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Native Guard Essay

Topics: Southern United States, American Civil War, South Carolina, Racism, African American, North Carolina / Pages: 7 (1550 words) / Published: Nov 3rd, 2014
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Alyssa Egstrand
Professor Sewell
ENG: The Literary Experience 1331
28 September 2011
Investigating the Impact of History on Modern Society within
Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard
Rooted in the shadows of history, Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey intertwines personal and historical accounts to scrutinize the impact of the past on the present. Trethewey’s
Native Guard is divided into three sections, which chronicle her mother’s life and death, the erased history of the Louisiana Native Guard, and Trethewey’s childhood in Mississippi. These different stories amalgamate, and open a dialogue about the impact of history on today’s world.
Throughout Native Guard Trethewey infuses emotion into these untold stories by including personal reflections regarding each event that transpired. The third and final section of the book though, is the most important component to the overall work; it details Trethewey’s connections to her memories of growing up in Mississippi. This section synthesizes each unique focus of
Native Guard, and consequentially forms one united theme: the importance of remembering of the past—the recorded, the biased, and the erased—due to its impact on the future. The final poem, “South” of Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, specifically highlights this theme by utilizing extended metaphors, integrating of memories with historical details, and infusing irony to illustrate racial conflicts.
Trethewey begins the poem “South” with an extended metaphor discussing present-day racism in Mississippi, despite the leaps and bounds towards racial equality made since the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. The metaphor focuses on the comparison between a

Egstrand 2 phalanx of pine trees and the expansive growth of palmettos (1-15). The pine tree grove is utilized by Trethewey to disclose racial tensions that still linger in Mississippi towards African
Americans. The phalanx is described as a “tangle/ of understory—a dialectic of dark// and light”
(3-5). Trethewey’s use of the terms ‘tangle’ and ‘dialectic’ highlights conflict of intermingling black and white opinions. Furthermore, Trethewey also alludes to the past by claiming there is an
‘understory’ to these dissimilarities, one rooted in ingrained Southern prejudices. Her insightful word choice in both these instances emphasizes lingering racial conflicts, which consequentially reinforces the idea of the past’s influence on the modern-day society.
To contrast the description of the pine grove, Trethewey includes the palmetto plants.
The references to palmetto plants complicate the metaphor, but also enable Trethewey to address the influence of perpetual Southern racial intolerance on ethnic discrimination today. Trethewey equates this sentiment with the palmetto plant, and its establishment on the southern coast, a
“…coast/ clear cut…// mangrove, live oak, gulfweed/ razed and replaced by thin palms—/ palmettos—symbols of victory//or defiance” (9-14). The Palmetto plant has a grand stature in the
South, standing for both the triumphs of the Revolutionary War, and stigma of the Confederacy.
The “palmetto became symbolic after the Battle of Fort Moultrie in 1776”, where the American troops used palmetto logs to defeat the British (“South Carolina Palmetto Flag”). But, this symbol, which once stood for freedom and victory, was tainted in 1861 when it was adopted as the official emblem of the South Carolinian flag once state seceded from the Union (“South
Carolina Palmetto Flag”). With this allusion Trethewey reinforces the theory of the past’s influence on today’s society. In addition, Trethewey’s description of the palmetto plants adds yet another layer of these plants’ metaphorical importance. Primarily these plants are described as
‘symbols of victory’, a simplistic description interconnecting to Trethewey’s prior allusion to the

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Revolutionary War. By claiming that the palmetto plants show ‘victory’ also alludes to the
South’s refusal to accept defeat, furthering Trethewey’s argument of perpetual nature of the past by illustrating lingering disillusions in the South today. The secondary component of the portrayal of the palmetto plants, the notion that they are also a symbol of ‘defiance’, confirms the
Southern resistance to change. The connection between the palmetto plants’ history as an integral inspiration for the Confederacy, and their prolonged prominence in the South, exemplifies their symbolic ‘defiance’ and clearly illustrates the impact of history on the modern-day Southern culture. While describing the nature of the palmetto plants Trethewey also explains how these plants came to exist in the South. As illustrated by Trethewey palmettos are not indigenous to the
South, the native species of ‘mangrove, live oak, gulfweed’ had to be erased to enable the palmettos existence. This metaphor ties back to the very cataclysm of slavery, slaves’ humanity was erased to enable their masters to thrive during antebellum era. Trethewey’s representation of the horrors of slavery portrayed by the introduction the foreign palmettos to Southern soil, successfully illustrates the past’s impact on the present. Just like the palmettos remain on the
‘coast’, prejudices established during the antebellum era remain embed in the South today. In essence, Trethewey’s extended metaphor that utilizes the very landscape of the South, its pine trees and palmetto plants, to describe its incessant internal issues with racial discrimination that are ingrained into the very fabric of Southern culture due to its tumultuous, opinionated past.
Though the extended metaphors incorporated into “South” leave a cerebral impact on the reader, Trethewey also explores the theme of the past’s influence on the present by interweaving historical anecdotes into her verse. Trethewey investigates two specific African American historical epochs, slavery and the Civil War, chronologically throughout the poem. Trethewey integrates the subjugation of African Americans to slavery through memories of the infamous

