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White Lies

By Natasha Trethewey
The lies I could tell,
when I was growing up
light-bright, near-white,
high-yellow, red-boned
in a black place,
were just white lies.

I could easily tell the white folks


that we lived uptown,
not in that pink and green
shanty-fled shotgun section
along the tracks. I could act
like my homemade dresses
came straight out the window
of Maison Blanche. I could even
keep quiet, quiet as kept,
like the time a white girl said
(squeezing my hand), Now
we have three of us in this class.

But I paid for it every time


Mama found out.
She laid her hands on me,
then washed out my mouth
with Ivory soap. This
is to purify, she said,
and cleanse your lying tongue.
Believing her, I swallowed suds
thinking they'd work
from the inside out.
Thomas Michaels

Elder Streblow

Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition

17 January 2017

Poetry Response

“White Lies” by Natasha Trethewey is a poem where a girl looks back at when she was

younger and would lie about her race. The speaker addresses the issues that went along with

being mixed-race.

There are three stanzas in the poem of varying lengths. In the first stanza, the speaker

recalls how she looked when she was younger, “light-bright, near-white,” and how she would lie

about her race, heritage, and economic situation. In the second stanza, she goes into the lies she

would tell and how she would get away with them, mentioning a time when a white girl at school

identified with her as being white. The speaker then goes into how she would be punished in the

third stanza, with her mom making her wash her mouth out with Ivory soap when she found out

about the lies.

This poem is a particular depiction of the African-American experience. The speaker is

mixed-race, which was extremely rare at the time. Because of her light skin, she has a very

different reality than most African-American children. Her ‘white lies’ involve her denying her

heritage and who she is. These lies and how the people around her respond to them inform the

young speaker that being white is better than being black, thus encouraging more lies. The

speaker sees that white people get treated better, and since she can pass as a young white girl, she

tries to do this. This is problematic since she is not a white girl, and the reader sees that the mom

has to teach the speaker not to dismiss who she is. In the final lines, the speaker says how she

Word Count: 396


would swallow the soap suds, “thinking they’d work from the inside out.” Here she is saying that

she hoped that the soap would wash away any ‘blackness’ within her so that she would be white

inside and out. This image shows the reader how the speaker fully rejects all of her black

heritage, fully embracing her white side.

When I read this poem, what stuck out to me was the use of imagery and the color

white throughout. For example, the symbol of the Ivory soap, and the exuberant words ‘bright’

and ‘high yellow’ being used around the word ‘white.’ These images helped me to see into the

thoughts of the speaker and what her thoughts on race are.

Word Count: 396