I had the opportunity to hear Natasha Trethewey, the US Poet Laureate*, speak at the NOLA public library this week. I wasn’t familiar with her work, and how often do you get a chance to hear a Pulitzer Prize winner?
While the Poet Laureate position is created by the Library of Congress, Ms. Trethewey has a racial background that is a mirror of President Obama’s, and that mixed heritage was the topic of the poems in her reading. Most moving for me, was Help, 1969 in which she recalls being taken for walks and having her mother mistaken for her maid.
Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson appeared in one of the poems, and it struck me how emblematic he is of race in America. The author of the document declaring it is “self evident” that all men are equal and deserving of liberty, and who also owned slaves. The president who declared “we are all federalists” and yet argued strongly for states rights. The man who believed blacks and whites could not live together, yet fathered children with Sally Hemmings, his black slave.
*As I started to write this, I noticed that the Wikipedia article on Poets Laureate was out of date, and had to fix it. The perils of noticing that someone is wrong on the internet.