Opening Lectures from the RaceB4Race Symposium
In September 2019, the Folger Institute and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies co-sponsored an extraordinary gathering at the Folger Shakespeare Library to explore the history of the ways we understand "race"—in all of its meanings. The focus of the "Race and Periodization" symposium was the relationship between race and historical periods; it is part of the #RaceB4Race initiative, which launched in January 2019 at Arizona State University.
The event started with remarks by Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University, followed by a pair of opening lectures by Geraldine Heng, Perceval Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Project, and Margo Hendricks, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz.
About the "Race and Periodization" symposium
Medievalists and early modernists have long grappled with the meaning and use of their own historical period designations and the nature of periodization. This symposium explored how critical race theory can enable new insights about, approaches to, and critiques of periodization. Critical race theory, situated in both historical and contemporary disciplines, necessarily challenges assumptions about historical knowledge, theoretical borders, and scholarly dissemination and impact. It thus offers the exciting potential to revolutionize academic periodization in medieval and early modern studies.
In addition to the opening speakers, the conference included other scholars of history, literature, and other disciplines. Speakers who led individual sessions included Dennis Britton (University of New Hampshire), Ruben Espinosa, (University of Texas at El Paso), Michael Gomez (New York University), Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington & Lee University), Carol Mejia LaPerle (Wright State University), Su Fang Ng (Virginia Tech), Mary Rambaran-Olm (Independent Scholar), and Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota).
Michael Witmore is the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. His books include Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare, with Rosamond Purcell (W.W. Norton, 2010), Shakespearean Metaphysics (Continuum, 2009), Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance (Cornell University Press, 2007), Childhood and Children’s Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550-1800 (Routledge, 2006), and Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledge in Early Modern England (Stanford University Press, 2001).
Ayanna Thompson is the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. Her recent books include Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars (Arden Shakespeare, 2018), Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose (Arden Shakespeare, 2016), and Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford University Press, 2011). Thompson is also featured in multiple episodes of the Folger's Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, including Shakespeare in Black and White, Othello and Blackface, and Understanding Peter Sellars.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Hello and good evening. I am here to say welcome and to introduce this evening’s doings. I’m Michael Witmore. I’m the director of the Folger, and it is my pleasure to, in partnership with Arizona State University, welcome you to the opening night of RaceB4Race.
I just wanted to say a few words about what this particular conference means to this institution. First, look around this room. This is the setup of this room for maximum intellectual intensity. And there’s a reason for that, because the conversations that are generated around race, Shakespeare, and early modern studies have a kind of intensity that we need.
I was asked this week to talk about why the humanities are important. There are a lot of reasons why. If you wanted to argue the opposite, if you wanted to say why the humanities are worthless, you would say that they have nothing to say about race and the history of racism, because those two topics get us into the lived history of then and now, and a writer like Shakespeare is someone who wrote about race, but who did so in a world that was just figuring that out.
The intellectual intensity of this gathering, I welcome. The voices, the sustaining voices that are in this room—incredible.
When this institution opened in 1932, the president of the United States and his wife were outside, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was in the audience, and then, not yet director, but the soon-to-be director of the Folger, Joseph Quincy Adams, gave a speech about what he thought the future of this institution would be. And one of the things that he said was that the Folger would be here to ensure the purity of "Anglo-Saxon culture" in an age of immigration. [LAUGHTER]
It doesn’t surprise me to hear the language of white supremacy at a moment when those people were gathered in this place, and, as the leader of the institution, we need to live the opposite truth of that moment. This is the conference that Joseph Quincy Adams hoped would never happen. [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] And guess what? It’s happening, and we’re going there.
The last line on my remarks here—they’re very brief. I have written here: "Continual provocation, dot, dot, dot, Ayanna Thompson."
One of the amazing things about these conversations that you are a part of is that you can still be astonished by what it’s possible to say and think. Ayanna, in an NPR show called Code Switch, was talking about Shakespeare’s plays, and she made a really provocative assertion. She said there are three plays that simply should not be performed: Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew.
And that thought led me to try to imagine a world in which we did not read or perform Shakespeare for five years. What would happen? Well, it might be interesting, but one thing I know is that in those five years we would lose the opportunity to talk about issues that are vital to us and vital to you, and it’s one of the reasons why Shakespeare is indispensable for these conversations.
And so, we’re not about to go on a Shakespeare holiday. We’re about to talk more. But I look forward to the conversations here. I want to thank our guests who’ve come. I want to thank all of you.
To see a crowd going to the very back of this reading room to come for a conversation about the history of race in Shakespeare is inspiring, and as we at the Folger try to build a more public, a more relevant, a more inclusive institution, this conversation will inform the culture and experience that we are building. You, specifically, are vital to the way we will think about our future as an institution. I’m very grateful for that.
And now, I’d like to introduce Professor Ayanna Thompson, also the director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University, who will introduce our guests.
AYANNA THOMPSON: Yay. Smart, field changing, terrifying, fierce, and fun are a few of the adjectives that our speakers tonight share. It’s not an overstatement to declare that both Geraldine Heng and Margo Hendricks have changed the fields of medieval and early modern studies irrevocably. Because of Margo Hendricks, one cannot approach early modern literature, history, or culture without an intersectional lens that includes race, and because of Geraldine Heng, one cannot approach medieval literature, history, or culture without an intersectional lens that includes race in a global perspective.
It is an honor and a privilege to have these two titans on stage together tonight. It is a momentous occasion to have two titans on stage who are both women of color, and it is a game-changing moment to have these two titans on stage together addressing race in premodern studies as a whole.
Geraldine Heng is Perceval Professor at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of three award-winning books, and actually, she just received yesterday another award for The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. It has been awarded the 2019 Book Award from the American Academy of Religion. Congratulations! And she is the founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Project.
She is currently working on a new book project, Early Globalities: The Interconnected World, 500–1500 CE, and an edited collection for the MLA on teaching the global Middle Ages and is co-editing a new book series for Cambridge Elements on the global Middle Ages. Her talk tonight is “Defining Race, Periodizing Race.”
Margo Hendricks is professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz. She has written on race, women, Aphra Behn, and Shakespeare in performance. At the instigation of Professor Kim Hall, she’s embarking on an academic memoir that has a secret title, and it explores not just her relationship to the academy, but the idea of being a black Shakespearean, a black woman, and a black American. She is also at work on a study of the contemporary romance industry and black women writers, and she actually writes romance novels under the name Elysabeth Grace. Her talk tonight is “Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race.”
Welcome, both speakers, to the stage.
Geraldine Heng — Defining Race, Periodizing Race
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Margo Hendricks — Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race
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