The Poem “Enlightenment” by Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey is an American poet and a two-time United States Poet Laureate. She is the author of six poetry collections, one of which, Thrall, was published in 2012 and earned critical praise and the public’s love. With her ekphrastic poetry, Trethewey charts the intersections of social and personal history and explores various forces that define the roles that are thrust upon a mixed-race child and her white father. The author creates a brilliant set of poems about the arrangement of mixed unions and, in this way, establishes an eloquent and expressive background to her own familial situation. Thrall is filled with tropes about oppression, slavery, and captivity, and Trethewey relentlessly explores Americans’ common past. She reflects on her personal experiences of small alienation and confronts the complications of race and the deep-rooted and unexamined concepts of racial differences in her country. Through one of the poems in the collection, Enlightenment, the author creates an allusion to present her complicated relationship with her father and draws parallels between him and one of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
Some context surrounding the poem’s background and its underlying meaning is necessary to begin to delve into it. Trethewey’s father was a white rural Canadian and her mother was an African-American from the South of the United States. As a result, the poet has been exploring her biraciality her whole life. Trethewey’s mixed-race identity shapes a continuous narrative through her poetry that complicates and corrects some scientific readings of her work. She deliberately employs personal recitals of mixed-race crossing as mediators for a systemic analysis of race and class in America (Pereira 255). Trethewey explained that “crossings and cross hatchings exist within my own blood. […] I could feel […] that I myself embodied that sense of crossing” (Pereira 255). Pereira reports that the poet developed this idea by stating that America’s story has always been one of races blending, border crossings, and cultures integrating, all of which Trethewey felt she represented (255). Thus, the mixed-race poetic identity of the author serves as her text’s constructed vehicle with the help of which she identifies and crosses the boundaries of race and class.
Trethewey’s late father, a well-published poet and a university professor, played a key role in her life. According to Valenzuela-Mendoza, this role verifies the viewpoint that mixed-race children with one white parent have their socio-economic opportunities increased (340). Eric Trethewey was a so-called ‘literacy sponsor’ for Natasha’s identity as a professional writer (Pereira 256). The relationship between Eric and Natasha – the one between a master and their apprentice – gave structural access for the young woman to work in academia and the publishing world. Trethewey’s many successes are, to some extent, due to her having access to and having been instructed in the power structures and systems controlling poetry and academia. Her high level of poetic literacy, and the success that it has an opportunity to bring, puts Trethewey in a privileged position, all because of her father (Kranz 25). However, his whiteness was always the dividing factor between them, and Enlightenment is essentially about that.
In Thrall, the author is angry, and this anger has several interconnected goals, all of which are visible in Enlightenment. First of all, Trethewey is angry at the narrative of racial mixing from the Enlightenment, which she expresses in a set of verses on paintings featuring mixed-race people and interracial families. These show how whiteness is hierarchically valued over blackness, which makes her blood boil (Knaus 36). Secondly, as per Knaus, the poet is angry at her white father as a supplier of racial thought of the Enlightenment as a father, a husband, and a mentor (37). Thirdly, Trethewey is angry at herself for being enthralled by a white father and his perspective and for being her father’s daughter as much as she is. By becoming a poet with the help of her father’s experiences and connections, Trethewey discovers how she became foreign to her black maternal background, and she hates it.
In Enlightenment, the author utilizes a number of figures of speech to draw the reader’s attention and evoke particular emotions in them. First of all, the whole poem is a big allusion, which is an occurrence of referencing something without naming or describing it directly. Enlightenment is Trethewey’s way of speaking about how complicated the relationship with her father is to her. The poet also uses enjambment, which is the continuation of a phrase or a sentence from one line to the next with no punctuation. One example is “darkened as if the artist meant to contrast / his bright knowledge, its dark subtext” (Trethewey 68). Another is “he was already linked to an affair / with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue / and ethereal, a wash of paint that seems / to hold him in relief”(Trethewey 68). Enjambment can be met many times throughout the poem, and it shows the flow of the thoughts of the author.
