The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday January 19th

Former poet laureate Natasha Tretheway joins panel on literature and race

On Wednesday afternoon, the Campus Y's Anne Queen Lounge was at capacity for a panel discussing race and the arts in a forum called "Literature, Historical Memory, and Empathy: The Role of the Literary Arts in Our Campus Conversation on Race." 

Former poet laureate and Emory University professor Natasha Tretheway, who sat on the panel, reminisced about her childhood — specifically her experiences during elementary school. Growing up in Atlanta, she attended Venetian Hills Elementary School. 

"It was a school that had integrated after (desegregation). But because of white flight in the city after these types of things, it immediately re-segregated, and it was primarily there a black school. There were still white teachers, but I don't remember any white students in my classes," Tretheway said. 

"Now because of this, the teachers had a great idea. Instead of limiting what we learned about black history and black culture to the month of February, we would study it year-round." 

She said this experience gave her an entirely different worldview as a child.

"I thought everybody learned to sing 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,'" she said, referring to James Weldon Johnson's song — a song often called the "Black American National Anthem." 

Trethewey said to limit an education about black history and culture to just one month is a detriment to all students, especially white ones.

English professor and panelist Jennifer Ho also discussed her childhood. An avid reader growing up, she wanted to eventually write her own novels under the pen name Jacqueline Hope because it sounded like the names of the writers she was reading. 

"What was going on was that I was not reading any Asian American literature, I wasn't reading African American literature," she said. "I was reading white canonical literature, except I wasn't calling it white canonical literature. I was just calling it literature."

UNC English professor and panelist Minrose Gwin talked about how repetition can be found in history, literature and current events. 

"What does Emmett Till have to do with Trayvon Martin?" she asked. "What does the death of a young 14-year-old black youth in Mississippi in 1955 have to do with lynching? What does lynching have to do with Trayvon Martin?" 

The panel also took questions from audience members.

"How do you take these conversations back to what people call the Deep South, the South in the United States where we excuse racism, sexism and those sorts of things?" asked senior Ishmael Bishop, who is also a member of The Daily Tar Heel's editorial board. 

Tretheway said conversations about race are hard to have, especially in a time that is dominated by sound bytes, clichés and uncivil discourage. She said these conversations are more easily expressed in poetry and literature.

"Poetry is one of those ways that we can talk about some of those difficult things. It can be a container for knowledge and a way that allows people to hear each other," she said. "Poetry connects not only to the intellect but to the heart. Because of that, people are much more willing to hear things in a poem."

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