I see that Natasha Trethewey, who teaches creative writing at my graduate alma mater (Emory University), is America’s new poet laureate. Trethewey is mixed race (white father, black mother) and was born in Mississippi in 1966, a time when Jim Crow segregation laws were still in effect. By marrying (they went out of state to do so), her parents broke Mississippi’s miscegenation laws.
In an interview several years ago with Fresh Air moderator Terry Gross, Trethewey talked about how people would see her as white when she was with her father and black when she was with her mother. She considered herself black (her mother raised her after her parents divorced), but the following poem shows how children are keenly aware of race distinctions and pick up on the symbolism of color. Trethewey sounds like others with mixed race identities (including Barack Obama), “floundering” in a confusing world where one can flit between sun spots and shadows, flip between black and white.
By Natasha Trethewey
Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.