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 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).
Listen to the Welcoming Remarks and Introductions
Ayanna Thompson and Michael Witmore
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 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).
Read the transcript
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.
Listen to the opening lectures
Geraldine Heng, “Defining Race, Periodizing Race”
Geraldine Heng is Perceval Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is professor of English and comparative literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and women’s studies. She is also the founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Projects. Her books include England and the Jews: How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West (Cambridge University Press, 2018), The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (Columbia University Press, 2003).
Read the transcript
GERALDINE HENG: Soon after a pilgrim militia from the Latin West captured Jerusalem in 1099—in what we now call the First Crusade—Guibert Nogent, the learned abbot of Nogent sous Coucy, wrote a chronicle of the Latin occupation from his perch in 12th-century France. Jubilantly, he calls the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem a new colony (novae coloniae) of Christendom, invoking the Roman Empire as predecessor in whose footsteps the Latin West would now follow in its own military adventures.
However, Guibert’s evocation of Roman colonization as the template for Christian colonization marks not just historical continuity, as he supposes, but also a historical break. His chronicle—the Gesta Dei per Francos (the deeds of God through (the medium of) the Franks)—registers that break: God, now, is the author of the colonial enterprise, and Christianity is the authorizing discourse for invasion and occupation.
Medieval colonialism, we see, is thus neocolonialism: religion in the form of Christianity has inserted a difference between two eras of colonization, creolizing the old template of the Roman Empire so that a new colonial vernacular, a medieval vernacular, is produced. This creolized medieval vernacular will prove indispensable to all the later European colonizers: Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Spanish that would arrive around the world, not like Rome, but like Christendom, wielding the sword and the book to found their own Christian-colored empires in the modern era.
We see from this simple example the importance of defining the meaning of historical phenomena accurately, as instantiations from one era are ported over to another era and repeated, but never repeated identically as before, and always with difference. The allegory of naming and difference here helps us to think about race in transhistorical terms.
So, what is “race,” and how do we define “race” as a transhistorical category? Scholars of literature, history, and art struggled for a long time with the concept of race. Like other concepts, theorized by those who study modern eras, such as Orientalism, race has seemed to some like a theoretical imposition ported backward from the present into deep historical time. So, premodernists grappling with phenomena that looked distinctly racist or Orientalist have, in the past, resorted to a vocabulary of deference to modernity, naming their phenomena “proto-racial” or “proto-Orientalist” instead and favoring a vocabulary of greater generality and greater amiability. Instead of “race,” we’ve had “ethnicity,” “alterity,” or “otherness.” Instead of “racism,” we’ve had “ethnocentrism,” “discrimination,” “prejudice,” or just dislike of “otherness and difference.”
The absence of trenchant tools, analytic resources, and a vocabulary adequate to the task at hand thus made it impossible to acknowledge the magnitude of the racial phenomena, racial institutions, and racial practices that occurred in the European Middle Ages long before terminology stamped with the word “race” had formally coalesced in the Latin West.
When the Jewish minority in England were tagged with badges, herded into towns with a surveillance system to monitor their livelihoods, imprisoned for coinage offenses, judicially murdered by the state for the trumped-up lie that they mutilated and crucified Christian children, slaughtered by Christian mobs, targeted for conversion by the state, taxed to the point of penury, subjected to a branch of government specially created for their surveillance, and then finally deported from England in the last exploitation of their usefulness—when so totalizing a racial apparatus is marshalled against a minority group, a label of “premodern prejudice” hardly suffices as a descriptor of the dimensions of horror endured. I’ve argued that, in fact, England’s Jews lived under the conditions of a racial state, the first racial state in the history of the West.
Racial biomarkers were attributed to Jewish bodies: a special stench, a facial physiognomy, even horns and a tail. Jewish men were said to bleed congenitally like menstruating women, stigmatized as conspiring with the Antichrist. Charges of bestiality, blasphemy, diabolism, deicide, vampirism, and cannibalism were laid at the door of Jews in the countries of Europe. Many of the biopolitics of how this minority group was characterized, as just anxiety over “alterity,” hardly begins to address the abjection stigmatizing of the bodies of this medieval race in the Latin West.
