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Natasha Trethewey: If My Mom Could See Us Now

Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Native Guard. Her parents had an interracial marriage while it was still illegal in Mississippi, and Tretheway's poetry often draws on her childhood as a biracial child in the south.

13:55

Other segments from the episode on January 20, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 20, 2009: Interview with Shepard Fairey; Interview with Eric Foner; Interview with Natasha Trethewey.

Transcript

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Spreading the Hope: Street Artist Shepard Fairey

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. So, the day is here that many thought would never arrive. We have an African-American president. Who knows what image will define Barack Obama's presidency, but the image that most defined his campaign was created by my guest Shepard Fairey. His red, white and blue "HOPE" poster of Obama went through a number of iterations, using spray paint, collage and screen-printing techniques before Fairey was contacted by the Obama campaign to create an official poster. Time Magazine used one of Fairey's images of Obama for their person-of-the-year cover. And Fairey was commissioned to do the official inauguration poster. Although he's now a commercially successful artist, he's also a street artist whose first image to go viral was of the wrestler Andre the Giant.

Shepard Fairey, welcome to Fresh Air. Let me start by asking you to describe your famous Obama poster. Actually, you have several famous Obama posters, but I'll ask you to describe the first one that caught on that you did for anyone who hasn't seen it.

Mr. SHEPARD FAIREY (Artist; Graphic Designer): Well, I initially made an illustration of Obama that said progress beneath it, and then quickly changed that to hope, because I got some feedback from people that hope was the message that the Obama campaign really wanted to push. And I actually agreed with that, but I created it back in early January of 2008. And it's Obama with his face, basically, half in blue and half in red, sort of looking off into the distance with, theoretically, a presidential gaze of vision and confidence and wisdom. That's what it should imply. But that image was created just as a grassroots poster to be disseminated the way I normally get my posters out there, which was just on the street and through viral means. It caught on amazingly quickly because, I think, largely because of the Internet and because so many people were motivated as - for Obama, but that became the unofficial official image of the campaign in a lot of ways, which was amazing for me.

GROSS: How did it become an official image of the Obama campaign?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, it never actually became an official image of the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign liked that image, but because it was being disseminated in some ways illegally, or bending the rules, at least, they couldn't officially get behind that poster. So, they had me do a couple of illustrations from photos that they had clearance to that they could then sell on Obama's Web site and that they could use for materials to encourage people to vote and use in, you know, their efforts with their campaigners. And they were done in the same style as the HOPE image. And then, later, I was asked by Time Magazine to do their cover, also in the style of the HOPE Obama image. So...

GROSS: This was their man-of-the-year cover?

Mr. FAIREY: That's right, their - get with the times, Terry - person-of-the-year cover.

GROSS: Person of the year, sorry, yes.

Mr. FAIREY: Yes. And you know, what's amazing to me is that a piece of art that really was created with no affiliation with the campaign, no backing of a corporation that wanted a favor back or lobbyists or anything, managed to take hold and become so pervasive, you know, very much in the spirit of what Obama says, that change comes from the bottom up. It functions that way.

GROSS: What inspired you to do the poster in the first place? You first became known for work that was almost like visual and language non sequiturs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You had to project some kind of meaning on to it, and to actually take a stand and endorse Obama through these posters was kind of different from the work you were known for.

Mr. FAIREY: Sure. A lot of the work that I created throughout my career has been, I called it, absurdist propaganda; the idea that just putting something out there in the public space that gets people to question all the images they're confronted with is helpful. I called it phenomenology. That's a Heideggerian theory of reawakening a sense of wonder about one's environment. But more and more, my work has become more overtly political, and throughout the Bush years, I have been making pieces questioning the war in Iraq, questioning our shrinking civil liberties and privacy and, you know, a lot of the issues we've been facing under Bush. So, really, to me it's a logical evolution of my politics.

