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

 

Pain and Privilege: Kathleen Collins’s Commentary on Colorism

The late Kathleen Collins’s collection of short stories titled “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?” was published in 2016 by Granta books, and is a treasure trove of memoiristic stories, written with whit, humor, sorrow, and personal experiences from Collins’s own life. The narratives focus on the intersection of race, family, friendships, and love. In the words of Slate journalist, Diamond Sharp, in her review of Collins’s collection, “Kathleen Collins was a black woman who lived at a time, quite simply, when black women’s stories were not valued.”  (Sharp,  2017) Rendering the collection an important archival culmination of the sentiments of mainly Black women from a bygone era. Sharp comments on the canonization of her work, but highlights the importance of the publication of her stories as a preservation of African American life during the span of the civil rights movement. Born in 1942, Collins reached adulthood in the late fifties, placing her adult years in a period defined by activism, ra

cism, in addition to social and political turbulence. Collins’s narratives are necessary now more than ever, as they reflect the sentiments of Blacks from past generations, and highlight the impacts of the racial complexities amplified throughout the fifties and sixties, that still impact the Black community and American society at large, today. 

Racial complexities like colorism, have plagued American society since their conception. Colorism is depicted as the cause of a family’s disintegration in Collins’s narrative titled, “The Uncle.” It is among the sixteen stories featured in the collection, and it captures colorism and its effects in past generations. In an article titled, “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community,” written by Suzanne Forbes-Vierling in the online periodical, Medium, Forbes-Vierling responds to research on the origins and the effects of colorism throughout history and today. She outlines the found

ations of colorism and its conception in white supremacy and the slave trade. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Forbes-Vierling also details the continuation of colorism’s divisive infiltration into American society and evolution throughout history, as well as its implications today. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The article informs Collins’s “The Uncle” as it highlights the foundational concepts of colorism, and how these concepts impact individuals within the Black community. Forbes-Vierling and Collins highlight the implications of the effects of colorism, such as light-skinned privilege, and discrimination. These implications had a significant impact within the Black community in Collins’s time, as the turbulence brought by the civil rights era created prominent social changes within the Black community. Colorism continues to run through the veins of society, as it has become a fundamental, thoughtless, foundational practice among Americans. However, it’s impact within the Black community, in addition to the

 perpetuation of its ideologies is perhaps most fascinating and complex.

Collins’s “The Uncle,” just begins to unravel colorism and its complexities as it follows a Black family’s unravelling due to its omnipresent pressures and effects. The story charts the life of the narrator’s uncle, “a former athlete of olympic stature” and a light skinned black man, a “double for Marlon Brando.” (Collins, 15) But after a lifetime of trail and error, long bouts with depression and anxiety, and a fractured marriage to a woman who is also light skinned, and demonstrates an apathetic and shallow attitude, he merely gives in to his sorrow. “cried into his pillow until death took him away.” (Collins, 19) Through her careful crafting of the narrative, Collins incorporates lexical diction, employs tone and contradictions, as well as motifs. This is what forms the narrative into a window into the lives of Blacks from decades past, and renders “The Uncle” an important commentary on the intricacies of racial complexities like colorism that continue to impact the Black community.

Colorism acts a catalyst for the destruction of familial relationships within “The Uncle.” Collins demonstrates the decisive nature of colorism and it’s effects through the narrator’s initial presentation her aunt and uncle. In the exposition of the narrative, she describes her childhood memories of the summers she spent with her little sister at her aunt and uncles home. In her description of them in their younger years she comments on their fairness and beauty. Collins uses glorifying diction such as, “exquisite,” “idolized,” “stunni

