White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino
Kiki Petrosino is a noted poet and a talented professor. She is also a granddaughter, a daughter, and a descendant of free and enslaved African Americans, many of whom lived only a few miles from her alma mater and intellectual home at the University of Virginia.
In her latest book, White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, Petrosino uses her own complex history to explore our larger shared history in the Commonwealth and beyond. The collection, which has been widely praised in outlets including The New York Times, was inspired by a personal loss and shared rite of passage.
Petrosino’s grandmother, Cleopatra Smith Beverly, whose family originated in Louisa County, passed away in 2015, a month before her 100th birthday. “It is a life stage not many people talk about,” she said, ‘but when the generation above your parents pass away, you have a sense of your own mortality, and you also realize that there are aspects of your family’s history that you will now have to research to learn more about.”
She decided to honor her grandmother’s legacy by writing a book of poetry. The viewfinder quickly expanded, as Petrosino realized that her grandmother’s history and her family’s history were deeply intertwined with the history of Virginia and the history of enslavement in the United States. The project morphed again as the world changed around her— and all of us —through the tragic events of August of 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. The events, Petrosino said, forced her to re-examine her own connections to the Commonwealth, from her family’s experiences here to her own experiences while an undergrad at UVA.
“I started asking myself questions about my time at UVA,” she said, “and asking myself what had kept me from thinking more explicitly about the racial history of the University? Why hadn’t I gone to Louisa to examine my own family’s history while I was a student?”
The questions, she said, had her “working backward and forward at the same time. I realized the book needed to be about my relationship to Virginia both in terms of what I directly experienced living here, and these ancestral connections that were so influential, even though I didn’t necessarily know about them when setting my own path.”
Making those ancestral connections turned out to be fascinating and complicated. Through online sleuthing and visits to courthouses and historical societies across the Commonwealth, she was able to track down documents featuring, among other discoveries, the signature of her great-great grandfather, who had been designated as illiterate on the federal census. The signature lives forever on her skin as a tattoo surrounded by Virginia dogwood blossoms. Petrosino’s family tree construction, however, was stopped cold in Louisa around the 1830s by what she called “the wall, or the cleaver, of white supremacy.” The discoveries slowed and disappeared because consistent records were not kept for those not granted the basic rights of personhood. Erased in death as in life.
Petrosino’s look back at her UVA years had her thinking and writing about Thomas Jefferson’s complex legacy. Her research led her to the realization that Jefferson’s vision of American democracy, with Virginia as its model, stretched across the continent. “I started to realize that no matter where I went,” she said, “I was kind of always in Virginia… we are all still living inside the vision that he expressed. In the book, I have a poem about Jefferson continuing to build his house even after death, and how it feels like we are in a room of Monticello no matter where we are.”
Another poem speaks to her role in a different room at Monticello. “I actually love the Monticello gift shop. I find it to be one of the best curated gift shops I have ever been to. But I am made aware of myself in terms of the economic activity of the place, and I sometimes wonder if I am the vision of the money-spending tourist that Monticello has in mind.”
In her poem, “The Shop at Monticello,” she writes:
I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies into money. Now I have money to spend on little trinkets to remind me
of this fact. I’m a money machine & my body constitutes the common wealth.
Petrosino’s return to UVA, which she calls her “creative and intellectual home,” has allowed her to continue her own relationship with the University and its history. “My relationship to my own identity has continued to grow and evolve in the twenty years since I was a student here. Now, being back, I find myself teaching more students of color than I remember in my own creative writing classes, and all my students are savvy, interested, and engaged. They inhabit their identities in a way that is very vibrant, dynamic and sophisticated. My job is to help them hone the way they express their thoughts and their sensibilities in poetry.”
UVA, she says, is “the perfect place for me to be right now. There are so many scholars and thinkers and activists who are doing important work, from the Memory Project to colleagues at the Carter Woodson Institute and more. There are great things happening here, and I am proud to be a part of this community.”