A White Canon in a World of Color

Sierra Lomuto, Assistant Professor of English and Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow, Macalester College

When people ask me why I became a medievalist, I tell them the truth: I didn’t know any better. I didn’t realize I was signing my mind away to white men.

I was recently in my hometown of San Francisco, walking through the Mission district on Christmas Eve looking for a place to pop into and get some work done. I had some grading to finish for my Chaucer class. I worked for a bit in a café at Valencia and 24th St. But when it closed early at 4pm, because of the holiday, I made my way toward the local library a couple blocks away.

The Mission branch library is in a beautiful two-story stone building and so I looked up to admire it for a moment, to etch it into my memory as best as I could. I find myself doing this more and more every time I go back home. It’s a way of holding onto the past, to an old San Francisco that seems buried now, much of it lost to the gentrification of the tech industry. Every time I return home, I find more locals displaced, more empty storefronts, the homeless population steadily increasing.

But this library building stood there unchanged, a staple of the community and a refuge for the kids in the neighborhood. As a kid in my own neighborhood in the Outer Sunset (a district of predominantly working-class Asian immigrants that has only recently felt the effects of gentrification), the local library was our daily rescue from home and after-school trouble: we would do our homework, make prank calls on the payphone outside, play ping pong at the adjacent community center. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, that library helped shape us and who we would become. I wondered about the Mission library now, at the cusp of 2019, and how it fits into one of the most gentrified neighborhoods in the city.

As these thoughts flashed through my mind and I gazed up at the stone building in front of me, I noticed something that I had either never seen before or hadn’t thought remarkable enough to remember. But this time, it was remarkable.

Wrapped around the face of the building were etchings of names, six per column, and the first read: Homer, Virgil, Rabelais, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante. My eyes followed the carved words around to the side where they ended, each name digging a pit deeper into my stomach. Here I was, in the heart of the Mission, a Latinx neighborhood for as long as most San Franciscans’ memories can reach back to, and a building that is meant to represent knowledge, learning, community, safety. . . is encased with the names of white men. I wanted this old stone building, this old library in the Mission, to offer me some solace amidst a devastating present, to remind me that knowledge, education, and learning are paths out of socio-economic oppression.

Instead, it reminded me that those paths too often lead us toward our own epistemological oppression—and do too little for the places and people we came from. The façade of the Mission library reminded me that those paths belong to white men; the rest of us merely walk them. To be deemed educated or intelligent in our so-called western society, one must aspire to know and master what white men know and have known. It’s fine to know other things too, but all of that is extra.

When people ask me why I became a medievalist, I tell them the truth: I didn’t know any better. I didn’t realize I was signing my mind away to white men. I believed I had a place in any field in which I took a liking and I liked medieval literature. I believed that if I learned the skills and was trained well, I could be a scholar of medieval literature just like anyone else. But what I learned along the way is that only white men will ever be perceived as fitting. Others can join them, can even gain as much success, but we will still never “look the part” because yes, the part does have a look.

I stepped into the Mission library to find a place to finish grading. At one of the long reading tables in the center of the second floor, I opened up the folder with my students’ final projects: creative adaptations of The Canterbury Tales. When I teach Chaucer, I like to do so with adaptations because it is the best way I know how to make his corpus take up less space while at the same time show its relevance to our modern lives. Adaptations offer me an entry point for thinking about the relation between canon formation and epistemological colonialism. They help me structure a syllabus and learning environment that resists the authority of a white male canon.

The adaptations I teach bring in a multiplicity of perspectives and vantage points, and are one small way I can show my students that it is not only to white men that we should seek knowledge. We can appreciate the brilliance and aesthetic beauty of Chaucer’s work without suggesting it stands above the rest. My students learn that the main reason why Chaucer is deemed the “father of English literature” is because the English literary canon was produced within and sustains a white patriarchy.

For me, as a professor who teaches Chaucer, it is my job to show students how our reverence for whitewashed literary histories must be taken down. I can’t look around at the devastating effects of modernity, like the gentrification of my home town, and let what I study and teach—what I do every day—evade it all. Because of course how we teach and produce knowledge about the past affects our present. All knowledge is subjective, and even in historically white fields like medieval literature, white male subjectivity needs to stop dominating our epistemologies.

