For NPR Books, I write about the new luminous new memoir Memorial Drive, written by the brilliant Natasha Tretheway, former US Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This book is unparalleled. It is the kind of book that comes around once a century, if we are lucky.
In the closing pages of her memoir Memorial Drive, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey writes: “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”
The memoir, out this week, is a meditation on Trethewey’s own life as well as those of her mother and grandmother — an interrogation of the self and of family history haunted, in large part, by the abuse Trethewey and her mother both suffered at the hands of her stepfather. It ended, ultimately, in the murder of Trethewey’s mother by her step-father when Trethewey was 19.
Like Lucille Clifton’s poem “june 20,” a rising tension is created between the threat of the known violence that is to come and the present movement of the narrative building to that moment. “I need now to make sense of our history, to understand the tragic course upon which my mother’s life was set and the way my own life has been shaped by that legacy” writes Trethewey in the opening pages. Structurally, this tension becomes the driving engine of the book; thematically, this becomes a ghost of the terrifying future that haunts the present text.[…]
For NPR, I write about this important new memoir from Sarah Valentine:
“When one thinks of American blackness, there is the unsaid ugly truth that nearly all American blacks who have descended from the historical African diaspora in America have one (or several) rapacious white slave owners in their family tree at some point.
Here, in the early days of the United States, was the invention of racism for economic necessity. From 1619 until 1865, white male Americans chose to breed a black enslaved workforce through the state-sanctioned rape of black women to build the new nation and support their white supremacist class. Race became the single unifying identifier — determining everything about one’s life starting with this most basic division: enslaved or free.
The American law was that the “condition of the child followed that of the mother,” backed up by the “one drop rule,” the legal framework that dictated even one drop of blackness made an individual black, never white. The idea of blackness as a pollutant, a taint that would erode the purity of whiteness, was seized by politicians around the world then — and now.
Because of this legacy of sexual violence and anti-blackness, black and white mixed individuals have long been considered black in America.
To a much larger degree than many people would like to admit, race still determines a vast part of one’s life — social networks and mobility, birth and other medical care, employment opportunities and so on. Indeed, there is an entire genre of literature and film, popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s, composed of blacks “passing” for white to avoid this racism. Some of the most famous examples are Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing; James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 opus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; and the 1959 film The Imitation of Life.
Sarah Valentine, the author of the memoir When I Was White, did not choose to pass for white; her mother made the choice for her. So Valentine was raised as white by white parents in white middle-class communities — only to discover as a young woman that her biological father was actually black. As Valentine endeavors to explore what her new identity means to her, she searches for ways to connect to her blackness. For Valentine, learning that she is black is to reject whiteness; she cannot comprehend how the privileges of whiteness can be held hand in hand with the racism the black body is subject to.” […]