Natasha Trethewey

3. Flood

They have arrived on the back
of the swollen river, the barge 
dividing it, their few belongings 
clustered about their feet. Above them 
the National Guard hunkers 
on the levee, rifles tight in their fists,
blocking the path to high ground.
One group of black refugees,

the caption tells us, was ordered 
to sing their passage onto land, 
like a chorus of prayer—their tongues 
the tongues of dark bells. Here, 
the camera finds them still. Posed
as if for a school-day portrait, children
lace fingers in their laps. One boy
gestures allegiance, right hand over 
the heart’s charged beating. 

The great river all around, the barge 
invisible beneath their feet, they fix 
on what’s before them: the opening
in the sight of a rifle; the camera’s lens;
the muddy cleft between barge and dry land—
all of it aperture, the captured moment’s 
chasm in time. Here, in the angled light
of 1927, they are refugees from history:
the barge has brought them this far;
they are waiting to disembark.