This essay has been adapted from a paper I delivered at the 2019 Modern Language Association Convention on January 3rd. It was part of a roundtable organized by Chad Leahy, entitled “Doing ‘Relevance’: Medieval and Early Modern Perspectives.”

UPDATE: Since writing this essay, I learned that the Mission library is slated for renovations that could close its doors for two years, with no replacement during that time.

On Context: AIA-SCS 2019

Seeta Chaganti, Department of English, University of California, Davis

I present the following remarks in solidarity with Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s response to the racist aggression that Mary Frances Williams leveled at him at this year’s AIA-SCS meeting. I am not a classicist; however, both independently and through my work with the Medievalists of Color, I have responded to racism as it exists within a discipline exploring premodernity: I offer my perspective in that capacity. In the several days following Williams’ comment, I noticed calls for additional “context” and evidence for Williams’ comment despite the evidence that existed in social media testimonies and an account in IHEJosephine Crawley Quinn’s analysis further observes the expression of “coldly familiar academic skepticism,” what she calls the “comforting rigor and caution” of deferring certainty about “exactly what happened.” In the service of that comfort, some wished for video or other means to ascertain the full content of the presentation or the panel. I’d like to use this event in the Classics community as an opportunity to argue that making substantive change – to this academic field, to others, or elsewhere in the world – requires broadening our understanding of what constitutes explanatory or probative context for harmful events.

I didn’t know, until the news about Padilla appeared, that Mary Beard gave a featured lecture at this conference, but once I learned that fact, it seemed to me crucial context for understanding Williams’ comment. The SCS’s choice of Beard makes clear their inability to understand what they would need to do to achieve their goal of allowing “no place for racism.” Deplatforming racism means not only ejecting individuals who say racist things but also deploying relevant critical and political knowledge to uproot racism systemically. Let me be clear: I am utterly uninterested in categorizing Beard herself – or Williams, for that matter – as racist or not racist. My point is that Beard’s online presence indicates her unwillingness to discuss racial politics in an informed way. In that capacity, her prominent speaking position at the meeting necessarily impedes the SCS’s goal to stamp out racist behavior. As Priyamvada Gopal states, Beard’s denigration of Haiti fails to mention that country’s world-historically significant uprising against slavery and colonialism. Beard calls out what she terms “structural complicity” as part of a critique of US prison sentencing. Yet she declines to acknowledge decades of analysis considering those very issues of sentencing and social complicity through their deadliest manifestations: the wrongful conviction and unequal sentencing of black people. It’s Beard’s right not to learn or speak about racial politics in a critically engaged manner, but a conference aiming to combat systemic racism cannot amplify such a voice. In amplifying it, the conference produces a context allowing – I might even say ensuring – not only Williams’ comment but also, and significantly, the Sportula scholars’ racial profiling and harassment.

While I find it relevant context, I can see how concentrating on one much-discussed individual like Beard might appear to some to excuse accountability for what is in fact a systemic problem. I’d therefore like to get closer to Williams’ comment to think about how one of its more immediate contexts – the context, that is, of demanding context for it – can illuminate the event’s relationship to pervasive systems of bias. Williams’ words would seem confusing and shocking, to the point of beggaring belief, only to those who do not live inside a tapestry woven with the treacherous millefleur of just such statements. I’m not saying that no one should ask for any more information about Williams’ presentation. I am saying that those seeking further data might find themselves formulating more productive, precise, and thoughtful questions if they inflect their inquiry with an awareness of how the comment – and reports of it – sounded to people of color. That is also a context, one that speaks back to what has been called the “culture of disbelief,” a culture that risks harming many – people of color, women, poor people, and others.

