But Sunday mornings are hers–
church clothes starched
and hanging, a record spinning
on the console, the whole house
dancing. She raises the shades,
washes the rooms in light,
buckets of water, Octagon soap.
– “Domestic Work, 1937”
Natasha Trethewey is both a fighter and a humanist. Her poems want to breathe human life and solidarity into any individual who reads them in order to build a world that respects both blackness and human life. It is with her poems that she wages her war against indifference and for humanity.
The official beginning of Trethewey’s career as a poet (she is also a professor) coincides with a short golden age in black commercial cultural production. In 2000, Bill Clinton was soon to pass the White House to George W. Bush. This was after eight years of democratic rule that had led to an economic surplus but had not been great in terms of economic, social justice and equity for the black community as a whole. The year 2000 was a great year for black music and part of a short golden age. In hip-hop, Talib Kweli, Nelly, Lil’ Bow Wow, Outkast, Lil’ Kim and Common all released albums that are now classics. Jay-Z was about to release The Blueprint in 2001. In Jazz, Jason Moran (before his 2002 classic Modernistic) and Brandon Marsalis both released phenomenal albums. In neo-soul, D’angelo released Voodoo and this society was awed by Erykah Badu and her release Mama’s Gun.The R&B genre saw great releases by Sade, Craig David, Mya, Jill Scott, R. Kelly, Jagged Edge, Boyz II Men and Tamia. The movie Brown Sugar would come out in 2002. Trethewey is not as well known as any of the above artists and their productions, but her poetry is certainly their counterpart in terms of its rootedness in African-American concern.
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?
– “Elegy for the Native Guards”
She is very tough on her reader and is more of a teacher than a singer. Maya Angelou was a singer and Sonia Sanchez was an activist; Trethewey, on the other hand, is a historian and sometimes an elegy writer — and a very sophisticated one at that, with an obvious appetite for grandeur. In her second book of poems, Bellocq’s Ophelia, she imagines the life of Ophelia, a New Orleans red light district mixed-race prostitute who was photographed in the early 1900s by a photographer E.J. Bellocq when Jazz was New Orleans Red Light District music and New Orleans was soon to be the cultural capital of Jazz, R&B and the very first Funk (jazz musicians used to Funk their music). She offers history and perspective in Bellocq’s Ophelia.
It troubles me to think that I am suited
for this work—spectacle and fetish—
a pale odalisque. But then I recall
my earliest training—childhood—how
my mother taught me to curtsy and be still
so that I might please a white man, my father.
For him I learned to shape my gestures,
practiced expressions on my pliant face.
– “Letters from Storyville”
Regarding American life, it’s often very easy to get stuck at Spanish-French poet Louis Aragon’s question “Is this how human beings live?” Is this how human beings live? By enslaving the other, killing the other, segregating one’s self from the other, etc? It is sometimes very easy to slide into deep malaise and hatred of the world. Trethewey poems help us to love the world by confronting it as it is, and feeling solidarity for others. She dissects the world into both truth and beauty by writing its history into verse. She’s explained as a black woman writer and writer from the south but she’s more than those two things. She’s learned to care, understands caring’s value, and teaches others to, even if it means having to think about the dead, the banal that is not banal at all, or to read a history book.