Hallowed Ground, Mississippi

South

By Natasha Trethewey, American, born 1966

Homo sapiens is the only species
to suffer psychological exile.

        —E. O. Wilson

I returned to a stand of pines,
                            bone-thin phalanx
flanking the roadside, tangle
                            of understory—a dialectic of dark
 
and light—and magnolias blossoming
                            like afterthought: each flower
 
a surrender, white flags draped
                            among the branches. I returned
 
to land’s end, the swath of coast
                            clear cut and buried in sand:
 
mangrove, live oak, gulfweed
                            razed and replaced by thin palms—
 
palmettos—symbols of victory
                            or defiance, over and over
marking this vanquished land. I returned
                            to a field of cotton, hallowed ground—
 
as slave legend goes—each boll
                            holding the ghosts of generations:
 
those who measured their days
                            by the heft of sacks and lengths
 
of rows, whose sweat flecked the cotton plants
                            still sewn into our clothes.
 
I returned to a country battlefield
                            where colored troops fought and died—
 
Port Hudson where their bodies swelled
                            and blackened beneath the sun—unburied
 
until earth’s green sheet pulled over them,
                            unmarked by any headstones.
 
Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
                            are named to honor the Confederacy,
 
where that old flag still hangs, I return
                            to Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me—mulatto, half-breed—native
                               in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.

 

Source: Native Guard (Mariner Books, 2007)

The featured image is from the collection of the late, lamented Corcoran, Washington, DC:  Aaron Douglas, 1899-1979, Into Bondage, 1936.

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