ON RACE AND MEDIEVAL STUDIES: A Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color

[Cross-posted from the Medievalists of Color website. Thanks to Jonathan Hsy () for bringing it to our attention.]

August 2017

Medieval studies is increasingly acknowledging realities of race and racism in the profession—reflected in everything from the call to recognize that racism is inherent in the very use of the term “Anglo-Saxon”; to Richard Spencer and the so-called alt-right’s cooptation of Western European medieval studies to buttress their white supremacist ideology; to concerns about the exploitation of Hawaiian culture in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists’ conference currently underway in Honolulu. These issues have arisen most visibly since the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2017 with individual and collective calls for structural change in the profession and its culture.

Medievalists of Color is a fellowship of scholars who study the early, high, and late Middle Ages across the disciplines and who identify as persons of color from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. We, the Medievalists of Color, find it necessary to offer a collective response that advocates for a more inclusive, productive, and world-improving medieval studies.

If the recent controversies in medieval studies have seemed shocking, that shock derives simply from the truth of how uneven and disparate our realities are within the field. A tasteless joke about skin color that inaugurated the 2017 Leeds keynote plenary on “Otherness” illustrated this disparity all too well. Those who object to the attention given to a single joke about race fail to understand that for medievalists of color, this joke is not an isolated event. It is a symptom of a culture, both in medieval studies and in the wider world, in which we regularly hear jokes about our appearances, accents, names, and experiences. Indeed, such jokes frequently escalate into mockery, threats, and even physical violence. Opening the plenary session on the problematic thematic strand “Otherness,” the joke established an unwelcoming environment from the outset. Likewise, the open acceptance of such racist jokes has proliferated in various social media, listservs, and other spaces in which medievalists congregate. This then is not merely a sensationalized incident, but rather a normalized speech act that indicates a pervasive and deeply problematic professional and social climate.

Creating and maintaining a climate that is welcoming to all requires intention and deliberation. Drawing from extensive administrative experience in higher education in the UK and Australia as well as several traditions of philosophical inquiry, Sara Ahmed attests to how professional environments and intellectual cultures engage in a “politics of stranger making” that reveals “how some and not others become strangers” and “how some bodies become understood as the rightful inhabitants of certain spaces” (On Being Included, 2012). The moderator’s joke—that a suntan would make him appear as an “other”—would have been inappropriate in any professional setting, but in the particular context of an introduction to the opening keynotes at one of the major medievalist conferences in the world, this act of “stranger making” reveals an underlying assumption that the physical presence of nonwhite medievalists—and our collective years of expertise in the field on topics of “otherness”—is ignorable and extraneous to primary conversations in the field.

We emphasize that our letter is not just about any one person’s alienating comments, nor even about the conception of one problematic thread. What is at stake here is the very possibility that such a statement, like countless similar statements every day, could be made and condoned while its real harm to nonwhite medievalists was left unacknowledged and unchecked. Though such statements are sometimes made without malice or intent to harm, the harm they cause is nonetheless real—from stigmatizing individuals to foreclosing lines of scholarly inquiry. When our scholarly spaces are not welcoming to all who would practice in the field, the field loses the capacity for intellectual risk and no longer serves its primary objective: to seek a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to analyze the present and help shape the future.

The current controversy offers an opportunity for medievalists who identify as white to understand the perspectives and experiences of medievalists and other people of color. On blog posts and comments, on listservs and on Facebook, the reactions of many of our fellow scholars have been deeply disturbing, with remarks that range from dismissing such jokes as “harmless social lubricant” to accusing those who legitimately express dismay at such jokes as “policing,” “silencing,” or “blacklisting” conference speakers to violent and profanity-laden abuse directed at medievalists of color. Some comments and conversations suggest that our white medievalist colleagues experience dismay at assumptions about them based on their race: their intentions seem not to matter; they are objects of suspicion; their positions are assumed to be wrong. We ask white medievalists feeling this way to recognize that this is what is it is like to be a person of color every day, in the world and all too often in the profession. We make this point not to perpetuate a loop of mutual resentment but rather to offer an inroad to understanding our perspective. This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, and leverages an ever greater number of experiences and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible.

We, the Medievalists of Color, need our colleagues to understand the systemic racism of which we speak and the role it has continued to play in our field’s constitution and practices; to educate themselves in the critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit; and in doing so to move past preoccupations with individual intentions. Chafing at the accusation of racism is illogical: systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices. The most damaging consequence of systemic racism is not that one might stand accused of racism; it is the harm—historically manifested on a continuum from rhetorical to psychological to physical violence—done to persons of color. Were more constituents of medieval studies to educate themselves in the critical theory of race, we could all actively address these harmful impacts in ways hitherto not possible in the field of medieval studies.

