Of late, I’ve been trying to make sense of the world – my world – our world – but putting things into words. I am struggling to do so and as a logophile – someone who loves words – I find that troubling. It isn’t the first time I’ve been at a loss for words but it is the most recent – and – with all that’s happening in my world and our world – well – it couldn’t come at a worse time. What is there to do at a time like this?
Over the years I’ve learned when I don’t have the words it is best to go and find the words that someone else has found – to find inspiration – so to speak. Most of the time, I find that poets have more to say and are better at saying it (whatever it is) than I am. So – I find some trusty poets – like Wendell Berry or the Psalmists – and just ponder over their words – their reflections on the world.
But of late, I’ve been lost to find the right words amid all the discussions about race, prejudice, and politics. So, I returned to poetry – and to one poet in particular: Natasha Trethewey.
You may not have heard of Trethewey – which is unfortunate – really. She is a former US poet laureate and, among her list of accolades, she was awarded a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim fellowship. She’s served as a visiting professor at Duke, UNC, Yale, Harvard, and now at Northwestern. So far, she has five collections of poetry – one of which Native Guard, captivated me because Trethewey has an uncanny way of tying together the politics of race in the US (and the south) with her own experience of being the daughter of a mixed-race marriage.
Take for example her poem “South” (You can find the entire poem here). The poem is written as if the poet is traveling down a road in the south – looking out of a window – observing. Like any traveler, the poet first encounters the natural beauty of the south. She sees stands of pines, magnolias in blossom, mangroves, and palmettos. Then she sees the open fields of cotton. If you’ve never witnessed cotton in bloom – you are missing an incredible sight. There is something beautiful in it – but also something haunting.
The field of blooming cotton for the poet holds a memory of her own lineage because generations of men and women and children – some of which she was no doubt related to – slaved away their lives there. And, no matter what side of history a person wants to take, there were those who fought and died to preserve a particular way of life that would have kept – and in many ways did keep – people chained to a lesser life.
Trethewey’s poem reminds the reader that even beyond the Civil War and far beyond reconstruction “roads, buildings, and monuments / are named to honor the Confederacy, where that old flag still hangs.”And – worse – the politics of race and prejudice extended into law – so much so that the poet is able to write herself into the poem and the landscape. As her trip into the south continues she arrives in “Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.” It is difficult for me to imagine – but there was a time when it was against the law for people of different races to marry – and that law was often extended to the point that even the accusation of looking or speaking to a white woman could get a black man killed – just look at Emmet Till. So Trethewey was in her own being – simply by being born of mixed race – an outlaw.
At this point, you may be wondering what I’m going on about – and why I am bringing this up. I suppose it is a fair question. But like I said, I’ve been at a loss of words lately – largely because I only have my own perspective about race and prejudice. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people who pretty much have the same, singular perspective that I have are weighing in – going – to my way of thinking – where angels fear to tread without considering things from a broader perspective.
Everywhere I’ve ever lived – indeed everywhere I’ve ever been (and everywhere you’ve ever been or lived dear reader) – prejudice and racism have existed – and continue to exist. But I, like most folks who share my pigmentation, have never experienced it and so there really isn’t any way at all that I can weigh in on what it must be like to experience being treated poorly because of my race.
The closest I’ve ever come is the experience of someone I love deeply and dearly. It isn’t my story to tell in its entirety because I was on the outside of their experience; I was in the aftermath, holding them as they tearfully questioned why a total stranger hated them. The worst part is that I know the man who stupidly hurled the word bombs and I’ve wondered how the same man who stands to sing the doxology can also stoop to speak words of hatred to a child he doesn’t even know. I wondered if it has ever occurred to him that there are no white people in the Bible. Actually, (and I’ll confess this later) I’m quite sure that he’s never considered very much at all – nor is he aware of how singularly narrow or un-Christian his worldview is.
To be the sort of person that I want to be – indeed to be the sort of person that I think Jesus needs me to be as a Christian and as a pastor – it is important that my view of the world is broader than simply my own experience – especially before I weigh in on a topic or try to speak into it. Except for a short exile in St. Louis, I’ve lived most of my life in the south but I only know it from one side. I will never experience the sort of racial prejudice that so many others have and so, I can’t fully appreciate how horrible it is. I need the words, the perspectives of those who have lived it to help me understand our world a bit more fully. Even though she isn’t writing from a Christian perspective (not that it matters one way or another), Trethewey’s poem(s) have given me the words and perspectives that I need in order to have a framework beyond my singular experience. Poets are helpful like that.