In further understanding the dynamic of demanding context in the instance of the SCS, I suggest that we recognize that no act of seeking evidence or probative context is ever racially neutral. The racialized nature of our historical relationship to evidence-gathering provides an important context within which to understand the present example. Once again, in making that point, I’m interrogating the assumption that the construct of statement-plus-transcript-of-whole-conversation is the only determinative contextualizing model. Requests for context and evidence surrounding Williams’ statement might reflect a fair-minded, intellectually curious, and rational aim to seek the most information possible. At the same time, we must attend to the possibility that – for all of us – such requests arise from a deep-seated investment in white intentionality and particularly in what Koritha Mitchell and others identify as the special innocence of white women. In contrast to this cherishing of perceived innocence, the US’s record of not only the wrongful convictions and unequal sentencing I mentioned above but also extrajudicial punishment emphatically illustrates how, when it comes to black people, we cherish the ascription of guilt, and we tolerate and encourage the lack of evidentiary requirement to do so. In that context, I cannot accept that calls for additional evidence and context for Williams’ statement simply intend to ensure that misunderstanding or unfairness does not correspondingly occur in this instance. The evidentiary requirements for Williams and for the history of black condemnation are not parallel examples to set beside each other, nor a slippery slope on which one careens into the other. Desiring information to reward our expectations of a white woman’s innocent intentions, despite what many affirmed to be her virulent words, offers a telling contrast to the larger context of race and evidentiary demand. That contrast elucidates the white supremacist structure enabling the aggression in the first place. If we don’t actively target that white supremacy, we will always find ourselves sinking into the comfortable cushions of its historical precedent. We will always find ourselves in structures that suspect – with neither hesitation nor justification – and then police and exclude community members of color, while from within such structures we demand further proof upon proof that “crystal clear” racist words are in fact racist.

I have no doubt that some classicists will find what I’ve said presumptuous as well as uninformed about the nuances or history of the field. To the latter charge, I’d say that I am not the only non-classicist watching the field and interpreting the information available. What the SCS and Classics do next will matter more to many than the reasons or intentions underlying what they’ve done so far. To the former charge, I agree – no one asked for my outsider’s opinion. But as a medievalist, I hope to reach out to my fellow travelers in premodernity so that we can think together about what to do next. I and others have suggested to medieval studies the possibility of dismantling our field’s major institutions; I admire and support Padilla’s proposal that Classics keep “demolition…on the table” as well as his more recent elaboration on the possibility that his discipline will not get better without significant structural “overhaul.” As an academic with the privilege of a stable job at a stable university, I think it’s my duty – and the duty of all in such positions, as well as the duty of our scholarly organizations – to figure out how to topple the harmful edifices of these early-period fields while protecting from harm those most vulnerable residing in them. I’d love to see Classics and medieval studies think together about this question, which forms another context essential to consider.

Lost in Our Field: Racism and the International Congress on Medieval Studies

Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, Assistant Professor of Early British Literature, Beloit College

My first time at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS), Kalamazoo, was bittersweet. I had been told about the book exhibits and what to do to reserve the books I wanted. I had been told about the dance and how fun it would be. I was told about the singing and drinking and of ducklings walking around campus, but I was not prepared for the racism. I was not prepared to be constantly asked why I was at the conference, why I studied Icelandic literature when I was Puerto Rican. I was not prepared to tell a stranger that there was no need to congratulate me for being the first Puerto Rican medievalist because I was 100% sure I was not. I was not prepared to be the only person of color in every single panel I attended. I remember recounting my experience to one of my professors and wondering out loud if I was meant to be a medievalist. It seemed to me that the attendees at ICMS were not convinced that I should. My professor gave me the best answer for me at that moment. “Fuck them and do what you want, you don’t owe them anything.”

It’s been over a decade since my first Kzoo, but the congress continues to be a hostile environment for marginalized academics. I would like to ask what many medievalists of color have been asking our colleagues and the institutions that represent us. What has academia lost? What have we lost by allowing racism to hurt people of color? How many talented professionals in various fields have we lost because of racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, etc.? For one, we lose the scholarship of those who never return, as Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm’s essay “Anglo-Saxon Studies, Academia and White Supremacy” demonstrates. Imagine how many gifted but marginalized scholars have fallen to the wayside.

ICMS in particular has now lost a valuable scholar, Dr. Seeta Chaganti, who will not return to the conference and has written a strong statement about her experience. Her account offers some examples of how ICMS has chosen to support whiteness and white supremacy. She argues that choosing panels proposed by white scholars over similar panels proposed by medievalists of color reinforces our societal bias in favor of white candidates over a minority.And while ICMS has recently offered to revisit the issue of panel selection process, I believe a deeper problem persists in what Dr. Chaganti calls their “miscomprehension of academic freedom,” which “has enabled white supremacy.” Dr. Chaganti’s statement and Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s essay compel me to share my own experiences at the congress and why I stopped attending as a grad student. I share my experiences to add another voice to the conversation.