Studying the archives of premodern and early modern Europe with the tools of critical race theory surfaces recognition of other atrocities. The people we call the Romani, who emerged from northwestern Europe in the 11th century and migrated westward, were enslaved by the monasteries and boyars of southeastern Europe from the late Middle Ages well into the high modern era. Until these diasporic peoples were finally manumitted in the 19th century, “gypsy” was the name of a despised slave race.
Trans-Saharan Africans were depicted in visual art as merciless torturers of Christ and killers of John the Baptist. A tympanum on the north portal of the west façade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen depicts the malevolent execution of John, with his arm menacingly raised and brandishing a sword, as a phenotypic Black African. The 13th century abounds with images like this in architecture, sculpture, and illuminations.
The encyclopedia by Bartholomeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, offers a conventional theory of climate inherited from antiquity in which cold lands produce White folk and hot lands produce Black. White being, we are told, a marker of inner courage, while the men of Africa, possessing Black faces, short bodies, and crisp hair, are “cowards of heart” and “guileful.”
Cantiga 186 of Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, commissioned by Alfonso X of Spain, has an illustration in six scenes in which a blackface Moor is found in bed with his fair mistress. Both are condemned to the flames, but the fair lady is saved by the Virgin Mary herself. Black is damned, White is saved. Black is also the color of demons and devils and the color of sin, allowing Saint Jerome, the patriarch, to doom Ethiopia as the land of sinners. Is cultural production of this kind just “proto-racial”?
The killing fields of international war furnish another crucible of racial formation. Bernard de Clairvaux, the theologian who cowrote the Latin Rule of Templars, pronounces in his treatise De laude novae militiae that the slaughter of Muslims didn’t constitute homicide, the killing of humans, but merely malicide, the extermination of incarnated evil. Muslims were not just vile, abominable, and a curse, as Pope Urban II, instigator of the First Crusade, had said; they were not to be seen as human beings at all, but as evil personified. St. Bernard thus saw no difficulty in calling for calculated genocide to extirpate from the face of the Earth these enemies of the Christian name: Extirpandos de terra christiani nominis inimicos.
In 2011, I thus proposed a stripped-down, basic, minimum working hypothesis of race that goes like this: Race is one of the primary names we have—a name we retain for the epistemological, ethical, and political commitments it recognizes—for a repeating tendency, of the greatest import, to demarcate human beings through differences that are selectively essentialized as absolute and fundamental, so as to distribute positions and powers differentially to the human groups.
It’s kind of a long mouthful, isn’t it? Yeah, okay. Okay.
Race-making operates as historical occasions in which strategic essentialisms are posited and assigned through a variety of practices and pressures to constitute a hierarchy of peoples for differential treatment. Race is thus a structural relationship for the management of human differences—a mechanism of sorting—rather than a substantive content.
The differences selected for essentialism will vary in the longue durée of human history, perhaps fastening on bodies, physiognomy, and somatic differences in one instance; perhaps on social practices, religion, or culture in another instance; and perhaps a multiplicity of interlocking discourses elsewhere. Biology and the sociocultural are thus not bifurcated spheres in race formation: they crisscross in the practices, institutions, and laws, operationalized on the bodies and lives of individuals and groups.
So, my book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, discusses racial thinking, racial acts, racial laws, racial institutions, and racist phenomena across a range of registers and crucibles, invasion and occupation, nation formation and state formation, political theology, mercantile capitalism, holy war, settler colonization, economic adventurism, empire formation, contact and encounter, slavery, consolidation of universal Christendom, and epistemic change. I said all of that just for Jerry Singerman, who is in the audience, so that he knows that the kinds of projects we do are interdisciplinary projects. The book treats Jews and Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Mongols, the Romani, and also White Christian Europeans as ethnoracial constituencies of the medieval era. You hear that, Jerry?
Today, I focus on examples of racial dialect, racial logic, and racial strategies that repeat the difference across periodization, using examples largely not treated in the book to suggest the persistence of a transformational grammar of race from premodernity into the modern period. I also stress the importance of registering differences between periods and eras. For example, while Roman colonization, medieval colonialism, and the European maritime empires of the modern eras deploy ethnoracial strategies, as their forces march across their known worlds, their differences also require recognition. Slavery, an institution closely associated with racial formation, has also had varied configurations and meanings across macro history, hence this conference. Periodization matters. Racial logic, racial form, racial dialect, the transformational grammar of race across time.
