3 Lessons from Natasha Trethewey: (Lesson 2) Making the Archive You Need – The Feminist Wire

3 Lessons from Natasha Trethewey: (Lesson 2) Making the Archive You Need

(Read Lesson 1 here.)

From the series intro:

When I first met Natasha Trethewey she was a visiting fellow at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and she said clear as day that her mission in her poetry was to do her part to create “a civilization based on justice, not amnesia.”  Oh Natasha, ginseng to a dangerously hazy national consciousness, may your mission be achieved and ASAP!

This poet, in particular, opens up conversations about hidden racialized histories in the United States, intimate clarities borne from relationships between African American women, understandings of labor, longing, death and memory that are sorely needed in a nation that wants to pretend to be post-racial.   Trethewey’s poetry is anything but post-racial.  It delves deep into the complexity of race, law, hatred, love of both her own experience as a multi-racial daughter of people who got married illegally and the national paradigm of race paranoia and hypocrisy in the United States.   In a moment framed by the use of the idea of marriage by conservatives to make life terrible for everyone and the racist projection of liberals that a multi-racial president means life is suddenly wonderful for everyone, we need this particular poet more than ever.

I personally have turned to Natasha Trethewey’s poetry again and again for insight on issues from being a daughter, to approaching the HIV/AIDS crisis, to responding to sexual violence in my community.  So for those of us needing to bring an approach of justice, instead of amnesia, to local and national politics, to the public health field, the classroom, the community organization and the streets, I am excited to offer a three-part series on three of the lessons that Natasha Trethewey’s work as a poet, and in particular her first three collections of poetry,  Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard, offer for our movements and our minds.

Making the Archive We Need:

Acting against the tendency for amnesia in a violent context (for example, here in the United States tonight people are  setting off bright explosive echoes to drown out our creeping awareness of the consequences of the ongoing wars of the empire) is no small thing.

As Black feminist lesbian writers Barbara and Beverly Smith pointed out in 1978,  “there is no guarantee that our lives will ever be looked at with the kind of respect given to certain people from other races, sexes or classes.  There is similarly no guarantee that our movement will survive long enough to become safely historical…” –from “I Am Not Meant to Be Alone and Without You Who Understand: Letters from Black Feminists 1972-1978 in Conditions 4.

I find this quotation relevant almost every day of my life and not just because this week my own chapter on Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind and a queer ecological approach to the archive came out in the new book Make Your Own History.

Natasha Trethewey has made excavating and representing unsafe histories the work of her life, whether it comes to domestic workers in her own family, sex workers in early 20th century New Orleans, Black soldiers in the Civil War or the terrain of loss in her own heart, Trethewey troubles the wound, reminding us that history was never safe for the oppressed.   And the status quo will not be safe from the demands on the future that these subversively remembered voices will make.

Whatever Natasha Trethewey’s appointment as US Poet Laureate might mean for election politics and the tokenizing ecology of a nation that claims to be post-racial while inflicting racial violence at every turn, I declare that Trethewey’s appointment is right on time because her work to construct an archive against amnesia for these divided states touches on exactly the issues that everyone, across partisan and political lines agrees are most urgent in this moment:  labor, sexuality, and war.

This is a time where unemployment, the meaning of marriage, the sexuality of celebrities, and the impending era of drone machine war are the whole news cycle, and Trethewey’s poetry is a crucial corrective to the underlying assumptions and narratives that populate much of the contemporary discussion.

Invisible Labor:  Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work

This is a moment where those bearing the burden of most of the labor happening in the United States, in factories, in fields, in back kitchens, at dishwashing sinks, in the homes of the privileged, in hospitals and nursing homes, in the bathrooms of schools, offices and museums,  are also profoundly criminalized through the specter of “illegal immigration” and the fallout of the so-called war on drugs.   The work that people of color (those who are not among the disproportionately rising unemployed) are doing in this country is obscured by the larger work our existence is doing in the public narrative and the resource propaganda.  To put it shortly, as usual we are doing all the work and at the same time being blamed as a drain on the resources for the nation.

And you know what?  Some of the work that our folks are doing is off the books and even the labor that is taxed is undocumented, because the supposedly unskilled, interchangeable work that so many people of color are doing and have done for generations is never acknowledged for what it is: crucial, affective, performative, a tightrope.  People of color, and especially women of color, are doing the labor that makes the whole world run, while being paid or bullied into acting as if we do not run the whole world.   The invisibility of all this labor and of all that it means is the lie that holds capitalism in place.

So when Natasha Trethewey, in her first book, takes on this labor she has to be creative about where she finds her imagery and evidence.  Remember this labor is off the books, undocumented in so many ways.   So what does she do?  She offers poetry as recognition for the archive that is already there, written in the creases of sheets that her aunt folded daily for the famous politician, echoing in the gaze of her own family photos, in the Saturday air of a window box in her mother’s house the inconvenient elements without which the unacceptable everyday would not even know itself.

Even though Domestic Work is out of print,  (but for all publishers reading this…isn’t it time for a compendium of the works of the US Poet Laureates starting backwards?), the archive it points to is the most necessary set of reflections to refract against a country that is in the middle of the domestic work of trying to prove that the nation-state is the best form for human life even while it proves itself to be completely unsustainable, while at the same time trying to justify socially conservative policies that force people to sell their labor for less and less due to less and less social infrastructure for the actual basic needs of life (healthcare, food, housing, education).  What we know about labor in this country, what we know about what makes a country work is hidden in that archive between the sheets, in the unwashed window, in the flowerbox, in the day off spent cleaning.   May we acknowledge the archive all around us of what works and what never has and what never will.

