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U.S. poet explores forgotten black Civil War history

May 30, 2007

U.S. poet explores forgotten black Civil War history

By Matthew Bigg

GULFPORT, Miss. (Reuters Life) - A regiment of black soldiers who fought in the South against slavery during the U.S. Civil War might have expected to have earned a place in history. Instead their story was forgotten. 

Few had heard of the Louisiana Native Guard from the 1861-1865 war until poet Natasha Trethewey explored their story in a book of poems that has just won the Pulitzer Prize. 

The poems focus on the strange status of the troops -- fighting with the Union for freedom but treated as virtual slaves by white Union commanders they served under. 

In one poem a Union officer leaves bodies of Native Guard soldiers rotting on a battlefield, claiming they never fought for him. 

"I wanted to tell a fuller version of this very important (piece of) American history," said Trethewey who teaches English and creative writing at Atlanta's Emory University. 

Trethewey started researching "Native Guard" when she realized that a war monument at a fort on Ship Island off the Mississippi coast never mentions the Native Guard even though they were stationed there to guard Confederate soldiers. 

Every Independence Day holiday as a child, a grandmother took her to the island from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi. 

"I was intrigued by the idea that I had grown up there and never knew about this, which made me think about historical markers and monuments and how they often only tell one part of the story," she said. 

"The (Southern) landscape is inscribed with a particular narrative and in the Deep South it's often a narrative about Confederate history," she said in an interview. 

DUAL IDENTITY 

The racial history of the South goes deep with Trethewey because her parents were a mixed-race couple whose marriage was illegal in Mississippi in the 1960s. 

Civil rights workers say Mississippi was the most difficult place to work in the Deep South with the worst record of any state for killings of blacks and intimidation, though others say the region's race history is misunderstood. 

One poem in Native Guard describes waking up to find a cross burning in their garden, placed there by the Ku Klux Klan as a warning to the family. 

Her parents divorced and in 1985 her mother, subject of a series of poems in the book, was murdered by the man who had been her second husband. 

"There was a real threat to being an interracial family and I was always uncomfortable," she said. "I knew that there was something dangerous about being seen in public with my parents." 

"My concerns about historical amnesia has everything to do with being born in Mississippi biracial at that time. 

Trethewey's father was a poet but she says that aside from a sense of having a story to tell born of her own unusual circumstances it's not easy to see why she turned to writing. 

She grew up in a black neighborhood of Gulfport in a modest one-story wooden house opposite a church. Her Aunt Sugar's house was next door and other family members lived across a road on land that had been in the family for generations. 

Hurricane Katrina damaged her family home in 2005. The area also changed drastically when Gulfport opened its casinos and Highway 49 was expanded, splitting the neighborhood in two, according to her half-brother Joe Grimmette. 

"The casinos brought a lot of different people to the town. Before it was just a small town," he said. 

Grimmette, who still lives in the area, spent summers with his older sister in the house. He said it was astonishing that their lives are so different and that their shared childhood was now recorded in poetry. 

"I can pick up one of her books and know exactly where she got it from," said Grimmette. "It's hard to believe that I'm close to someone who is that successful," he said. 

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