I read Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, for the first time in a graduate seminar called Race, Gender, and Social Justice taught by Rachel Watkins. Moving back and forth between two voices, a narrator in the “present” and a native guard during the Civil War, the poems grapple with southern identity and experience, the ways white supremacy haunts us, time, and grief.
It was yesterday, though, when Native Guard and Rachel’s creative pedagogy came full circle. With eight others who I know through my time as a fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute, I saw a stage production of Native Guard.
Nicole Banks Long’s voice flirted with the melodies flowing from Tyrone Jackson’s keyboard, while January LaVoy delivered each poem as if she was speaking to her diary alone. Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant appeared as the native guard, embodying the anguish and hope that carried our ancestors through fighting for a country that did not fight for them; that does not fight for us. In a scene that caught my breath and did not return it to me until he finished, Ghant delivered these words:
Some names shall deck the page of history
as it is written on stone. Some will not.
Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead
on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how
General Banks was heard to say I have
no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night,
I dreamt their eyes still open – dim, clouded
as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed –
staring back at me. Still, more come today
eager to enlist. Their bodies – haggard
faces, gaunt limbs – bring news of the mainland.
Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying,
they plead for what we do not have to give.
Death makes equal of us all: a fair master.
I have no dead there sat with me or, perhaps, wrestled with me. Thrice denied–in life, in battle, and in death–these soldiers’ anguish, grief, and hope settled into my body. I then thought about Rachel’s class and what I think is the regenerative nature of the best Black feminist pedagogy: it shows up again, in different ways, at different times to remind us that we are more than a sum total of white supremacy’s casualties; that we carry the fullness of Black humanity within us. In Rachel’s course, we did not only read ethnographies. We read poetry, fiction, essays, and other forms of nonfiction. For our final paper, Rachel accepted a short story from me instead of a traditional paper. And when she read it, she sent the most affirming message to me through her feedback: your work and writing does not have to adhere to any of the rules you learn about being an ethnographer. Rules are meant to be broken, especially if it means there are better ways to bear witness to and write about Blackness. It was the most creatively designed class I took as a graduate student, and it showed up for me and in me while I was with a group of scholars I love and hold close. In some ways, we are a little corner of the beloved community many want to see manifest in the world.
Rachel’s pedagogy wasn’t simply creative. She used all the tools available to push us toward grappling with not only Black death but also Black life. The social sciences, anthropology included, fails at this often. Social justice agendas fail at this sometimes, too, when we are caught up solely in the facts of inequalities and the assaults on Black life and neglect continuities in Black life.
I have no dead there, General Banks declared.
In yoga, we concentrate on the breath. It reminds us that we are *here* and present.
We do, in fact, have dead there, here, and everywhere. We see their lives and deaths play out behind our eyelids. We carry them with us in each rise and fall of our chests.