ng,” and “magic” to characterize her experiences and perceptions of them as whimsical and almost perfect. (Collins, 15) However, Collins counters this positive portrayal of the aunt and uncle as she blatantly includes their flaws. There is mention of their severe financial insecurities, but the narrator revels in the fact that they are “broke yet so handsome and beautiful, so lazy and generous.” (Collins, 16) by including this contradiction, Collins highlights how the narrator valued her aunt and uncle’s beauty to such an extent that it took away from the severity of their problems. In selecting diction that glorifies the aunt and uncle’s appearances – specifically “stunning” and “idolized” – Collins demonstrates the connection between their fair skin and the narrators initial perceptions.(Collins, 15) The idolization of their features demonstrates the value placed on their complexions. In highlighting the si

gnificance of their complexions to the centrality of their characters, Collins demonstrates the prevalence placed on their exteriors by the narrator, and reveals the connection between their fair skin and their perceived beauty.

This illustrates the implications and effects of colorism in a broader context, as it speaks to the way in which whiteness equates to beauty – this perception is not new. Forbes-Vierling highlights how light skinned slaves were preferred, due to their appeasing features, and traces the roots of this system of discrimination back to white supremacy. Forbes-Vierling illuminates how this “color based acceptance/ rejection continuum is still internalized by African Americans over 300 years later.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Collins highlights these foundational concepts of colorism in the opening paragraphs of the narrative. Rendering the emphasis placed on the complexions and exteriors of the aunt and uncle as a significantly valuable quality, in a society that subscribes to the constructs of colorism. This highlights the importance of Collins’s story in the broader context of colorism in society, as the narrative demonstrates the impacts of the issue in a past era, but also demonstrates the la

ck of change, as colorism still impacts the black community in the United States.

The issue that Forbes-Vierling highlights with colorism is that there is rarely discussion about those “inside our [the Black] community that perpetuate it.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The aunt is presented as a prime beneficiary of colorism throughout the narrative, as she expresses a sense of privilege, due to her understanding of the value and privilege her complexion affords her. Collins demonstrates the way in which the aunt perpetuates colorism through the narrators shift in tone and age. Preceding her description of her happy and light hearted childhood memories, she describes the removal of the “hallowed filter” that shrouds her memory. (Collins, 17) She realizes, in her adult years, that her aunt and uncle were far from perfect. Rather than characterizing them as beautiful despite their flaws, she realizes what their beauty truly means and how it becomes a detrimental factor in their lives. She realized her aunt was a “lazy, spoiled woman who thought her fair, almost-white skin would save her.” (Collins, 17) Collins carefully selects racial diction to frame this pivotal moment of revelation for the narrator and the reader. In selecting “almost-white” Collins illuminates the awkward social placement of the aunt. (Collins, 17) Her complexion renders her a part of the Black community, but simultaneously places her in an elevated medium. She is in a position of privilege due to her fairness, which she is aware of and takes advantages of, this is demonstrated through her shallow and apathetic attitude. But she is not a white women, she cannot transcend any racial barriers, she can only accept the privilege that oth

ers assign to her complexion and use that as leverage over other members of the community. This exemplifies the perpetuation of colorism within the Black community that Forbes-Vierling highlights.

The aunt’s perpetuation of colorism demonstrates the normality of the issue of colorism in Collins’s time and today. The lack of intervention and conversation around those who perpetuate colorism is highlighted in Collins’s narrative and by Forbes-Vierling’s article. In highlighting this issue, both Collins and Forbes-Vierling demonstrate how colorism continues to infect the Black community, resulting in detrimental social impacts. This discourse between Collins’s narrative and Forbes-Vierling’s article, demonstrates how the issues form a bygone era are still relevant today.  An article by Claire Fallon, from the online publication, The Huffington Post, responds to the importance and relevance of the themes in Collins’s collection, in an article called Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?Asks Q

uestions We’re Still Trying To Answer.” She highlights how the collection demonstrates the “tantalizing unfulfilled promise of a “melting pot,” an interracial or even a post racial society, remains a preoccupation many years later, and, again, it has resulted in a painful disappointment.” (Fallon, 2016) Collins’s work demonstrates the lack of social change from her time to the present. Her work highlights the prevalence of racial complexities like colorism, and the continuation of these issues in today’s society. Highlighting that the “questions we’re still trying to answer” lie within the lack of conversation and agency in solving the issues that divide Americans.