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“… field of cotton, hallowed ground—/as slave legend goes—each boll/ holding the ghosts of generations” (16-18). The inclusion remembrance of such an emotionally charged era enables
“South” to perforate reality’s pores; it transcends traditional verse, and the poem becomes personal. Also, the metaphor included within this reflection of the past, ‘each boll holding the ghosts of generation’ reemphasizes history’s impact on the present. Though centuries have passed since the last plantation closed, the slaves’ stories, the ‘ghosts of generations’, remain embedded in Southern memories and culture today. The extension of this theme is also illustrated through Trethewey’s inclusion of the Battle of Port Hudson, where numerous African
American infantry units were slaughtered, but not memorialized or even acknowledged (23-28).
The black soldiers who fought and died for freedom were left on the field “…unburied…/ unmarked by any headstone” (26-28). The sheer disrespect for the fallen soldiers, exemplified by the notion that they were left ‘unburied’ or ‘unmarked by any headstone’, also further illustrates racial discrimination in history—a prejudice that still lingers today. Overall, the intermingling of emotional memories and historical facts throughout “South” enables the poem to embody Native
Guard’s principal theme of comprehending the impact of events from the past on the today’s society and culture.
Trethewey’s use of historical allegories, anecdotes, and memories are only one of the ways her poem “South” works towards highlighting the overarching theme of Native Guard: the past’s essential nature to modern society and culture. Trethewey continues to embed this premise through the incorporation of irony. This poetic device is used by Trethewey to illustrate enduring disparity between races in the South. To make the scenario more relatable, Trethewey incorporates her own personal experiences into the poem’s ironic representation of the South,
“Where the roads, buildings, and monuments/ are named to honor the Confederacy//…I return/

Egstrand 5 to Mississippi state that made a crime// of me—mulatto, half-breed—native/ in my native land”
(29-34). The irony is created by contrasting the nature of Trethewey’s hometown, infested with lingering Confederacy ideas preserved in ‘roads, buildings, and monuments’, and her own childhood where she experienced painful discrimination as insinuated by the derogatory terms
‘mulatto’ and half-breed’. Trethewey also includes the figurative language tool of irony when discussing her connection to Mississippi. Trethewey claims Mississippi as home, her ‘native land’, but it will not even accept her because her biracialism made her a ‘crime’. Therefore, through the utilization of irony in both these scenarios, Trethewey epitomizes the notion that the past truly has an impact on the modern world by illustrating the residual racial inequality that endures in the South today.
“South”, though on first inspection may only appear as a synthesis of the themes within
Native Guard, it also works to communicate the work’s foundational concept into the fiber of the reader’s very being. Through the use of extended metaphors, the inclusion of historical anecdotes, and establishment of thought-provoking irony, Trethewey successfully exemplifies
Native Guard’s overarching theme: the realization that the past truly has an impact on today’s society. These sundry of components not only add to the complexity of the poem, but even more so enable the reader to connect with the poem. Through individual connections, whether general or personal, a reader’s consciousness of history’s influence on today is awoken. The past becomes vivid, its impact impossible to ignore, and the theme of Native Guard becomes truly relatable. Overall, the poem “South” makes the reader think, grow, and causes them to draw conclusions about their own life surrounding the idea of how it has been changed by the world’s and their own history, Trethewey’s goal from the start.

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Works Cited
"South Carolina Palmetto Flag." Honor the Colors: Iowa 's Civil War Battle Flags. State
Historical Society of Iowa, n.d. Web. 27 Sep 2011.

Cited: "South Carolina Palmetto Flag." Honor the Colors: Iowa 's Civil War Battle Flags. State Historical Society of Iowa, n.d. Web. 27 Sep 2011.

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