Theories of climate, Denise McCoskey attests, constitute a repeating arsenal in the amassing of racial dialect. As early as the fifth century BCE, the infamous essay, “Airs, Waters, and Places,” attributed to Hippocrates, already offers a fully fledged racial logic of climate, environment, and geography as grounds that predispose fundamental differences among humans from which group character can be assigned to differentiate between the inhabitants of continents.
In the Middle Ages, encyclopedias like De proprietatibus rerum visually incorporated theories of racial character and behavior based on climate, geography, and physiognomies of bodily humors and temperaments thought to devolve from climate and geography.
In modernity, environmental and geographic determinism prove indispensable for colonialism. India was subjugated because its climate made the natives “fatalistic” and “supine,” thus easy to colonize, whereas “the bracing weather of northern Europe . . . produced a dynamic race, fit for conquest and exploration.” You can tell that’s a quote, yeah? Plantation slavery, too, benefited from climate theory:
In the . . . American South. . . [the fact] that Africans could . . . endure [slave] labor . . . was proof positive . . . that different climates had moulded the races differently . . . Africans were . . . better acclimated to hot climates. [These are quotations from Denise McCoskey.]
Theories of religion, in the long history of Christianity, with its schisms, heresies, reform movements, and breakaway formations—and the insistence that there can be only one Christianity in the singular, not diverse Christianities—also created a slippery, tenacious logic that has configured religio-racial formation across medieval and modern time.
Heretics—defined as anyone whose faith deviated from dogma—were persecuted in Europe in inquisitions, tortured, branded, tagged with badges, and hundreds, if not thousands, executed. Did “heretics” harden into a virtual race at specific historical junctures in the Latin West? The apparatus of heresy is deployed in signal instances of persecution and abjection: from the trials of the Order of the Temple in France, to the execution of Joan of Arc, heresy is operationalized as a preferred mechanism of sorting by which the Latin West cast out, condemned, and put to death.
Popular movements of “heretical” Albigenses and Cathars evolved into the targets of holy war, as if they had been Muslims. At Béziers, where they were massacred in droves during the Albigensian crusade—by one account, 20,000 were slaughtered—the papal legate is said to have called for all to be killed, leaving to God the business of sorting out the victims. Putative heretics were hounded and persecuted in inquisitions from the 13th century until long past the end of the medieval period, with torture, exile, and execution being some of the favored outcomes.
The history of the febrile internal divisions that conduced to the demonization of an otherwise non-physiologically differentiable population for the production of absolute intrareligious differences does not end. In the early modern era, the internecine war between Protestants and Catholics within a single nation, England, suggests an intractable historical continuity in the instrumentality of religion for the discovery of intractable differences.
But periodization in race matters. Reading race transhistorically, however, requires acknowledging differences in the character of racial institutions in different eras. Periodization matters, and slavery is a key example. In the medieval period, slavery was an equal opportunity condition for all races and assumed a variety of forms. The slavery endured by the Romani in Wallachia and Moldavia spanned centuries, but Romani, domestic, and field slavery differed greatly from Egypt’s Mamluk military slavery, which also spanned centuries.
For the Mamluks—a military elite comprising primarily Turkic and Circassian slave boys, who were plucked from continental Eurasia and raised as professional soldiers—the sultan of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria could only be drawn from the ranks of former slaves. For this most powerful Islamic polity of the southern Mediterranean and Levant over three centuries, until the ascendency of the Ottomans, the requirement of having once been a slave was an indispensable condition of eligibility for the highest office in the land.
Prized female Caucasian slaves in Islamic Spain, al-Andalus, or in the Levant could rise to become the revered mothers of caliphs, sultans, and emirs—or, in the case of the remarkable Shajar ad-Durr (Tree of Pearls), to become the only Mamluka in the three-century history of the Mamluk dynasties. In Dar al-Islam, extraordinary social mobility meant that being a slave could be an important first step to power, wealth, and status, an avenue of upward mobility, importantly open to women. This is not the case for plantation slaves in the later American South.
