Natasha Trethewey

Native Guard

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Native Guard Summary

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Native Guard is a 2006 book of poetry by American author and former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. It is deeply focused on the racial legacy of America’s Deep South, particularly on the unreliability and mutability of memory. The book’s title refers to the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first black regiments of the American military, which was brought into battle during the Civil War. Trethewey combines fragments of this national history with personal anecdotes and imagery drawn from her own upbringing in the South (by a white father and a mother whom the government labeled as “colored”) to interrogate the relationship between individual and nation.

A central subject of Trethewey’s poems is the question of why certain stories are told in American history, while others, which are just as important and evident, are not. Several poems suggest that the popular history of the American South is extremely distorted. Her speakers deconstruct the model of the rich, industrious plantation owner, who may or may not be sympathetic to slaves, rebuking narratives that sanctify these figures. At the same time, they highlight the struggles of slaves by bringing attention to the many voices of black people that were squelched for centuries and continue to be oppressed through whitewashed historical narratives. For Trethewey, racial inequities persist because they are subtly encoded and reasserted through popular interpretations of, and stories about, race relations. This fact is independent of the concrete progress that has been made in terms of the abolition of slavery, the lessening of hate crimes, and policy improvements.

The book’s title poem, “Native Guard,” shows just how connected we are to our past. It begins by describing a slave fighting in the Native Guard, who later moves into the Union army, the Corps d’Afrique, which opposed the Confederate Army. The narrator laments that this slave never had a chance to see racism abolished since neither side of the Civil War truly understood what it would mean to eradicate the slave-slaveholder relationship that has determined much of America’s legacy. After the war, the former slave finds a journal in an abandoned house, and writes his own poem over the words within, noticing how his writings both literally and semantically intersect with those of the journal’s white owner. Trethewey often portrays whites as the captives of their own power, since their immoral acts have bound them even tighter to the same tired narrative of oppression.

Several of Trethewey’s poems try to explain why Southerners have so much pride about a history built on the exploitation of black people. In “Pastoral,” someone asks Trethewey why she doesn’t hate the South. The poem explains that it is nearly impossible to hate where one is from, because it is consummate to hating oneself. In “Miscegenation,” she alludes to the song “Mississippi God-damn” by the black Civil Rights Era singer Nina Simone and sympathizes with the mixed-race children of twentieth-century America. “Incident” turns to the atrocities committed by white supremacists, particularly the Ku Klux Klan; the poem is based on an incident when a tribe of Klansmen burned a cross on her lawn. She notes that, thereafter, “We tell the story every year,” yet “Nothing really happened.”

The final poem of Native Guard, “Theories of Time and Space,” encapsulates the fraught history of the South. It depicts a “man-made beach” twenty-six miles long, constructed by dump trucks that arrived from afar and suffocated the native coastal mangroves, the “terrain of the past.” This image is a metaphor for historical reductionism, particularly the kind that squelches the voices of oppressed people who have little power to affect the historical dialogue. The book ends in an ambivalent mood, conveying that the real struggle of black people is not fully transmittable outside the subjects who each experience it uniquely.