Bridging the 18th & 21st Centuries: The Timeless Depiction of Race in the Casta Paintings and Trethewey’s Poetry

The intersection of race, art, and poetry is just one of the many forms of voicing, remembering and monumentalizing histories that have been forgotten. To be a poet that writes about race in this decade is to write at a time that spans instances of police brutality against the Black population all over the United States. But what Natasha Trethewey, the author of the of poetry collection Monument (2018), does is situate readers in historical narratives that blend with her own. Trethewey shows the importance of memory and the assurance that it lives on through written word often grounded in historical photos and paintings. Poetry becomes a way to evoke in readers the emotions and historical context concerning issues of race to past and present narratives. Trethewey utilizes ekphrasis, which is the “description of visual art” to contextualize her work into the past that demands attention and relevance today (McHaney 153). Monument isn’t just a collection of poems, but one of selected and new poems. She binds together work from her different books such as “Native Guard” and “Thrall” to tell a fuller story of memory through her own family history and spans the country’s dark history of White Supremacy.

“De Español y Negra Produce Mulato”

In her poem “Taxonomy,” Trethewey uses ekphrasis to place the reader into an 18th-century context, allowing us to enter the thought process of a casta painter, a reflection and tool of the society at large to progress ideas of identification in the period of hegemonic New Spain. The merging of visual art from the 18th century and figurative language in the 21st century is the author’s way of simultaneously acknowledging and bridging a gap for present-day analysis. Trethewey provides readers with the origins and inner workings of the thoughts and physical action behind the reactors and thinkers who have molded our current discourse of ‘mixed race.’ But this idea is not limited to Latin America for the social construct of race has profoundly impacted a wider global history. She does this by replicating artistic expression in her own work through diction, word placement, interrupted phrases and more literary devices.

In Trethewey’s second poem within the “Taxomony” series, “2. Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” the author starts with the very inscription of number and words in the art to serve as the title for the poem. In the piece, she uses ekphrasis to describe the painting of a Spaniard and Black women on either side of a young boy referred to as “mulato” (Trethewey 141). The poet goes on to describe the racial dynamics of the scene and even asks what we should do about the different components that make it a casta painting such as the inscription in the corner serving as taxonomy and the depictions of racial stereotype. She states how the artwork, the story, changes if we took out the inscription or hid the child. The author continues,

“The boy is a palimpsest of paint —

layers of color, history rendering him

That precise shade of in-between.

Before this he was nothing: blank

canvas — before image or word, before

a last brush stroke fixed him in his place.

 

Trethewey not only describes the creation of the artist who represents the New Spain society on a large scale, but uses an interrupted phrase to dig deeper and go beyond what the finished artwork depicts. In using this literary device, the poet expands upon the word “palimpsest,” which means “something such as a work of art that has many levels of meaning, types of style, etc. that build on each other:” (Cambridge Dictionary). In the interrupted phrase, Trethewey uses words like “layers” and “history” allow readers to understand the depth behind the surface of a canvas. This device allows the poet to insert a short reversed timeline at the end of the poem, a reminder that art speaks to the past, present, and future state of humans. In doing so, it is like she allows the reader to become the artist and see the reverse progression of the artwork. She starts with undoing the layers, then situates readers by presenting them with the boy’s “precise shade.” The poet takes us all the way back to the “blank canvas” (142). At that moment Trethewey ends the interrupted phrase and continues with the rest of the sentence. In doing this, she suggests that the mulato child has no identity beyond that which the artist, or colonial Spanish society, create for him.

In the interrupted phrase, it is evident that Trethewey’s word choice hold powerful significance to the title of the entire poem, “Taxonomy.” The word itself stands for “the science or technique of classification” (Dictionary.com), which add weight to the words “fixed” and “precise” (142). These words illustrate an exact classification of the shade of the mulato child, despite the layers of colors it took to paint him, and the real identities of children from European and African descent. And so just as the paintbrush is a tool for the artist to translate stereotypical portraits and environments of miscegenation, Trethewey’s words are tools for the readers to analyze the depiction of race in art.

Whereas the paintbrush was a tool to support imagined fact in New Spain, Trethewey’s words create a friction that requires readers to see the past and present in tandem, visually and figuratively as layers of action and final product. Like a painting, she pieces together action with description, verb with adjective. The placing of her words tell of visual complexities that get us to think of a deeper significance. One unique way the author does this is in the very first and last stanzas. In the first she writes, ‘Still, the centuries have not dulled / the sullenness of the child’s expression” (Trethewey 141). The author creates a dichotomy between “not dulled” and “sullenness,” because, in hindsight, the two words evoke a similar connotation of feelings such as gloomy, gray and sadness. According to Dictionary.com, the word sullenness means, “showing irritation or ill humor by a gloomy silence or reserve.” (Dictionary.com). Trethewey places the verb to dull right before the adjective sullenness, creating both a likeness between the words but also a contrast between the unfulfilled action of time and the clear expression the painting of the boy continues to portray today.

Trethewey also incorporates a narrative of time and juxtaposition in her words in the very last stanza of the poem. She writes, “before / a last brush stroke fixed him in his place.” (Trethewey 142). Similarly, the use of “last brush stroke” as a verb and “fixed” as an adjective form a convergence of both movement of the artist’s tool and a seemingly permanent state of being for the boy. The action solidifies the boy’s existence, a contrast to the more free position of the artist in New Spain who were commissioned to paint these narratives. This literary device of diction and placement in the poem is important to our understanding of who gets to move about freely in society, who and what that power is translated through and who remains stationary in the timeless gaze of an oppressive system.

