African American Studies at Beinecke Library

New Exhibition: By Hand

byhand

By Hand: A Celebration of the Manuscript Collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

January 18 – April 29, 2013

By Hand celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript with an exploration of its manuscript collections. The exhibition begins where the Yale College Library collection of early manuscripts began, with a mirror of humanity, a copy of the Speculum humanae salvationis given by Elihu Yale. It ends with the manuscripts and drafts of “Miracle of the Black Leg,” a poem written by U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey while she was a research fellow at the Beinecke Library in 2009.

Manuscript, from the Latin term “by hand,” derives from the ablative case: locational, instrumental, situated always in relation to something or someone else. Like the term, this exhibition explores the reflections of humanity in the Beinecke’s manuscript collections, presenting them as markers of the social contracts of love, creativity, need, power, that bind us into historical record even as they bind us to one another.

The exhibition ranges across the Beinecke Library manuscript collections, in an extraordinary display of the Library’s manuscript holdings, from papyri of the 2nd century A.D. through working drafts by contemporary poets, from manuscripts in the original Yale Library to recent additions to the collections. On view are manuscripts, notes, and proof copies of works by Langston Hughes, Rachel Carson, Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Terry Tempest Williams, James Joyce, F. T. Marinetti, Goethe, and others; the Voynich Manuscript, the Vinland Map, the Lewis and Clark expedition map and journals, the Martellus map; the last paragraphs of Thoreau’s manuscript of Walden; letters, postcards, poetry, and notes by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, Erica Jong, and others; early manuscripts from a tenth-century Byzantine prayer roll, a fragment of lyric verse on papyri, the Rothschild Canticles, a fourteenth-century ivory writing tablet, and the first illuminated medieval manuscript known in a North American collection.

New Research from Beinecke Collections

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Beinecke Collections, Research Resources by beineckepoetry on November 18, 2012

Kirsten MacLeod, “The ‘Librarian’s Dream-Prince’: Carl Van Vechten and America’s Modernist Cultural Archives Industry,” Information & Culture: A Journal of History, Volume 46, Number 4, 2011.

Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) was an art critic and patron, a novelist, and a photographer from the early- to mid-twentieth century. His most important role, however, was as a collector and archivist of American modernism. This study examines the origins of Van Vechten’s penchant for collecting and archiving, how these interests informed his professional and amateur pursuits, and how they led him to contribute to the creation of a substantial and wide-ranging archival record of twentieth-century American cultural life.

Photographs by Carl Van Vechten are used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust; the permission of the Trust is required to reprint or use Van Vechten photographs in any way. To contact the Trust email: Van Vechten Trust

The English Army’s Only Black Regiment

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Beinecke Collections, Research Resources by beineckepoetry on October 31, 2012

The Beinecke Library has acquired the William Walker Whitehall Johnston Photograph Album of Wales, the West Indies, and the 1st West India Regiment (GEN MSS 887). This extraordinary photograph album documents people and the built landscape of the West Indies, circa 1859-1865, including enlisted men, non-commissioned officers, and officers in the 1st West India Regiment. The photographs of the regiment depict soldiers, officers, military exercises, and barracks. A group portrait shows officers involved in the Morant Bay Rebellion, including Johnston and generals Luke Smythe O’Connor and Alexander Abercromby Nelson.

Photographs of sites in the West Indies include buildings, markets, and streets. Many images depict sites in Nassau on New Providence, including Christ Church Cathedral, Fort Charlotte, Fort Fincastle, Market Street Arch, Old Fort of Nassau, Queen’s Staircase, and Vendue House, as well as the residence of the governor and an octoganal-shaped city jail. Images of sites in Kingston, Jamaica, include the Coke Memorial Methodist Church, Kingston Theatre, and Up-Park Camp. Several photographs show the settlement and barracks at Castries, Saint Lucia. Photographs of Port of Spain, Trinidad include views of Marine Square and Almond Walk. Photographs of Havana, Cuba depict the Plaza de Armas, including El Templete, the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, and a monument to Ferdinand VII of Spain. There are also photographs of the lighthouse at Great Isaac Cay, South Bimini Island. Photographs of sites include several panoramic photographs.

