Poetry Sunday: Enlightenment by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey is a much honored American poet who has twice served as the nation's poet laureate and who received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007. Trethewey was born in Mississippi and grew up in the South, the daughter of an interracial marriage. Her father was a white Canadian emigrant, a poet and professor. Her mother was a black social worker from Mississippi. Much of her poetry explores the lives and challenges of being a black person in the South.

She has a new collection of poems just published called Monument which tells of American history, personal history, and the lives of people who are often overlooked by history and poets. It has received quite a bit of critical acclaim.

This is a poem from an earlier collection, published in 2014, but it also addresses American history and her personal history. The last line here about history that links us but "renders us other to each other" I find inestimably sad.


by Natasha Trethewey

In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
        at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
his forehead white with illumination —

a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow,
        darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.

By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
        he was already linked to an affair
with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue

and ethereal, a wash of paint that seems
        to hold him in relief, Jefferson gazes out
across the centuries, his lips fixed as if

he's just uttered some final word.
        The first time I saw the painting, I listened
as my father explained the contradictions:

how Jefferson hated slavery, though — out 
        of necessity, my father said — had to own
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant

he could not have fathered those children:
        would have been impossible, my father said.
For years we debated the distance between

word and deed. I'd follow my father from book
        to book, gathering citations, listening
as he named — like a field guide to Virginia —

each flower and tree and bird as if to prove
        a man's pursuit of knowledge is greater
than his shortcomings, the limits of his vision.

I did not know then the subtext
        of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson's words made flesh in my flesh —

the improvement of the blacks in body
        and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the whites — or that my father could believe

he'd made me better. When I think of this now,
        I see how the past holds us captive,
its beautiful ruin etched on the mind's eye:

my young father, a rough outline of the old man
        he's become, needing to show me
the better measure of his heart, an equation

writ large at Monticello. That was years ago.
        Now, we take in how much has changed:
talk of Sally Hemings, someone asking,

How white was she? — parsing the fractions
        as if to name what made her worthy 
of Jefferson's attentions: a near-white,

quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.
        Imagine stepping back into the past, 
our guide tells us then — and I can't resist

whispering to my father: This is where
        we split up. I'll head around to the back. 
When he laughs, I know he's grateful

I've made a joke of it, this history
        that links us — white father, black daughter — 
even as it renders us other to each other.


  1. Wow! What a powerful poem about hers and America's heritage. Well, thinking about it, it's not only America's heritage but the world's after slavery.

    1. A view of history that encourages us to see those different from us in color, nationality, religion, politics, gender, sexuality, or whatever as "the other" is, in my opinion, the root of all evil in the world. And I think that is the larger message of her poem.


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