History Lesson Poem by Natasha Trethewey

History Lesson

Rating: 4.7

I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips
of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each
tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side
of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,
forty years since the photograph
where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked colored, smiling,
her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

Susan Williams 14 November 2015

 “History Lesson” reveals the reality of history as both past and present by poetically comparing one snapshot to another from a former age. Does time move progressively forward  from segregated beaches to desegregated beaches which indicates progress? Or is the author saying that neither picture indicates a change in history? The picture that was taken first is described last- the picture taken last is described first challenges the reader about the movement of time. A photograph itself suggests that moments persist even though time has moved on. The setting of the picture is important as well. This beach was formerly a segregated one but the gulf it is located on was a major waterway for the importation of slaves into the deep south before and after the slave trade was outlawed. History keeps going back and forth like the waves coming in and retreating over and over time and again.

30 2 Reply
Denis Mair 03 March 2016

Thanks for taking time to share your way of reading it. The questions you pose help me see the time structure. And I like what you say about a past moment persisting or coming back. It obviously persisted in the grandmother's mind, because forty years later she staged the photo of her granddaughter, standing on that beach with hands on hips as she had once stood.

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