The perpetuation of colorism is as relevant now, as it was in Collins’s time. Collins demonstrates how it has a drastic impact on the family’s dynamic, as it cau

ses the aunt and uncle’s relationship to deteriorate and influences the uncle’s life long struggle with depression. This familial deterioration is demonstrated through Collins’s use of setting and motif. The narrator initially depicts the aunt and uncles’ bedroom as an enchanted place, where the four of them “would lie there for hours, laughing and hearing stories.” (Collins, 16) However upon returning to their house after her uncle’s death the bedroom is depicted in a much different light. The bed where the narrator, her younger sister, and her aunt and uncle spend hours in throughout their summers, became a “monument” to the uncle’s “perverse pursuit of humiliation and sorrow.” (Collins, 20) Collins uses the bed a subtle motif, only mentioning it twice, however it is used as a means to express how the aunt and uncles relationship has deteriorated, and has changed the dynamic of the family. In characterizing the bed as a “monument” it demonstrates how the bed once stood as a place of gathering and togetherness – even though the aunt and uncles’ relationship had n

ever been explicitly portrayed as perfect – it was still a place where the narrators childhood took place and where significant memories were made. (Collins, 20) After years of depression and the lack of cohesion between the aunt and the uncle, the bed becomes a memorial to the uncle’s sadness that consumed him. This subtle motif highlights how colorism and their complexions destroy their lives and their marriage. The aunt perpetuates it as she benefits from it, whilst the uncle’s relationship with colorism is far more complex. The narrator comments on the “blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities” in the last moments of the narrative. (Collins, 20) she highlights the limitations his complexion imposed on him. The limitations that he was unwilling to struggle with. He was “so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended.” He didn’t want to fight it. He had no desire to stand up against the limitations and his own inhibitions that he let sorrow consume him instead. These last moments in the narrative highlight how the aunt was able to use her complexion to gain privilege, but the uncle could not bear to struggle with the trials and tribulations of the complex discrimination that plagued him within his own family, and throughout his life.

“The Uncle” is a harrowing narrative, but it is important. It acts as a historical preservation of an era long past and immortalizes the sentiments of Blacks towards the intricacies of the racial complexities amplified by the civil rights movement. “The Uncle” just scrapes the surface of colorism, whilst it certainly explores the intricacies of the issue, there is more exploration to be done. Additionally, the narrative preserves a social commentary from a bygone era, but could easily be a social commentary on colorism today. In reading Collins’s narratives from the past, we seem to be peering more into the present. Whilst the narrative presents the issue of colorism, I also think it presents the solution. It shows us our mistakes, and misconceptions, it shows us where we went wrong and ignored it, continued to ignore it, until we finish the story and arrive back to reality, where we ask our selves as readers, what has changed?

Op Ed

Works Cited:

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Granta Books, 2018.

Forbes-Vierling, Suzanne. “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community.” Medium.com, Medium, 14 Oct. 2017, medium.com/@suzanneforbesvierling/moving-forward-with-radical-action-nine-solutions-that-the-black-community-can-adopt-to-dismantle-8edfb15917cb.

Sharp, Diamond. “Our Minds are Intricate” Slate Magazine, Slate, 7 Feb. 2017, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/02/kathleen_collins_whatever_happened_to_interracial_love_reviewed.html.

