The fourth and final meeting of this year’s RB4R Reading Group took place on Monday December 12 and featured Noémie Ndiaye and Lia Markey discussing both their open-access edited collection Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World, and the exhibit of the same name that is running at the Newberry Library in Chicago until the end of December 2023.
Noémie Ndiaye is Associate Professor of English and Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago, and author of the multi-award-winning book Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). In addition to writing this incredible book, which we discussed as part of this seminar series last year, and editing the collection we discuss today, she has also edited the most recent issue of Shakespeare Quarterly (74.3) on Shakespeare studies, the First Folio, and early modern critical race studies, and is already at work on her next monograph. All this with an adorable baby boy.
Lia Markey is Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library and a Lecturer in Art History at the University of Chicago, whose research focuses on cross-cultural exchange between Italy and the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, collecting history, and early modern prints and drawings. She is the author of Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence (Penn State University Press, 2016) and has edited two prior collections, The New World in Early Modern Italy 1492-1750 (Cambridge, 2017), and Renaissance Invention: Stradanus’s “Nova Reperta” (Northwestern, 2020), in conjunction with a 2020 exhibit at the Newberry.
Why are we reading this?
This book, and the exhibition accompanying it, are a stunning example of the possibilities innate in premodern critical race studies. As co-editors Noémie Ndiaye and Lia Markey observe in their introduction, ‘race can be seen, literally, in vast visual archives spanning centuries, and it must be seen too, if we want to understand the long-lasting effects of that social construct across time and space’ (xvi). The editors began with a desire to address not just Blackness but other racial paradigms, such as those rooted in anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish prejudice, or those directed toward Indigenous people, and they have made clear that this book—like Teaching Race in the European Renaissance, the subject of our first seminar this year—is intended as the start of a much larger and more capacious conversation about premodern race-making. It is also intended to amplify and spotlight work that is explicitly collaborative. As such, all the full-length essays in this volume are co-authored by scholars working in different fields, each offering a different interpretive approach to the racial matrix.
The concept of the racial matrix is one that Noémie Ndiaye first advanced in her groundbreaking book Scripts of Blackness (2022), and she and Lia Markey explain it here as ‘a metaphor used to articulate the relations between concepts that twenty-first-century readers tend to think of as separate, but which, in premodern times, were part and parcel of the same conceptual whole called race. Those concepts are, namely, religion, class, and phenotype’ (xvii). True to the evolving nature of the matrix more generally, the racial matrix ‘speaks to race’s ability to produce new paradigms without abandoning old ones, and to the profound kinship that indissolubly binds class, religion, and phenotype together within the racial logic in premodern times’ (xvii-xviii). In keeping with this expansive framework, Seeing Race Before Race brings 41 contributors from language and literature, art history, archaeology, musicology, Indigenous Studies, and Africana Studies, as well as librarians, curators, and other public-facing scholars, into a conversation around a range of premodern materials from the Newberry Library, primarily the Edward Ayer collection.
In addition to the five co-written essays exploring ideas about premodern race and their manifestation in these Newberry materials, the book also contains three ‘Notes from the Field’, written by scholars who regularly work with the public, whether as librarians, curators, or theatre professionals, and a partial catalogue for the exhibition with extensive notes. The editors have divided their study into three parts, titled ‘Figuring’, ‘Mapping’, and ‘Performing’, each of which includes a combination of essays, notes, and catalogue entries. The book then concludes with a dense and deeply thought-provoking tri-interview between the foundational PCRS scholar Kim F. Hall and two brilliant scholars of Indigenous Studies, L. Lehua Yim and Scott Manning Stevens, where they consider what these fields have to contribute to one another and future directions for research.
Representing an enormous, collaborative, body of work that transcends disciplinary, geographical, and institutional boundaries, Seeing Race Before Race offers an invaluable introduction to the kind of research that can be done on premodern race.
Several sources were mentioned during our discussion so I wish to highlight those below.
Dontay M. Givens II, ‘I can’t hate this like I want to: On Newberry’s Seeing Race Before Race Exhibit’ (The Sundial, 7 November 2023)
Keith Hamilton Cobb, American Moor (2019)
Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677 (2008)
ARTSTOR – For those of us not in Art History, this is an enormous archive of artwork available through many university and municipal libraries
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