The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of the poem White lies by Natasha Trethewey by examining word choice, meaning and impact. Moreover, this analysis will also discover how specific words are meant to evoke certain emotions in the reader, how the language evokes a sense of time and the place where the subject matter of the poem is based. Elements of tone such as syntax, diction, imagery and figurative language to express their attitude towards the subject matter of a poem, words with multiple meanings and literary devices such as sarcasm, satire and irony (Micklo, 2012).
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The tone within a poem greatly influences how the author tells a story and how the audience will perceive it. The tone of this poem is one of sad reminiscence. A lot of stories have been told about the struggle faced by biracial individuals as they struggle to belong in a racially divided society but none can resemble that told by Trethewey. This is due to the words that she chooses and how the sum of these words manage to convey a specific tone. The word ‘white’ is used to convey multiple meanings in the text, on one hand, it is connected to lies but on the other, it symbolizes an avenue to gain acceptance in the eyes of the society. This is evidenced by the words”… the white girl said (squeezing my hand), Now we have three of us in this class.” (Trethewey, Lines 16-18). In the end, white is connected to soap that is meant to purify. These multiple meanings enable the reader to gain a feel of the struggle that the persona undergoes in gaining a perception of themselves and internalizing this definition in order to create a positive self-image (Erikson, 1956).
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Mixed messages were conveyed to the persona, her peers accepted her for being “white” while her family punished her for rejecting being black through her lies. These mixed messages resulted in the unhealthy behaviour exemplified by the persona of the poem when she rejects her black heritage in favour of being white. Biracial children often experience significant conflict and sometimes prefer to hide behind being ‘white’ instead of being part of the broader marginalized African American society. This is demonstrated by the words “… I was growing up light-bright, near-white, high-yellow, red-boned, in a black place” (Trethewey, Lines 2-4). These words reminisce the struggle for acceptance by the broader black community and this isolation leading the persona to tell lies in order to belong somewhere (Barnes, 1980).
The sadness within the poem comes out when the persona has to tell lies about where she lived, where she got her clothes in order to belong and pays for these lies dearly when her mother washes her mouth out with soap in order to “cleanse” her (Trethewey, 2000). The negative attributions to being black and positive attribution to white are exemplified through the cleansing action of the soap and how she believed it would cleanse her inside which was still black. Moreover, through these lines, it is clear that the persona was facing a difficult task when attempting to form a positive identity and does not enjoy the protective barrier that is supposed to be provided by the family to facilitate the formation of positive norms regarding being black and forming a high self-esteem (Spurlock & Lawrence, 1979).
From this discussion, it can be concluded that the author has a sad and reminiscent attitude toward the subject matter of this poem. Moreover, the use of imagery to describe how she was growing up and symbolism evoke a sense of time before racial tolerance that was a difficult and sad time for African Americans. The word white is given several meanings throughout the poem all of which serve to show the sad state that the persona was in, that she had to tell lies to become what the society at that time considered right, pure and acceptable.