The album also includes photographs documenting a stay by Johnston with the Tennant family at Cadoxton Lodge Estate in Cadoxton-juxta-Neath, Wales. Images include portraits, including portraits of Johnston’s brothers, as well as several members of the Tennant family, such as Charles Tennant and Henry Tennant; views of the Cadoxton Lodge Estate, including the house and garden; and several views of the Neath Abbey ruins. Other images include views of iron and tin works, Aberdulais Falls, the Tennant Canal, and the beach at the Mumbles near Swansea. Several photographs depict sites in London, including workmen and boys gathered at the construction site of the Victoria Railway Bridge (later known as the Grosvenor Bridge) over the River Thames.

A detailed description of the album can be found online: William Walker Whitehall Johnston Photograph Album of Wales, the West Indies, and the 1st West India Regiment (GEN MSS 887).

William Walker Whitehall Johnston (1835-1886)
William Walker Whitehall Johnston was an officer in the British Army. He was born in Trinidad, where his father, Thomas Francis Johnston (circa 1808-1873) served as a Colonial Secretary. In the British Army, Johnston held ranks from ensign to lieutenant-colonel in the 1st West India Regiment. He commanded troops in Jamaica, British Honduras, and West Africa in the Ashanti War, 1873-1874. Johnston married Mary Elizabeth Farrington (circa 1835-circa 1884), circa 1860, and they had two children, Frances Maude Johnston Hilditch (circa 1862-1895) and William Charles Caley Johnston (1870-1918). In 1884, he married Matilda Ricketts (born circa 1856). Johnston died in London in 1886.

West India Regiment
The West India Regiment was an infantry unit of the British Army recruited from and normally stationed in the British colonies of the West Indies between 1795 and 1927. Intially the regiment sought to recruit both free blacks from the West Indian population together with purchased slaves from West Indian plantations. After the abolition of slavery, enlisted men in the regiment were black West Indian volunteers, with white officers and some senior non-commissioned officers from Great Britain.

Charles Tennant (1796-1873)
Charles Tennant was an English politician and landowner. From 1830 to 1831 Tennant was Member of Parliament for St Albans, and supported the Representation of the People Act 1832 (commonly known as the Reform Act 1832). In 1830 he was one of the founders of the National Colonisation Society, advocating emigration to British colonies. His political publications include The People’s Blue Book (1857) and The Bank of England and the Organization of Credit in England (1866). Tennant also owned Cadoxton Lodge Estate in Cadoxton-juxta-Neath, Wales.

(MM)

Event Cancelled: Lecture by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Events, Research Resources by beineckepoetry on October 18, 2012

CANCELLED: EVENT TO BE RESCHEDULED

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, will be speaking at Beinecke Library, at 1pm Monday, October 29th, 2012. This event is co-sponsored by the Department of African American Studies’ Endeavors Colloquium Series.

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad took over as director at the Schomburg Center in July of 2011. Dr. Muhammad graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics and received his doctorate in American history from Rutgers University. He also served as a fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice reform agency in New York City. Dr. Muhammad was formerly a history professor at Indiana University. His book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Harvard University Press, 2010, won the John Hope Franklin Publication Prize for 2011. Dr. Muhammad has participated in a PBS documentary, “Slavery by Another Name,” based on Douglas Blackmon’s book of the same name, and has appeared with Tavis Smiley and Bill Moyers.

The talk will be held in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., Rm 38/39 at 1:00pm on Monday, 29 October, 2012. This event is free and open to the public.

Poetry Reading: C. S. Giscombe

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Events by beineckepoetry on October 12, 2012

C. S. Giscombe, Poetry Reading
Thursday, October 18th, 4:00pm
Beinecke Library, 121 Wall Street
Yale Collection of American Literature Reading Series
Contact: nancy.kuhl@yale.edu

C.S. Giscombe is the author of books including Prairie Style, Two Sections from Practical Geography, Giscome Road, Here, At Large, Postcards, and Into and Out of Dislocation. Prairie Style was awarded an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation; Giscome Road won the Carl Sandburg Prize, given by the Chicago Public Library. In 2010, Giscombe received the Stephen Henderson Award in Poetry from the African American Literature and Culture Society; he has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fund for Poetry. He is a member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.

Richard Bruce Nugent Papers

The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Beinecke Library is pleased to announce that the Richard Bruce Nugent Papers are now available for research. A detailed list of materials in the archive can be found here:  Richard Bruce Nugent Papers (JWJ MSS 92).

Writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987) was a member of the Harlem Renaissance arts community that included such luminaries as  Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke,  and Wallace Thurman. Nugent’s work appeared in little magazines, including Fire!!, Opportunity and Palms; he also appeared on Broadway in Porgy (1927) and Run, Little Chillun (1933). Nugent’s short story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” which appeared in Fire!! in 1926, ranks him among the first African American writers to openly consider homosexuality in his work.

The Richard Bruce Nugent Papers  consist of correspondence, writings, personal and financial papers, subject files, photographs, printed materials, and audiovisual materials. Bruce Nugent’s correspondence consists of family, professional, and personal correspondence, including letters from homosexual love interests. Writings include poetry, short non-fiction pieces, and various fiction pieces, including the novel Gentleman Jigger. Writings by others include drafts and papers relating to Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance by Thomas H. Wirth. Photographs consist of portraits and snapshots of Nugent, his love interests, friends, and family. The bulk of the audiovisual materials consist of interviews with Nugent. Printed materials include books inscribed to Nugent as well as various clippings and ephemera.

Images: Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, featuring cover drawing by Richard Bruce Nugent (Vol. 4, No. 39, 1926); Richard Bruce Nugent photographed by Carl Van Vechten, February 16, 1936 (Photographs by Carl Van Vechten are used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust; permission of the Trust is required to publish Van Vechten photographs in any format).

James Weldon Johnson Memorial Lecture

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Beinecke Collections, Events by beineckepoetry on September 12, 2012

Arnold Rampersad

“Reflections on Nationalism and Literature”

Tuesday, September 18, 4pm
Beinecke Library, 121 Wall Street
James Weldon Johnson Memorial Lecture 
Contact: nancy.kuhl@yale.edu

Arnold Rampersad is the author of  many books, including: Ralph Ellison; The Life of Langston Hughes; The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. DuBois; Jackie Robinson: A Biography; Days of Grace: A Memoir (1993), co-authored with Arthur Ashe. He is the editor of volumes including Collected Poems of Langston Hughes; the Library of America edition of works by Richard Wright; and as, co-editor with Deborah McDowell, Slavery and the Literary Imagination. With Shelley Fisher Fishkin he was co-editor, of the Race and American Culture book series published by Oxford University Press. He has been awarded the National Humanities Medal and a fellowship from the  MacArthur Foundation. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He has taught at Stanford, Columbia, Rutgers, and Princeton.

The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Arts and Letters at the Beinecke Library was founded by Carl Van Vechten in 1941 in honor of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), poet, novelist, lyricist, diplomat, educator, and noted civil rights leader. The Collection celebrates the accomplishments of African American writers and artists from the Harlem Renaissance to the present.

Co-sponsored by the Department of African American Studies.

Solomon Sir Jones Films

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Beinecke Collections, Research Resources by beineckepoetry on September 4, 2012

The Beinecke library is pleased to announce that the Solomon Sir Jones film collection is now available for research; the films can be viewed online from the library’s web page:  SOLOMON SIR JONES FILMS, 1924-1928.

The Solomon Sir Jones films consist of 29 silent black and white films documenting African-American communities in Oklahoma from 1924 to 1928. The films measure 12,800 feet (355 min). All films are B-wind positive prints, except one roll that contains approximately 150 feet of orange base B-wind positive.

Jones filmed Oklahoma residents in their homes; during their social, school and church activities; in the businesses they owned; and performing various jobs. The films document several Oklahoma communities, including Muskogee, Okmulgee, Tulsa, Wewoka, Bristow and Taft. The films also document Jones’s trips to Indiana, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, New York City, South Carolina, Colorado, and overseas to France, England, Palestine, Switzerland, Italy, Northern Africa, and Germany. Slates between scenes identify locations, dates, and subjects.

Jones frequently filmed at various locations by positioning himself outside a building while people exited the building in a line. This perspective provides footage of people as they walk by the camera, usually looking directly at it. Footage of churches includes congregants exiting the service and socializing outside; footage of schools often includes students playing outside or doing exercises; and footage of people at their home includes them outside on their porches or in their yards. Aside from church and scheduled school activities, people presumably exited at Jones’s request for the purpose of being filmed by him.