ICMS’s choices have not only affected the field from an institutional level; they have also affected countless individuals who experience harm at ICMS. I have experienced racist incidents every single time I have attended (2007, 2008, 2015 and 2017). Although ICMS is not the only medieval studies conference in which I have experienced racism, it is the site of the most egregious examples of it. It was the conference most in my mind when I wrote briefly about my negative experiences at medieval conferences in a post on why I wanted to open up medieval studies to be more inclusive. The post had the unexpected outcome that young colleagues of color – and not just medievalists – reached out to me with their own stories, expressing that they feel similarly. These young scholars are not interested in leaving the field, they are not going anywhere, but they too want change and accountability from the institutions that represent us as academics. I have heard so many stories from colleagues of color who have been betrayed by academia in general and medieval studies in particular; my story is just one of many. This is what I want to emphasize: my story is just one drop in a sea of racist experiences at ICMS. And my story is not just about experiencing racism but also about being rendered invisible.

I began my essay with my first experiences at ICMS; I would like to continue that story. I did not attend ICMS from 2009 to 2015; during that time, I did try to return. In 2011, I had several e-mail conversations asking ICMS to consider an abstract for the general sessions. In those conversations I was misgendered multiple times by two different medievalists associated with the conference. The exchange ended with my not being officially informed of my rejection. In our correspondence, I was misgendered even after I had mentioned I was a woman and even after I had alerted the Director of the Medieval Institute of the way ICMS representatives had treated me by email. In my communications to the Director, I connected the misgendering to my previous experiences of racism at the conference. My correspondence emphasized the harassment I received as a medievalist of color, and their responses simply ignored my comments — not once did they ask about my well-being or for further details. It seems that for them, the various forms of bias I experienced did not constitute evidence of a problematic conference climate in need of examination by its leadership. ICMS failed to acknowledge my concerns. When I tell most white medievalists about these incidents, I find them dismissed once again. I am assured by them that it was all a big misunderstanding, and that I should give ICMS a chance and go back to the conference.

I am not sure that white medievalists understand what they ask of me and other medievalists of color in making this suggestion. ICMS and other medieval conferences are usually so emotionally and psychologically draining for many of us people of color that we figure out ways to navigate them that will limit the prejudicial experiences we may encounter. Like others, I am an infrequent conference attendee and limit the panels I attend to minimize the racist encounters I experience. Regarding ICMS, I attend the conference only with trusted colleagues. Medievalists of color should not have to go through all this just to keep ourselves emotionally healthy, especially at a congress claiming to “encourag[e] an inclusive and intellectually safe environment that welcomes diverse perspectives.”

Although limiting conference participation can protect medievalists of color emotionally, it can also be detrimental to us professionally. Like other marginalized academics in medieval studies, I closed myself off from the field; I failed to make connections with senior medievalists in my area of expertise and to meet allies who would make medieval studies more welcoming. I lost valuable feedback that would improve my work, and the opportunities to enhance my standing in the field, lowering my chances to succeed in a hostile academic environment. I continued to be a medievalist, but I left medieval studies. Academics of color are vastly underrepresented in tenured and tenure track faculty positions. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) points out that “in fall 2015, of all full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, 42 percent were White males, 35 percent were White females, 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander males, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander females, 3 percent each were Black females and Black males, and 2 percent each were Hispanic males and Hispanic females.”Native Americans made up less than one percent. The numbers are even more dismal for full time professors. For me, it took a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Pennsylvania, my involvement with the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color, and the mentorship of senior medievalists of color to get me back on track. Furthermore, without the Postdoctoral Fellowship, which enhanced my standing within academia and afforded me time to publish, it would have been impossible even to try to integrate, let alone succeed (I begin a tenure track position this August). The reality is that most young scholars of color will not have the opportunities I was afforded. The very real need to protect ourselves from racism by withdrawing from spaces where the potential for harm is high hinders our chances for success. Because of this, in Medieval Studies, ICMS has been at the forefront of limiting the odds of medievalists of color to succeed.

Dr. Chaganti’s bravery as well as the mentorship of many colleagues of color have given me the courage to be part of the field and therefore I can no longer stay silent. I hope that other medievalists of color speak out about their experiences at ICMS so that the Medieval Institute cannot deny the ways that their actions and their inaction have made it harder for medievalists of color to thrive as medievalists. ICMS’s response to BABEL’s letter of concern proposes a working group that “represents the full breadth of the international community of medievalists” in order to make changes to the congress’ selection process. I also hope that ICMS’s leadership will use this working group to help them describe the concrete steps they are planning to take to ensure medievalists in marginalized positions are not harmed by that very community that ICMS represents. I will ask again, what have ICMS and medieval studies lost because of racism? They have lost an immeasurable amount of research that would have made the field better. They have lost scholars of color who will not return to the field. They have also lost the confidence of countless medievalists such as myself who cannot trust ICMS to hold to their own stated commitments to inclusivity, intellectual freedom, and a safe environment for all their attendees.

