--New Orleans, November 1910 Four weeks have passed since I left, and still I must write to you of no work. I've worn down the soles and walked through the tightness of my new shoes calling upon the merchants, their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking my plain English and good writing would secure for me some modest position Though I dress each day in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins. I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet industry, to mask the desperation that tightens my throat. I sit watching-- though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite what I pretend to be. I walk these streets a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, a negress again. There are enough things here to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots and irons of the laundresses call to me. I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field, I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart, spelling each word in my head to make a picture I could see, as well as a weight I could feel in my mouth. So now, even as I write this and think of you at home, Goodbye is the waving map of your palm, is a stone on my tongue.
Natasha Trethewey - 1966-
Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata
—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619
She is the vessels on the table before her: the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand. She's the stain on the wall the size of her shadow— the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her: his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.