Vantage - The New York Times

By Anonymous
ImageVantage - The New York Times
CreditCreditMike McQuade

Why, some say, the moon?
— John F. Kennedy, 1962

Always, it was metaphor, emblem
of our seeking. So why not land
on the Sea of Tranquillity? In 1969
we are a nation at war, even
with ourselves. In photographs
from the launch, you can see
so many ways of seeing, altering
our vision: binoculars, cameras,
sunglasses, a boy with a telescope,
everyone shoulder to shoulder,
gazes upturned to the sky—
the moment’s grand myopia.

There is no strife, Kennedy said, no
prejudice, no national conflict
in outer space as yet. As yet. Even
the photographs seem to show
a nation united, the old divisions
nearly gone from view. How easy it is
to overlook what’s there, to forget
what is not. Even today, they show us
ourselves: as in the image of a man
and woman on a motorcycle, backs to us,
their faces in the side-view mirror—
how, even looking ahead, we carry
a vision of what’s behind us. See it

in the photograph’s middle ground:
a man raises his arm, directs my gaze
to the periphery just coming into focus.
There, nearly out of the frame, another man
lifts his symbol for the day, as if to carry it
into our future: the Confederate flag
brandished in the electric air.
That summer

I am 3, and I am old enough to know
the word nigger; I hear it again and again—
sometimes joined with lover—most places
we go: the grocery store, the movie theater,
whispered in a restaurant on the beach.
In 1969, we are only two years since Loving
v. Virginia struck down the laws against us,
my parents’ marriage; only a year since
my white father fought in a bar when
other servicemen cheered at the news
King had been shot. I can tell you this:

I don’t remember the moon landing,
but maybe it was a day without the word,
a day we went downtown without armor
and my dark-skinned grandmother
tried on hats at the department store.
The day after, the headlines blared unity.
A generous thought, my father once said,
is the idea of justice taking root.
She is farther from us now than then,
our moon, symbol of our seeking,
once seemingly unattainable—that
Sea of Tranquillity—toward which
we set our course, then reached.

_____________

Natasha Trethewey served two terms as the 19th poet laureate of the United States. She was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Read “Voyage to the Moon,” by Archibald MacLeish, a poem that was printed on the front page of The New York Times on July 21, 1969.