I heard Obama speak at the Democratic Convention four years ago. I was really impressed by what he had to say. There was a lot of positive rhetoric, but also some very straightforward talk about things that - challenges we're facing, and I think that Obama has the right mix of being able to unite but also being a realist. He's an idealist and a realist simultaneously, and you know, it's - I think he's extraordinary. So, I wanted to make a poster in support of him, even when people thought that the Hillary juggernaut would crush him momentarily and I was wasting my time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, the Obama posters that you did have a completely different look than your typical political poster, which is usually a straightforward photograph, like a headshot of the candidate with a slogan underneath. What do you think the style of your photograph said? What do you think that communicated to people in a way that was different from what standard campaign posters do?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, I think standard campaign posters are very safe. They use photographs. They don't take many liberties other than, you know, the usual patriotic American flag motifs and maybe a soft-focus blue background or something. And I think that people were just ready for something that had a little bit more of a unique approach and said, this is an iconic, confident image that isn't just about pandering to the lowest common denominator. I didn't make my image necessarily thinking that it would achieve the mainstream embrace that it has. I created it, in a lot of ways, for my usual audience, but hopefully, with the red, white and blue color palette, to be patriotic enough to transcend my audience of, I guess you could say, you know, progressive counter-culture types, because I really do believe that being patriotic is, you know, is about questioning your government when it's not making you proud, but also supporting it when it is. And with the opportunity to put Obama in the White House, you know, I felt like I needed to get behind that in a very patriotic way, and I needed an image that reflected that, but it still had to reflect my voice.

GROSS: Now, early on, you were a little worried that if you did this poster, it might have a negative effect on the Obama campaign. This is before they contacted you and asked you to do one that they could use in a more official way. But what were you worried about early on? How did you think the poster might reflect badly on Obama?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, you know, I'm an artist that's put work up on the streets for many years, and I've been arrested as a result of that. And I've also made work that's criticized President Bush and other aspects of capitalism and United States' policies. However, I always felt that this was with the most constructive intentions, but a person who is a blindly nationalistic type could try to spin my work as being un-American or unpatriotic, and I was afraid that some right-wing groups might latch on to that aspect of my work and, you know, my poster for Obama could be perceived as the unwelcome endorsement.

GROSS: You've been arrested how many times?

Mr. FAIREY: I've been arrested 14 times. I've been arrested in New York, Long Beach, Boston, Charleston, South Carolina. I was arrested in Denver during the Democratic Convention. While every vendor on every corner was selling my Obama image, I was being arrested.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Tell me the story. What happened?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, I was out putting up a mixture of Obama and "obey" posters, and I was with a group of friends, we were in an alleyway, putting posters on a concrete wall, and we thought we were far enough outside of the very, you know, hot area of downtown Denver, to avoid, you know, these black-suited riot cops that were everywhere. But somehow they saw us, and next thing you know, we were surrounded by 20 cops, several with their guns pulled. And we were zip-tied and hauled off to what they called mini Guantanamo, which was a special facility in Denver just for the protesters. And the funny thing was that, you know, authority has no inherent wisdom, so - that's a Joe Strummer quote - these police zip-tied us and said we were anarchists. Meanwhile, they were pulling Obama posters and stickers that we were carrying out, and I guess they didn't really understand the definition of anarchists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, right - because you were believing in government.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: That's right.

GROSS: You were supporting a candidate. So, did you say to them, say, I'm the guy that did these posters that you're seeing all over the place?

Mr. FAIREY: I did tell them that I was the guy, because I thought that might...

GROSS: Save you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: Save me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FAIREY: Make it seem more legitimate. But they - their only response to that was, I bet you're getting rich off that. And actually, I didn't keep any money from the Obama posters. I put it all back into making more posters and to donating to the campaign. But it was funny that that was the only way that they could think about it. I guess those guys don't get paid a lot.

GROSS: So, how'd you get out?