Fallon, Claire. “New Book Asks Questions About Race & Gender We’re Still Trying To

Answer.” The Huffington Post, 2 Dec. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/whatever-happened-to-interracial-love_us_5840aee7e4b09e21702ddb0f

The Art of Taxonomy and 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. What Natasha Trethewey, the author of the of poetry collection Monument (2018), does is situate readers in historical narratives that blend with her own. In the Poem “Taxonomy” by Natasha Trethewey, the poet splits up her piece into four numbered poems that are based on different casta paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez in the 18th century. These casta paintings were commissioned in New Spain at the time, by unknown patrons (Khan Academy). They speak of the formulaic results of the mixing of the different races during colonialism and  propel stereotypical narratives of those who inhabited those lands. Just as art was used to portray what the colonists tried to state as fact, Trethewey utilizes poetry as a tool for making race at the forefront of contemporary dialogues. 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. More specifically in “2. De Español y Negev produce Mulato, ” a section from the poem “Taxonomy,” Trethewey utilizes ekphrasis, which is the “description of visual art” to contextualize her work into the past that demands attention and relevance today (McHaney). It is through her eyes that readers of “Taxonomy” can piece together narratives that shaped the perception of races, and live on to this day.

Image result for de espanol y negra produce mulato

The inscription in the top right read “De Español y Negra Produce Mulato,” which became the title for Trethewey’s poem. Images of paintings are not included in the poet’s collection.

In the section “2. Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” Trethewey starts with the inscriptions in the art 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” (141). The poet goes on to describe the racial dynamics and components that make it a casta painting. She even asks what we should do about these different components that such as the inscription in the corner serving as a taxonomical title of the art and the depictions of racial stereotype in the portraits. She states how the artwork and the story changes if we took out the inscription or hid the child. Trethewey then writes,

 

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 142)

 

 

 

Trethewey not only describes the creation of the artist who represents the hegemonic society of New Spain, 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 is defined as, “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” allowing readers to understand the depth behind the surface of a canvas. This device gives the poet the space to insert a  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 lets the reader 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.” Finally, 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 (colonial Spanish society) create for him.

In the interrupted phrase, it is evident that Trethewey’s word choice holds powerful significance to the title of the entire poem, “Taxonomy.” This 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.

BP6

Works Cited

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

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

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

Black Identity in I, Too

The poem, I, Too by Langston Hughes was published in 1926 but first seen in his book, “The Weary Blues” in 1925. It is a rather short, free verse poem of five stanzas, opening and closing with similar one line sentence, and using simple language throughout. The poem is only five sentences in total, but covers two events, today and tomorrow, and two places, the kitchen and the table. The narrator of the poem creates black narrative and exposes the African-American identity within the oppressive dominant white culture of America. More powerfully, it captivates the history of slavery and oppression that creates systems of racial inequality and denied blacks their rights. The poem uses an exemplary event of the unfair treatment of a person because of their darker skin complexion to comment on the racism that plagues our nation. When the poem emerged in 1926, the Great Migration (high rate relocation of African-Americans from Southern states to the North), The Chicago race riots (the lynching of blacks), and Jim Crow (state and local laws that legally separated the South), painted the racially divided climate of the US.

In the Poem, I, Too, the narrator is sent to the kitchen to eat his food alone by an authority figure when people come to visit who all eat together at the table. The narrator does as told but claims that he will not be in the kitchen in the future. Through the use of commas, Hughes expressed his feelings towards racism and comments on the racially discriminating state of our nation.

Hughes writes,

                                                                    “I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.”           

 

 

 

The use of commas in this quote forces the reader to slow down and take in the actions of the narrator. The commas show the continuation of the unfair treatment because the commas combined with the word “grow strong” shows the longevity and multiplicity of times he was had to eat in the kitchen because he is “the darker brother.” The commas also allow for the tone shift through the lines as well as stanzas of the poem. The tone shift from one of anger to one of strength through the use of the commas because the commas allows for the poem to be read like blues music, filled with sorrow and anger, but finding the beauty by finding its worth like the narrator does. Commas produce this effect because it showcases the narrator’s growth and emotions. The commas allow us to get a whole picture view of the changes the narrator goes through after being banished to the kitchen such as the, “But I laugh,” that is followed by the, “And eat well,” then him saying, “And grow strong.” He is not allowing for his banishment to the kitchen to keep him down, but rather laughs and thinks of the future when he is stronger and can escape the segregation that has been forced on him. The commas also produces a contrast between not being able to eat at the table juxtaposed to his claim of his, “tomorrow(‘s)” right to eat at that table. His perseverance and resilience in self authorizing that he will be at the table comes through because of the use of commas showing that he is not accepting his current situation.

