Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Poetics Of Miscegenation: How Poetry Can Speak To Issues Of Race

IN THE PAST MONTH, race has strolled down the red carpet of American popular culture in recognizable but surprising garb. On the one hand, the overwhelming popularity of the website Stuff White People Like has foregrounded the icons of bourgeois whiteness through humor and self-mockery. On the other hand, Barack Obama's candidacy for president, the views of his pastor, and the various comments and strategies by Senator Clinton, her husband, and their staff, have lit America's preoccupation with race from a different angle. Most of the time, Americans tend to turn to journalism, history, or sociology to get a better glimpse of the nuances of race, but with National Poetry Month around the corner and with a recent release of a special gift edition of Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, Native Guard, this seems an appropriate moment to explore the matrix of poetry, American culture, and race--especially the nearly taboo issue of miscegenation.

Senator Obama has talked a great deal about being a child of an interracial marriage, and his prominence has made the issue of mixed relationships and miscegenation part of a national discourse for the first time in decades. One of America's greatest writers, Langston Hughes, asks important questions about miscegenation and misogyny in his daring 1927 poem, "Mulatto:"

O, you little bastard boy
What's a body but a toy?
The scent of pine word stings the soft night air.
What's the body of your mother?

It would appear that one of the goals of Tretheway's book is to answer Hughes' provocative questions. Tretheway, whose father is white and whose mother (now deceased) was black, explores the tensions and violence at the heart of mixing races. In her short but powerful poem "Miscegenation," she maps the transgressions of her parents as they leave their home state of Mississippi to marry:

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong--mis in Mississippi.

Though her parents no doubt believed they were engaged in a kind of exodus of liberation and love, Tretheway can't help but hear the resonances of foreboding (sin and mis) in their escape, as if the long-armed ghosts of history were the puppeteers of her parents' relationship.

Indeed, for Tretheway, miscegenation is all about crossing borders, sometimes, even the border of the body (as Hughes suggests). Tretheway's mother was murdered by her second husband, and though Tretheway does not draw a direct line between her murder and the legacy of violence against the bodies of African American women, one senses through poems like "What The Body Can Say," "What Is Evidence," "Myth," and "After Your Death," that the poet may see her death as the culmination of a chain of events that began with that first exodus from Mississippi. When Hughes asks, "What's the body of your mother?," one wonders if Native Guard is Tretheway's probing and deeply felt answer. That said, Tretheway masterfully avoids making easy assumptions or tying off the narrative with over-simplified palliatives; instead, she leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots of history, land, violence, and love.

Though no one would expect a book of poems to unlock the complex problems of race in America, Native Guard does provide some measure, some lineament of understanding of the effects of racialized America on an individual. It may also allow Americans to see the person who could very likely be their next president through a different and clearer lens.


  1. Hum. . . Dean, I agree with you about Native Guard. It's stunning work. However, I think in some ways only poetry bridges the complexities of race, both historic and present, that can pull the heart into jagged pieces then sew it back together again whole. Healed. Might we also include Simon Ortiz's From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America, when thinking of poetry that engages race, genocide, and of course love.

  2. Speaking of poetry, you may already know this, but your review of the Edward Hirsch sonnet anthology that was in the San Francisco Chronicle gets a nice write-up on ABOUT.COM's Poetry Blog.

  3. This book sounds like it really seeks to do a lot! It seems like it will be a particularly relevant read what with everything going on in America at the moment.