“White lies” refer to the small lies that anyone can tell without the intention of harming, lies that are not very awful or do major harm. The girl narrates that when she was growing up she used to tell several white lies to people without any care what would be the consequences in a carefree manner. It was her age and immature thinking that she had no worries about what she was saying and could tell so many lies in every color. Meaning in every other act probably she might have said several kinds of lies with an irresponsible and immature attitude.
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There’s a lot of symbolism and imagery language use. The poet conveys the message that during the transition from childhood to adulthood there are many phases, not only by physical development of the body but also by psychic and mental maturity. A grown-up is responsible for his attitude and what he says. Adults cannot tell lies in such frequency and are always responsible for the words they speak and things they do, which is an indication of maturity and a responsible attitude. Poet stresses that in childhood first of all a child is not that mature, her thinking and mental level are immature that she does several such acts which are not wise. While the girl was in her growing-up age she had no worries and she spoke several lies with people in a carefree manner. Here she uses color imagery to indicate that almost all kinds of lies she had spoken.
“The lies I could tell,
when I was growing up
In a black place,
Were just white lies.” (Natasha Trethewey)
“Light-bright, near-white, high-yellow, red-boned In a black place, Were just white lies” are all different colors indicating different lies at different situations she might have told, however, were white lies. Those are small ones not of any major harm and not too bad to speak of.
Symbolism in the “White Lies” is about the lies she told to white people only. As in the second stanza, she writes, “I could easily tell the white folks” meaning she’s addressing white people and without any fear whatever lies she had to tell. She’s not afraid of white people nor does she feel inferior to them. But she thinks she can easily tackle them and hide her poverty by telling them lies about her.
“I could easily tell the white folks
that we lived uptown,
not in the pink and green
shanty-fied 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 I kept,
like the time a white girl said
(squeezing my hand), Now
we have three of us in this class”. (Natasha Trethewey)
Now the above lines have a lot of symbolism. In the opening stanza, she admitted that she had spoken several lies in her childhood when she was growing up. In the second stanza, she explains that what kind of lies she was speaking and to whom. It has symbolism about racial discrimination and poverty. Probably, the girl is black, that’s why she’s addressing whites specifically. She also mentions about “white girl”. As she had to hide about her truth that she’s poor, she could easily tell white folks that she lived “uptown” in a neighborhood not in the “shanty-fied shotgun section along the track”. She would also tell lies about her clothing. She used to tell people that her dresses are bought from “Maison Blanche” though they were just homemade by her mom. But to make other people believe that she’s so rich and can afford such expensive dresses. No matter, people believe her or not. She wants to make people believe that she’s equal to them and is not afraid or inferior to them, no matter how many lies she has to tell.
“But I paid for it every time
Mama found out.
She laid her hads on me,
then washed out my mouth
with Ivory soap. This
is to purify your lying tongue.
Believing her, I swallowed the suds
Thinking they’d work
from the inside out (Trethewey 456).”
In the last stanza, the poet admits that whatever lies she told she suffered bad consequences. Whenever her mom gets to know her lies she would punish and give her a lesson. Her mom would make her swallow bubbles of the ivory soap to clean her tongue. She had no idea what the soap would do; however, she believed as soap cleans her face probably it would clean her tongue too.
Using different symbolism the poet narrates about the girl who used to tell lies in a carefree manner to people, all kinds of lies to hide her poverty and make people believe she’s rich. However, later she suffered consequences when her mother punished and treated her badly in order to make her improve her character. Irony in the poem is about the maltreatment of her mother for speaking such lies when she was not aware of the consequences. The irony is also about her inferiority complex and being black and poor that made her speak so many lies.
The poem teaches a good lesson to teenagers who are in the period of transition from childhood to adulthood and have to face many such situations. However, every act has its consequences. In adulthood, we’re more responsible, and such kind of attitude of speaking lies can result in big unresolved arguments. Since in childhood, a kid is unaware it addresses them that every lie they tell will have some kind of consequences and punishment from their elders especially parents and society.
“White Lies” by Natasha TretheweyDiana Hacker Rules for writers 6th Edition X.J. kennedy and Dana Gloia. An introduction to Poetry. 12th Edition.