Thrall by Natasha Trethewey

For a new collection of poems by Pulitzer Prize winning poet and newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Bridgeman is delighted to have licensed the cover artwork. 

This September, Natasha Trethewey begins her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States. Born in 1960s Mississippi to a black mother and Canadian father, a marriage which was illegal until 1967, Tretheway was keenly aware of her unique racial history from a very young age. After her mother was brutally murdered when she was 19, Trethewey turned to poetry. Centered around the themes of race and identity, Trethewey has published four collections and a memoir: Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Native Guard, her collection about an all-black regiment of former slaves who were assigned to guard Confederate prisoners of war, won her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Her latest collection, Thrall, released in August, explores the history of naming and classifying mixed-blood people. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the cover features a beautiful 18th-century Mexican casta painting licensed from Bridgeman Art Library.



Natasha Trethewey © Nancy Crampton, 2012
Natasha Trethewey © Nancy Crampton, 2012



Book cover: Thrall by Natasha Trethewey © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Book cover: Thrall by Natasha Trethewey © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


The painting depicted on the cover is from a series of 18th-century Mexican casta paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez from the historic Breamore House collections. View the whole Breamore House series. The paintings lay out in painstaking detail, what many upper-class Spaniards thought about race and how it related to class and identity in 18th century Colonial Mexico. The term 'casta' referred to mixed-race people. The caste system regarded those of non-mixed European descent, or Espanoles, at the top of the social strata. At the bottom were persons of sub-Saharan African descent. Though designated a 'pure' race, Negros were low in social status due to their association with slavery. Indios, or native inhabitants of the Americas, were the third 'pure' race. In between are thought to be over one hundred combinations of mixed-race peoples; from Mestizo (1/2 Espanole, 1/2 Indio) to Mulatto (1/2 Negro, 1/2 Espanole) and beyond.

Although beautifully rendered, the casta paintings are alarmingly instructive; Juarez's paintings vividly portray the mixing of races and the social status of each casta. Juarez was the only one artist who created casta paintings, contemporaries such as Miguel Cabrera and many others created sets typically consisting of 16 variations. Ironically, the interest in defining the mixing of races came out of the effort to 'modernize' the Spanish government and organize its infrastructures during the Age of Enlightenment. The overarching message of the casta paintings was clear: Spaniards reigned supreme. The commissioning of the paintings was likely part of a larger effort to consolidate and solidify power over an expanding empire.

View all 18th-century casta paintings in the archive


Natasha Trethewey’s poems are at once deeply personal and historical—exploring her own interracial and complicated roots—and utterly American, connecting them to ours. The daughter of a black mother and white father, a student of history and of the Deep South, she is inspired by everything from colonial paintings of mulattos and mestizos to the stories of people forgotten by history. Meditations on captivity, knowledge, and inheritance permeate Thrall, as she reflects on a series of small estrangements from her poet father and comes to an understanding of how, as father and daughter, they are part of the ongoing history of race in America.

 - From the book jacket, reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Back to top