  The vagueness in the setting of time in the poem (today and tomorrow), showcases how whether or not it takes place during slavery or post-slavery, the remaining effects of oppression and unequal treatment of blacks is still present and draining in the American society. Moving on, the narrator claims his liberation and argues for unification at the table. He is claiming his right to feel included and equal as a citizen in America. He is disapproving the idea that equality is based on race, or more specifically that you have to be white or of a lighter skin complexion to be fairly treated.

Through his poem, Hughes makes a declaration of freedom for blacks and stands against the oppression and cruel treatment of slaves as if they aren’t equal human beings. The narrator’s fight still remains true and ongoing in American society today because we still see ongoing movements and suffrage for racial equality and freedom. The Black Lives Movement is a 21st century visual representation of the poem and the theme of Freedom that it demands. This theme of freedom rings through in Hughes other works of poetry such as, “Let America be America Again” and “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” Malcolm X said, “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Parallel with Hughes message, Blacks are demanding their freedom in all pursuits, but more than just demanding it, they are taking it  peacefully or via force.

B6.

Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “I, Too by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1926, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too.

Tolnay, Stewart (2003). “The African American ‘Great Migration’ and Beyond”. Annual Review of Sociology. 29: 209–232. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100009. JSTOR 30036966.

Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith (2001). “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”. p. 42. Oxford University Press.

“Malcolm X Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 19 April 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/malcolm_x_387554

Multiculturalism vs. “Post-racial”

Upon reading the introduction to Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009) by Daniel Goh and Philip Holden, I realized that I know nothing on “multiculturalism”. I assumed that the word in some sense valued cultural fluidity and tolerance. But then again…what does “cultural fluidity” really mean either? My point is, previous to this informative excerpt, I recognized “multiculturalism” on a similar playing field to “diversity”, as a vague buzz word which no one in the general public truly acknowledges the layers, history, or politics of.

In relation to how multiculturalism functions in Malaysian or Singapore government, Daniel Goh and Philip Holden make the argument that “multiculturalism imposes limits upon the recognition and interrogation of cultural difference”, because of its roots which are embedded within Western ideology. Goh and Holden press question the reality of how a postcolonial society can conceive of and redefine racial categorization which was founded upon white colonialism? Charles Taylor argues that achieving this sort of multiculturalism in a postcolonial society such as Malaysia required “non-ethnocentric” judgement, which entails the “presumption of equal value and worth” among all racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Taylor also argues that state must also reflect equal sentiments towards conserving the rights of all citizens.

Considering the politics of Malaysia’s pursuit of multiculturalism in the postcolonial framework, I am curious to further investigate how “multiculturalism” functions within the United States since we too are a postcolonial society. I am interested to understand the argument of scholars and writers who claim the United States is in a post-racial society. Based off my understanding of Goh and Holden’s definition of multiculturalism, the claim or boast of reaching a “post-racial” society implies a failure to acknowledge equality and distinguish between racial and ethnic groups. In reflection of what multiculturalism symbolizes, I find it strange how American culture applauds the ideology of the “mixing pot” which realistically encourages the active devaluing of cultures outside what is western or classically “American”.

