By Miranda Wilder, Staff Writer
Pulitzer-winning poet Natasha Trethewey spoke and read some of her more recent pieces in honor of Black History Month at the University of New Hampshire’s Johnson Theater yesterday evening, hosted by the Black Student Union (BSU).
“She stands for the ones with misunderstood identities,” said Jaime Nolan, Associate Vice President of the Office of Community, Equity and Diversity.
Trethewey was born into an interracial family in 1966. When her parents eloped in 1965, marriage between a black and a white person was illegal in their home state of Mississippi.
“It’s a little bit difficult to summarize,” said Ryan Lawrence of BSU, a student organization focused on “providing students of color and allies a space to gain knowledge awareness, and a sense of self,” according to the group’s WildcatLink page.
“However,” Lawrence said, “it is a celebration of the industrious and rich history that encompasses progress as well as the struggle of blacks throughout the world.”
Trethewey’s parents illegally married in Cincinnati, Ohio, which Trethewey mentioned starts with the word “sin.” By 1967, the year after her birth, marriage laws had become more lenient.
“It’s very important to me because it takes me back to my own history,” Trethewey said. “I started writing poems in the third grade. Even then, many of my poems were about history.”
Despite Martin Luther King Jr. only having been dead six years at this point in Trethewey’s life, she still felt it such an important event to be considered history.
Not only was she inspired by the story of her parents’ marriage, but by many other things like the repression of black recognition during the Civil War, acts of violence against the black/interracial community, and the Monticello home of Thomas Jefferson, where he allegedly fathered mixed-race children with his slave Sally Hemings.
Trethewey visited the home with her father, also a poet, and was saddened to hear several people arguing over the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
“My father and I actually heard people speculating as if it mattered how much white blood Sally Hemings had,” Tretheway said.
She reminisced that she had wanted to stay in a room called “the Library” in a pilgrimage turned bed-and-breakfast in Vicksburg, Mississippi, yet it had been taken. She was offered a room in one of the new additions out back, a series of guesthouses, to which she replied jokingly, “No, I want to be in the big house. And I was. But I paid for it.”
As for her earlier, Civil War poetry, she was inspired by the lack of recognition for black soldiers who fought against the Confederates received.
Of the 100 Civil War monuments that exist today, there are few commemorating black soldiers. This puzzled Trethewey deeply, enough to inspire her early work.
“When I started researching the Native Guards,” Tretheway said. “I began in the public little library in my hometown that is no more, demolished by Hurricane Katrina. I found a monograph published about black Civil War presence on Ship Island — all those soldiers who had been forgotten, no monuments erected.”
When she first visited Ship Island, she was struck with a blinding revelation.
“That was the first moment I began to realize what is inscribed in history and what is erased from it,” Tretheway said.
BSU secretary Janice Disla expressed a similar interracial past and a similar view for the necessity to get stories heard.
“We need to make sure these stories are important and known throughout the world,” Disla said.
Similarly, Nolan felt the importance of spreading awareness and stories worldwide.
“Dr. King allowed us to see ourselves in story,” she said. “And to see how the smallest of our actions and inactions can impact the world . . . [Trethewey’s] Pulitzer-winning work ties in with [these] ideas. All we truly have to offer any cause is our vulnerability . . . And in this moment I realize just how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to make a difference every day.”
Trethewey’s mother died around 30 years ago, when she was at the age of 19. Her mother’s death has also greatly impacted her work, as she reads one poem entitled “Myth.”
“There are two types of dreams,” she said. “The one I know my mother is dead so it feels like a visitation and I am happy. The other kind of dream is I don’t know anything and I turn over and open my eyes and the grief is fresh again.”
Her mother left such a large impact on her life, as she was a black woman married to a white man, with a long history of fighting the law for love. As an interracial family they were detested by some, supported by others.
Trethewey’s father and her used to read poetry aloud with each other, back and forth, line by line.
“Our poems spoke to each other,” she said.
So far, BSU has been celebrating Black History Month by tweeting a daily bio of one black historical figure under the hashtag #blackhistorymonth. This is entirely run by UNH students, according to Disla.
Last year, BSU did something similar, by using the hashtag #BAMUNH, meaning Being a Minority.
The organization is also very involved in Greek life.
All of these are methods to focus on the different struggles that minorities face on campus or in their daily lives.
“[Black History Month] is important because it is a central designated time where we can learn more, in addition to, celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments, the contributions, the advancement of society through the work of black as well as Africans, minorities,” Lawrence said.
Black history is not something UNH takes lightly, and will continue to host events regarding true stories about the historical value and understanding that comes with this celebrated month.
“It is indeed a kind of white supremacy,” Trethewey said. “We find it in the underbelly of our nation, but also we find it in loving families.”