Premodern slavery is thus distinct from early modern and modern slavery, and distinct also from the mutating forms of slavery (including child and sex trafficking) that dog the 21st century. Caucasians—eastern and western Europeans—were sold at slave markets alongside other races throughout the Middle Ages. Household slaves were common and typical in premodernity. Plantation and field slaves, less attested. In the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade, slaves could become trusted commercial agents acting on behalf of absentee merchants, and, outside the lands of Christendom, manumitted slaves might become generals, admirals, diplomats, governors, and rulers.
The sheer variety of medieval slavery’s conditions and opportunities thus attest to very specific differences within the medieval period, as well as between the medieval and later periods in the phenomena characterizing the institution of slavery. In discussions of race, distinctions of this kind must be honored with acknowledgement that periods can be marked by institutions and phenomena that reoccur, but reoccur with varied expressions over the longue durée, because periodization matters.
This is not to say, of course, that racialized groups in populations cannot be studied for their historical continuities within a transformational grammar of race across macrohistorical time. Africans, the Romani, Jews, and Muslims all constitute racialized populations whose treatment variegates over time with racial instrumentalities being renewed, adjusted, adapted, or transformed. Religious dogma, over the centuries, also conduced to the devolution of absolute differences so that co-religionists can be cast out and treated like a virtual race across the centuries.
In demonstrating the persistence of racialization across historical periods, my last example are the Cagots: abject communities of people living on the outskirts of towns and villages on both sides of the western Pyrenees throughout Béarn, Aquitaine, Navar, and the Toulousain. These impoverished, subaltern Christians were not physically or linguistically differentiable from the townspeople on whose margins they lived. Yet their stigmatization extends over deep historical time, from the 10th century through the 18th century, and accrued a variety of racial forms.
Daniel Hawkins’s 2014 master’s thesis, Chimeras That Degrade Humanity: The Cagots and Discrimination, traces how Cagots—who were called by a variety of names—were shunned, despised, and abhorred from medieval into modern time. Legislation from the 13th to 17th century segregates them into residential quarters and occupations and constricted their day-to-day behavior and movements. Hawkins shows how they were banned from taverns and denied the use of public fountains, forbidden to sell food or wine or touch food in the marketplace, forbidden to work with livestock or carry arms or walk barefoot, and, though they were Christian, also forbidden the sacraments.
Cagots could not marry outside their kind, and they had to keep to designated places in church, while they were alive. As late as 1721, a carpenter and his son were roughed up in a church in Beirut by three municipal counselors who refused to allow them their choice of seats. Segregation continued even after their death. Their bodies were confined to designated places in cemeteries. They had to wear a badge of red cloth on their chest, sometimes in the shape of a duck or goose foot, and were subject to endless punitive laws.
Their racialization also took biopolitical form; they were said to lack earlobes, to possess an infectious smell, and to give off great heat. “When the salt wind blew, their lips, jugular glands, and the duck foot . . . under their left armpit all swelled, and their stench was well-known.” (This is a quotation from Hawkins.) The early modern period did not see a change in their subaltern status. In 1629, André du Chesne wrote of
a people commonly called capots and gahets that everyone detests like lepers, with stinking breath. All are carpenters or coopers, the remains of the race of Giezi, or some say the Albigeois heretics, separated from the community by their homes in life and in the cemetery after death. [Another quote from Hawkins.]
Many of the rules setting the Cagots apart from everyone else seem obsessed with them as sources of pollution and contamination, a phenomenon that scholars who study the Dalit or untouchables of India and those who study leprosy would find familiar.
Explanations abound for why the Cagots were reviled and cast out from society. Perhaps they once formed groups shunned for leprosy—Hansen’s disease—and it was fear of infection or the moralizing of lepers as sinners damned by God that caused their original segregation, and the stigma then just continued to be attached to their descendants over many generations. Symbolizing depravity, lepers were also associated with heresy, R. I. Moore tells us. Lepers were expelled from cities like Paris—in 1321, 1371, 1388, 1394, 1402, and 1403—and were also massacred. Following rumors of a poisoning plot in 1321, one chronicler says “they were burned in almost all of France.”