Another figure of speech employed in Enlightenment is caesura, which is a break between words in the middle of a line. It can be arranged with the use of meter or punctuation; Trethewey resorts to the latter. Examples are “a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow” and “with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue” (Trethewey 68). These stops imitate the phrasing and cadence of natural speech and make the narration feel even more like an author’s monologue. Moreover, the poem features examples of alliteration, which is the occurrence of identical consonant sounds at the beginning of successive or closely connected words. There is, for instance, “a wash of paint that seems to hold him in relief”, “for years we debated the distance between word and deed”, and “I’d follow my father from book to book” (Trethewey 68, 69). Alliteration creates a specific rhythm and, consequently, a musical effect, which highlights a particular line or section.
In addition to that, the poet employs striking imagery to provide the reader with vivid images and ideas and portray her emotional experience. She begins Enlightenment with an impressive image of the portrait of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, hanging in his historic house. Trethewey describes how his forehead is brightened while the rest of his face is shadowed. From her viewpoint, these shadows are indicative of the historical impropriety Jefferson was involved in when he posed for this painting. By that time, she adds, it was already known that he was seeing Sally Hemings, a Black woman and his slave. Here, the portrait represents the contradictions intrinsic to Jefferson’s character.
Moreover, in the poem, Trethewey’s father names various trees, flowers, and birds while they are in Virginia, the state where Jefferson lived. The poet says that it might indicate something about how her father sees the world. By commenting on all the flora and fauna, he seemingly demonstrates that he believes in a man pursuing knowledge. The way Trethewey sees it, the act of a person’s knowledge pursuit is more important to him than one’s shortcomings and world-view limitations, such as Jefferson’s. In this way, the poet’s father justifies Jefferson’s actions and stands up for him. Thus, the image of the father as a field guide turns into a symbol of the glorification of intellectual aspirations and their exaltation over potential and actual vices.
Finally, Trethewey speaks about Monticello, Jefferson’s place of residence, implying that she and her father visited it several times. Monticello is Jefferson’s memorial, and consequently, the representation of a complicated figure whose real life was much more complex than what his works and portraits suggest. When tourists are asked to imagine the past, the author tells her father that she will head around to the back. In this way, she points to the fact that if there was an opportunity to transform to Jefferson’s times, there would be no place for her in it. It shows how remarks that might be innocent on the surface can create divides invisible to some, such as the author’s father. Moreover, in this way, Trethewey implies how her parent might rather relate to a white man who died more than two decades ago than to his own mixed-race daughter.
In conclusion, Enlightenment is the poem in which the author starts a conversation about how complex the relationship between a white father and his non-white daughter can be. Trethewey creates a setting, within which she uses specific examples to illustrate how, from her perspective, her own father has more in common with one of America’s founding fathers than with his child. The father’s whiteness will never allow him fully understand the perspectives and feelings of people of color, among which is his daughter. In this way, the poet comments on the diversity of her country and on how race shapes one’s worldview.
Knaus, Juliann. “The Dissolution of Racial Boundaries: Colonial Diction and Mixed-Race Representations in Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall.” JAAAS: Journal of the Austrian Association for American Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 2020, pp. 29-45.
Kranz, Tova E. Body, Land, and Memory: Counter-Narratives in the Poetry of Minnie Bruce Pratt, Brenda Marie Osbey, and Natasha Trethewey. University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2017.
Pereira, Malin. “An Angry, Mixed Race Cosmopolitanism: Race, Privilege, Poetic Identity, and Community in Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina and Thrall.” New Cosmopolitanisms, Race, and Ethnicity: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Ewa Barbara Luczak, Anna Pochmara and Samir Dayal, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2018, pp. 254-274.
Trethewey, Natasha D. Thrall: Poems. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Valenzuela-Mendoza, Eloisa. “‘The Wages of Empire’: American Inventions of Mixed-Race Identities and Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall (2012).” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, vol. 12, no. 3, 2019, pp. 337-354.