New Laureate Is More than the Sum of Her Parts

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...full text also found on The Huffington Post and The Root

Recently released reports by the Pew Center and the US Census Bureau indicate that intermarriage across racial and ethnic lines and an increasing non-white demographic continue to be on the rise in the U.S. Given this month’s focus on Loving Day and its impact on multiracial ancestries we can certainly take this news as cause for celebration and a reason to continue the fight for marriage equality everywhere. And, as I argue in my book Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, we should remember that an accurate historical account of interracial sex and marriage in the U.S. should focus as much on what is now revealed as it does on what has always been concealed.

Enter Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ next poet laureate. Tretheway, the multiracial African-American daughter of an interracial couple, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three collections and a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. She is first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.

But Tretheway is much more than the sum of her parts. As the product of a union that was still a crime in Mississippi when her parents married, and of a nation still bearing the scars of its broken union, she is the voice of a history that has been largely unwritten. Take her brilliant poem, “Miscegenation” from the Native Guard collection:

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong - mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year - you’re the same
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name -
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

For Trethewey, love and identity know no bounds. Perhaps this is why she expresses them so boundlessly through her poetry. In Trethewey’s work we get a glimpse into the humanity, history, and society we all share if we are brave enough to hear them out. And, with Trethewey as our next poet laureate, that is exactly what we should be proud to do.

Trethewey's next collection of poems, Thrall, will be published this year. It explores her relationship with her father and her interracial familial memories, along with poems about art and the history of knowledge from the Enlightenment.