves her personal story and connects it with historical events and takes us deep into the heart of human tragedy without being preachy.
Her first book of poetry “Domestic Work” was dedicated to black maids, washerwomen, factory workers. One of her poems begins:
“The eyes of eight women
I don’t know
Stare out of this photograph
This book won numerous awards among which is The Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by African American poet. This collection is highly praised by her peers and one of them wrote: “…choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts – reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie for strength.”
Her poems intermix personal events and national history and prompt us to meditate on the complexities of American racial identities. She examines a wide scope of interests in her poetry. Whether it is her tragic family life or events and historical figures from near and distant past, her poetry is full of light and hope, incorporating elements of classics and elegance at the same time.
“Native Guard” was also dedicated to her mother but it didn’t include her name. After she won the prize, journalists and the media became curious and started looking deeper into the poet’s life. Natasha realized that not including her mother’s name in the winning book, made her feel as if she had erased her memory.
A chance encounter with the Assistant Attorney General of Atlanta, Georgia, made it possible for Natasha Thretewey to write her latest book, a memoir of her mother, “ Memorial Drive” completely dedicated to Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. Her mother was a social worker, a quiet revolutionary, a woman who enabled her daughter to thrive even in the environment of the abusive home. He gave Natasha the box which contained all of the police files of her mother’s homicide investigation. With the help of these documents, she was able to recreate her mother’s last days and moments and fully understand the tragic moments at the end of her life. However, this experience had redeeming qualities for the poet. Natasha understood the flow of events more clearly and confirmed what she had always known and felt about her mother’s character. This woman was calm, resolute, resilient, lovely.
“Memorial Drive” is a nakedly powerful expression of coming to terms of the poet with her mother’s death. And, coming to terms with the lifelong grief of a daughter who spent a lot of creative energy to accept the reality of her own life.
Natasha Trethewey’s life was interwoven with challenges which she tried to overcome and she was able to rise above the crushing negativism of those experiences. She used poetry as a vehicle to raise awareness of the forgotten black, working men and women who made it possible for this country to be a place in which people that are different could prosper.
When Natasha lived in Atlanta, she could see The Stone Mountain from her apartment. It is nearly 1700 feet high, a massive bas-relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson – a Confederate Mt. Rushmore, the largest of its kind, looms at the end of the Memorial Drive that provides the title of her book.
In recent years there has been a movement to demolish The Confederate monuments in many Southern states, which are symbols of the racist past. However, Natasha Trethewey doesn’t want The Stone Mountain to be destroyed. She thinks it’s important to look at the monument and remember the origins of hate, grief and untold loss. Like many poets before her she quotes Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Elegy for the Native Guards by NATASHA TRETHEWEY
Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . . .
We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—
half reminder of the men who served there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.
Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.
The Daughters of the Confederacy
has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—
2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?
All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.
- Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive” on Her Mother’s Killing by Hillary Kelly -Los Angeles Times www.latimes.com
- In “Memorial Drive” Natasha Trethewey Opens Up About Her Murdered Mother, interview with Terry Gross, NPR www.npr.org
- About Natasha Trethewey, Academy of American Poets poets.org
- Natasha Trethewey, Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org
- Poets-Questions for Natasha Thretewey-Deborah Solomon-The New York Times www.nytimes.com
- Natasha Thretawey is Named as the Newest Poet Laureate by Husna Haq, The Christian Science Monitor www.scmonitor.com
- Elegy For The Native Guards by Natasha Trethewey, Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org