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White Yet Non-White: Miscegenation in Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (2007) American Studies Today Online

Natasha Trethewey, courtesy of Emory UniversityThis article examines the changes in the concept of miscegenation, from the slavery years to the 1960s and the 2000s, as recorded in Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize poetry collection Native Guard (2007). Through a close reading of the poems “Pastoral,” “Miscegenation,” “Blond,” “Southern Gothic” and “South” from the third mainly autobiographical section of the collection, it shall be argued that, while in the past, miscegenation was strictly a matter of race for African-Americans, nowadays, it is also a matter of identity and self identification. Trethewey narrates how she experienced discrimination for being a mixed-race person in the early years of her life. She also describes how being a mixed-race person led her to a quest for selfhood. Trethewey believes that American anti-miscegenation laws enhanced her feeling of being different and caused her to doubt her identity as black, white or a person of mixed race.

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By Sofia Politidou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Posted 16 May 2012

Native Guard

This article examines these five poems.
Click a title to read about it.

Pastoral

Miscegenation

Blond

Southern Gothic

South


Works cited

Futher reading


In the twentieth century, years after the institution of slavery was abolished, black people, and people of mixed-race origin were still ignored by the law as second class citizens. As being black was determined less by one’s complexion and more by the “one- drop rule,”[1] people of African-American origin, even when it was not evident in their skin colour, were marginalized and maltreated by white Americans. After the fall of the Jim Crow system and the emergence of Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the status of black and mixed-race people altered. Mixed-race marriages from the 1970s onwards were legal, but initially people refused to accept such unions. Mixed-race people had to face double racism from both  whites and blacks. The situation gradually improved, however, and these couples and their children were accepted by society, even though some narrow-minded people still refused to accept anything that differed from what they knew as “correct” and “natural.”  Moreover, children of mixed-race couples have difficulty in deciding whether they should identify with one parent’s racial identity or both. Trethewey describes just such difficulties in her poetry, specifically  her own experiences of discrimination, and those of her mother, and towards the end of the collection,  her identity crisis and her inability to decide with which of her parents—her white father or black mother--she most identifies. 

To begin with, Trethewey’s writing is greatly influenced by her personal life experiences, particularly in the third mostly autobiographical section of Native Guard. Mindy Wilson in her article on Natasha Trethewey’s biography asserts that “[t]he daughter of a black mother and a white father, Trethewey grew up in a South still segregated by custom, if not by law, and her life astride the color line has inspired her recovery of lost histories, public and private” (The Georgia Review). Trethewey shares with her readers her personal experience of segregation in Mississippi, where she was born, and in the South in general.

Pastoral

The first poem to be discussed in this article is “Pastoral” about the Old South. Its title connotes a natural and agricultural landscape of fields and livestock, much like the South was during slavery and the feudal plantation system. In “Pastoral” Trethewey also narrates a dream, which, in Freudian terms expresses her deepest fears and desires,[2] as well as  an experience she had with her white father that made her realize their differences, despite a shared interest in poetry. This experience centres around them having their photograph taken, during which Trethewey’s biraciality becomes visible under the scrutninous gaze of white people and her blackness is revealed in the presence of the “white” society:

 We’re lining up now—Robert Penn Warren[3],

his voice just audible above the drone

of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.

Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in

Blackface again when the flash freezes us.

My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.

You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it? (8-14).

After the camera flash freezes them, she is black. The colour of the flash light is white, and is a metaphor for the perspective of white people. So, in the eyes of white people she looks black, a perspective affirmed in her dream about how her blackness is revealed in a “white” world. She feels bad for being black, and asserts an identification with her white father’s origins.   The tone of the poem at this point is defensive, and, this feeling is enhanced by the fact that the photographer instead of telling them to “say cheese,” asks them to “Say ‘race’” (11). Photography is a form of documentation and, thus this poem is about society’s need to document race by putting people into categories, much like putting photographs in albums. In the poem, nature itself objects to this compulsion for documentation and labelling: “a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows/ lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no” (5-6).

In an interview, Trethewey talks about the intersection of poetry with photography, and how they work together:

[w]hat has always interested me about a photograph is that even though it seems to capture and elegize a particular moment, there are all the things that swirl around it, things that are cropped out of the frame, that which was just behind it that we don’t see. And there is always a fuller version of the story that needs to be told. I believe the photographic image is a way to focus our attention, and it can be the starting point for a larger exploration of what else is there. [...] What’s been cropped out or what’s not there—words are like that too. (McHaney)

This is why Trethewey employs photographs in her poems, in order to ask her readers to think beyond what they see written in the poem. In “Pastoral” she does exactly that: she teaches the readers how to look beyond the photographs and discern meaning out of the things they don’t see in them. Poems and photographs for her are not only about the experience they capture but also about what they leave unmentioned and undocumented.

