US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on the legacy of the Civil War

US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on the legacy of the Civil War

The Washington Post

Ron Charles

One hundred and fifty years later, Americans are still fighting the Civil War, US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey said at the Library of Congress on Wednesday. The field of battle is now historical memory, and gatling guns have been replaced by symbols, but the contest over what sort of nation this will be — and was — continues, according to the 46-year-old poet.

Before a standing-room-only crowd of 300 people, Trethewey focused her remarks on Walt Whitman’s complicated response to black soldiers. Her lecture — in association with the Library’s “Civil War in America” exhibit — elegantly blended scholarship, cultural criticism and poetry…

…When she toured historic sites in her native Mississippi, where “the dead stand up in stone,” she found the same act of erasure still being carried out by memorials, plaques and even tour guides working for the Park Service. The record is “rife with omission and embellishment” that keeps “blacks relegated to the margins of historical memory,” she said. The Daughters of the Confederacy worked diligently to make sure that Americans remember the Civil War “only in terms of states’ rights, not in terms of slavery.”

Trethewey’s lecture this week was a kind of homecoming. Ten years ago, she conducted research on black soldiers in the Library of Congress and composed parts of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “Native Guard,” in the Main Reading Room. Her most recent collection, “Thrall,” explores her life as the daughter of an African American woman and a white man, the poet Eric Trethewey…

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