Welcome to a New Reality! Reflections on the Medieval Academy of America’s Panel: “Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses”

By Nahir Otaño Gracia, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Pennsylvania; and Assistant Professor of Early British Literature, Beloit College, beginning Fall 2018.

With ample help from Medievalists of Color, I organized the “Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses” panel at the annual meeting of the 2018 Medieval Academy of America (MAA), and I wrote proposals for new initiatives to enhance diversity at the MAA.

As I reflect on the 2018 MAA annual meeting and the “Inclusivity and Diversity” panel, I can’t help but think of the conference through the Old Irish term ingnáth, which we often translate as “strange” and “unfamiliar,” but also as “wonderful,” “remarkable,” “unusual.”[1] In Serglige Con Culainn, Lóeg (Cú Chulaind’s charioteer) uses ingnáth to describe the Irish Otherworld.[2] He describes it as “bale ingnad cíar bo gnád”: “wonderful though not unknown” (eDIL).[3] But the range of meaning of that sentence is extensive: why not translate as “unfamiliar but familiar,” “wondrous but well-known,” “strange but customary,” and so on? The conference and the panel were moments of familiarity, innovation, and estrangement. Just like your standard trip to the Otherworld.

The Otherworld seems a wondrous place to those invited and welcomed in, but when heroes such as Lóeg, Cú Chulaind, and Arthur enter uninvited, it can be monstrous (and so can the heroes).[4] And, in many instances, this is how conferences in medieval studies feel to me. I never know if I am welcomed and whether the experience will be a wondrous positive adventure in which I meet colleagues and enhance my own learning, or if I am seen as an intruder and will experience monstrous racist encounters in which I will be treated like a Beserkr that needs to be avoided or appeased at a moment’s notice; and then the conference will feel like I am trapped, surrounded by formidable enemies. I am happy to say that the MAA was very welcoming, I was given funds to be able to go, and I felt that my contributions to the MAA where acknowledged and desired.

But ingnáth is not just about estrangement and unfamiliarity; it also about seeing things you know become transformed into something else entirely. I have been living in Puerto Rico since July of 2017 and Hurricane Maria changed my life in 48 wintry hours (my husband talks about it here). The day before the storm, I sent Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis drafts of the proposals for the initiatives mentioned above (the Inclusivity and Diversity Committee, Belle Da Costa Greene Award, and the Diversity and Inclusivity Travel Grant) because I imagined that the communication systems were going to be unreliable for a while. I was not prepared for zero contact for the first few weeks, four and a half months without electricity, and the constant loss of phone and internet signal that continues to impact us.

Nevertheless, going to Atlanta, to a hotel full of medievalists, seemed so much stranger than the changed landscape of my Puerto Rico. Going to a medieval conference where the CARA plenary talk was titled “Medieval Responses to Natural Disasters” was more like the Otherworld than experiencing a natural disaster, even if listening to the paper about medieval floods caused me to flash back to trying to stop water from pouring into my home while 37 weeks pregnant. I felt a sense of kinship with one particular description, from a medieval source, of the destruction that flooded rivers can cause. In Atlanta, I felt myself to be in the Otherworld—a place strange and familiar but not real, an illusion. I felt strange and unfamiliar: the MAA was an Otherworld, but friends and colleagues everywhere were asking about my wellbeing and were worried about my family.

Strangely enough, the framing of the MAA Diversity and Inclusivity panel itself exemplifies this duality. Throughout the panel, I introduced my colleagues who would then stand and give their papers. The panelists and I were sitting down on a long table, and on the background an image was displayed on a screen. The image portrays a woman running at the beach; it is the exact same one in my own computer screen at home. I have never been front and center of such a well-attended event, and yet it was framed by an image I look at every day, as if the attendants of the panel could see what I see every day. Wonderful though not unknown, indeed!

(Picture of me introducing the Inclusivity and Diversity Panel at the 2018 MAA with image of women running at the beach.)


