Forgotten No More:
Associate Professor Natasha Trethewey wins a Pulitzer for poetry about the hidden history of the Deep South
As a native of Gulfport, Mississippi, and the daughter of a mixed-race couple whose marriage was still illegal in 1966, Natasha Trethewey knows something about hidden stories and unrecognized courage.
Much of the history she learned as a child about her state, she later realized, was revisionist in nature. She was never told, for instance, that in her hometown, black soldiers played a pivotal role in the Civil War. Off the coast on Ship Island stood a fort that had once been a Union prison housing Confederate captives. The second regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards—one of the Union’s first official black units—protected the fort. As a poet, she decided to give voice to this untold story of the South.
In April, Trethewey, who teaches creative writing and poetry at Emory, won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 collection of poems, Native Guard, which merges her personal legacy as the biracial child of a white father and black mother with the racial legacy of a divided nation and the Civil War.
The title poem imagines the life of a former slave stationed at the fort, who is charged with writing letters home for the illiterate or invalid POWs and his fellow soldiers. Another, “Elegy for the Native Guards,” tells of a modern-day visit to Ship Island and the ruins of the fort.
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?
All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—/water—lost. Now fish dart among their bones,/and we listen for what the waves intone./Only the fort remains, near forty feet high/round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,/the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.
The Monday afternoon the Pulitzers were announced, Trethewey was teaching a class and was told by a colleague in the hallway. “I screamed,” she told reporters. “Then we told the students, and they applauded.”
Native Guard is dedicated to Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Grimmette, a social worker who was murdered in 1985 by her second husband.
Trethewey’s father, Eric Trethewey, an English professor, and stepmother Katherine Soniat, also are poets. While Trethewey used to ask him to critique her work, “now it goes both ways, and he sends me his work to critique,” she says.
Trethewey’s first poetry collection, Domestic Work, won the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize, a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry.
Her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia, received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
She has a BA in English from the University of Georgia, an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University in Virginia, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.—M.J.L.
For an earlier profile of Trethewey, go to: www.emory.edu/EMORY_MAGAZINE/winter2002/precis_five.html