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The Collation

Race B4 Race Seminar 1: What We’re Reading and Why

The RaceB4Race Mentorship Network began its work in 2022, intended to ‘offer new scholars support as they develop the research that will drive the academic conversation forward’. This Mellon-funded initiative spearheaded by Folger Institute director Dr. Patricia Akhimie not only includes individual mentorship opportunities, but also ‘a semester-long virtual reading/research group, meeting monthly to connect participants with a larger network of premodern critical race scholars.’

The first meeting of this year’s Reading Group took place on Monday September 25, and featured Matthieu Chapman and Anna Wainwright, editors of the fantastic open-access collection Teaching Race in the European Renaissance: A Classroom Guide (ACMRS, 2023). The discussion was facilitated by Vanessa Corredera.

Matthieu Chapman teaches in the theatre department at SUNY New Paltz and has just published a memoir titled Shattered: Fragments of a Black Life (WVU Press, 2023). His prior publications include The Other “Other”: Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama (Routledge, 2017) articles in Shakespeare, Theatre History Studies, and Literature Compass, and an essay in Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature (ACMRS, 2022).

Anna Wainwright teaches in the Italian and Women’s and Gender Studies departments at the University of New Hampshire. She has published articles in The Italianist, Religious, and Spenser Studies, and has a forthcoming book titled Widow City: Gender, Emotion, and Community in the Italian Renaissance. She is also a researcher on a collaborative project tracing the legacy of St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden in early modern Italy.

Why are we reading this?

This collection in many ways exemplifies the kind of antiracist and interdisciplinary work central to the RaceB4Race community. Featuring scholarship from literature (English, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish), drama, history, and art history, Teaching Race in the European Renaissance offers a comprehensive approach to incorporating race into any class on Early Modern Europe. The editors had initially included more scholarship on topics outside Europe, but circumstances beyond their control (e.g. the pandemic) got in the way. They made clear in the seminar—and in the book—that this collection is meant to be the start of many conversations on antiracist teaching approaches to premodern material.

The volume’s Introduction sets out exactly what is at stake:

‘While it would be simpler to dismiss the problem of contemporary white supremacy and its relationship to the European past as a handful of radical terrorist organizations and far-right extremists, the ways in which the history of the period has been recorded, written, and legitimized by academia has long played a role in these bad faith appropriations.’ (xvi)

The book emerged from a round-table at the 2018 meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, but the editors and contributors are careful to specify that the individual white supremacist events in the United States that caught the attention of academics and the public alike (Charlottesville in 2017, the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021) are part of a much longer continuum of violence—spectacular, political, procedural, bureaucratic—waged against people of color generally and Black people in particular. The backlash against any nuanced discussion of race, gender, sexuality, and other kinds of marginalization since then makes that abundantly clear.

We chose this book because it is vital that all these different disciplines speak to one another, because this topic of premodern race and race-making impacts all of us in different ways, and the backlash against it also manifests in different ways. It is perhaps easiest to find what is obviously considered ‘race work’ in English departments these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening elsewhere. We hope to see more conversations happening with Asian Studies, Africana Studies, Middle East/North African Studies, and Indigenous Studies. Even if one does not necessarily agree with the idea of a ‘Global Middle Ages’—a useful, if necessarily simplistic formulation—the fact is that the premodern world was deeply interconnected in ways that we who began our academic journeys in Europe are only beginning to understand.

Dr. Chapman’s chapter, ‘Mapping Race in Early Modern Europe’, provides an excellent overview of the premodern critical race work happening in English literature, where the centrality of William Shakespeare to the white English canon has made him a flashpoint for discussions about racialization and, perhaps more importantly, the unmarked whiteness that has come to define the study of English and American literature. He urges readers to ‘unpack racial logics in early modern England and challenge that not only is race a category of human, but also race is used to define what it means to be human’ (13).

Dr. Wainwright’s chapter, ‘Teaching Race in Renaissance Italy’, lays out the challenges of practicing antiracist pedagogy in a discipline that has historically avoided it as much as possible, despite the fact that the Italian Renaissance is filled with ‘idealized human forms, male and female respectively’, which ‘reinforce a visual vocabulary of the period that centers whiteness and the able-bodied, and suggests homogeneity as ideal’ (187). The Italian peninsula was central to the medieval and early modern slave trade in the Mediterranean, and there are examples beginning as early as Dante and Petrarch of racialized and racist rhetoric and representation.

While I will not be going into the particulars of the discussion, in order to preserve the seminar space as a safe and private one, I do wish to call attention to the fascinating selection of scholarship that came up, so I will be listing those works below.

Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (London: Bloomsbury, 2016)

Deadric Williams (Sociology)

Allison Bigelow, Mining Language: Racial Thinking, Indigenous Knowledge, and Colonial Metallurgy in the Early Modern Iberian World (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture for the University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Kim F. Hall, “‘These Bastard Signs of Fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London: Routledge, 2002).

Kaba Hiawatha Kamene

Kiatezua Lubanzadio Luyaluka, “An Essay on Naturalized Epistemology of African Indigenous Knowledge,” Journal of Black Studies 47.6 (2016).

Taylor Moore, Amulet Tales: Race, Magic, and Medicine in Egypt (forthcoming)

Edward Saïd, Orientalism (discusses Dante in Chapter 1)

Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)

Michelle Wright, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).