The conference organizers described the panel as innovative, the first of its kind in MAA history, and suggested that part of the innovation of the panel is that it reminds the MAA membership, especially the old guard, that medievalists are human. That we are not just scholars; we are human. The pronouncement was meant to encompass all of the membership, including me and Medievalists of Color, but I think it was especially meant to encompass those that are still learning to cope with the rapidly changing landscape of medieval studies. Suddenly, medievalists are being held accountable to push against the appropriation of the Middle Ages by white supremacists, and many well-meaning medievalists are afraid to make mistakes because they have never had to think about their jobs as potentially harmful. But to a woman of color whose humanity has been questioned in different contexts, who writes from Puerto Rico where our right to dignity has been questioned by a government that refuses to see Puerto Ricans as human, the proclamation that the panel was about reminding everyone of our humanity had very different connotations.

Dr. Cord Whitaker’s talk was poignant for me in this regard. He asked that we imagine ourselves in a tropical paradise lounging on a chair reading Chaucer. The image resulted in laughter, seemingly too bizarre to imagine the possibility as something other than a joke. And I laughed because I understand the conventions and I knew that it was time to laugh. But what happens when a room full of your peers, colleagues, and mentors laugh at your reality? I am Puerto Rican, I grew up in the mountains of a tropical island, and I would read by the beach. I read Chaucer for the first time by the beach (and in Spanish). I read Arthur by the beach. I live in complete certainty that most medieval Irish people would have loved to lounge by the beach with me. The oceans of my island would have been a welcomed Otherworld to them even as it is a certain reality to me.

It seemed that my lived experience was unimaginable to a room full of medievalists. But Dr. Whitaker knew that laughter would come and he used that laughter to point out that we should search for the Middle Ages in those places that we imagine empty of the Middle Ages. That just because we cannot imagine Chaucer inhabiting the tropics, does not mean that he doesn’t already live there. And just like that—in a new defining moment, a moment of shared humanity—Cord turned the unimaginable into reality and gave value to my lived experiences without even realizing it. And suddenly the MAA was not the Otherworld, medieval studies was real, and I was real in medieval studies.

Each speaker created such a moment for me. Their discussions were wholly theirs and yet I recognized myself in them. This is why I went to the MAA and I worked on starting the Inclusivity and Diversity Committee, the Belle Da Costa Greene Award, and the Diversity and Inclusivity Travel Grant; and this is why I plan to be a fixture in the Medieval Academy of America: because I am real, I refuse to be trapped in the Otherworld, and this is how I know to open up the doors.

I will end by noting that I am very proud of these initiatives, especially the new Belle Da Costa Greene Award, which will be granted to a medievalist of color for research and travel. I urge everyone to donate to the fund if they can and help open up more doors.

[1] See the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) for a more nuanced definition of ingnáth.

[2] I will openly admit that Lóeg is my favorite character. He is the getaway driver of Cú Chulainn, the most famous warrior of the Irish Ulstermen. More importantly, in Serglige Con Culainn, Lóeg closely resembles the fili or “poet” of the Irish stories. He is the first character to access the Otherworld, he tells the other Ulstermen about what he sees, and convinces Cú Chulainn to go there by reciting some masterful poetry. Once Lóeg and Cú Chulainn are in the Otherworld, Lóeg is the only one who can help calm Cú Chulainn’s warp-spasm, a transformation similar to that of a berserkr, before he kills everyone. Much as the fili is a poet, historian, and druid, Lóeg is commanded to fulfill these obligations.

[3] Serglige Con Culainn, edited by Myles Dillon, xviii, 93. Ingnáth is often contrasted with gnáth, meaning “customary, usual, familiar, well-known” (see the eDIL).

[4] Proinsias Mac Cana describes the Otherworld in the following manner: “Being, as it is ultimately, an imaginative reflex of human attitudes and aspirations, this other kingdom assumes different forms according to the occasion and circumstance, but these forms are not sharply or consistently distinguished. When a mortal visits the otherworld by invitation, it is usually pictured as a land of contentment and joy. But when it is invaded by human heroes—a favorite theme in storytelling and one which is related to Cú Chulainn, Fionn and Arthur among others—then it wears a very different image. It may still be a country of riches and of wonders—and frequently the declared object of such heroic expeditions is to seize its treasures and its magic talismans—but inevitably its status relative to mankind has been transformed: its rulers and its welcoming hosts are now formidable and even monstrous enemies, fit to test the mettle of the greatest hero” (Celtic Mythology, 126).

