“Southern History” by Natasha Trethewey

This morning I picked up Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of poems titled Native Guard Poems.  It’s a very short book, but there is a great deal to ponder.  Here is a poem that touches on one of this blog’s central themes:

Southern History

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.
, 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.

Here is an old post titled Creating Neo-Confederates which analyzes the influences of the Lost Cause on textbooks at the turn of the twentieth century.

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3 comments… add one
  • Clio Bluestocking Jun 1, 2007 @ 13:46

    That is a wonderful poem, very telling about the complicity of silence. Thank you for bringing Natasha Trethewey to my attention.

    I have ancestral ties to the Confederacy, they don’t mean a whole lot to me, and I tend to agree with your discussions of memory.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2007 @ 11:16

    Hello Jim, — This is going to be your final comment. I’ve tried to ban you at least twice, but you’ve decided to use a different ISP address. Two other bloggers have contacted me about your comments and advice on how to deal with you. Understand that future comments will be deleted immediately.

    There are plenty of blogs to read. Why you choose to log on to this particular site at least 5 times a day is beyond me. Don’t you have work to do at Chase-Morgan in Ohio? Does your boss know that you spend most of your day online reading Civil War blogs?

    I don’t mind that you disagree with much of what I say. It’s the way that you do it that troubles me. You take everything so personally and rarely do you directly address my points. Your emotions come through clearly, but you don’t provide much of anything for me to think about.

  • Jim Jun 1, 2007 @ 10:58

    My high school history classes in NC never mentioned any of the examples listed in your link, but I still honor and defend the memory of my southern ancestors. I wonder why I don’t fall neatly into your hypothesis that school books shape our current memories and perceptions? Is it any wonder that anyone with ancestral ties to the Confederacy does not echo your views?

    If you look at what life is like in this country today AFTER Europeans committed genocide against the natives, waged war with each other, and used slave labor to develop it, then you would have to concur that it is an excellent example of democracy, human rights, social justice, and successful economics relative to most of the rest of the world. The volatile journey to this point was a combination of growing pains, experimental politics, and war. It is impossible to honor one group while villainizing another anymore than you can say that a man is all good or bad.

    Future policy should not elevate one part of southern history while condemning another part. This style of progressive history has no more relevance today than defunct and corrupt labor unions have in today’s modern and successful economy. Current policy for the South should be organic from within and fully representative of that region rather than from any external group that seeks to push a self-serving divisive view of history.

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