Mr. FAIREY: They really were just trying to get people that were perceived as troublemakers off the street. So, they just kept us in there for 15 hours, and we were zip-tied with those really intense plastic zip-ties to another person, which is extremely uncomfortable, actually, because they do it right arm to right arm so you can't get comfortable. But then they just put us in front of the judge and said, if you plead guilty, then you're out, time served. And there were actually a lot of people in there that had been rounded up for, you know, being troublemakers, who weren't, who were peacefully organized. And they really had a legitimate gripe, but then they're put in the position where they - if they don't just plead guilty, then they have to come back and go to court and spend money. But if they do plead guilty, then they have no recourse. And I felt bad for those people. I just plead guilty and got out and was over with it.

GROSS: My guest is artist Shepard Fairey. He designed the iconic Obama "HOPE" poster during the campaign. He also designed the official poster for Obama's inauguration. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On this Inauguration Day, we are speaking with illustrator and designer Shepard Fairey. He designed the official poster for Barak Obama's inauguration and the iconic "HOPE" poster used during the campaign. Let me read a letter that Obama sent you back in February of 2008. It's a really nice letter.

(Reading) I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign. The political messages involved in your work have encouraged Americans to believe they can change the status quo. Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I'm privileged to be a part of your artwork and proud to have your support.

Now, he's acknowledging in the letter that some of your images are seen on, for instance, stop signs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Officially, that's not a legal place to put your art. So, what did it say to you that he acknowledged that you're a street artist and that you sometimes put your art in places where it's officially not supposed to be?

Mr. FAIREY: Well, for me, it was incredibly encouraging in that he realizes that people express themselves in different ways and, you know, bending the rules might be appropriate for certain things. His campaign later, once that letter was published, quickly qualified the statement with a, you know, a statement saying, well, we, of course, we endorse the implementation of these materials in a - following local ordinances, et cetera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right.

Mr. FAIREY: But what it said to me was that Obama was both, you know, tuned in to what was happening at the street level and receptive to that and open-minded because a lot of people aren't going to be engaged politically if they feel like their culture is inappropriate in the, you know, the realm of politics.

GROSS: Now, the first Obama poster that you did - the unofficial one, the one that the Obama campaign couldn't use - they couldn't use it, I think, because you didn't have the legal rights to the photo that you'd based your image on. And I'm wondering if you'd like to give a shout-out to the photographer whose image that came from.

Mr. FAIREY: You know, I actually don't know who the photographer is. It was an Associated Press photo that I got off of Google and, actually, still don't know who took the photograph. They've never approached me. My illustration did stylize and idealize from the photo, and there were many other elements within the photo. And only one person in the entire time since I created the image a year ago has sent me the original and said, this is where you got that illustration, isn't it? So, I'm glad, you know, one, that the photographer didn't say, hey, I don't like that you're using this imagine. Maybe they're an Obama supporter. But I still don't know who it is, but I - whoever you are, thank you.

GROSS: Would you describe how you do your work? For instance, the Obama poster, started with photographs of Obama, and then what do you do with those photos to make your image?

Mr. FAIREY: I re-illustrate the photograph. I started off as a screen printer, and a lot of my art was made with the minimal color palette because the more colors you have to print, the more complicated and time consuming a screen print becomes, the less efficient it becomes. So, I really made the limitations of my medium into, hopefully, an aesthetic asset by making things very iconic and simplified to two or three colors. So, what I do is I take the imagine and I illustrate the darkest areas with, say, the dark blue in the Obama image, the medium shadows in the red, and the lighter shadows in blue, as I illustrate each as its own layer, and then I composite those over each other to yield the final image. And as I'm illustrating, I'm trying to emphasize, I think, the elements that give the image its essence and remove everything that's superfluous and create a very, you know, flattering, bold icon.

GROSS: Now, you have a new poster for the inauguration. Would you describe it?

Mr. FAIREY: My new poster is the official inauguration poster, which is still very surreal to me, and it plays off of the "HOPE" image. It has Obama in the top half of the composition with the White House and the Capitol building in the background. And then there's some red, white and blue stripes forming a sort of v-shape that come down to the bottom, and then on either side of that v-shape are a crowd of people. I think that this is about more than Obama. It's about, you know, all the people in the United States that are, you know, hopefully, going to benefit from his presidency. So, I felt that was an important component.