Decolonizing Popular Medievalism: The Case of Game of Thrones

Kavita Mudan Finn has posted her paper for the panel “Building Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses in Medieval Studies” on her personal blog here. This panel, organized by Dr. Nahir Otaño Gracia with the support of MoC, convened at the 2018 Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America. Dr. Finn offers us a brief excerpt below.

This paper offers a specific test case for how one might begin to decolonize popular medievalism from within, a process that has already begun and that I have watched with great interest over the past year. On July 30, 2017, the Twitter hashtag for Game of Thrones was overtaken by a protest (#NoConfederate) against the creators’ new proposed series for HBO that imagined an alternate universe where the Confederacy had successfully seceded from the Union and still openly practiced slavery. This convergence of media attention and activism also brought to the forefront conversations about Game of Thrones’ deeply problematic attitude toward race and racism—one that draws on scholarship about the actual Middle Ages as well as discourses concerning race theory and the rise of white supremacist movements in the United States over the past several years. With a media property as widespread and popular as Game of Thrones, it is at least possible to alter the larger public view of the Middle Ages, but in order to do so, popular medievalism must take a good, hard look at the kinds of narratives it is perpetuating and the damage those narratives are doing.

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Who Speaks for Us? Race, Medievalists, and the Middle Ages

By Geraldine Heng, Perceval Fellow and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Texas at Austin

[The following is a transcript of the paper Professor Heng delivered at the 2018 Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, for the panel “Building Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses in Medieval Studies,” organized by Dr. Nahir Otaño Gracia with the support of MoC.]

Many years ago, in a graduate medieval class, I was taught that women hardly featured or mattered in medieval European literature. This was a literature written by men, about men, and for men. Of course, for more than two decades now, feminist medievalists have since made this pedagogical dictum laughable. We’ve learnt to see women everywhere in medieval literature and history, and understand that they mattered, a lot. In similar fashion, queer theory has been richly complexified with the entrance of the Middle Ages into the conversation. Feminist and LGBTQ medievalists are no longer marginal in medieval studies today.

But what about race? As a graduate student, I knew of only one medievalist of color besides myself in the academy: Glory Dhamaraj, an Anglo-Saxonist of South Asian descent who ceased to be a medievalist soon enough. Looking and sounding different from my classmates, and later, my colleagues, I thus learnt to build a career in which my scholarship was driven by my differencedifferences of experience, and thus of perspective—while minimizing the sense of my difference, whenever I delivered a paper, published an article, competed for a grant. In medieval studies, arguably the most conservative field in the western academy, not being perceived as intellectually different—with its assumptions of inferior habits of mind or inadequate credentialingwhen you’re a non-native-born woman of color from a former British colony, was imperative, in order to have a career at all.

Nonetheless, despite my careful academic practices, working as a gendered, raced, postcolonial subject brought a special vulnerability. I was called out by a white, male English medievalist from London, the metropolitan university in the heart of the old British Empire. He decided that my practice of reading, which he labeled “postcolonial,” was inadequate, and inadequately “postcolonial,” unlike other medievalists, because I had not sufficiently promoted the paramount importance of French, the lingua franca of the European Middle Ages, in my first book, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy.

The irony was remarkable: When the importance of French is not sufficiently thematized and its literature not sufficiently held up for attention, female non-white postcolonial subjects don’t adequately practice “postcolonial” medieval studies. A white Englishman at the heart of the old British Empire had pronounced this.

The 2017 conference of the International Medieval Congress at Leeds offered another spectacular moment of racial-neocolonial privilege, when white male medievalists expatiated capaciously on the conference theme of “Otherness,” oblivious of any irony in their speaking position, just like the Englishman at the University of London. At this conference of 2,400 people from 56 countries, one white male plenary speaker even made a racial joke trivializing skin color. The trauma inflicted by the conference, played out in social media on both sides of the Atlantic thereafter, and winding its way through other conferences and The Chronicle of Higher Education, demands that we ask:

Who gets to speak for us? Who decides what is canonical or important in medieval studies and gets to shape the conversations?

