Writing to Witness: Natasha Tretheway

Today, we take a break from the ongoing Writing the Distance posts to offer our sympathy, concern and support to the many Americans who are suffering now in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The protests against racial injustice that are sweeping the country confront wounds that run deep in our history. As writers, it’s hard to find words, or even a place to start, the painful conversations we need to be having with ourselves and our communities. But there is no more vital time for the empathy, compassion, and understanding that good writing can bring to the issues we face.

Despite the fear and the difficulty, we encourage each of you to find your voice and share it. As Natasha Trethewey teaches us in the poem below, silence can be a powerful enemy of truth.

Thank you.

Barbara Hood
Volunteer Interim Executive Director

By Natasha Trethewey

Before the war, they were happy, he said,
quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year

history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care.

I watched the words blur on the page. No one
raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and – luckily –

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History, the teacher said, of the old South –

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof – a lie
my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I.

Natasha Trethewey served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2012-2013. This poem was published in Native Guard, her third poetry collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

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