The data on discrimination against people of color within a working environment is staggering. Here are but a few articles, including academic studies, on the topic: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/09/11/1706255114.full, http://www.nber.org/digest/sep03/w9873.html, http://www.nber.org/papers/w21612, https://hbr.org/2014/06/does-race-or-gender-matter-more-to-your-paycheck, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2017/05/17/minorities-who-whiten-resumes-get-more-job-interviews/#1bd5f65f7b74,

I think it is important to point out that the data cited above includes “professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors” in full time positions not just academics in tenure track positions.

Statement Regarding ICMS Kalamazoo

The following is an open statement written by Seeta Chaganti, Professor of English at UC Davis. Please take a moment to read this important statement on academic freedom and racial justice.

* * *

I can no longer participate in nor support the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo. While performing a seemingly virtuous commitment to academic freedom, the actions of this organization’s leadership not only silence marginalized voices but also enable racially-based harassment. More than one organization whose intellectual profile reflects a commitment to politically progressive critical theory along with social and racial justice has found its voice minimized in the planning for next year’s conference. In what follows, I address this issue regarding one such organization. But I additionally point out that an environment permitting such minimization also facilitates harassment and potential harm. It is an environment entirely inimical to genuine academic freedom.

“Academic freedom” is a complicated term, in part for its ambiguous relationship to free speech. We have become increasingly willing to acknowledge that the white nationalist right exploits free speech principles to shield their destructive and murderous ideology. In other words, we are a long way from unequivocally admiring the ACLU’s defense of Nazi marchers in Skokie, IL, 1978 – as is the ACLU itself. Invoking the work of Jelani Cobb, Alex Blasdel describes an emerging recognition that “the abstract discussion of first-amendment principles can itself seem like a tactic to shift the conversation away from pervasive injustice.” The very principles underlying free speech guarantee that right more effectively to some people than to others. In academic and public spheres, there exists alongside this conversation one concerning academic freedom. As Farhana Sultana observes, their deliberate conflation has precipitated “a crisis currently facing universities and academia…where all opinions are seen as equivalent when they are evidently not.” Academic freedom is vulnerable to the misguided perceptions not only that all ideas have equal legitimacy but also that all ideas have equal access to freedom in the first place.

In May 2018, I organized a session at ICMS, entitled “Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0,” which included Dr. Dorothy Kim. Attending the conference was a scholar who had, in 2017, drawn Dr. Kim to the attention of Milo Yiannopoulos, an act that perpetuated the racially-based harassment of Dr. Kim. Concerned for Dr. Kim’s ability to speak her opinions with freedom in the possible presence of this colleague, I asked the conference leadership to communicate to the latter that her presence was not welcome at the session. I deemed this request necessary due in large measure to the imbalance of power implicit in a dynamic of harasser and harassed. The latter’s sense that they might express themselves unfettered rarely equals the former’s. ICMS leadership refused my request to exclude a conference registrant from a session on the grounds of “academic and intellectual freedom.”

This decision allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom. The conference leadership displayed an inaccurately absolutist understanding of academic freedom, and that inaccuracy created a space to accommodate the harm and silencing of scholars of color. The space of conferences has come to include not only the physical setting of the gathering but also the social media sites that house ancillary activity (hence ICMS’ extensive social media guidelines). In this larger space, specifically on the scholar’s Facebook page, racist harassment of the panelists and me occurred. One might argue that ICMS’ inaction regarding the conference site itself bears no relationship to the scholar’s online activities. I would submit, however, that the conference’s indifference to this scholar’s history of enabling and stoking harassment encouraged the continuation of such behavior without fear of consequence. After the conference, pictures of the session appeared online inadvertently (later removed, with apologies, by the original photographers). The scholar in question reposted these images knowing, I would contend, their power to incite certain followers to make disparaging remarks. Even if one finds the comments themselves trivial, this scholar’s use of her online space to make us vulnerable to that attention is not. Her connection to Yiannopoulos (in addition to her tagging him, he thanks her in his unpublished book acknowledgments) suggests that the images and rhetoric appearing on this Facebook page could have become available to an online community not merely derisive but angry and violent in its racism. She and her followers freely expressed themselves while the panelists and I read racialized reactions to images of our faces and bodies with mounting apprehension. After this experience, I do not consider the conference sufficiently free of the threat of harm to speak at it. True academic freedom cannot exist where such threat lies.