And then, it has the official inaugural seal right in the middle. I've made many spoofs of official government logos, satires. I did a book called "E Pluribus Venom," which played off of the motifs on money. But I've never actually gotten to use an official government logo in a piece of art. So, to me, it's exciting because it shows that you don't have to be connected to make a difference and be a meaningful participant in democracy. You know, I'm hoping that my whole story demonstrates that it's not as big a leap from, you know, an outlaw street artist to doing the inaugural poster and people will be motivated by that.

GROSS: We should say, there were a lot of steps along the way. I mean, you have a design studio, and you had already done advertising posters and album covers and a Rock the Vote poster. So, it's not like you were completely outside before the Obama poster.

Mr. FAIREY: Yeah, but it sounds better the way that I said it.

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's all this success doing to your image as, like, the outsider street artist?

Mr. FAIREY: You know, I'm too corporate for the street artist, and I'm too street for the corporate people. You know, I do things the way that I think they should be done on a case-by-case basis. My brand positioning is something very petty and narcissistic to try to cling to when I have these opportunities to work both inside and outside. So, you know, I'll let the peanut gallery decide whether they think I'm keeping it real enough, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FAIREY: I - you know, what I believe is that I've always tried to use art as a tool of communication with all the means I had at my disposal. And whether that was putting posters up on a street, doing commercial projects, making T-shirts, making album covers, or getting involved in actual politics, these are all ways for me to share my ideas and try to make things happen the way I think they, you know, should happen and develop into the things I think they should develop into.

GROSS: So, we are recording this interview, and when we listen back, it's going to be Inauguration Day. So, actually, as everybody's hearing this, it is Inauguration Day. So, where do you think you are now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Where do you think you will be on Inauguration Day?

Mr. FAIREY: I'm in Washington, D.C., I am going to the youth ball, and I think the - some sort of inaugural ball this evening. I've been organizing an art show and music event called Manifest Hope with my friend Yosi Sergant, who was very, very instrumental in getting the Obama posters around. He had a phenomenal grassroots network of people on top of the network of people that I had, and the two of us together really got the posters out far and wide. And during the DNC, we did an event called Manifest Hope, which was an art show showing all the grassroots art that had been created in support of Obama. And now, we've evolved this, for this time, at the inauguration, where the art is about not just supporting Obama, but supporting various aspects of his platform.

GROSS: Shepard Fairey, thank you so much.

Mr. FAIREY: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Shepard Fairey designed the iconic "HOPE" poster of Barak Obama and designed the official poster for the inauguration. His original image of the president was recently acquired by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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Eric Foner on Post-Civil War Disappointments

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. I can't remember a time when the word "history" has been used as much as in the past few days, as Americans have talked about Obama's history-making inauguration and the desire to witness that history. We invited one of America's most prominent historians to talk about the meaning of this moment in history. Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and has written extensively about reconstruction, Lincoln and the history of race relations in America. His latest books are "Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction" and "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." Eric Foner, welcome back to Fresh Air. Today, there's a big celebration in our nation, and tomorrow, it's back to work dealing with wars, the financial crisis, health insurance, poverty. What do you think is the importance of having a president at this time of crisis who has a gift for public speaking and for uniting people and for rallying them?

Dr. ERIC FONER (History, Columbia University; Author, "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World"): Well, Obama is - does seem to be able to touch people in a way that the best and most successful politicians are able to do. I hope that Obama seizes the opportunity that he comes in with to really take dramatic action. People want that. People want bold action. In a way, the best comparison or analogy to the situation Obama's coming in with is 1933. We're not in the Great Depression at the moment, but we are in a pretty serious economic situation. And one of the things Roosevelt showed when he came in 1933 is that bold action generates support. Roosevelt didn't have a blueprint; he was an experimenter. The New Deal was not hatched in his mind all at once. They tried many things in 1933, some of which worked, some of which didn't. But I think the very visible evidence of bold action rallied people behind him.