Indeed, the intellectual and ethical protocols of our discipline require us to immerse ourselves in relevant scholarly discourses. No medievalist working on Western Europe would dare discuss the term “nation” without consulting Patrick Geary’s Before France and Germany. No medievalist working on medieval memory would ignore the work of Mary Carruthers in the Book of Memory. We affirm that the same ethic of scholarly rigor applies to critical race studies and to the discussion of race, ethnicity, nationhood, and “otherness” because these topics are crucial to both the content and the professional conduct of medieval studies. Even, and especially, if we find that the scholarly paradigms of critical race and ethnic studies, postcolonialism, and decolonization do not speak fully to the historical moments we study, we are obligated to enter, and even expand, the conversations they engender. If we wish medieval studies to engage meaningfully in the modern world of which it is a product, and in which it is an agent, then medievalists must also rigorously engage with the fields that examine the ideologies and distributions of power that define the modern world. When medievalists endeavor to understand systemic racism, medieval studies becomes a stronger field whose constituents together have far greater resources for analyzing the past and present while shaping the future.

We aim our attention toward the survival and future of the study of the Middle Ages, which we must continuously work to separate from its links to nationalist and white supremacist impulses. At a time when such impulses have increased the rates of violence—rhetorical, psychological, and physical—in the US, UK, Europe, and elsewhere, we must ensure that the conditions for violence are not fostered within medieval studies. Indeed, medieval studies must form a bulwark against such conditions. We wish to foster a medieval studies whose members respond to one another, even in disagreement, with the responsibility to be ethical, compassionate, and well informed about the systems in which we operate in order that medieval studies will be a space for free intellectual inquiry—for all medievalists. Race has always mattered to medieval studies, and scholars of color play key roles in the field’s past, present, and future.

We intervene, putting ourselves at professional risk and in the path of potential aggression and hostility, because of the meaning this field holds for us, the stakes we have in it, and our commitment to contributing productively to its continued viability. We intervene for the sake of the innovative space medieval studies has at times been, and can increasingly be. We intervene to protect the powerful lessons that the Middle Ages holds for the modern world, and because we believe that deep and considered knowledge of the Middle Ages, with rigorous scholarly practices, can help realize a future in which the world is a better place—for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.

—A Fellowship of Medievalists of Color


For additional professional responses to the “Otherness” thread at the International Medieval Congress, see the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the open letter and petition by the President-Elect of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA), and two letters from the President of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).

For resources pertaining to the intellectual and professional significance of race in medieval studies, see this bibliography of scholarship on race and medieval studies, the special issue of the journal postmedieval on “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages,” the plenary session on “The Color of Membership” held at the SAA Meeting in April 2017, the workshop on Whiteness in Medieval Studies (held at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 2017), as well as its participant reflections and organizer reflection.

The HistoryMakers (Part II): Classics, Social Justice, and Oral Histories

Author: Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott). This is the second in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part I was written by Joel Christensen (@sentantiq), and can be read here.


A video and transcript result from The HistoryMakers database

When I was first approached to work on a project studying oral histories of African American experience in Classics, I saw it as an opportunity not only to perform research that might aid in addressing the endemic lack of diversity in the field, but also to give back to the movement that allowed me to pursue graduate study. I chose to attend my undergraduate college primarily because of the financial aid package, and my ability to attend Brandeis University as a graduate student depends on being in the first cohort to receive the Diversity, Excellence, and Inclusion Scholarship (DEIS). The DEIS program aims to provide students with a non-traditional background for academia (e.g. those from underrepresented minority groups and first generation college students) access to Master’s programs so that they can later pursue doctoral study when they otherwise might have lacked that opportunity. To put it directly, without active attempts to provide access to higher education for people in situations like mine, I would not have been able to work in a field where I believe I can make meaningful contributions.

The research we have conducted using The HistoryMakers archive profoundly undermines the narrative that Classics lacks diversity because it is an inherently “white field.” Many of those interviewed reference ancient works of literature. Many tell stories about how classical education contributed to their personal and intellectual growth. Many point to teachers and professors of ancient languages and Classics as mentors and role models. These oral histories suggest that the issues surrounding diversity in Classics arise not due to the content but rather access and presentation.

Randolph Michael McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the Social Justice Center at Pace University Law School, addresses the perceived whiteness of Classics directly when describes his time at Columbia University and the value of his classical education:

“I mean, positively, I hated Columbia as a student, but, now, looking back on it, that was a classical education that I got.  That was a great education because I can converse with anybody about practically anything and you have knowledge. That says–I say I was classically trained.  You have a base of knowledge about a lot of different–that if you just became a political science and that was the track you were on, you wouldn’t have that base.  It was liberal arts education in the highest form.  I know there’s been a lot of opposition to that method of education–you know, they call it studying dead white men.  Well, you know, sometimes they got something to teach us and you gotta study everybody.”


Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, draws attention to the lack of opportunity and the intersectional issues in the ability to pursue Classics and academia more broadly:

“And they were women who, if they had lived in my time, would have been classics professors or could have been if they wished to, instead of Latin teachers. A Latin teacher could have been a mathematician as opposed to a math teacher, an economics professor as opposed to an economics teacher and so it goes.  And now, and so that’s who my teachers were.  I had a few men, but mainly women.”


Shirley Ann Jackson ©The HistoryMakers


Callie Crossley, an award-winning broadcast journalist, expresses her issues with classical education:

Crossley: “And a very strong liberal arts institution. More to the point, I feel very strongly about liberal arts education, and it was–it’s one of the best you can get.”

Interviewer: “–It’s almost a classical education?”

 Crossley: “Not classical, classical in the sense of, you know, Homer or nothing, you know, (laughs) it was–it was much broader than that, but it definitely emphasized the variety and an openness, remember I came from a house with emphasis on openness, about all of the things that one could learn and the ways in which one could learn and analytical reasoning and all of that, and it was a big emphasizer. Wellesley [College, Massachusetts] is huge on writing.”


Callie Crossley ©The HistoryMakers

These three examples are indicative of the sentiments expressed in many of the oral histories and provide a framework to rethink the way Classicists approach diversity. Classics, when made accessible and presented as one, non-exclusive avenue toward liberal arts education, holds value for all groups. The study of Greco-Roman antiquity is not owned by the monolithically white, imagined community of the “Western world.” To adapt Thucydides, Classics is not just a possession for all time, but also for all people.

For more on the project, see my other blog posts with the links below. When new material is posted from the project, you can find it on Joel Christensen’s website, his twitter feed, and my twitter feed.


Randolph Michael McLaughlin (The HistoryMakers A2005.130), interview by Shawn Wilson, 06/08/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Randolph Michael McLaughlin describes his interest in pursuing a law career. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=321244

Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/22/2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Shirley Ann Jackson discusses the racial composition of the segregated and integrated schools including Barnard Elementary School. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=29402

Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interview by Larry Crowe, 04/23/2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Callie Crossley talks about her positive experience at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=64692

The HistoryMakers (Part I): Classics, Social Justice, and Oral Histories

Author: Joel Christensen (@sentantiq). This is the first in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part II was written by Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott), and can be read here.


searching the database of The HistoryMakers

Usually around the first of every year as I gear up to attend the SCS Annual Meeting, my wife—who is Indian and Muslim—starts to troll me, asking “how does it make you feel that only white people care about the Classics.” I used to bluster; I used to draw on my training in rhetoric, and marshal periodic sentences with rising tricola to defend my field (and myself). But, lately, I have mostly just been shaking, then nodding, my head.

Until this year I taught at a large, public university that served a minority-majority population and enrolled some of the largest numbers of veterans in the country. I cherished this job precisely because of the opportunity it provided to bring Homer, Plato, Thucydides and Sappho to first generation college students. But in the decade I was there, I came to understand that access to this material was limited by a range of institutional challenges: underfunded, undermined public schools at the secondary school level, political hostility, structural prejudices, and, frankly, outright racism.

Our public discourse about education has been dominated by questions of demonstrable economic utility. ‘Esoteric’ fields like the Classics (and History!?) are constantly under siege with questions about how our classes translate into jobs. Many of us spend countless hours crafting arguments about how learning Latin and Greek or studying history, philosophy, and literature provides students with the critical thinking and writing skills to succeed in any job. We collect data on GRE, MCAT and LSAT scores. We make websites and powerpoint presentations. We write these goals into course objectives and assessment plans.

None of this is intrinsically unjust, but by defining the importance of education purely in terms of economic utility, we are acceding to a system that defines the worth of a person in terms of financial potential. Even worse, when we cancel programs or limit what we teach because it will not be useful to a certain economic class, we are complicit in a system that says “this kind of education is not right for these kinds of people because they need to worry about working or ‘more important’ things.” In a country where class is almost entirely inherited and in which race and social class reinforce inequality, this is part of institutionalized racism. When politicians, coordinating boards, and even deans demand that students from certain backgrounds be trained primarily with a view towards future employment, they might truly believe that they have their best interests at heart.  However, the outcome of denying courses of study to some students reifies Classics as a discipline of a leisured elite, impoverishes the range of voices and responses our generation can bring to the ancient world, and enacts a paternalistic delimitation that is racist in effect if not intent.

* * *

When I left my first university for my current one, I was excited in almost every way except for one: I knew I was giving up a mission that allowed me to answer my wife’s question honestly. And I know from talking to many people in the field that there is a desire to do more, to advance our field in different directions, and to make our world better at the same time.

