WHEN U.S. POET Laureate Natasha Trethewey visited my day job at historically black Kentucky State University, she cleared up a couple of things about the honors and duties of her position. First she noted that, unlike her British counterpart, she does not receive a free cask of wine as part of her payment. But that’s okay, she says, because, unlike laureates of old, she also does not have to compose made-to-order poems to the glory of The State. The State should also be relieved at that, because Trethewey’s poetry, while obsessed with history and written in a plain-spoken and accessible style, also habitually exposes profoundly unsettling truths about us and our past, especially regarding race.
From her first book, Domestic Work, focused on the lives of working-class African Americans in the South, to her most recent, Thrall, which deals with images of interracial relationships from the 17th century to the present, Trethewey has focused her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life. Trethewey comes by these obsessions naturally. She is the daughter of a white man, Eric Trethewey, himself a poet of some renown, and a black woman, Gwendolyn Turnbough, who was murdered when Trethewey was in college. Trethewey was born and grew up as a mixed-race child on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the late 1960s and ’70s.
Natasha Trethewey’s parents met as students at what was then Kentucky State College; hence her recent visit. Eric Trethewey had come from rural Canada seeking a track scholarship, not knowing that it was a black college. At her reading for our entire campus community, Trethewey related the story her mother told about the blooming of an interracial romance. It was 1965, and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by The Righteous Brothers had just hit the charts. The young women in the Kentucky State College dormitory assumed that the soulful singers on that record must have been black men, and they eagerly gathered in the dorm lobby to see them on a TV variety show. Of course, the college girls were shocked when they saw the singers, but, the story goes, just at the moment that the white Brothers appeared on the screen and started to sing, Gwendolyn saw Eric Trethewey jog past the dormitory window. In the poet’s telling, it was love at first sight.
That story led to Trethewey’s reading of the poem “Miscegenation” (from her book Native Guard), which begins, “In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; / they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.”
While the couple and their small child were living with Turnbough’s family in Gulfport, Miss., Klansmen burned a cross on their yard. Trethewey says they never knew if the cross was a warning to their interracial family or to the church next door, which was registering black voters. This act of terror takes on an eerily mythic aura in her poem “Incident” (also from Native Guard). “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,” she writes, “a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns. / We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps, / the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.”
Trethewey’s parentage, and the circumstances of her upbringing, gave her a passion for language and a bone-deep connection to the core of the American story—the ongoing political and cultural tension over the status of the nation’s African-descended people. Like our current president, her very DNA embodies our deepest national contradiction, which may make her the ideal national laureate for this moment. Maybe not the most comforting one, but the one we need.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.