And I really hope Obama seizes this moment, because I see Obama's election, putting the question of race aside, as really a possible turning point in our history. It's the end of the age of Reagan. We have lived in the age of Reagan since 1980. You know, historians divide our politics not by president by president, but by, kind of, political periods. The New Deal era lasted all the way to the 1960s or so, and the age of Reagan has lasted from 1980 to now. And now, this election repudiates the basic principles that Reagan established and that every president since him has governed by - including Clinton, by the way - limited government, deregulation, things like that, the market being the arbiter of economic policy.

Well, the market didn't work very well last year, and I'm sure Obama is well aware of that. And I think he has the opportunity to establish a new governing paradigm that may last well beyond his four or eight years in office. And that's what I think he should do to seize this, you know, great confidence that people have in him and this great desire for bold action which is out there in the country.

GROSS: A lot of comparisons have been made between Obama and Lincoln. And one thing that you point out that we have to keep in mind about Lincoln is that he changed a lot. He didn't always believe in - that slaves should be emancipated or even that after they were emancipated that they should have equal rights. Would you talk a little bit about Lincoln's evolution regarding race and slavery?

Dr. FONER: Well, this is the greatness of Lincoln, absolutely, his capacity for growth. And you know, in 1862, in a message to Congress, Lincoln said, we must disenthrall ourselves - wonderful words, you know, Lincoln had this fabulous command of the English language even though he only had one year of education - disenthrall ourselves; that is, we are sort of tied down by old ideas. And he was part of that we. He himself had to grow out of his earlier views, which were certainly pretty racist regarding blacks and rather gradualist in dealing with slavery. How did he do that? Partly it was just events, the failure of military - to achieve military victory in the first year or so of the war.

But also, Lincoln was the kind of guy who listened to alternative points of view. Lincoln was willing to respond to social movements. He just didn't think inside the beltway. He listened to abolitionists. He listened to religious leaders. He was the first president ever to meet with black people in the White House, I mean, in other words, to discuss policy. Now, there had been slaves in the White House, but now, Lincoln talked to Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and other prominent black people. So, he had an open mind, and he was willing to - he was able to grow. And that I think is the essence of his greatness.

He ends up, in 1865, in a far different place than he begins. So, there's where I think Obama can learn from Lincoln. It's not the specific policies, but it's the frame of mind of openness and of willingness to change and willingness to listen to these social movements out in the country which help put him in office. And I think if he can do that, he can rise to the occasion of this crisis we're in.

GROSS: Because of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "Team of Rivals," a lot has been made about how Lincoln put together this team of rivals, his political opponents, people with different points of view, and that concept helped him become a great president. And I wonder if you agree...

Dr. FONER: Well, you know, Terry, with all due respect to Doris, who's a very good historian, I don't think this really holds much water. First of all, every president did that in the 19th century. That's how you created a Cabinet. You brought in the leading figures of your party. The secretary of State was supposed to be your main rival in the party. John Quincy Adams had Henry Clay, and I could name others who were rather much more obscure. Second of all, Lincoln's Cabinet was basically dysfunctional. I don't think it's a good model for Obama. I hope that's not what he thought he was doing. It did consist of several people who thought they were better qualified to be president than Lincoln, and some of them were ambitious to succeed Lincoln in 1864. And the Cabinet didn't meet very frequently. Lincoln basically dealt with each member individually in terms of their own departments. When they did meet, they frequently couldn't make decisions. So, it's a wonderful idea, "Team of Rivals," but actually when you get into the history, this analogy between Lincoln and Obama, it doesn't actually hold water.

