How does the poem "Root" by Terrance Hayes refute the idea that nature does not see race? Also, what is the underlying message of the poem?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem "Root" by Terrance Hayes can be found in a collection of poems called Wind in a Box, published in 2006. Nearly all of Hayes's poetry concerns the theme of race in some form, and this poem is no exception. In fact, the primary question he asks in this poem is "what it means to be black."

Nearly two-thirds of the poem are a description of "blackness" in some form, and nearly every image Hayes uses in this section comes from nature. The poem begins this way:

My parents would have had me believe
there was no such thing as race
there in the wild backyard...

The tone is clear from the beginning: while his parents may have told him there is "no such thing as race," his experience in his family's backyard tells him something quite different. 

In an interview, Hayes said that this poem is "based on an actual experience/memory." It is a narrative in which he and his family are working in the backyard, and all the nature imagery suggests his acute awareness of race. The soil is black and they have to "claw" away "brambles," "thorns," and other weeds, digging under stones and through moss in order to have a green lawn.

We worked into the edge of darkness
and rose in the edge of darkness
until everything came from the dirt.

He likes the way the hard work they were doing

tightened my parents’
backs as if they meant to work
the devil from his den....

Everything is withered, dead or untamed, and this family is striving to resurrect it, give it life, by cleaning, pulling, sweeping, scrubbing, and even burning.

It soon becomes clear that this backyard, and therefore the house they are living in, belongs to white folks. He finds a dull axe blade under "an untamed bush." This prompts him to think about the white owners of his house as well as his current neighbors. All of the images change from darkness to light, a shift which suggests that he is quite aware of the differences between the two races. 

Their white neighbors, he says, "knew our name before we knew theirs," suggesting that the black family is an anomaly in this neighborhood. He mentions their clean fence posts glowing in the light from the porch; and, in contrast to the weeds and brambles, their houses are "burning with wonder" and their "hammocks [are] drunk with wind." No weeds or thistles for them; instead they have fence posts and hammocks. The contrast in nature between having to work the land to make beauty out of a tangled and stony yard and getting to lounge in a hammock while surveying an implied beautifully manicured lawn is as clear as, well, black and white.

The last lines of the poem suggest the answer to his observations about "what it means to be black."

When I dreamed, I dreamed of them
and believed they dreamed of us
and believed we were made of dirt or shadows:
something not held or given, irredeemable, inexact,
all of us asking what it means to be black . . .
I have never wanted another life, but I know the story
of pursuit: the dream of a gate standing open,
a grill and folding chairs, a new yard boxed with light. 

Being black means being made of "dirt or shadows" and being considered by whites to be "irredeemable, inexact." Being black means dreaming about what his neighbors have that he and his family do not: the luxury of living in the light instead of working always "into the edge of darkness." 

There is no real resentment, as he says he "never wanted another life"; however, he does understand what it means to want something more than he has, "the story of pursuit."

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With regard to the question of how the poem "Root" refutes the idea that nature does not perceive race, Terrance Hayes writes that he and his parents worked the earth, clawing free the stones and the moss and brambles and crab-grass in a struggle suggestive of another age, an age from which his family's roots began. Furthermore, the controlling metaphor of this verse is that of the family's struggle with nature--"a story of pursuit"--as opposed to the comfort in nature that the white neighbors experience as they swing in hammocks over manicured yards and white picket fences. 

Rock and spore 
and scraps of leaf; wild bouquets withered 
in bags by the road, cast from the ground 
we broke. We scrubbed the patio,
we raked the cross hatch of pine needles, 
we soaked the ant-cathedrals in gas. 
I found an axe blade beneath an untamed hedge, 

The diction of Hayes's poem illustrates this metaphor or struggle against a "wild" and "untamed" nature that acts in conflict with the black family that "scrubbed" and "raked" and tries to control the earth and vines in "a story of pursuit" from the "dirt" and "shadows" into the "a new yard boxed with light."