In the wake of the 2018 conference, developments pertaining to ICMS 2019 increased my concern regarding the conference’s occlusion of marginalized voices through an inaction construed as neutrality. The organization Medievalists of Color (MOC) sponsored one proposed session – a continuation of the whiteness workshop – and co-sponsored four others. The workshop, a service to the medieval studies community as a whole, was accepted. The four co-sponsored sessions, on specialized topics concerning the interests and expertise of medievalists of color and their organizational collaborators, were rejected. Sessions on similar topics proposed by majority white organizations were accepted, and individual scholars of color might surely participate in those organizations’ panels and have their viewpoints represented that way: the organization MOC does not monopolize critical conversations about race. But MOC co-sponsorship formalizes the intellectual guidance provided by scholars of color in a field where we remain extremely underrepresented. The rejection pattern minimizes that intellectual guidance at ICMS.

I worry that ICMS’ misprision of academic freedom overlaps with an unexamined understanding of “fairness” (a term appearing in the online account of the congress committee’s role). Presumably, according to this stance, no organization should dominate a conversation that others also wish to join. I suggest, however, that as with the academic freedom argument above, we are not dealing with a neutral situation where all voices have always received equal privilege and protection. ICMS’ choices trouble me not only for their impact but also for the possibility that they were made without critical thought to what a space of real academic and intellectual freedom would look like. Such a space would acknowledge the necessity of actively seeking out and dismantling those structures by which “tradition” (also invoked in their account and potentially applicable to both content and selection process) camouflages white supremacy’s particular forms of repression. The formula that their account describes – “a balance between respecting tradition and encouraging innovation” – cannot suffice to ensure academic freedom because it does not aggressively interrogate the meanings of either “tradition” or “innovation.”

In more than one way, ICMS’ miscomprehension of academic freedom has enabled white supremacy. I shall not return to ICMS because its understanding of academic freedom cannot accommodate appropriate response to white supremacist actions and structures. I make my statement individually for two reasons. First, I aim to draw attention specifically to the academic freedom issue at stake. Second, while other letters might express demands that could be met within the current structure, I do not make such demands. I stand in solidarity with those other letters and actions: we all represent different points along a spectrum of agitation for change. But when I say “dismantle,” I advocate a radically different alternative to ICMS that would fulfill this conference’s important functions while also committing to antiracist practices and values.

Anglo-Saxon Studies After Charlottesville: Reflections of a University of Virginia Professor

Anglo-Saxon Studies is at a crossroads as a discipline. As it is struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing educational landscape, it is also—like the larger field of Medieval Studies—grappling with the misappropriation of historical figures, themes, and symbols for racist agendas. Recent online discussions in some of our Anglo-Saxon forums have shed light on issues involving Anglo-Saxon symbolism, misappropriation of these symbols by white supremacists, and the potential for racial terror within or outside of the classroom. In a recent discussion in the Anglo-Saxon Studies Facebook group, Professor Peter Baker from the University of Virginia, a distinguished and senior scholar of the field, eloquently contextualized some of the most pressing issues the field faces within our present political climate. He generously offers it here for our community of medievalists of color and allies. Professor Baker reflects on his own privilege, as he reminds white scholars to acknowledge that we all live in a system that upholds white supremacy; that we must interrogate our self-presentation and reassess our teaching practices to ensure that the study of Old English is safe for every student, whether they are white or students of color. As scholars and educators, we have a responsibility to scrutinize not only the way we teach, but also how our bodies are read by our students. ~Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm, 2nd Vice President of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), and Academic Researcher.

By Dr. Peter Baker, Professor of English, University of Virginia

As a sixty-five-year-old white male, I recognize that I’m part of the problem whether I want to be or not. I’m reminded of the definition of racism in the documentary “I’m Not Racist, Am I?” Some of us simply *are* racists, whatever our individual views, by virtue of belonging to the group that created and now maintains a racist system. And yet anyone can try to play a constructive role.