GROSS: Is there anything else you've heard quoted about American history, you know, in the context of Obama's election that you think misstates what actually happens historically?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: You know, I think this whole Lincoln analogy has gone a little too far. There are analogies between Lincoln and Obama. One is that neither of them had very much political experience on the national level before they became president. Obama has four years in the Senate; Lincoln had one term in Congress. They didn't become major figures based on, you know, a long record of public service. It was actually their eloquence; it was speeches that made both Lincoln in the 1850s and Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention or during the campaign, his speech on race. It was speeches that connected them with the public. And I think that is a reasonable analogy. On the other hand, some of what's happened - I guess this is theatricality, you know, taking the same train ride as Lincoln, eating the same dinner as Lincoln...

GROSS: The Bible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The swearing-in Bible.

Dr. FONER: Well, there's a very good historical point. You know, not just the Bible, but the preacher. Lincoln was inaugurated twice with no preacher involved. You didn't need a preacher to get inaugurated in the 19th century, and it was quite uncommon to have ministers there. You know, they believed actually in the separation of church and state back then. And Lincoln, in fact, never was a member of a church in his entire life. He probably couldn't run for office nowadays. So, you know, if Obama were really modeling himself on Lincoln, he would not have Reverend Warren or any of these other preachers around at his inauguration. We are a secular government, supposedly.

GROSS: Yeah, sometimes, you think, well, this is such - you know, all the presidents have done it. How far does it go back? How far does that idea go back?

Dr. FONER: I think it's a 20th-century idea, actually. You know, I think John Quincy Adams wasn't even sworn in on a Bible. He put his hand on the Code of Laws of the United States. He said, I'm pledging my allegiance to the laws. I'm - the role of the president is to ensure that the laws are enforced, not that the Bible is enforced. So, you know, there were various different views of this. But people in the 19th century, knowing the terrible wars of religion that had racked the world for centuries, knowing that government intrusion in religion is actually bad for churches, were much more sensitive to this business separation of church and state than we have become lately. Also, Lincoln in his great second inaugural address said, nobody knows God's will. Nobody knows God's will. We have to do the best we can without knowing that. Today, we are much more advanced than that. You know, every member of Congress knows God's will, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: They're told by God how to vote. You know, God's position on this, God's position on that. They tell you what it is. So, we're much more knowledgeable than Lincoln about what God's will is nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You've been a history professor a long time. Has the level of your students' interest in this campaign been different than in previous years?

Dr. FONER: Oh, very much so. I think the students were tremendously engaged. You know, this last term while the campaign was going on, I was teaching a lecture course at Columbia University on the history of American radicalism, about 200 students in this class. And it was great to have this going on, to have history happening. We were talking about Eugene Debs and the early Socialist Party when McCain was accusing Obama of being a socialist. My students, unlike most people, actually therefore knew what a socialist was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FONER: And they also knew Obama is not a socialist, whatever he is. And of course, we talked about race in American politics, and we had talked about earlier efforts of blacks to gain the right to vote, to run for office. So, I think, you know, in my class, this was a fabulous learning experience and teaching opportunity. So, yeah, I think this has stimulated interest in politics and in history among young people, which is certainly a very good thing.

GROSS: So much of the country has been celebrating the election and inauguration of President Obama, and part of that celebration is probably because things have been so difficult in the country in the past few years, and Bush became such an unpopular president. Now that Obama is president, do you think some of that enthusiastic support is going to turn into political pressure? That some of the groups that really supported him will now become not his opponents, but groups pressuring him to take action in the way that they think the action should be taken?

Dr. FONER: I hope that happens. I hope that is what will make Obama a great president, if it does happen. You know, the last day of my class at Columbia in December, I said to the students - you know, I'm not telling students how to vote, and I'm not telling students what their political views ought to be. That's not the role of the professor. But I said, look, if you worked for Obama, as many of them did, you have to keep pressuring Obama on these issues. Lincoln needed the abolitionists. Roosevelt needed the labor movement. Johnson needed the civil rights movement. And Obama needs you to keep pressuring him on these issues that are of importance to you. Don't just think that change comes from the top. You know, that's not how democracy works.

GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you so much for talking with us.