Or, another explanation goes, Cagots may have been the descendants of Muslims, and the memory of their origins as infidels persisted across time. Or they had been the poor of Christ, pauperes Christi, the wretched who had to scratch out an impoverished living. Hawkins finds that 15th-century records even insinuated Cagots were somehow related to Jews, another community of racial subalterns who had to wear a badge and were stigmatized by punitive laws.
The association of Cagots with leprosy alerts us to how disease and disability produced bodily configurations that were moralized, judged, and abhorred. Even the monstrous races of Plinian tradition—another inheritance from antiquity, one that created a conceptual grid through which the Middle Ages understood other types of monsters like Jews, Muslims, and Ethiopians—even the monstrous races seemed uncannily to resemble deformed or disabled humans. Their bodies are too large, too stunted, too sexually overdetermined by their genitals, or missing a leg or an eye, or had corporeal features located in the wrong places.
Disabled and non-normative bodies do seem to form the basis of the caricatures that constitute the monstrous races of tradition, among whom the Cagots—who might once have been lepers, or disabled, or diseased, or the abject poor, or Muslims, or Romani, or Jews—are a historical example of a population deemed monstrous and abhorrent for reasons not of their own making.
The example of the Cagots, along with that of Africans, Muslims, the Romani, Jews, deviant Christians, and even imagined human monsters, shows us that the infrastructure of racial formation in deep historical time repeatedly intersected with, and was dependent on, infrastructures of class, disease, disability, gender, sexuality, and religion. These were the conditions through which race was articulated, and they furnished the particular forms of racial expression in a variety of contexts.
Is it any wonder that race and racisms have been so long-lived?
Margo Hendricks, “Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race”
Margo Hendricks is professor emerita of literature at UC Santa Cruz. She is the co-editor of Women, ‘Race,’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period, with Patricia Parker (Routledge, 1993) and the author of many journal articles. Her current works in progress are an academic memoir and Heliodorus’ Daughters: Black Women and the Romance Industry. She writes romance fiction as Elysabeth Grace.
Read the transcript
MARGO HENDRICKS: Okay, I have permission to do this. [LAUGHTER] Y’all thought I was joking? [PLAYS SHORT CLIP OF “CALIFORNIA LOVE” BY 2PAC FT. DR. DRE] All right. Michael’s never going to invite me back to the Folger! [LAUGHTER]
First of all, I want to thank all of you for being here. I’m a little nervous, because it’s been a while since I gave a talk, and the last one I did—and I have no pockets, and please, somebody, let’s start really seriously giving women pockets—the last time I gave a talk, it was supposed to be my farewell to Shakespeare studies. It was a rough time. I did not care for the direction that I saw the field going, and I’m one of those individuals, if I don’t like something, I say it, and then I disappear. Unfortunately, there were certain people who didn’t allow the disappearance.
This talk is called “Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race.” For anyone who doesn’t know me, you will quickly discover I have no filters. Well, maybe one or two left. My academic career on paper has been successful, though I haven’t written or published an academic article in years, which makes me either uninvested or an ancestor. Because I write romance novels, I’m going with the latter. Consider me your ancestor.
However, before I claim ancestral privilege, I want to share. Who I am in the academy falls squarely on the shoulders of the following people, and this is in no particular order, so: Kim Hall, Arthur Little, Ayanna Thompson, Joyce Green MacDonald, Francesca Royster, Elder Jones, Anthony Barthelemy, Imtiaz Habib, Patricia Parker, Geraldine Heng, Peter Fryer, Peter Stallybrass, Hayden White, Harry Berger, Michael Warren, Don Wayne, Karl Marx, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, Perry Anderson, Stuart Hall, Terence Hawkes, and, most of all, Zeola Culpepper Jones, my great-grandmother whose father was born enslaved. She was not. So, you can either blame them or sing their accolades for the fact that I’m standing here. I much prefer you do the latter. In other words, cite, cite, cite.