Classics is not alone in facing uncertainty in our political and economic climate, but our discipline faces some of the starkest numbers when it comes to racial, religious, and even gender diversity.  One area where we have made progress in the past generation is gender equity, but even there, we have to increase the number of women in permanent and tenure-track jobs.  Moreover, we need to find more ways to give them support and recognize the institutional and structural obstacles they still face. We cannot hope to make significant and long term gains in terms of undergraduate diversity if we do not change the composition of the professorate.


Figure 1, Diversity Percentage for Undergraduate majors. This graph shows that Classics undergraduate populations were in 2013 the least diverse of surveyed fields in the Humanities.

One aspect of the pursuit of social justice in our field must be how we work to diversify our own ranks. The SCS and other organizations have created minority scholarships which can have a real impact on student lives. But we could do more—especially those of us who are in stable positions. Nationally, we can raise money to fully fund underrepresented groups at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate level. (I for one would happily forego an annual meeting or two and dedicate the money I would have spent to this effort). At our home institutions, we must work both inside and outside our departments to hire these PhDs and mentor them. We also need to listen to what they say about their experiences and safeguard their careers as if they were our own.


Figure 2, Percentage of PhDs Held by Women. This graph shows that Classics outperforms other fields in gender representation, but is still not equal.

Further, we must also remember that the way we teach Classics can contribute positively to social justice. It is an act of resistance and a reaffirmation of a universal right to knowledge and independent thought to teach marginalized and disenfranchised communities. (And an act that often requires new pedagogical approaches.) That resistance can come in many forms, but it most definitely means more active outreach by Classics faculty to underrepresented groups.  As Timothy Joseph recently demonstrated, Plato’s Socrates was an inspiration and a metaphor for Martin Luther King Jr. And this was no mere flight of fancy: as Thomas E. Strunk argues, King’s engagement is a powerful testament to a tradition of liberation philology.

As Classicists, most of us are trained to argue for the importance of our field—we can point to its influence on major figures in our intellectual history from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, through artists, authors, dancers, musicians and more. Our luminaries and forebears receive the past and engage in critical dialogues with it. By denying access to the Classics and by not actively recruiting students from underrepresented groups, we bar communities from a conversation and the tools of language that have shaped our politics, religions, and aesthetics. Our duty is not to champion the superiority of one culture over another, but to ensure that no matter what body or class you were born into, you have the opportunity to hear, to understand, and to join this conversation in a meaningful way.

* * *

To engage in this type of social justice, we need to get into spaces where students and the public at large can hear us. For those of us who are in traditional educational institutions, this also means we have to figure out how to get new students into our classes. As a discipline, one of our challenges in facing demographic shifts alongside economic and cultural tides of late capitalism and the information age, is, not unironically, a lack of clear and actionable information. How do we even begin to address issues of perception among various groups without a clear idea of what such perceptions are? (As a good friend has told me, the first step is asking.) And, more importantly for a movement concerned with social justice, how do we learn to hear the voices of marginalized groups?

Even the most rigorous classical philologist is to an extent engaged in cultural histories—we should apply some of our academic training to these problems: admirably, classicists like Michele V. Ronnick and Margaret Malamud have already charted the course in this direction. But oral interviews, surveys, and archives allow us the opportunity to listen to personal testimonies of African Americans (and others). Archives like those collected and curated by The HistoryMakers, moreover, also provide a searchable database of transcripts.

With a small grant from the office of the Provost at Brandeis University (dedicated entirely to paying a graduate student fairly to do the archival research), our project is to collect and analyze what African Americans say about the Classics in the late 20th century and afterward. The testimonies are mixed—while many interviewees do position classical education as a vehicle of liberation, many also see it as an extension of elite values and power. The oral testimonies, we suspect, will echo many of the conclusions reached in Malamud’s recent book African Americans and the Classics (2016). At the same time, they attest to a deep diversity of responses to Classical material.

Admittedly, the aims of the project are rather modest given the magnitude of the challenges we face. But I try to imagine the aggregate effect of sharing this material online through my website and twitter feed. And, more importantly, I try to take seriously the potential exponential effect of teaching Classics from a social justice perspective: if only one graduate and one undergraduate a year leaves my classroom with the ability to communicate the importance of Classics for all people and to understand social justice from a diachronic perspective, then over the years they will influence many more lives. Finally, and perhaps optimistically, I imagine the combined effect of my colleagues all over the country doing the same thing.

Thanks to Suzanne Lye for constructive criticism of an earlier draft. Special thanks as well to Shahnaaz for having the patience and kindness to teach me what it means to be someone else for the last 20 years.