“lips poised to open, to speak”: an archive of illegal sexualities

Layered like labia, the silenced sexual realities of the United States whisper all night long and through the morning.   Natasha Trethewey’s second book, Bellocq’s Ophelia, takes the task of archive creation to the next level.   Exploring the life of the imagined Ophelia, based on a real subject in a set of photographs from New Orleans’ red light district Storyville, Trethewey plumbs the folds of illegality.  Ophelia is a prostitute, she is a light-skinned mixed race woman, the product of miscegenation (also illegal) and in the narrative Trethewey realistically creates for her she survives sexual violence by police in a police station after being arrested for her illegal presence on the respectable side of town.

This is an unsafe history that Trethewey, who will later note that her parents broke the law twice by marrying each other across racial lines and then by returning to the supposedly racially pure zone of Mississippi, cannot ignore.   This is an unsafe history that we are all doomed to repeat in a time when sex workers, disproportionately of color, disproportionately queer and trans, disproportionately kicked out of their homes and harassed by police, perform a huge amount of unseen labor in the sex trade and in social policy.   This is an unsafe history that no side of a debate that centers the legality and normality of a form like marriage can allow to threaten its relevance.

So of course, we don’t know this woman that E. J. Bellocq, the privileged white photographer with access to octoroon and quadroon sex workers, photographs.  Trethewey names her Ophelia because the photograph reminds her of a painting of Hamlet’s scorned sacrificial woman.   We don’t have her letters, her journal white-glove protected in the archive, tapes of her voice recorded when or if she ever grew old.   So Natasha Trethewey, after extensive archival work with the pictures, revisiting the old buildings of ill-repute and secondary research on the time period, reconstructs the archive in poetry.

The introductory section counterposes a poem in the voice of the poet with a poem imagined to be a letter home by the subject of the book.   The first poem,  considering the layers of a found photograph, which was meant not to document the life of a sex worker but rather to play out the fantasies and aesthetic experiments of the artist, is an example to us all of the crucial practice of reading existing archives for silenced remembrances.

The second section of the book goes on to actually create the archive that would never be preserved, letters from a woman whose racial ambiguity and gendered realities qualify her only to be a high-class entertainment source in 1920s New Orleans.  We get that information that we would never be able to access: the rules that a madame gives to the women in her house, letters that a woman who never thought she would be a sex worker writes to her teacher who expected more, describing what it is like to face a camera, to face the police, to close her eyes, to face herself.

The last section of the book is imagined as a diary of the same time period in Ophelia’s life.  What would she reflect herself that she would not include in a letter to her confidante?  What are the differences in how she would represent herself to an unknown and impossibly reading future and how she would represent herself in a letter to be read in the immediate future?  What does a person whom the law does not protect and who history cannot make legible say about herself between ledger lines?

The power of Trethewey’s work of creating this archive that would never have been kept is not that it goes back and somehow touches women like Ophelia whose stories were silenced in Storyville (though maybe somehow it does).  The gift of this work to create an archive is that it confronts us today with the complexity and curse of that which we are afraid to know on a national scale and that which we know with our bodies that we have no space to say.

What is Evidence?: Poet Laureate as Native Guard

There is no question that Natasha Trethewey’s current status as the poetic version of a national hero is due to the way her book Native Guard spoke to the nation, not only at a moment where her geographical perspective, the recently and repeatedly destroyed Gulf Coast, was deeply relevant and visible but also at a moment where the national military history of the United States was about to change forever with the election of the first ever African-American head executive of the Armed Forces aka President Obama.  Native Guard was incredibly timely in ways that Trethewey never could have predicted and therefore eerily untimely as well.  She wrote about the disappearance of place in time and then the shorelines she wrote about actually disappeared.   She wrote about the invisibility of Black agency in the story of the Union and then the Union chose to put a Black person at the helm.   It is scary to be a poet.  It is magic.

Like Bellocq’s Ophelia, the title poem of Native Guard reimagines journal entries from a formerly enslaved scribe chosen to write letters home on behalf of illiterate formerly enslaved soldiers fighting in contradiction to end slavery and also to preserve a union that did not deserve them.   Reflected off of the contradiction of the illegal union of Trethewey’s parents, and Trethewey’s own survival guilt after the death of her mother, Trethewey’s reconstruction of the archive also asks questions about what can be remembered over time and across death, in the context of official wars, officially forgotten soliders and smaller wars by official practices of racism on her mother’s body.  She asks what is evidence and mediates on what the body can say, questions that we need in an age of disembodied disemboweling remote control drone war and internal policy wars on all of our bodies.

As Audre Lorde asks in On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge:  “where is true history written/ except in the poems?”  And Natasha Trethewey seems to answer nowhere but here, yes. Here.  Has a poet ever faced a deeper need for history than the forgetful exceptionalist US 21st century?  Maybe not.  But this poet laureate is prepared.  May we take the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the archive she honors, may we construct the archives we need to navigate the unsafe histories we live.

***dedicated with love to my archivist soulmate Steven G. Fullwood.