Miscegenation

In “Miscegenation,” Trethewey describes how her parents had to go to a different state to get married because mixed-marriages were illegal in Mississippi back then. Before 1967 interracial marriages were illegal in sixteen states and children born of these unions were regarded as illegitimate. Jon Michael Spenser maintains that, “it was only in 1967, on June 12, the case of Loving v. Virginia that the United States Supreme Court struck down the last antimiscegenation laws that had banned interracial marriage” (38). This is what Trethewey comments on, the fact that she, like many mixed-race children who were born at the time did not exist in the eyes of the law. She also mentions the fact that her parents broke the law twice, by getting married and giving birth to her and this is what she mentions first in the poem. Trethewey comments on the fact that society did not approve her parents’ marriage by making a pun with the name of the state in which she was born.  More specifically she writes:

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 (3-6).

 Trethewey employs puns using the names of the two cities mentioned in the poem in order to demonstrate that what her parents did was wrong in the eyes of society. Indeed, “sin” implies a  “mistake,” thus her parents being married and having her is a mistake in the eyes of both the society and the law.

Moreover, the rest of the poem indicates Trethewey’s influence by William Faulkner, particularly his novel Light in August (1932) about a biracial child named Joe Christmas. She identifies with this character because she believes that their lives share many similarities, including the similarity of their names. Natasha is a Russian name that means “Christ’s birth,” even though Trethewey was born at Easter time, and Joe Christmas was so named because he was found as a baby on Christmas day.  This poem is also about Trethewey’s identity crisis due to her biraciality.  According to Dorcas Bowles, many biracial children had a problem of identity due to their biraciality. More specifically, she argues that this identity “quest has been especially troubling for children with one parent African-American and the other, white. Many children from these unions have identified as black; others have taken on a white identity; and still others have considered themselves bi-racial” (417).  Trethewey, coming from a black mother and a white father belongs to the category of children that Bowles mentions, as does Faulkner’s Joe Christmas. He is an example of the tragic mulatto figure and is often described as one of the loneliest characters in the American literature. In the story, Faulkner attributes to this character many of the characteristics of Jesus Christ because he was discovered on Christmas night in an orphanage and died at the age of 33, just like Christ. Even though he was part white from his mother and part Mexican from his father, his race was unknown in Mississippi, so he passed as white. That is, he appeared to be white and lacking information about his ancestors he was perceived as white and not as Mexican. Trethewey talks about how she was given her name by her father: “My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name./ I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi”(9-10). The title of Tolstoy’s novel also alludes to Trethewey’s future life experiences as a mixed-race person, and her rejection both by the black and white communities. Then she talks about reaching her Jesus year of 33, being in Mississippi and still being alive. Thus she did not die like Jesus, but she still feels confused about her identity, which is another element that makes her identify with the fictional character Joe Christmas. Through all these factors she makes a parallel of herself to Joe Christmas who did not know his true identity and was thus a Tragic Mulatto. She concludes the poem mentioning in the last two lines that even though she knows more about her origin than Joe Christmas did about his, she still does not know which one of her parents’ racial heritage she identifies with or wants to identify with. The only thing she knows is that her name remains the same even in Mississippi.    

Blond

In “Blond,” Trethewey discusses her childhood confusion on first realizing that she is different from her parents. The poem indicates the confusion of identity that Trethewey experienced like other mixed-race children. She wonders whether she would look more like a white person if some of her physical characteristics were different. In this poem she describes and compares her two different experiences of race, living with her white father throughout the school year and her black maternal grandmother during the summer in Mississippi. In the first stanza, Trethewey talks about her physical characteristics that were given to her by the random combination of her parents’ genes. She claims that if she had another hair color, if she was blond, then she could pass as white. Trethewey leads the reader to believe that she wishes she was white. David Brusma in his study about racial identification of mixed-race children found that most children where the mother is black and the father is white “are more likely to be identified as White” (1142). When miscegenation is not illegal any more, it ceases to be a matter of the social status of race and becomes a matter of identity. In the second stanza of “Blond,” Trethewey discusses the confusion she feels on receiving a Christmas gift:

When on Christmas day I woke to find

 a blond wig, a pink sequined tutu,

 and a blond ballerina doll, nearly tall as me,

 I didn’t know to ask, nor that it mattered,

If there’d been a brown version. This was years before

My grandmother nestled that dark baby

into our crèche, years before I’d understand it

 as primer for a Mississippi childhood. (9-16)

In these lines it becomes clear to the reader that Trethewey was raised embracing only her white heritage in her father’s house in New Orleans, with white dolls and blond wigs as Christmas presents. Only in her grandmother’s house does she experience her black racial and cultural heritage. Line 14 is a turning point in her life when she saw a black baby—her brother— in the family’s cradle. Later on she claims that those summers in Mississippi were innocent as she was not conscious of the concept of race.

