Natasha Trethewey: If My Mom Could See Us Now

Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Native Guard. Her parents had an interracial marriage while it was still illegal in Mississippi, and Tretheway's poetry often draws on her childhood as a biracial child in the south.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Like President Obama, poet Natasha Trethewey is biracial. But her African-American mother and white father had to break the law in 1965 to get married. They lived in Mississippi, where interracial marriage was illegal, and they worried their biracial daughter would be despised in parts of society. Trethewey wrote about this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, "Native Guard." She holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University.

Natasha Trethewey, welcome back to Fresh Air. Many of people have pointed out that when Barack Obama was born, over 20 states still had laws that would have made his parents' marriage illegal. Now, your black mother and white father broke two laws when they got married. What were those laws?

Professor NATASHA TRETHEWEY (Poetry, Emory University; Poet, "Native Guard"): Well, Terry, at the time in 1965 when my parents got married, it was not only illegal in the state of Mississippi for interracial couples to marry, it was also illegal for them to leave the state of Mississippi, get married somewhere else that allowed it - in their case, Ohio - and then return to the state married.

GROSS: Why did they return, knowing they were likely to be treated with great hostility and knowing that they were breaking the law and could be punished for that?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think they returned because it was home. My mother had grown up in Mississippi. Her mother was there and her extended family of aunts and uncles. And my father was a student here - he's from Canada, but he was a student. And so, I just think that it was sort of the nucleus of the family to go back to, better than being isolated, perhaps, in a state that, maybe grudgingly, allowed interracial marriage.

GROSS: I'd like you to read your poem "My Mother Dreams Another Country," but before you read it, tell us what the other country was that she was dreaming.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I imagined when I was working on the poem that my mother would have been contemplating, while pregnant with me, a country that I could be born into in which interracial marriage was not prohibited by a law, and that there was, for her, a possibility that there was this other country into which I might be born, but at the same time, knowing that that is, indeed, not the country that she and my father were bringing me into.

GROSS: Would you read it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I'd be happy to.

(Reading) My Mother Dreams Another Country.

Already the words are changing. She is changing from colored to Negro, black still years ahead. This is 1966; she is married to a white man. And there are more names for what grows inside her. It is enough to worry about words like mongrel and the infertility of mules and mulattos, while flipping through a book of baby names. She has come home to wait out the long months. Her room unchanged since she's been gone. Dolls winking down from every shelf, all of them white. Every day she is flanked by the rituals of superstition. And there is a name she will learn for this, too, maternal impression, the shape like an unknown country, marking the back of the newborn's thigh.

For now, women tell her to clear her head, to steady her hands or she'll gray a lock of the child's hair wherever she worries her own, imprint somewhere the outline of a thing she craves too much. They tell her to staunch her cravings by eating dirt. All spring she has sat on her hands, her fingers numb. For awhile each day, she can't feel anything she touches, the arbor out back, the landscape's green tangle, the molehill of her own swelling.

Here outside the city limits cars speed by clouds of red dust in their wake. She breathes it in, Mississippi, then drifts towards sleep thinking of someplace she's never been. Late, Mississippi is a dark backdrop bearing down on the windows of her room. On the TV in the corner the station signs off, broadcasting its nightly salutation, the waving Stars and Stripes, our national anthem.

GROSS: That's Natasha Trethewey reading her poem "My Mother Dreams Another Country," from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems called "Native Guard." So, do you feel like with the election and inauguration of Barack Obama that we're living in the other country that your mother dreamed?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think we're a lot closer to it. My mother died 23 years ago, and were she alive today, I think she would be taking note of the remarkable place to which we've come in this historic moment.

GROSS: You must really wish that she was alive to witness this.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I do. I do wish that very much because I know these kinds of things mattered so much to her. She and my father met at Kentucky State College, which was one of the HBCUs - the historically all-black colleges and universities - back in the' 60s. And sort of the excitement of the civil rights movement was everywhere around them. My mother wrote letters to my father in the summer she rode with the Freedom Riders, and you know, I think that even as she might have imagined such a moment, I don't know if she would have believed that it could occur in her lifetime.