Dr. FONER: Always a pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. His latest book is "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World." Coming up, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. Her black mother and white father worried that their biracial daughter would be an outcast. She'll talk about what Obama's inauguration means to her. This is Fresh Air.
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Natasha Trethewey: If My Mom Could See Us Now

TERRY GROSS, host:

Like President Obama, poet Natasha Trethewey is biracial. But her African-American mother and white father had to break the law in 1965 to get married. They lived in Mississippi, where interracial marriage was illegal, and they worried their biracial daughter would be despised in parts of society. Trethewey wrote about this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, "Native Guard." She holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University.

Natasha Trethewey, welcome back to Fresh Air. Many of people have pointed out that when Barack Obama was born, over 20 states still had laws that would have made his parents' marriage illegal. Now, your black mother and white father broke two laws when they got married. What were those laws?

Professor NATASHA TRETHEWEY (Poetry, Emory University; Poet, "Native Guard"): Well, Terry, at the time in 1965 when my parents got married, it was not only illegal in the state of Mississippi for interracial couples to marry, it was also illegal for them to leave the state of Mississippi, get married somewhere else that allowed it - in their case, Ohio - and then return to the state married.

GROSS: Why did they return, knowing they were likely to be treated with great hostility and knowing that they were breaking the law and could be punished for that?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think they returned because it was home. My mother had grown up in Mississippi. Her mother was there and her extended family of aunts and uncles. And my father was a student here - he's from Canada, but he was a student. And so, I just think that it was sort of the nucleus of the family to go back to, better than being isolated, perhaps, in a state that, maybe grudgingly, allowed interracial marriage.

GROSS: I'd like you to read your poem "My Mother Dreams Another Country," but before you read it, tell us what the other country was that she was dreaming.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I imagined when I was working on the poem that my mother would have been contemplating, while pregnant with me, a country that I could be born into in which interracial marriage was not prohibited by a law, and that there was, for her, a possibility that there was this other country into which I might be born, but at the same time, knowing that that is, indeed, not the country that she and my father were bringing me into.

GROSS: Would you read it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I'd be happy to.

(Reading) My Mother Dreams Another Country.

Already the words are changing. She is changing from colored to Negro, black still years ahead. This is 1966; she is married to a white man. And there are more names for what grows inside her. It is enough to worry about words like mongrel and the infertility of mules and mulattos, while flipping through a book of baby names. She has come home to wait out the long months. Her room unchanged since she's been gone. Dolls winking down from every shelf, all of them white. Every day she is flanked by the rituals of superstition. And there is a name she will learn for this, too, maternal impression, the shape like an unknown country, marking the back of the newborn's thigh.

For now, women tell her to clear her head, to steady her hands or she'll gray a lock of the child's hair wherever she worries her own, imprint somewhere the outline of a thing she craves too much. They tell her to staunch her cravings by eating dirt. All spring she has sat on her hands, her fingers numb. For awhile each day, she can't feel anything she touches, the arbor out back, the landscape's green tangle, the molehill of her own swelling.

Here outside the city limits cars speed by clouds of red dust in their wake. She breathes it in, Mississippi, then drifts towards sleep thinking of someplace she's never been. Late, Mississippi is a dark backdrop bearing down on the windows of her room. On the TV in the corner the station signs off, broadcasting its nightly salutation, the waving Stars and Stripes, our national anthem.

GROSS: That's Natasha Trethewey reading her poem "My Mother Dreams Another Country," from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems called "Native Guard." So, do you feel like with the election and inauguration of Barack Obama that we're living in the other country that your mother dreamed?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think we're a lot closer to it. My mother died 23 years ago, and were she alive today, I think she would be taking note of the remarkable place to which we've come in this historic moment.

GROSS: You must really wish that she was alive to witness this.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I do. I do wish that very much because I know these kinds of things mattered so much to her. She and my father met at Kentucky State College, which was one of the HBCUs - the historically all-black colleges and universities - back in the' 60s. And sort of the excitement of the civil rights movement was everywhere around them. My mother wrote letters to my father in the summer she rode with the Freedom Riders, and you know, I think that even as she might have imagined such a moment, I don't know if she would have believed that it could occur in her lifetime.

