Friday, April 12, 2013

Poetry Review: "Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851," Natasha Tretheway

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

While reading Natasha Trethewey’s 2011 poem “Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851,” one phrase in particular jumps out: “to make of the work of faith/the work of science.” The poem is ostensibly a coroner’s monologue while conducting an autopsy. The cadaver is that of a white derelict, but the doctor regards the man’s shiftlessness as a black man’s trait. He then uses his observations during the dissection to justify this prejudice. Underneath the cadaver’s white skin, everything is the same as a black man’s. The doctor’s article of bigoted faith guides his ostensibly scientific work. The conclusion determines the facts, not the other way around.

The poem's central irony is ingenious. The argument at the heart of anti-racist views is that people are the same underneath the skin; pigmentation is just a biological quirk. What matters is character. Trethewey turns that inside out. For the doctor, pigmentation is also just a biological quirk; what matters for him is character as well. In “strip[ping] from the flesh/the specious skin,” he justifies his bigotry by pointing out that this white man is the same underneath as a black man. If the fellow wasn’t, those “black” traits wouldn’t have defined him in life. For the doctor, it's only an anomaly the man's skin wasn't black.

Trethewey attacks the authority of science’s alleged objectivity through dramatizing the tendentious use of evidence to justify predetermined conclusions. She also effectively dramatizes how the most morally righteous platitudes can be skewed to justify the repugnant views the platitude is designed to challenge. It’s a pointed critique of how basic assumptions can corrupt the authority of the most idealistic language and pursuits.

The poem was originally published in the New England Review, Volume 32, Number 3 (2011). It appears as part of Natasha Trethewey’s 2012 collection Thrall (cover above). It is also featured in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman.

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