Spring 2009: Coda: A Changing Country

Natasha Trethewey and Brett Gadsden at black-tie ball

at the ball: Trethewey and her husband, Brett Gadsden, assistant professor in African American Studies, celebrated at the Google Inaugural Ball.

Courtesy Natasha Trethewey

Black and White

Reflections on the Inauguration of President Barack Obama

By Natasha Trethewey

A few years ago, when I was working on the poem, “My Mother Dreams Another Country” (below), I was compelled to consider what my mother must have been thinking—in 1966—about the biracial child she and my father were bringing into the world. The year before, my parents had broken two laws of the state of Mississippi by traveling to Ohio to marry and then returning to my mother’s home state. It was just after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but still before the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving vs. State of Virginia in which state anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional. And it was years before those unconstitutional state laws were no longer enforced—by custom, by intimidation, and by other deterrents imposed upon couples seeking marriage licenses. Barack Obama was just five years old when my mother was contemplating another country—another America—in which interracial marriage would be legal in the entire country. In 1961, when Obama was born, twenty-one states still had laws forbidding the marriage of his parents—of blacks to whites.

The vestiges of those old laws still hang on in the customs and attitudes of many people in the United States. In Alabama, for example, it has been just about a decade since citizens went to the polls to vote on whether or not the anti-miscegenation law should be removed from the books. The old law was voted down by a slim margin. Nearly half of the people casting their ballots wanted to keep the law—if only symbolically—in order to support the antiquated notion that parents like mine shouldn’t be able to marry legally in the state, and—by extension—people like me, and Obama, be legally born.

Perhaps my mother, contemplating the shifting language and mores of her time, imagined the kind of psychological exile I would inherit as a native daughter of a state and a country that rendered me symbolically illegal—an imposed “illegitimacy” underscored by the laws of the land. Perhaps, also, she worried—as any concerned parent would—about the kind of nation her child would inherit in which people of color, poor people, and other marginal citizens continued to be pushed to the periphery of American citizenship—a liminal space, a country within a country, in which social justice, equal protection under the law, and equal opportunity in education, housing, and health care were dreams we are as yet working as a nation to ensure for all American citizens.

Watching the election of Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States—the first black person and first biracial person to hold this office—I couldn’t help thinking of my mother, dead twenty-three years now. Were she here to witness this moment in American history, she might recall, as I do, lines from Langston Hughes’ famous poem “I, Too, Sing America.” She would no doubt take note of just how far we have come as a nation, reveling in the symbolic imagery of an American citizen stepping from the margins of our shared history to lead us in the continued pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

She’d also have a sober assessment of how much we have left to do.

My Mother Dreams Another Country

Already the words are changing. She is changing
from colored to negro, black still years ahead.
This is 1966—she is married to a white man—
and there are more names for what grows inside her.
It is enough to worry about words like mongrel
and the infertility of mules and mulattoes
while flipping through a book of baby names.
She has come home to wait out the long months,
her room unchanged since she’s been gone:
dolls winking down from every shelf—all of them
white. Every day she is flanked by the rituals of superstition,
and there is a name she will learn for this too:
maternal impression—the shape, like an unknown
country, marking the back of the newborn’s thigh.
For now, women tell her to clear her head, to steady her hands
or she’ll gray a lock of the child’s hair wherever
she worries her own, imprint somewhere the outline
of a thing she craves too much. They tell her
to stanch her cravings by eating dirt. All spring
she has sat on her hands, her fingers numb. For a while
each day, she can’t feel anything she touches: the arbor
out back—the landscape’s green tangle; the molehill
of her own swelling. Here—outside the city limits—
cars speed by, clouds of red dust in their wake.
She breathes it in—Mississippi—then drifts toward sleep,
thinking of someplace she’s never been. Late,
Mississippi is a dark backdrop bearing down
on the windows of her room. On the TV in the corner,
the station signs off, broadcasting its nightly salutation:
the waving Stars and Stripes, our national anthem.
—Natasha Trethewey, from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin)

Natasha Trethewey, English professor at Emory University, holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry. Her collection Native Guard was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. This essay first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.