We can choose her personal story or the public history, but both are present if we are willing to see. Trethewey positions the reader in Ophelia’s world by historically contextualizing black women with an opening epigraph by Toni Morrison: “She had nothing to fall back on; not maleness, not whiteness, not ladyhood, not anything.
And out of the profound desolation of her reality she may well have invented herself” ( , Morrison 1971: 24).
There are three overarching subjects in Natasha Trethewey’s work—history, the arts, and the social construction of her own family’s identity and experience.
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day, exactly 100 years after it was first celebrated.
She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.
In 2013 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2017 she received the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities.
We read in Trethewey’s next book, , that her parents had to marry in Ohio because of the anti-miscegenation laws in her mother’s state, Mississippi.
Ophelia’s missive to her teacher, “Letter[s] from Storyville[,] December 1910” explains more: The auction was a nearquiet affair—much like the one Whitmandescribed, the men some wealthy “gentlemen”from out of town.
But it is her general concern with history and current events that is the focus of the poems here.
“Native Guard” is a poem sequence constructed out of the history of an all-black Union Army regiment composed mostly of former slaves.