Throughout ‘Enlightenment,’ the poet engages with challenging themes and a complex conversation around race. It is quite prescient in this contemporary moment as historical figures are consistently reanalyzed and prejudged. The poem was published in Trethewey’s 2012 collection, Thrall.
The poem follows a father and daughter and their different opinions in regard to the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Trethewey uses this historical relationship to speak on the contemporary dynamic between a Black daughter and a white father. The latter refuses to acknowledge that Jefferson was someone who willingly owned or abused slaves, while the former sees things quite differently. She’s willing to set aside the historical precedent of Jefferson as a good leader and wise man and see what else might be hiding in the subtext.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘Enlightenment,’ the poet engages with themes of race, racism, and history. These three elements of the poem are tied together through the depiction of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson and what their relationship means in the contemporary world. Depending on who is learning about it or thinking about it, there are going to be different conclusions. As a young Black woman, the speaker sees the relationship between the two differently from her white father. The latter refuses to acknowledge there was one at all, while the former is willing to consider the more sinister aspects of it.
Analysis of the Title “Enlightenment”
‘Enlightenment’ is the perfect title for a complex poem about race and history. Readers are left to consider how the word has been used historically, and to which groups of people it referred, as well as how it’s used in this poem. Who gains enlightenment, and what does it mean when it’s achieved? Normally, the word is reserved for peaceful, life-changing events in which one realizes their full potential. In this case, it appears the poet wanted to use it to mark the revelation the speaker had in regard to how her father considers his whiteness and her blackness.
Structure and Form
‘Enlightenment’ by Natasha Trethewey is an eighteen-stanza poem divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the lines are quite similar in length, reaching around ten syllables each. Trethewey has also chosen to indent the second line of each stanza, giving the poem another form of visual unity.
Trethewey makes use of several literary devices throughout ‘Enlightenment.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: appears when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza and one and two of stanza eight.
- Allusion: occurs when the poet references something but doesn’t directly describe or define it. In this case, Trethewey’s poem revolves around an allusion to her relationship with her father. She also alludes to Thomas Jefferson’s life and the children he fathered.
- Alliteration: is defined by the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “hold him” in line two of stanza four and “debated” and “distance” in line three of the seventh stanza.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “a lit bulb — the rest of his face in the shadow” and “with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue.” These examples are created through the use of punctuation. It’s also possible to create a caesura through the use of meter.
Stanzas One and Two
In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.
In the first stanza of ‘Enlightenment,’ the speaker, who is often considered to be Trethewey herself, begins by alluding to a specific portrait of Thomas Jefferson. It hangs at Monticello, a historical home in Albemarle County, Virginia. It was the primary residence of Jefferson, the third president of the United States.
The second stanza provides the reader with a better understanding of what this portrait looks like and how the speaker interprets the artist’s intentions. She suggests that Jefferson had two sides, intelligence and drive, and a darker “subtext.” It’s the latter that she’s most concerned about within these lines.
Stanzas Three and Four
By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
he was already linked to an affair
to hold him in relief, Jefferson gazes out
across the centuries, his lips fixed as if
The third stanza of ‘Enlightenment,’ provides the reader with some didactic information. The speaker tells the reader that when Jefferson sat for this portrait, he was already involved in an affair with his slave. This is the famous Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson had six children. The nature of this relationship is a complex one, something that historians are often divided on. This fact of his life is juxtaposed with the timeless image of him, gazing out “across the centuries.” Still, the speaker is trying to provide two different versions of the man. Someone who would own slaves, and by most modern accounts, have raped Sally Hemings since she was a teenager and he was forty years old.
Stanzas Five and Six
he’s just uttered some final word.
The first time I saw the painting, I listened
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant
The speaker starts to talk about her own experience with the portrait alongside her father in the next lines. She listened as her father explained how he considered Jefferson’s relationship to his slaves and the institution of slavery. He believes Jefferson owned slaves out of “necessity.” It wasn’t something he wanted to do but had to do. Her father’s moral philosophy did not allow him to believe that Jefferson abused these men and women that he owned.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
he could not have fathered those children:
to book, gathering citations, listening
as he named — like a field guide to Virginia —
Her father also did not believe Jefferson fathered the six children that contemporary DNA testing has proven that he did. This debate, between father and daughter, went on for a long time. The “distance between / word and deed” was at the center of it. They did their research, trying to back up their world views.
This difference between the two is meant to represent a broader difference between fathers and daughters and between races. This poem is commonly cited as an example of Trethewey’s relationship with her own father and their different racial identities.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
each flower and tree and bird as if to prove
a man’s pursuit of knowledge is greater
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh —
As the poem progresses, the speaker comes to the realization that her father is looking at the situation differently. She did not know “then the subtext / of our story.” Her father could imagine “Jefferson’s words made flesh in [her] flesh.”
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
the improvement of the blacks in body
and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
I see how the past holds us captive,
its beautiful ruin etched on the mind’s eye:
Her father, she realizes, can believe that his genes/his whiteness “made [her] better.” This isn’t a realization she came to easily. She looks back on it now and thinks about the past and its ability to plague and hold captive those in the present. Its “beautiful ruin etched on the mind’s eye.”
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
my young father, a rough outline of the old man
Now, we take in how much has changed:
talk of Sally Hemings, someone asking,
The next lines complicate the poem further. The speaker considers her father as he was then, a young man, and what he’s become now “the old man.” He was trying to show her the “better measure of his heart,” but she dug deeper and came to a more complex conclusion about his considerations of race. Plus, a broader understanding of how contemporary society reconciles the past. It’s easier to consider Jefferson and Sally Hemings in a positive light rather than one that destroys his reputation and threatens one’s understanding of history.
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
How white was she? — parsing the fractions
as if to name what made her worthy
our guide tells us then — and I can’t resist
The line “How white was she?” begins the fifteenth stanza. This should capture the reader’s attention and carry them through into the next lines as the speaker alludes to a darker conversation about race. When speaking about Hemings, many consider her race, how white she was, and “what made her worthy / of Jefferson’s attentions.” She was not, in some eyes, a “plain black slave” but a “near-white / quadroon mistress.” This alteration of history is another example of how race and inherent racism affect whose story is told and with what tone.
While considering the situation, she imagines stepping back into the past to the tour the two took at Monticello.
Stanzas Seventeen and Eighteen
whispering to my father: This is where
that links us — white father, black daughter —
even as it renders us other to each other.
The speaker makes a light joke of the situation, breaking the tension and allowing them to continue on their way without fully confronting the history that “links” them and “renders [them] other to each other.”
The use of the word “other” in this final line should be noted. By singling it out, the poet is alluding to the way in which it is used to separate one group from the whole. To “other” someone is to consider them different, lesser, and unworthy of attention. Often, marginalized groups, such as Black Americans, are singled out in this way. “Othered” in order to make the dominant groups, to which Thomas Jefferson belonged, feel more powerful and completely in charge. By alluding to this history, the poet is suggesting that some things have changed but not everything. The idea that she was made better by her father’s whiteness is still something that exists between them.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Enlightenment’ should also consider reading some related poems. These include:
- ‘Black Woman’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson – includes the words of a woman who is desperate to have a child but doesn’t want to bring one into the world. She’s waiting for a better time in which a child could grow up in a world that accepts them fully for who they are.
- ‘Primer for Blacks’ by Gwendolyn Brooks – speaks on the necessity of accepting one’s heritage. She describes blackness as a “commitment” and a “title.”
- ‘Power’ by Audre Lorde – a chilling poem about a real-life murder of a young black boy and a court case.