In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was Race
In the only essay I will unapologetically go, “Damn, that was good,” I wrote:
Somehow, giving our silent mestizo the voice [and the “silent mestizo,” if you don’t recall the essay, which is Midsummer Night’s Dream “Obscured by Dream,“ was the Indian boy]—Somehow, giving our silent mestizo the voice of another mestizo, rather than that of an academic like myself, seems fitting. The words of this half-Scottish/half-Irish changeling stand as a vivid reminder that it is in the “antique fables,” the “fairy toys” produced in the colonizing dreams of Europeans, that the “shaping fantasies” of modern imperialism began. These words are a reminder that it will be the mestizos—the racialized descendants of those who framed the lexicon and practices of modern imperialism—who, in dealing with it, will write the final epilogue to the shaping fantasy of race.
This essay followed upon the heels of Women, Race, and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Of this book, I’m inordinately proud. It is a reflection of what I wanted to achieve as an early modern Shakespeare studies colonizer. The book was never intended solely for literary dialogue. Its purpose was to initiate conversations among and between academics working on race and gender in the early modern period. The absence of male contributors was deliberate. I believe Pat Parker and I succeeded with that book.
In 1997, I organized a University of California Humanities Research Institute residential research group, entitled “Theorizing Race in Pre- and Early Modern Contexts.” This group was made up of classics, medieval, and early modern academics. Now, 20 years later, I’ve been invited to speak about historical periods, race, and bridging a divide. What I learned from the members of the residency group: There is no divide.
There is, however, a problematic rupture worth exploration. For the purpose of this conversation, I’m going to refer to it as the “White settler colonizing” of “premodern critical race studies.” I’m also going to insist that we make a distinction between “premodern race studies” (PRS)—or “priss,” I can’t do this with the next acronym, so I’m sorry, I don’t have one—and “premodern critical race studies” (PCRS).
PRS is the practice of approaching race studies as if “you’ve just discovered the land.” Practitioners ignore the preexisting inhabitants of the land or, if PRS scholars deign to acknowledge the land is inhabited, it’s viewed as uncultivated and must be done so properly.
In this body of work, all evidence (or nearly all of the evidence) of the work done to nurture and make productive the land is ignored or briefly alluded to. In other words, the ancestry is erased. No articulation of the complex genealogy that produced premodern critical race studies exists, which in turn, drew these academic “settlers,” and I am calling them “settlers,” to premodern race. And just like capitalist “White settler colonialism,” PRS fails to acknowledge the scholarly ancestry (the genealogy) that continues to inhabit and nurture the critical process for the study of premodern race.
As Patrick Wolfe cogently reminds us, White “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” It is not an invasion, so much as it is a structural event, driven by “the logic of elimination.” Much of the theoretical and analytical critiques that form anti-settler colonialism are framed around indigeneity, which admittedly complicates the centrality of the notion of anti-Blackness being the center of “race” in the premodern period and what it means for premodern critical race studies. For the moment, I want to highlight—and I want to shift our gaze away from anti-Blackness—and I want to highlight why I link PRS to White settler colonialism and why it needs to go.
White Settler Colonizing in Premodern Race Studies
I want to suggest, I want to declare, “White settler colonialist” thinking is integral to premodern race studies. Why? Because “Whiteness” is centralized in PRS as the privileged narrative creep. PRS relegates its critical race studies’ ancestry to a citational entry, buried in a lengthy footnote, surrounded by scholarly Whiteness. This creeping Whiteness mediates the narrative by insisting on the sanctity of White-centric ideologies, genres, and, of course, the privilege of engagement: who gets cited, who doesn’t. Using this creep, anyone can wear the mantle of premodern race studies. What this individual fails to see in such practices is the ways PRS intersects with the ideologies of White supremacy, and PRS’s insistence on what Lehua Yim describes as the “arrogance of assumption” embedded in the inclusive “we.” Let me just take a minute and thank Lehua, because that woman talked me through some stuff. She’s friggin’ amazing. All right? That’s all I’m going to say. I love her.
