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American poet laureate tells of ‘illegitimate’ youth in Mississippi

Staff March 1, 2013 Entertainment No Comments

By Jane Suttmeier
Photography Editor

United States poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Tretheway’s Feb. 20 reading served as a lesson for the Ohio Wesleyan community on the racial injustices that still exist in modern society.

Tretheway talked about how difficult it was for her to grow up as a child of interracial marriage during a time when she was not recognized and “rendered illegitimate.”
Her home state of Mississippi was the last to ratify the 13th Amendment banning slavery on February 7, 2013, which she said she found disappointing.

Tretheway also mentioned how it was only 15 years ago that Alabama got rid of a rule against miscegenation, or interracial marriage.

Tretheway said she has a specific appreciation for Ohio. She said she “loves being back in the state that made her legal,” in reference to Ohio lifting its anti-miscegenation law in 1887.

Born in Mississippi in 1966 and raised with an interracial background, Tretheway writes of events from the past and the present related to personal memories, war, inequality and race issues.

Tretheway said her life growing up in Mississippi influenced her writing in her books Domestic Work (1999), Thrall (2012) and Native Guard.

“Mississippi has a terrible beauty, its history of violence and injustice, combined with the resilience of the people who are trying to make the best of the history we’ve been given,” she said.

Because her birth was technically illegal in late-1960s Mississippi, Tretheway grew up around a different type of language that inspired her latest book, “Thrall.” Tretheway went on to read from Thrall during her lecture.

If she had been told in her early days that she would one day win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Tretheway never would have believed it.

“I didn’t start doing it (poetry) seriously until graduate school,” she said. “I went to graduate school thinking I was going to be a fiction writer.”

Although she never expected to make poetry a career, Tretheway has been writing poems since as early as the third grade.

“In my elementary school the librarian bound some of my poems and put them in the library, and I felt like a poet back then,” she said.

Freshman Emma Merritt said she enjoyed Tretheway’s poems and learned about racial inequality at the reading.

“I didn’t know that Ohio was a proponent of interracial marriages, and it was interesting to get a real story on the matter,” said Merritt. “The (poems) were very moving and you could tell (Tretheway) had a connection to them.”

Senior Alex Crump also took some knowledge from the event.

“I learned what it was like to be the child of an interracial marriage and what challenges came with that for her,” Crump said. “I really enjoyed the stories behind her poems; to me those were almost more captivating than the poems themselves.”

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