MEMORIAL DRIVE | NATASHA TRETHEWEY

My whole life people have wondered “what” I am, what race or nationality. … It’s happened again and again: someone looking at me furtively, or calling me “exotic” and asking me “What’s your heritage?” Once when I was making a purchase in a department store, the white salesman behind the counter was too nervous or too polite to ask–most likely not wanting to offend a white woman by assuming that she was anything but white. He needed to write on the back of my check the additional identifying information required back then: race and gender. Hesitating, his pen hovering, he tried to look at me without my notice. I watched his face as he deliberated after a second and third glance at my features, my straight, fine hair, my skin color and clothing. He must have considered, too, how I had spoken and whether any of those factors matched his notions of certain people–black people. I stood there and said nothing as he scribbled the letters WF, the designation for white female. In the same week, with a different clerk, I had been given the designation BF. That time I had not been alone: I had been standing in line at the grocery store with a friend who is black.

For my father, the myth of Cassandra had been just another way he sought to guide me toward what he thought I needed to know. In some versions, Cassandra’s fate is that she is merely misunderstood–not unlike what my father imagined to be the obvious fate of a mixed-race child born in a place like Mississippi. “She was a prophet,” he told me, “but no one would believe her.” Over the years, though, this second naming would come to weigh heavily on me. It was as if, in giving me that name, he had given me not only the burden of foresight but also the notion of causation–that whatever it was, if I could imagine it, see it in my mind’s eye, it would happen because I had envisioned it. As if I had willed it into being.

Later that night, you hear your mother’s voice as she tells Joel, “Tasha knows.”

You are ashamed and you don’t know why. The need in the voice of your powerful, lovely mother is teaching you something about the world of men and women, of dominance and ssubmission. You hear it emante from the most intimate of space, the bedroom with its marriage bed. Your shame and your sadenss are doubled. You hear in your mother’s words a plea to get him to stop. You hear her desperate hope that his knowing you know, knowing you listen, will put an end to the abuse. As if the fact that you are a child, that you are only in the fifth grade, will change anything at all.  And now you know that there is nothing you can do.

YOU KNOW YOU KNOW YOU KNOW.

LOOK AT YOU. EVEN NOW YOU THINK YOU CAN write yourself away from that girl you were, distance yourself in  the second person, as if you weren’t the one to whom any of this happened.

No longer was I content to describe my days, to begin my entries, “Dear Diary,” to write as if to an intimate friend, a second self. Instead, I turned the page on my notion of privacy, certain that he would read whatever I wrote, and began again.

“You stupid motherfucker!” I wrote. “Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing? You wouldn’t know I thought of you like this if you weren’t  reading my diary.” Each entry thereafter was a litany of indictments, my accounting of all the things he had done. Not only had I stopped expecting that my words could be private, but also I had begin to think of them as a near-public act of communication, with a particular goal, and that there could be power in articulating what I needed to say. Even more there was something powerful in writing it. In my first act of resistance, I had inadvertently made him my first audience. Everything I’d needed to articulate came out in those pages, raw and unfiltered, and I felt for the first time in this new voice I inhabited a profound sense of selfhood. I could push back by not holding inside what might otherwise have continued to divide and erode me.