This “we” envisions itself acting inclusively, engaged in the political work of furthering premodern race studies by structuring race as an event. Okay, I’m going here, Michael. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the blurb for Stephen Greenblatt’s led edX online course, “Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor.” I’m going dramatic on you here, okay? And this is the blurb, or part of it:
In this course, we will read Shakespeare’s Othello and discuss the play from a variety of perspectives. The goal of the course is not to cover everything that has been written on Othello. Rather, it is to find a single point of entry [I’m a romance writer, and when I read that line, Lord, I was about to run with it]—Rather, it is to find a single point of entry to help us think about the play as a whole. Our entry point is storytelling. . . . From lectures filmed on-location in Venice, London, and Stratford-upon-Avon to conversations with artists, academics, and librarians at Harvard, students will have an unprecedented access to a range of resources for “unlocking” Shakespeare’s classic play.
Greenblatt’s online course typifies, in my opinion, a classic, “White settler colonialist” move. Through the “logic of elimination,” this course de-centers the theoretical, historical, and analytical work done by premodern critical race theorists and scholars, none of whom, to my knowledge, are at Harvard. In effect, by focusing on the play as a matter of “storytelling” and framing it as a filmic piece—if you haven’t seen this, I can only take 45 minutes, but it was filmed—Greenblatt ensures that the spectatorial gaze is always White centered (“eyes on me”) and Othello’s sovereignty is consumed so that his race is always received as a structural event, rather than a structural process. A structural event. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat—over and over again.
There is a deep connective tissue between a resurgence of White supremacy and fascist discourse at present and the “White settler” colonizing that informs PRS, a connection which reinforces the underlying belief systems inherent in White supremacy—perhaps out of ignorance for PRS, perhaps not. In both cases, anti-Blackness sits as a peculiar litmus test for who does or who doesn’t do PRS. On the one hand, PRS sees the value of race as anti-Blackness, and therefore will turn Othello, Aaron, Caliban, and Ithamore [editor: from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta] into an “I am woke to premodern race studies” badge to wear. The problem with such wokeness is that generally, though not always, it fails to turn inward.
Rarely do these individuals ask of themselves: How does my discursively arguing for Othello’s emasculation, Ithamore and Aaron’s vengeful turns, Caliban’s de-humanization sustain a White supremist ideology? In what ways can I think about these characters independent of a gendered Whiteness, of White supremacy, of White settler colonialism? What if, instead of anti-Blackness, I consider these characters from a critical lens of anti-Whiteness? In other words, what if I disengage from my White privilege?
Not asking these questions shows how deeply White settler colonialism and its logic of elimination are implicated in the direction premodern race studies has taken over the past decade or so. Those of you who heard me kind of do this riff at SAA [Shakespeare Association of America] 2011, this is a little bit more sophisticated. Don’t get me wrong, race equaling anti-Blackness is still a jumping-off point for, I think, premodern critical race studies. We need to not let go of that. However, within PRS, race has come to be used as a structuring event for gender, lineage (or blood), nation, and class without any attention to skin color or indigeneity. As an ancestor, I own my responsibility in these acts of diffusion. Some of my publications do lend themselves to this type of “race signifies ______” and you fill in the blank. However, what always stood behind my writings was the belief that colonialism/imperialism, capitalism, and White sovereignty were handfast. They were wedded.
When we fall into the trap of trying to pinpoint the “actual first use of race” as a definitional or critical device, we inevitably fall into White supremacist discourse. When we make anti-Blackness the pivotal narrative, we elide the anti-Indigenous strategies woven into White supremacy’s insistence on anti-Blackness. It’s actually a very good strategy on the part of capitalism and its colonial arm. White settler colonialism happens through the mind. The enslaved Indigenous peoples removed from the continent of Africa were the first to undergo the horrors of colonization. White settler colonialism stripped the enslaved of their right to sovereignty as a capitalist experiment. An experiment that involved the destruction of a relationship to land, a relationship to community, and a relationship to the idea of sovereignty itself. By elevating the idea of individuality, a fundamental tenet of premodern and modern capitalism, and by stripping Indigenous peoples of their relationship to the means of production—you hear my anti-historical materialism work in here—their labor, and most importantly, land, White settler colonialism ensured that not only descendants of the enslaved, but all Indigenous peoples, remained locked in a capitalist experiment.
This experiment is what PRS fails to see, when the storytelling narrative is about “anti-Blackness” and not about White settler colonialism and its “anti-Indigeneity.” I told you this was going to be short.
