The Sealey Challenge: Thrall

Natasha Trethewey's THRALL, against red brick, yellow flowers, green foliage, & sky over yonder.

It was the cover that drew me, first, to Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall: detail of a casta painting, one of the De español e india, mestiza ones, paintings everyone with a background in colonial Spanish America knows in a hundred different types.

Thrall is exquisite, and elegant. Trethewey reaches back into the past to interrogate constructions of race, building a poetry of historical memory from such pieces as the casta paintings of the Spanish empire, bloodthirsty Christian myths, and historical figures such as Juan de Pareja, brilliant painter of the Spanish Golden Age and himself formerly an enslaved man. (For those who don’t know: there have been Black people in Europe for a hell of a long time; Juan de Pareja and Juan Latino, both brilliant lights of the Spanish Siglo de Oro, were a long shot from alone.)

Trethewey uses bloodthirsty myths and Baroque paintings (and also Thomas Jefferson) to explore her own identity and family history, interrogating inequities and white supremacy in art and history as well as among her own family. The poems range from achingly sad to tender; many are laced with a restrained defiance, a reminder of the humanity of those categorized people in colonial casta paintings, of the humanity of those dehumanized by art and by culture.

History lives on every one of Thrall‘s pages, in the white spaces and in the words, weight of years and of violence and of coloniality. (Is Columbus here? Not by name—but his violence sure is. And those casta paintings followed him, and Cortés, and Pizarro, and their categorizations are themselves part of his legacy of colonialist violence.)

I know the references, when they are to the Spanish empire or to United States history; I confess I don’t know the Christian stories half so well. But I feel the weight of years throughout Thrall, a reminder that the past, as Trethewey writes in “How the Past Comes Back,” is forever coming back.

Thrall is both elegant and exquisite; it is also an interrogation, of white supremacy going back to the Spanish Golden Age (and before), of family and its discontents, of the weight of history and its eternal presense in the now, whatever that now may be. I picked Thrall up for its cover, and gained Trethewey’s luminous words.

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