--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-
Vicksburg, Mississippi Here, the Mississippi carved its mud-dark path, a graveyard for skeletons of sunken riverboats. Here, the river changed its course, turning away from the city as one turns, forgetting, from the past— the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up above the river's bend—where now the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed. Here, the dead stand up in stone, white marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand on ground once hollowed by a web of caves; they must have seemed like catacombs, in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor, candlelit, underground. I can see her listening to shells explode, writing herself into history, asking what is to become of all the living things in this place? This whole city is a grave. Every spring— Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways, listen all night to their silence and indifference, relive their dying on the green battlefield. At the museum, we marvel at their clothes— preserved under glass—so much smaller than our own, as if those who wore them were only children. We sleep in their beds, the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped in flowers—funereal—a blur of petals against the river's gray. The brochure in my room calls this living history. The brass plate on the door reads Prissy's Room. A window frames the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream, the ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.