Making Sense of a Census

https://www.google.com/amp/s/millennialsofsg.com/2017/01/16/chinese-privilege-singapore/amp/

I officially learned about race while sitting in my elementary school classroom years ago when I was taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, a state test that begins in third grade. Before then, color and ethnicity was how I distinguished myself from my siblings and friends. But in that moment I was given 5 categories of races to choose from. A look into the way the question of race is approached in a non western perspective is presented in the book Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009) by Daniel Goh and Philip Holden. The authors point us to new views of the construction of race in these countries but also allow us to see how they are similar to the wider world through institutionalization.

         The authors clearly show how the current “state multiculturalism” that exists in both countries are rooted in the colonial past that has framed them (2). It is not just present in a political sphere, but also has a significant effect in the way people see and interact with one another. The authors discuss how this influence creates a “common sense” among the people in a multicultural nation. In critiques of this institutionalization, people see “limits” in “the recognition and interrogation of cultural difference,” which questions how people today can escape a colonial legacy that perpetuates a narrow view of the demographics of the nation (3).  The authors say, “the institutionalizations of identities has foreclosed commitments to cultures other than the official categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) inherited from the British colonial administration.” (3) This shows  how the decisions of colonizers can directly influence the prioritization of groups in the distributing of resources. It lives on in the forms that people complete, and in turn informs the lives they get to live in their multicultural state.

         I find it interesting how the categories seem so fixed and known to be referred to as the CMIO acronym. I think about my experience as a young kid having to choose between the categories of White, Black, American Indian, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. I don’t believe there was even an ‘other’ option my first time taking the PSSA, as I remember having to choose a race I have never identified with on several occasions over the years. But even if and when I had the chance to chose other, I knew I still didn’t belong. Even when I answer yes to the ‘Hispanic or Latino’ question today, I still feel out of place when it comes down to race. And so I wonder what it must be like for a child, adult or anyone being a descendent from immigrants having to choose between CMIO. I wonder how my experience gives me a different world view from someone my age in Malaysia or Singapore trying to make sense of their place in institutionalized multiculturalism.

 

Works Cited

Goh, Daniel P.S. and Philip Holden. Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. New York, Routledge, 2009

BP 5

New Racism in Malaysia and Singapore

Historian often say history repeats itself until we learn the lesson that is meant to be learned, and we make the necessary changes to become a more globally accepting, equal, and interconnected society and world. One way history has been repeating itself for centuries is with the way in which we categorize people.Daniel Goh and Philip Holden show the continuance of racial structures that promote “institutionalized colonial identities” (3) which turns into a different form or “new racism” (2) in our society decades after a country established its freedom from their colonizers in their book, Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009).Goh and Holden also acknowledge the damaging effects of this continuance and of the “new racism” it forms.

  To start of, Goh and Holden states that these two countries government are, “shaped by a racial governmentality” (1). Racial govermentiality first started when British assigned labor systems in the countries that they colonized such as Malaysia and Singapore. The British recognized any progress socially, economically, or culturally as being tied to your race. Therefore, racial structures were created that positioned a person’s race and ethnic identity ahead of their Singaporean or Malaysian identity. This created “institutionalized colonial identities’ (3), because years after these colonized countries such as Malaysia and Singapore fought for their freedom, the effects and racial structures stemming from a racial governmentality that the British practiced in these countries remained. Goh and Holden essentially make the argument that race and multiculturalism function as a continuance of “institutionalized colonial identities” (3) that creates “new racism” (2) in countries like Malaysia and Singapore whom were colonized and later established their freedom.This means that the act of freedom from colonizers is not enough, there has to be more actions taken to rectify the structures they left. Malaysia and Singapore are examples that a colonized country still relies on the established government by British colonizers even in a postcolonial and multicultural state.