GROSS: In the poem that you just read, you imagine your mother thinking about the word "mongrel" and how that will be used against you, and this is as she's thinking of names to name you. I remember at a press conference, Obama used the word mutt; he was talking about the dogs he was going to get for his girls. And in describing one of them, he said, he's a mutt like me. What did you think about when you heard that?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I thought it was very funny. I appreciated that sense of humor that actually points to a word like mongrel and ideas about mongrel-ization, that were very much on the minds of certain Mississippians at the time. To be able to use it tongue-in-cheek at this point suggests that we've come a long way and that there is less power for such language to do us harm when we appropriate it and make jokes out of it.

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection "Native Guard." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is poet Natasha Trethewey. She wrote about being biracial in her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection "Native Guard." So, what does it mean to you to see America's first biracial president? I mean, Obama's always called America's first African-American president, but he's biracial, too. So, what does that mean to you?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think a lot about that. I actually pinpoint in my own thinking that he is like I am and, I think, similarly, defines himself as both black and biracial. I find myself frequently introducing myself to someone, saying that, you know, I've grown up black and biracial in the United States. When I was a child the adults around me, my great-aunts and uncles, would always say things about what I might be when I grew up. And of course, president was one of those things that I think, you know, adults said to children, well, do you want to be president? Might you be president? And I think for awhile I, like any kid, I said, sure, you know, I'm going to be president.

But then, as I thought about it more and more, I began to ask myself the question, who would become president first if this were to happen in my lifetime? Would it be a black person or a woman? And what's funny about it, to me, is I didn't realize until watching the Democratic primaries that it had never occurred to me, in my thinking, that there was no place for a black woman. I knew that I would be represented if a black man became president or a white woman became president because they're both part of who I am. And yet, the other part, the black woman part, did not come into the equation. But finally, I did get double representation, I think, with a biracial president. And so, that's been pretty meaningful to me, the kind of symbolic imagery of it.

GROSS: Barack Obama is not only like you in the sense that he, like you, is biracial. He's also of your generation and this is the first president who is. How does that feel?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: It makes me feel like I'm really old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Because presidents always seem so much older and to think that he's only five years older than I am. That we are of the same generation is significant, I think, because we are of a generation that came out of that moment when there were still over 20 states that had anti-miscegenation laws, and that we grew up in a time when those laws were gradually changing and being done away with. And it seems to me that I have come of age at the same time that the nation has come of age in a certain way.

GROSS: How do you hope that the Obama presidency will change the conversation about race?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I'd like to think that it will change the conversation because it's - the imagery is already changing. You know, the beginning of the poem that I read is - talks about the language changing, the names that we have for people. This is a moment when the imagery has changed as well, and I'm delighted to see that the nation has come to a point where we can be represented as much represented by a black person as we are by any white president.

GROSS: So, you wrote another poem to read for us for this occasion. Would you introduce it for us and tell us why you chose it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, this other poem that I think really speaks to this historical moment. It's a poem by Langston Hughes called "I, Too, Sing America."

(Reading) I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes. But I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me eat in the kitchen then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too, am America.

GROSS: Well, thanks for reading that. I confess we're recording this interview just before the inauguration, although we're broadcasting it just after. As we speak, you're preparing to go to Washington for the inauguration. Why is it important of you to be there?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that as a poet, I am always concerned about history and baring witness to history. But so often, it's through the research that I do, the reading. And this is an amazing opportunity to be there in the flesh to bear witness to a historical moment. I can't imagine not being in that place and seeing something that my mother never could have imagined seeing, that my grandmother, who died last July, didn't make it to see. And I feel the need to witness that for those who've gone before us as well as future generations.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, a pleasure to speak with you, again. Thank you so much.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Lovely to talk with you, Terry.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection "Native Guard." She's a professor of poetry at Emory University.

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