Pearl Amelia McHaney goes deeper into the style and framing of Trethewey’s poetry in her essay, published in the Southern Quarterly, titled “Natasha Trethewey’s Triptych: The Bodies of History in Belloq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Thrall” (2013). On the contrary, Dwight Garner’s New York Times, article “Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing on Intimate Details” published in 2018 is a review of her work in Monument, and offers a different perspective in which to look at the personal and historical analysis the poet reveals. On the other hand, in The Paris Review, Lauren LeBlanc directly engages with the author herself in publishing “Building a Monument: A Interview with Natasha Trethewey” (2018). LeBlanc’s questions make sense of the layers of intent behind Trethewey’s work of poetry including the reason for calling her collection Monument (2018). 

The Cover of Trethewey’s collection “Thrall” (2015), painting by Juan Rodríguez Juárez c.1715

Through work dedicated to her mother and the observance of various forms of monuments in her experience of the deep south, Trethewey speaks of a “psychological exile” and a “necessity for remembering” (LeBlanc 3). In her analysis, McHaney illuminates that, “Trethewey paints with words… She makes visible what cannot be seen– before or after the photograph is made or beyond the constructed frame” (McHaney 153). What McHaney does here is analyze Trethewey’s use of ekphrasis in her poems and in doing so, unravels the “complicated histories” into which the reader is placed (McHaney 153). This analysis not only places the reader into the historical context of the artwork but also at the intersection of Trethewey’s personal social world as well. McHaney says “Guided by Trethewey’s description of ‘the triptych their bodies make’ in the casta paintings, we see a child centered, caught, held, enthralled between the parents in poems throughout her work” (155). McHaney mentions how in triptych painting donors would somehow incorporate themselves into the panels. Trethewey is said to have done the same here because she has created poetry that resembles her own life. Trethewey is like Ophelia in the center of the triptych, whereas the “parents” on either side of Ophelia relate to the author’s black mother and Canadian father. By situating readers in the time, place and experience of Trethewey’s poetry,  McHaney reminds us that we can’t resolve to look at Trethewey’s books of poetry as sole manifestations of her personal story, but that which tells a larger story grounded in history. She talks about how the attention from receiving a Pulitzer prize made it easier for readers to see the poet’s work as an account of her life.

By unpacking these visual and figurative complexities, someone in the present day United States of America is able to digest what they see and may even live through themselves. One can look at the topic of police brutality today and find similarities between these hegemonic structures of power. To give one example, poets such as Claudia Rankine highlight the issue in the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” (2014). The job of cops in American society can be abused to further beliefs during reconstruction and beyond of controlling the black population. The continued reality of driving while black in the 21st century is dependent on ideas that have solidified over time and kept black people in a “fixed” struggle to be viewed as human. That is why narratives such as Monument are relevant not just in time, but on an individual and personal level. The author doesn’t tell you how to think, I don’t think poetry works in that way. Rather she presents information to the reader through words that can then be carried differently and convey different meanings to people. Although, there is no denial in what she presents and the voice she is using to do so.

Analysis of Trethewey’s poem “Taxonomy” matters because race is still viewed as a biological fact rather than a social construct. Taxonomy and the labeling of different groups have come to define us, it has given us an identity that’s not so easy to part within our current discourse and environment. And so even as we say “race is a social construct,” it is critical to understand the history, to place ourselves into past context an make more sense of our present. Trethewey is able to do that for us. Talking about race has by no means ever been an easy topic to cover. But what the author does is use poetry to get us thinking, to get us to create a timeless dialogue about race. Today it’s not uncommon to hear someone dismiss the concept of race, to say they are colorblind or how race doesn’t need to be part of the conversation. But to say that is to erase a history depicted, viewed and discussed in the very casta paintings Trethewey refers to before her poem begins.

Natasha Trethewey

Works Cited

Garner, Dwight. “Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing on Intimate Details.” The New

          York Times, 13 Nov.

            2018, www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/books/review-monument-

natasha-trethewey.amp.html , Accessed 10 Mar. 2019.

Kilroy-Ewbank, Dr. Lauren G., “Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo, attributed to     

        Juan Rodriguez.” Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap- art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/colonial-americas/a/spaniard-and-indian-produce-a-mestizo-attributed-to-juan-rodriguez

LeBlanc, Lauren. “Building a Monument: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” The      Paris     

           Review, 15 Nov. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/11/15/building-a-

           monument-an-interview-with-natasha-trethewey/. Accessed 11 Mar. 2019.

McHaney, Pearl Amelia. “Natasha Trethewey’s Triptych: The Bodies of History in

        Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Thrall.” Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the          Arts in the South, vol. 50, no. 4, 2013, pp. 153–172. EBSCOhost,           

        search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?     

         direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2014380100&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Trethewey, Natasha. “Taxonomy: 2. Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato.” Monument.     

         Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, pp. 141-2.

Images

https://images.app.goo.gl/nBGNvcCVnQq2wEAC7

https://images.app.goo.gl/WwkXspcoG8a4NfwS7

 

One thought on “Bridging the 18th & 21st Centuries: The Timeless Depiction of Race in the Casta Paintings and Trethewey’s Poetry

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