Premodern Critical Race Studies
Someone asked me, “What does that mean?” [LAUGH] “I don’t know.” So I thought about it. So what does PCRS look like? I have no idea, except it’s not PRS in its current iteration. I do want to suggest, as part of the larger critical race theory practice and practices, PCRS actively pursues not only the study of race in the premodern, not only the way in which periods helped to define, demarcate, tear apart, and bring together the study of race in the premodern era, but the way that outcome, the way those studies can effect a transformation of the academy and its relationship to our world. PCRS is about being a public humanist. It’s about being an activist.
Unlike PRS, PCRS resists the study of race as a single, somatic event (skin color, in most cases) and insists that race be seen in terms of a socioeconomic process (colonialism). What truly distinguishes PCRS from PRS, of course, is the bidirectional gaze, the one that looks inward even as it looks outward. As bell hooks observed, “spaces of agency exist . . . wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see. The gaze has been and is a site of resistance for colonized . . . people globally.”
I want to argue that PCRS entails, or requires, both an oppositional and an insider definitional gaze. That like the term “Indigenous,” PCRS is strategic and political. It recognizes the analytical gaze’s capacity to define the premodern as a multiethnic system of competing sovereignties. PCRS will resist PRS’s tendency to make the study of race something akin to ecotourism (a passive-aggressive form of White settler colonialism). PCRS is an intellectual, political, and public interrogation of capitalism’s capacious erasure of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, whether in the Americas, the Pacific islands, Asia, or the African continent.
PCRS is the work of humanists/activists who recognize that the kinetic importance of their work is not strolling through Venice, posturing your PRS creds, but finding ways to destabilize the academy’s role in furthering capitalism’s use of White supremacy to sustain itself. That’s what PCRS does.
PCRS also recognizes and acknowledges its genealogies. It celebrates that lineage—citation—and it uses it “to dismantle the master’s house” since the master’s tools are ineffective.
I’m going to end now.
This is an epilogue. Since I’m both an academic and a romance writer, I will end with something I wrote years ago.
Willoughby Plantation, Barbadoes 1649
The young girl sat at the feet of her Black nurse, entranced as the woman’s aged fingers moved swiftly and certainly through the cane husks, bringing to life a past nearly forgotten. “Tell me once more, Nana. Tell me about the Negress Maria.”
“In the veins of the Negress Maria flowed the blood of kings. Both she and her sister (who was called Phillipa), were taken as young girls, no older than you. Maria was perhaps fifteen. The Spaniard who stole her kept her as his mistress. Her beauty then bewitched an Englishman. It was he who taught her the secrets of love and hate. Francis Drake, the Dragon,” the old woman spat.
The woman stroked the girl’s dark hair. “Drake fathered Francisco, your mother’s grandsire, on the Negress Maria then left her to die on an island with no women to care for her. None to bring the babe into the world. They lived, mother and child. They lived. Francisco was always a wild seed, not African like his mother but not English like his father. The Spanish called him Mulattos, little mules. He was of that temper. When an English ship came to the island to take on food and water, Francisco persuaded the captain to take him on. Maria’s son worked hard for the merciless White man, and when Francisco came to England he left the barbaric captain and went in search of his father. Alas, it was not to be. The Dragon was dead. With no mother, no father, no lands, Francisco was lost. Desterrado.”
“Exile,” the child mouthed.
“Exile,” the old woman acknowledged. “His child begat a child and that child begat a child, you, and with each generation, the Negress Maria’s blood grows thinner and Drake’s stronger. Francisco knew that those of his seed would wear the Whiteness of his father and pass among the English as one of them. Before his death, he made his daughter Elizabeth swear to remember his line. His daughter’s daughter was to be called Aphra. For the dark earth that nurtured her ancestors. Aphra, A-P-H-R-A. To remind her that, despite her Whiteness, she was of the land, of Africa, was forever mestizaje, forever desterrado.“
All right, one last comment before I walk away—well, not permanently, because Ayanna won’t let me. Y’all are the next generation. I’m handing it over to you. Don’t come looking for me to be brilliant. Don’t come looking for me to save y’all. Don’t look for me to be theoretical. I’m just going to be me.
Thank you so much.