In the last stanza of “Blond” Trethewey describes her childish reaction of putting on the wig and the costume and the reaction of her parents:

Instead, I pranced around our living room

 in a whirl of possibility, my parents looking on

 at their suddenly strange child. In the photograph

my mother took, my father—almost

 out of the frame—looks on as Joseph must have

 at the miraculous birth: I’m in the foreground—

my blond wig a shining halo, a newborn likeness

to the child that chance, the long odds,

might have brought (17-25).

This reference to the ‘miraculous birth’ is again an allusion to Christ and his birth. Being born both black and white makes her feel she is something ‘miraculous’, and something to wonder at. Moreover, the blond wig encourages her to view herself as a person full of possibility. Thus, considering herself white offers her more possibilities in her life. When she wears her wig and her ballerina costume she looks like the white child her parents could have had if the “long odds” (24) distributed differently the parents’ genes in their offspring. Moreover, in the photograph that her mother took, her father is almost out of the frame. Thus Trethewey is trying to discover what is missing from the frame, which is her father and by extension her white identity. As Spenser observes, “mixed-race people have different experiences that go into determining which part of their ancestry they identify with” (29). Thus, Trethwey’s different racial and cultural experience by each of her parents is what determines which part of her ancestry she identifies with. In this poem, she insinuates that, she would have more possibilities and thus a better future if is she could pass as white. As Joe Fulton asserts, “[r]elated to the novel of miscegenation is the novel of “passing,” a novel featuring a character who appears white but who is, in fact, of mixed-race. Such a person often “passes” as white for social or economic reasons” (694). Thus, passing as white will have more social and financial possibilities.  Mixed-race people were often rejected both by blacks and whites for being too white and not white enough respectively. Joel Williamson maintains that, “[w]hereas the problem for mulattoes used to be “not white enough” to be accepted in the white world, now the problem, sometimes, is “too white” to be accepted in the black world. Very light mulattoes, mulattoes who could pass for white, frequently suffer from an extreme discrimination within the Negro world” (190).

Southern Gothic

This discrimination of being too white or not white enough is described by Trethewey in “Southern Gothic.” The ‘gloomy’ title anticipates some of the bad experiences Trethewey had in the 1970s because of her biraciality. What is of importance in this poem is the verbal abuse she experiences by her classmates at school for being a mixed-race person. She has just returned home from school,

with the words that shadow us

in this small Southern town— peckerwood and nigger

lover, half-bred and zebra—words that take shape

outside us (12-15).

Miscegenation for her in this poem is about race and the racism she experienced in school by her peers for being a mulatta. Being teased and brutalized as children was common for mixed-race people, and as Spenser asserts, “[n]umerous examples can be provided of mixed-race adults who have not forgotten their racial brutalization by black children when they were young” (36). The poem is governed by a pessimistic mood.

South

Finally, the poem Trethewey chose to place last in her collection is “South.” It functions as an epilogue and  includes all her personal history and History from her birth until the present. Trethewey opens the poem with an  epigraph by E.O. Wilson: “Homo sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile” (45). After all the difficulties Trethewey has been through in the South, she feels psychologically exiled from it, as well as from her southern identity. In the poem, she claims that, she returns in Mississippi, the place she has been exiled from as an outlaw for being a mixed-race person in order to reclaim her identity as a native of the South. The epigraph is also used as a prologue to the poem informing the reader that it is going to be about the place that Trethewey has been exiled from. “Throughout the collection [Trethewey says] I am trying to assert the part of my work which is Southern.” (quoted in McHaney).

The poem starts by going back to the years of slavery and the Civil War. The fact that on the monuments to war heroes there is no mention of the black people that fought the Civil War is what makes Trethewey feel exiled in her home state, as if those soldiers were exiled from the history of the place. To be more specific, Trethewey writes:

I returned to a country battlefield

where colored troops fought and died—

Port Hudson where their bodies swelled

and blackened beneath the sun—unburied

until earth’s  green sheet pulled over them,

unmarked by any headstones.

