Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey (BA ’89) and her grandmother were at a Gulfport restaurant several years ago reminiscing about the time her great-uncle shook Al Capone’s hand. As they recalled, the famous gangster had come through town on his way to a casino he ran on Ship Island, just off the Mississippi coast. A woman sitting nearby interrupted them to say, “I think there’s something else you need to know about Ship Island.”
That is how Trethewey first heard about the Louisiana Native Guards, a Union regiment of recently freed slaves assigned in 1863 to protect a Confederate prison on Ship Island. Modern-day tour guides at the old fort didn’t talk about the Guards, nor were there any markers commemorating their role in the island’s history. “I had been going to the island for years and had never heard the story mentioned,” Trethewey says. She refers to such omissions as “historical erasure,” when whole pieces of public memory are forgotten.
Native Guard, Trethewey’s third book and the one for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer in poetry, is a meticulously crafted verbal monument to those soldiers and to her mother, who died suddenly and violently during Trethewey’s freshman year at UGA. “You start to lose bits and pieces of a person after they have been gone for a while,” she says, referring to her mother. She re-claims untold stories of the Guard as well as personal family memories. The poems invite readers to contemplate what it means to know or not know the details of our shared past.
“Forgetting doesn’t serve us well,” she insists. “We are all linked, deeply connected by our history as Americans—white and black, North and South.”
Born and raised in the South, the 41-year-old poet is the daughter of an African-American mother from Mississippi and a white father from Canada. She now lives in Atlanta, where she is an associate professor of creative writing at Emory University, but she says she often feels like an outsider in her own land. For example, when she hears people explaining the Southern psyche as the upshot of losing the Civil War, she can’t relate. “There are other Souths beyond the white Confederate South,” she says. “Who can lay claim to the South? I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too.
“My South didn’t lose the war. We won.”
When teaching writing to undergraduates, Trethewey helps her students make connections between the personal nature of contemporary poetry and the larger context of their lives. “To be able to say something that one believes is important and to say it powerfully enough to convey meaning to others is something we all want to do,” she says.
“There are a lot of stories to tell—and which one gets told depends on who gets to write it."
|Trethewey, who earned her bachelor's degree in English at UGA, is the fifth alumnus and the first non-journalism graduate to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Photo by Jon Rou.
By Natasha Trethewey
We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.
We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.
At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.
It seemed the angels had gathered,
white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly.
No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.
When they were done, the men left quietly.
No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.