In institutional politics, racial-neocolonial privilege becomes visible only when privileged speakers, and privileged speaking positions, are looked at closely. A conference session, like this one today, is one such moment of looking closely and talking back.

I’ve been known for doing three things in medieval studies: 1. linking the development of European romance to the history of the Crusades and supplying a definition of romance that moves it from a genre to a narrational modality tied to crusader atrocity and trauma; 2. theorizing and developing an intellectual apparatus that permits scholars to study race in the European Middle Ages in multidisciplinary ways; and 3. conceptualizing and leading the academic field widely known as the Global Middle Ages. All three things derive directly from the experience and perspectives of a medievalist who, by virtue of being marked by race and national origin, sees and thinks differently.

My first book, Empire of Magic, began when I was teaching in Singapore, right after graduate training, when I decided that for the sake of my many Muslim students, I needed to look at the Middle Ages from a less-Eurocentric point of view. Reading Arab historians on the extraterritorial incursions we call the crusades, I found the horrors of crusader cannibalism of the Islamic enemy, and returned to the literary genesis of the King Arthur legend with new eyes.

My book that appears on March 8, 2018, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, argues that the medieval period was not a pre-political, pre-racial, pre-colonial era, and that religion then (and now)—as much as science, in the high-modern era of “scientific racism”was selectively deployed to identify differences among humans that were essentialized as absolute and fundamental, so as to distribute positions and powers differentially to human groups, in practices that we would today call acts of race. It is easier to see, and identify racial thinking and racial behavior, before there’s a vocabulary to name these for what they are, when you yourself occupy a subject-position wherein you are also subject to acts of race.

Because I came to this country from the great global outside, in 2004 I also began teaching and publishing on a Global Middle Ages. Unlike the book on race, which took twelve years to complete, because of resistance from medievalists and modernists alike, the Global Middle Ages was embraced with no resistance at all. Today, there are numerous conferences in the US, UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand on a Global Middle Ages, as well as graduate and undergraduate courses and programs, many kinds of digital humanities projects, collaborative grant awards (at the University of California, Oxford University, Sydney University and elsewhere), and three journals of record for publishing in this emerging field.

Those of us who investigate how differences are prioritized and managed may find it instructive that the conceptualization of early globalisms as a field of study met with hardly any resistance, whereas the conceptualization and study of race in the European Middle Ages was resisted for a long time—so much so that, as late as 2011, I had difficulty publishing the two-part article called “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages,” now part of the book’s first chapter (and which has garnered over 25,000 document views on the research site, Academia.edu). Early globalism was not felt to be controversial or political: but medieval race was. Today, with right-wing groups fantasizing the European Middle Ages as a pre-racial, pre-political era in which Europe was homogenously Caucasian and an unproblematized Christianity reigned supreme, we see why.

My colleague, Dorothy Kim, has pointed out in a widely circulating blog post that there is no position a medievalist can occupy today which does not have an inherently political coloration, whether we like it or not. If we continue to teach and study the Middle Ages as we have always done, duly trotting out the old canonical texts in literature and teaching them the same old way, the old aphorisms and grand narratives in history, and the same old art images for students to study, without allowing for—without requiring—transformation and change, then implicit in our stance against the transformation of the academy in our neighborhood of medieval studies, is already a political position.

Academic transformation in the 21st century is called for by many today—to ensure the survival of the humanities, the survival of higher education, and the survival of fields like medieval studies, so often considered to be somewhat less crucial than modern periods of study. I therefore end this short presentation with a reminder of the gains to be had—for scholarship, for new kinds of teaching and courses, for new collaborative endeavor, and for the growing field of digital humanities—even as the changing demographics of our country and of our students, and our own commitments to cultural politics and the revitalization of intellectual work, push for greater diversity in medieval studies. This is not a plea for inclusionfor medievalists of color to be welcomed, whatever their race, national origin, class background, sexuality, gender, or bodily abilities. Everyone on this panel has already earned their place in medieval studies. This is a reminder of the gains to be had, from the contributions of medievalists of color to medieval studiescontributions both already accomplished and prospective—in the 21st century. Thank you.