Where the roads, buildings, and monuments

are named to honor the Confederacy,

where that old flag still hangs, I return

to Mississippi, state that made a crime

 of me—mulatto, half-breed—native

in my native land, this place they’ll bury me (23-34).

By writing this poem, Trethewey is trying to right this wrong of excluding the black heroes of the Civil War. By not naming the black war heroes, whites exiled them  from the South and its history. The siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, on the Mississippi river lasted from May 21 to July 9, 1863. Nowadays the place is a monument and a park for people to visit and learn its history. Trethewey, then, returns to the place that has wronged black and mixed-race people throughout the years,  the place that made her birth a crime in the past.

While in the past she was deemed a stranger in her homeland, now she is a native in her native land. This is the part of the poem that the epigraph refers to, because she and people like her suffered psychological exile from their place of birth. These are some of the factors that made her feel that she does not belong in Mississippi and confused her about her identity. While as a child miscegenation was for her a racial issue, as an adult it became an issue of selfhood. She is able to decode her life experiences better as a woman than she was as a child. This retrospection made her feel confused about her racial identity and this feeling of confusion is one she still has as an adult but  to a lesser degree now. As the poet’s life experiences grow more and more she becomes able to form anew a racial identity.

To conclude, while in the past miscegenation has been a legal and racial issue it has become nowadays a problem of identity. Mixed-race people, like Trethewey experience great difficulty in identifying with parts of their ancestry. What is more, these people in addition to their inner conflict are forced to cope with a racist  society which inhibits their quest for identity and self-hood. In order to form a fuller understanding of  herself, Trethewey decides to revisit her past and learn everything about her ancestors and her place of origin. She believes that, this journey to the past will help her to form a more complete identity for herself in the future. It seems to me that in her poetry Trethewey proposes that people of mixed-race ancestry—whether bi-racial or multi-racial—should follow her own approach of self-identification by looking into the past of their ancestors and getting in touch with their roots. This knowledge of the past and ancestry is  integral to identity  formation.

Works Cited

Bowles, Dorcas. “Bi-racial Identity: Children Born to African-American and White Couples.” Clinical Social Work Journal 21, 4 (1993): 417-428. SpringerLink. Web. 23 Dec. 2010.

Brunsma, David L. “Interracial Families and the Racial Identification of Mixed- Race Children: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.” Social Forces 84, 2 (2005): 1131-1157. JSTOR. Web. 22 Dec. 2010. 

Davis, F. James. Who is black?: one nation’s definition. 2001 ed. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001. Print.

Fulton, Joe. “Miscegenation.” American History Through Literature1870-1920 Vol.2. Eds. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst.  Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 692-696. Virtual Reference Library. Web. 23 Dec. 2010.  

McHaney, Peal Amelia. “An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Five Points: A journal of Literature and Art 11.3 (2007): 96+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

Spenser, John Michael. The New Colored People: The Mixed-Race Movement in America. New York: New York  UP, 1997. Print.

Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. Boston: A Mariner Book-Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Print.

Williamson, Joel. Epilogue. New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States. By Williamson. Louisiana Paperback Edition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995. 187-195. Print.

Wilson, Mindy. The Georgia Review. The New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2008. Web. 17 Dec. 2010.

Footnotes

[1] According to James Davis’ definition of the “one drop rule,” a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with slavery and later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it became known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. (5)

[2] According to the Freudian theory and modern psychology, people tend to suppress those memories that are most painful to them and the ego cannot process them. While people are asleep the unconscious brings to the surface their inner conflicts, their secret desires and their deepest fears. Thus Trethewey in this dream brings back this painful memory she had of the first time she realized she was different.

[3] Robert Penn Warren was a member of the Fugitive poets. The Fugitive Poets was a group of poets and literary scholars who came together at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee around 1920. They also published a small magazine called The Fugitive for three years (1922-1925) in which they published their work. It was considered to be one of the most influential publications in the history of American letters even though it was brief. Some of the members were also influential teachers of literature.

Further reading

Deferred Dreams : The Voice of African American Women's Poetry since the 1970s. African-American women writers are now regarded as among the best of modern American poets. Their poetry is as very often celebratory of a life that, despite its hardships and injustice, was often happy. You might be interested in reading this article, by Dr Manohar Samuel, who quotes from writers like Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni in support of his thesis that their poetry not only expresses criticism of discrimination and injustice but also expresses a culture to celebrate.

 

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