Solomon Sir Jones (1869-1936), Baptist minister, businessman, and amateur filmmaker. Jones was born in Tennessee to former slaves and grew up in the South before moving to Oklahoma in 1889. Jones became an influential Baptist minister, building and pastoring fifteen churches. He was head of the Boyd Faction of Negro Baptists in America and was a successful businessman.

Image: Still from Film #2:, Solomon Sir Jones Films. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; Call number: WA MSS S-2636

88 Books that Shaped America

The Library of Congress has recently identified a list of important American books: 88 Books that Shaped America. The list (see below) includes the work of many writer whose literary manuscripts are represented in the Yale Collection of American Literature, including: Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Eugene O’Neill, Walt Whitman, Richard Wright, Thornton Wilder, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rachel Carson, W. E. B. Du Bois, William Carlos Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Henry David Thoreau, and Langston Hughes. The Yale Collection of American Literature also includes distinguished copies of many of the titles on the list, such as: Gertrude Stein’s copy of The Great Gatsby, Sinclair Lewis’s copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls, James Weldon Johnson’s copy of The Weary Blues among many others. To locate detailed descriptions of these and other books and archives, search Orbis, Yale Library’s Catalog for Book and Yale’s Finding Aid Database. For images from Beinecke Library collections, visit the Beinecke Digital Library.

The Library of Congress’ list of 88 books that shaped America
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (1884)
“Alcoholics Anonymous” by anonymous (1939)
“American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons (1796)
“The American Woman’s Home” by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
“And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts (1987)
“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (1957)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987)
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown (1970)
“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London (1903)
“The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss (1957)
“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961)
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (1951)
“Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White (1952)
“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine (1776)
“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Benjamin Spock (1946)
“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (1980)
“A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” by anonymous (1788)
“The Double Helix” by James D. Watson (1968)
“The Education of Henry Adams” by Henry Adams (1907)
“Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953)
“Family Limitation” by Margaret Sanger (1914)
“The Federalist” by anonymous/ thought to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787)
“The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan (1963)
“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin (1963)
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
“Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
“Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
“A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” by Noah Webster (1783)
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939)
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“Harriet, the Moses of Her People” by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
“The History of Standard Oil” by Ida Tarbell (1904)
“History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis (1890)
“How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie (1936)
“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
“The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill (1946)
“Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” by Federal Writers’ Project (1937)
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote (1966)
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952)
“Joy of Cooking” by Irma Rombauer (1931)
“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (1906)
“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman (1855)
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1820)
“Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
“Mark, the Match Boy” by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
“McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
“Moby-Dick; or The Whale” by Herman Melville (1851)
“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass (1845)
“Native Son” by Richard Wright (1940)
“New England Primer” by anonymous (1803)
“New Hampshire” by Robert Frost (1923)
“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957)
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)
“Our Town: A Play” by Thornton Wilder (1938)
“Peter Parley’s Universal History” by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
“Poems” by Emily Dickinson (1890)
“Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth” by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
“Pragmatism” by William James (1907)
“The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
“The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane (1895)
“Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
“Riders of the Purple Sage” by Zane Grey (1912)
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
“Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson (1962)
“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
“The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
“The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner (1929)
“Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams (1923)
“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
“A Street in Bronzeville” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams (1947)
“A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” by Christopher Colles (1789)
“Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960)
“A Treasury of American Folklore” by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith (1943)
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
“Unsafe at Any Speed” by Ralph Nader (1965)
“Walden; or Life in the Woods” by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes (1925)
“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak (1963)
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum (1900)
“The Words of Cesar Chavez” by Cesar Chavez (2002)

Beinecke Fellow Named Poet Laureate

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, announcements, Beinecke Collections by beineckepoetry on June 7, 2012

Congratulations to 2009 James Weldon Johnson Memorial Fellow Natasha Trethewey, the next Poet Laureate of the United States.

New Laureate Looks Deep Into Memory
By CHARLES McGRATH — Published in the New York Times: June 6, 2012

Selected Poems by Natasha Trethewey(June 7, 2012)

Image Credit: John Amis for The New York Times

The Library of Congress is to announce Thursday that the next poet laureate is Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three collections and a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Ms. Trethewey, 46, was born in Gulfport, Miss., and is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.