One way we see this argument shown as accurate is through the use of Robert Hefner’s collection of essays (2001). Hefner’s works showcases the, “investigation of multiculturalism in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in the production and reproduction of precolonial, colonial and postcolonial pluralism”(2). This goes to show how “new racism” stems from the precolonial and colonial decades of history, because the “institutionalized colonial identities” established by the British are still present today in countries that have postcolonial pluralism. I found this to be revealing because often when people think of a postcolonial or multicultural/pluralistic country, they think of it as a melting pot such as with the United States. The terms or view point of multicultural or melting pot often gives of the impression that the country and its citizens are equal, diverse, and legally understanding of everyone. However, that is not true because we see the effects of the race systems from colonial days that still show face in the legal, social, and cultural aspects of our society today. For example, in Malaysia, the “politics of recognition” (3) shows how one must navigate race to have access to resources because it is not evenly distributed among citizens. This is similar to America where the race you are born into already has serious stereotypes accompanied with it. For Blacks, this is often shown through the wealth and economic gap that shows how minorities like blacks are more likely to live in poorer segmented neighbors.

History repeats itself as we learn it, until we understand it enough to change it. The understanding that one has control of their own fate is then seen as only possible if we as a society decide that we want to change our fate and take another route not tied to our colonizers. Daniel Goh and Philip Holden are taking the necessary steps in learning the colonial history of Malaysia and Singapore, and exposing the recurring effects British colonizers have had on the land. They are also arguing for the necessary change in the ways we use “institutionalized colonial identities” (3) because it is creating a system for “new racism” as seen in other countries like America who went from slavery to Jim Crow laws. It is interesting how history has been repeating itself, but it is also revealing because Goh and Holden are revealing to us how to change the continuance of a racially charged and oppressive history.

Blog 5.

Works Cited

Goh, Daniel P.S. and Holden, Philip. Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. New York, Routledge, 2009.

 

 

Race isn’t exclusive to the U.S.?

To be honest, I’m a huge fan of the word “multiculturalism” because it encompasses people of different cultures, rather than different races (which is solely based off of phenotypic characteristics). Different cultures in one country can lead to a range of discussion. In the book Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009), Daniel Goh and Philip Holden the pre- and post-colonial context of multiculturalism and its role in Malaysia and Singapore.

Goh and Holden challenge the idea of multiculturalism and question whether we can understand multiculturalism from a basis other than “terms and categories set by white colonialists” (3). They argue that because it is a Western concept, it is used as the grounds for multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. Multiculturalism is understood in juxtaposition to what white colonialist have defined it as. Additionally, they argue that the state apparatuses weave multiculturalism into the fabric of political and social life to the extent that they are seen as common sense (3). In weaving it into daily life, this understanding of multiculturalism thus becomes normalized, which is what Goh and Holden asks readers to challenge.

Something I found interesting was that the concept of race had the same purpose in Malaysia and Singapore as it does in the U.S. In the U.S., the concept of race is to categorize different groups of people. This categorization thus leads to a hierarchy of races, cultures, and ideas. In the reading, it seems like race is also used to for categorization in Malaysia and Singapore. This highlights that race is not just a concept in the U.S., but in other countries as well, and that it is a concept that is used to categorize bodies and generate a hierarchy. Because philosopher Charles Taylor argues that one should approach multiculturalism with equal value that we hold to our own identities, this proves that race in Malaysia and Singapore is manipulated towards some sort of ranking. One can’t argue against something that isn’t already there.

While multiculturalism encompasses different cultures, it is still derived from a white, settler colonialist ideology that different countries manipulate.

B5.

Works Cited

Goh, Daniel P.S. and Holden, Philip. Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. New York, Routledge, 2009. 

What’s in a Name?

How do we make our identities evident to those around us? One of the ways is through our name. My name, for example, Heidi, showcases my American identity while my last name, Kim, showcases my Asian identity. In Kamila Shamsie’s Homefire (2017), the Muslim and British identities intersect in Karamat Lone’s son’s name, Eammon. Eammon’s name showcases how the Muslim identity shadows the British identity, portraying the British identity as dominant.

