According to a news release by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, a nationally recognized literary and educational institution, Brenda Marie Osbey, “Is an author of poetry and prose nonfiction in English and French. Her six books include her collected poems, ‘All Saints,’ which received the 1998 American Book Award. In 2005, Osbey was named the first peer-elected Poet Laureate of the State of Louisiana.”
Osbey, whose most recent teaching appointment was as distinguished visiting professor of African Studies at Brown University, has been commissioned by the College of William and Mary to write a poem commemorating the 50th anniversary of residential desegregation of the college. She will be on campus Thursday to read her poem and give a talk about her work, which explores “the cultural forces that shaped pre-Colonial and Colonial history in the Americas.”
America’s history is imprinted in Osbey’s DNA. Her ancestors arrived in New Orleans as slaves. But her immediate family is of free Black descent in New Orleans. “My family goes back to slavery and freedom here. We‘ve been here since 1719, so this is the deepest history that I know. It’s everything I know, everything I have, and it’s the root of all things for me.”
I asked Osbey what message she’s like to convey to her audience here.
“Writing for me is primarily a way of thinking — understanding, perhaps — definitively a way of moving about and being in the world. I am grappling with some kind of history... Mythologies that inform history from the outset and myths that attach to particular historical moments,” she said.
Osbey has a mile-long list of credentials writing about America’s Colonial times. I asked her how she sees the role William and Mary played in shaping our country’s history.
“Well,” she said, “what I can say is that it is impossible to understand the history of the United States without serious study of the history of Virginia. Consider, for instance, that of the first 12 U.S. presidents, 10, including the four who attended the College of William and Mary, were slaveholders. And indeed, it was Virginia that established and became the nation’s model for slaveholding law. It was James Madison, who devised the three-fifths rule as a tax-saving tool for slaveholders.”
She identifies Jefferson as the most famed for having held anti-slavery views at the same time that he held in captivity the largest number of slaves of any sitting president.
Osbey’s view of history is multifaceted. She considers the tragic events in Charlottesville not unique. “They are part of the fiber also of every former slaveholding European country and every past and present Colonial and repressive regime across the world. Coming, as I do, from New Orleans, a place mired in its own multi-layered slavery and Colonial system — first French then Spanish and eventually U.S. — this history and its attendant questions aren’t something I can ignore.
“What I know is that the brutality and killing at Charlottesville was not enacted in defense of history. Monuments are not history. And the removal of a monument is not an erasure of history. Monuments are only signs of belief in the narrative value of a given moment — and that value changes over time. All over this world, monuments glorifying past oppressive regimes, values and ideals are removed. History is, quite simply, the lived experiences of people. As simple and as complex, as that.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.
Want to go?
Brenda Marie Osbey’s reading will take place at 5 p.m. Thursday in Tucker Theatre. Free and open to the public. A book signing and reception will follow.