“I’m still a little in disbelief,” Ms. Trethewey said on Monday.

Unlike the recent laureates W. S. Merwin and her immediate predecessor, Philip Levine, both in their 80s when appointed, Ms. Trethewey, who will officially take up her duties in September, is still in midcareer and not well-known outside poetry circles. Her work combines free verse with more traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle to explore memory and the racial legacy of America. Her fourth collection, “Thrall,” is scheduled to appear in the fall. She is also the author of a 2010 nonfiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

“The appointment of Natasha Trethewey is a very welcome event,” said Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an early admirer of her work. “She writes out of the complicated history of the region, and even from her own complicated history.” In a phone interview explaining his choice James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said: “We’re not necessarily on some kick to find a younger poet. The more I read of it, American poetry seems extremely rich in diversity, talent and freedom of expression, and she has a voice that is already original and accomplished. I have an affinity for American individuals who are absolutely unique, and I think that this is one.”

He first became aware of Ms. Trethewey (pronounced TRETH-eh-way) when she gave a reading at the National Book Festival in 2004: “I admired the way she had a certain classical sound but also moved easily from traditional forms to free verse. And then when I began reading her poems for myself, that impression was just confirmed. It seemed very natural, all of a piece.” He added: “I go to a fair number of poetry readings, and I’m not always motivated to go back and read the poems. But in her case I was.”

Ms. Trethewey’s great theme is memory, and in particular the way private recollection and public history sometimes intersect but more often diverge. “The ghost of history lies down beside me,” she writes in one of her poems, “rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.”

She has devoted much of her career to resurrecting or recreating the histories of people who don’t often make it into poetry books. Her first volume, “Domestic Work” (2000), is about just what the title says: black maids, washerwomen, factory workers. One of the poems begins:

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

stare out of this photograph

saying remember.”

“Bellocq’s Ophelia” (2002) is a sort of epistolary novella in verse, telling the imagined story of one of the mixed-race prostitutes photographed in the early 20th century by E. J. Bellocq in New Orleans. “Native Guard,” which won the Pulitzer in 2007, devotes its central sequence to the Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment in the Union Army, composed mostly of former slaves who enlisted, that was assigned to guard Confederate prisoners of war. Ms. Trethewey used to visit a memorial to those prisoners as a child, but according to her poem “Elegy for the Native Guards,” their graves have gone unmarked and unrecorded.

In a phone interview from her home in Decatur, Ga., where she lives with her husband, Brett Gadsden, a history professor at Emory, Ms. Trethewey explained that the Civil War has fascinated her since childhood, and that she eventually came to feel that she embodied some of its contradictions. “My birthday is April 26th, Confederate Memorial Day,” she said. “I was born 100 years to the day after that holiday was invented. I don’t think I could have escaped learning about the Civil War and what it represented.”

Robert Penn Warren, who wrote so eloquently and at times conflictedly about the South and its history, is one of her models, and so is Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black laureate. But just as helpful in the writing of “Native Guard,” Ms. Trethewey said, was the example of Seamus Heaney and especially his 1975 book “North,” in which he responds to the violent political history of Ulster. “I read and reread the book to help understand my own relationship to history,” she said.

As one of her poems explains, Ms. Trethewey is the product of a union that was still a crime in Mississippi when her parents married: her mother was black and her father was white. Years later, after her mother’s death, she came across her own birth certificate and saw that the line for the race of her mother says, “colored,” the race of her father, “Canadian.”

“That’s how language works — how we change and rewrite ourselves,” she said.

When Ms. Trethewey was 19 and in college, her mother was murdered by her second husband, an abusive man she had divorced, and the effort of trying to recover her mother’s memory is one of Ms. Trethewey’s other major themes. “But in dreams you live,” she writes in “Native Guard,” “so I try taking, not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.”

Recalling her mother’s death, she said, “Strangely enough, that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened and started writing what I knew even then were really bad poems. It took me nearly 20 years to find the right language, to write poems that were successful enough to explain my own feelings to me and that might also be meaningful to others.”

Speaking of the laureateship, she said, “One needs to admit it’s something that crosses the mind.” All the same, when the phone rang in early May and she saw the Library of Congress number on caller ID, she thought it might be a prank. “I thought to myself, ‘Really?’ ” she said.