GROSS: In the poem that you just read, you imagine your mother thinking about the word "mongrel" and how that will be used against you, and this is as she's thinking of names to name you. I remember at a press conference, Obama used the word mutt; he was talking about the dogs he was going to get for his girls. And in describing one of them, he said, he's a mutt like me. What did you think about when you heard that?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I thought it was very funny. I appreciated that sense of humor that actually points to a word like mongrel and ideas about mongrel-ization, that were very much on the minds of certain Mississippians at the time. To be able to use it tongue-in-cheek at this point suggests that we've come a long way and that there is less power for such language to do us harm when we appropriate it and make jokes out of it.

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection "Native Guard." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is poet Natasha Trethewey. She wrote about being biracial in her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection "Native Guard." So, what does it mean to you to see America's first biracial president? I mean, Obama's always called America's first African-American president, but he's biracial, too. So, what does that mean to you?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: I think a lot about that. I actually pinpoint in my own thinking that he is like I am and, I think, similarly, defines himself as both black and biracial. I find myself frequently introducing myself to someone, saying that, you know, I've grown up black and biracial in the United States. When I was a child the adults around me, my great-aunts and uncles, would always say things about what I might be when I grew up. And of course, president was one of those things that I think, you know, adults said to children, well, do you want to be president? Might you be president? And I think for awhile I, like any kid, I said, sure, you know, I'm going to be president.

But then, as I thought about it more and more, I began to ask myself the question, who would become president first if this were to happen in my lifetime? Would it be a black person or a woman? And what's funny about it, to me, is I didn't realize until watching the Democratic primaries that it had never occurred to me, in my thinking, that there was no place for a black woman. I knew that I would be represented if a black man became president or a white woman became president because they're both part of who I am. And yet, the other part, the black woman part, did not come into the equation. But finally, I did get double representation, I think, with a biracial president. And so, that's been pretty meaningful to me, the kind of symbolic imagery of it.

GROSS: Barack Obama is not only like you in the sense that he, like you, is biracial. He's also of your generation and this is the first president who is. How does that feel?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: It makes me feel like I'm really old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Because presidents always seem so much older and to think that he's only five years older than I am. That we are of the same generation is significant, I think, because we are of a generation that came out of that moment when there were still over 20 states that had anti-miscegenation laws, and that we grew up in a time when those laws were gradually changing and being done away with. And it seems to me that I have come of age at the same time that the nation has come of age in a certain way.

GROSS: How do you hope that the Obama presidency will change the conversation about race?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I'd like to think that it will change the conversation because it's - the imagery is already changing. You know, the beginning of the poem that I read is - talks about the language changing, the names that we have for people. This is a moment when the imagery has changed as well, and I'm delighted to see that the nation has come to a point where we can be represented as much represented by a black person as we are by any white president.

GROSS: So, you wrote another poem to read for us for this occasion. Would you introduce it for us and tell us why you chose it?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, this other poem that I think really speaks to this historical moment. It's a poem by Langston Hughes called "I, Too, Sing America."

(Reading) I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes. But I laugh and eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me eat in the kitchen then. Besides, they'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too, am America.

GROSS: Well, thanks for reading that. I confess we're recording this interview just before the inauguration, although we're broadcasting it just after. As we speak, you're preparing to go to Washington for the inauguration. Why is it important of you to be there?

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that as a poet, I am always concerned about history and baring witness to history. But so often, it's through the research that I do, the reading. And this is an amazing opportunity to be there in the flesh to bear witness to a historical moment. I can't imagine not being in that place and seeing something that my mother never could have imagined seeing, that my grandmother, who died last July, didn't make it to see. And I feel the need to witness that for those who've gone before us as well as future generations.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, a pleasure to speak with you, again. Thank you so much.

Ms. TRETHEWEY: Lovely to talk with you, Terry.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection "Native Guard." She's a professor of poetry at Emory University.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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