Shamsie illustrates the intersection of British and Muslim identities through the character of Eammon, Karamat Lones’s son. In the first chapter told from Isma’s perspective, she notices a young Muslim man who looks like Home Secretary Karamat Lone, but soon finds out that the young man is his son, Eammon. Before approaching him, Isma’s thought process explains that Eammon’s name had been changed from “Ayman” to “Eammon” so people would understand that his father, Karamat, “had integrated” and further depict his father’s “integrationist posing” (Shamsie 16).

Shamsie’s use of the words “integrated” and “integrationist” implies that in order for the Muslim identity to be considered equal, it must be combined with the British identity. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines  “integration” as “incorporation as equals into society or an organization of individuals of different groups” (Merriam-Webster). Through Eammon’s name change and the context behind it, it depicts that the Muslim identity is one that is inferior and must be combined with the British identity in order for it to be considered equal. Additionally, it portrays the integration of the Muslim and British identities as a positive thing, rather than a negative thing for needing to adjust one’s personal identity to fit the confines of another.

In using the words “integration” and “integrationist” in consecutive sentences, it reiterates how important it is to identify more as British than Muslim. Using the word “integration” instead of the word “assimilation” indicates the combining of the two identities rather than the complete removal of one identity. If Shamsie had used the word “assimilation” instead of “integration”, it would then seem as if identifying as Muslim is unacceptable. In using the word “integration”, it depicts the adjusting of one’s identity rather than completely eradicating it.

Shamsie’s use of the words “integration” and “integrationist” is significant because it depicts how the changing or adjusting of one’s identity is evident through a generation and the importance of showcasing the combining of identities. It informs the reader of how the British identity is the identity that is the more outstanding than the Muslim identity.

 

Works Cited

Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. Riverhead Books, 2017

B3.

Interrogating Identity–Literally

The word “identity” is often thrown around as if it is something constant that everyone has. However, identity can be incredibly difficult to navigate. In her novel Home Fire (2017), Kamila Shamsie tells the story of the Pasha siblings, who are British, Muslim, and orphaned. Parvaiz, twin of Aneeka and the only boy of the siblings, falls for ISIS propaganda because he feels lost, longs for a connection to his dead father, and because the racism and anti-Muslim violence of Britain make it difficult for him to construct an identity as a British Muslim. In Parvaiz’s narrative, Shamsie uses rhetorical questions to illustrate what Parvaiz comes to feel is the irreconcilability of the United Kingdom’s history of violence against Muslim people and British Muslim identity.

After he learns that his eldest sister, Isma, will be moving to America and selling the family home, Parvaiz drifts under the influence of Farooq, an older ISIS fighter who seeks to recruit him. In the process of recruiting Parvaiz, Farooq asks him a series of rhetorical questions that target Parvaiz’s precarious sense of national and religious identity.

M15 officers were present at Bagram, Farooq told him, and showed him evidence to corroborate that. Your government, the one that took taxes from your family and claimed to represent the people, knew what was going on. How can you live in this place, accepting, after all that you now know? How can you live in this mirage of democracy and freedom? What kind of man are you, what kind of son are you? (Shamsie 150-1)

These questions contain their own answers. By calling Parvaiz’s home “this place,” Farooq distances him from it. By juxtaposing his connection to Britain with Britain’s histories of violence and a lack of masculinity and family loyalty, Farooq makes it impossible for Parvaiz to answer that he can live in Britain. This quote is part of Parvaiz’s third-person internal monologue, which shows how Farooq’s questions have entered his mind and begun to shape every aspect of how he sees the world.

Farooq’s questions also get at a true inconsistency in Parvaiz’s supposed citizenship and belonging. Although Farooq’s intentions are manipulative, many of the images and facts that he presents to Parvaiz are accurate. Britain does participate in torture abroad, and racism at home. By presenting questions that contain their own answers, Shamsie demonstrates how untenable British Muslim identity is for Parvaiz.

 

Works Cited

Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. Riverhead Books, 2017.

B3