Last fall I had the most diverse intro. Old English class it has ever been my pleasure to teach. It was a great experience—every one of my students was wonderful. Our class met a few feet away from where, less than a month before the beginning of term, students of color and white students had come together to defend what they understood was a deeply problematic symbol of our university—a statue of Thomas Jefferson—from invading Nazis. Like just about everyone at UVA, I opened the term with some thoughts about that. I told my students that we were working in an area that had a long history of being exploited by racists, Nazis, and others whose views I found abhorrent. We would acknowledge that dark history throughout the term, and we would try to study our subject without becoming complicit in that kind of exploitation. I wanted my classroom to be one in which all felt welcome and safe.

And I think it’s at least a *little* more than a vain hope that everyone *did*. But as the academic year dragged to a close I was haunted by a sense of failure. Not only about my own class, but also about my discipline and my university. One piece that helped focus that sense of failure was a conversation that appeared in Slate after the recent Philadelphia Starbucks outrage, called “Being Black in Public.” A good part of the piece was about “white spaces” and “black spaces,” in the course of which the brilliant Jamelle Bouie said a thing that hit home in more than one way: in his view, Starbucks was “akin to somewhere like the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Virginia—putatively diverse, but curated for the experience of white people.”

Thing is, he could have said that with equal justice about the university where I work or about my own classroom. If I had succeeded in making my class “welcoming” and “safe” (like my city’s famous Downtown Mall), those things weren’t enough. It wasn’t enough to *welcome* African American, Asian, and Middle Eastern students into a class that was still “curated for the experience of white people.” I wanted it to be everyone’s class.

Similarly, the University of Virginia has tried to be “welcoming” to students of color—but I have spoken to all too many students of color over the years who still feel alienated. How can Thomas Jefferson’s university make itself into a space that *belongs* to everyone? I don’t think it can, without redefining itself radically and repudiating much of its heritage. Maybe it will someday—though I’m not hopeful.

And it probably isn’t possible to make “Anglo-Saxon Studies” into a discipline that *belongs* to everyone without a similar kind of redefinition. Not just relabeling it, but adjusting its boundaries in space, time, theoretical approach, and who knows what else, changing the kind of space it is. That redefinition is probably necessary if anything like this discipline is going to survive long term in the American university system (I can’t speak for other systems). Frankly, it’s necessary if it’s going to survive at UVA in the short term.

So I guess , though I’ve been very comfortable in the house called “Anglo-Saxon Studies” for a very long time, I’m closer to the “burn it down” position. Or at least remodel it.


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).

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.

Building Community: A Welcome Letter from the Website Committee

Dear Reader,

As women of color, we are the exception, not the norm, in Medieval Studies. In fact, none of the “Ivy League” English departments, the ones we value as the “top” or “best,” have any standing faculty of color in medieval literature. The field is not always open to the differences our identities bring, and so the sense that we belong here is not readily felt.

To move through and overcome moments of marginalization, isolation, or alienation, we’ve turned to the scholars of color (both in Medieval Studies and academia more broadly) who have come before us and opened the spaces that we now occupy. In their writing— scholarship, essays, editorials, novels, poetry— we’ve heard our own experiences reflected back to us and affirmed; we’ve heard advice and received guidance; we’ve heard new perspectives and expanded our worldviews; and most importantly, we’ve been empowered to keep pursuing our own work.

Medievalists of Color is about building a scholarly community that does not ask for conformity, but rather values the particular insights that we scholars of color bring with us because of our diverse backgrounds. Our inclusion in the field will only be realized when our perspectives are heard. We want white scholars to listen and take action even when it is difficult to do so. But more than that, we want other scholars of color to hear the voices of those who share their experiences. Even if you are “the only one” in your department, we want you to know that you have this community, here.

We’ve built this section of the MoC website because nothing like it currently exists. We need a space where our perspectives are foregrounded and centered, where we are not the guests but the hosts. We welcome everyone to contribute to this blog and help us in building a field whose core values reflect the justice and equity we all want to see in academia and beyond. If you have a short essay or musing on the field that reflects a commitment to anti-racism and racial equity, please send them to us. Click here for more information about this blog.

We’re excited to see what we can accomplish together!

The Website Committee
(Sierra LomutoMariah Min, and Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh)