84 Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race

by Margo Hendricks

Race and Periodization | Learn more about the event and hear introductory remarks by Michael Witmore and Ayanna Thompson

Race and Periodization

Listen to a recording of the opening lecture given by Margo Hendricks at the September 2019 “Race and Periodization” symposium, co-sponsored by the Folger Institute and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The focus of the “Race and Periodization” symposium was the relationship between race and historical periods; it is part of the #RaceB4Race initiative, which launched in January 2019 at Arizona State University.

Margo Hendricks is professor emerita of literature at UC Santa Cruz. She is the co-editor of Women, ‘Race,’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period, with Patricia Parker (Routledge, 1993) and the author of many journal articles. Her current works in progress are an academic memoir and Heliodorus’ Daughters: Black Women and the Romance Industry. She writes romance fiction as Elysabeth Grace.


MARGO HENDRICKS: Okay, I have permission to do this. [LAUGHTER] Y’all thought I was joking? [PLAYS SHORT CLIP OF “CALIFORNIA LOVE” BY 2PAC FT. DR. DRE] All right. Michael’s never going to invite me back to the Folger! [LAUGHTER]

First of all, I want to thank all of you for being here. I’m a little nervous, because it’s been a while since I gave a talk, and the last one I did—and I have no pockets, and please, somebody, let’s start really seriously giving women pockets—the last time I gave a talk, it was supposed to be my farewell to Shakespeare studies. It was a rough time. I did not care for the direction that I saw the field going, and I’m one of those individuals, if I don’t like something, I say it, and then I disappear. Unfortunately, there were certain people who didn’t allow the disappearance.

This talk is called “Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race.” For anyone who doesn’t know me, you will quickly discover I have no filters. Well, maybe one or two left. My academic career on paper has been successful, though I haven’t written or published an academic article in years, which makes me either uninvested or an ancestor. Because I write romance novels, I’m going with the latter. Consider me your ancestor.

However, before I claim ancestral privilege, I want to share. Who I am in the academy falls squarely on the shoulders of the following people, and this is in no particular order, so: Kim Hall, Arthur Little, Ayanna Thompson, Joyce Green MacDonald, Francesca Royster, Elder Jones, Anthony Barthelemy, Imtiaz Habib, Patricia Parker, Geraldine Heng, Peter Fryer, Peter Stallybrass, Hayden White, Harry Berger, Michael Warren, Don Wayne, Karl Marx, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, Perry Anderson, Stuart Hall, Terence Hawkes, and, most of all, Zeola Culpepper Jones, my great-grandmother whose father was born enslaved. She was not. So, you can either blame them or sing their accolades for the fact that I’m standing here. I much prefer you do the latter. In other words, cite, cite, cite.

In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was Race

In the only essay I will unapologetically go, “Damn, that was good,” I wrote:

Somehow, giving our silent mestizo the voice [and the “silent mestizo,” if you don’t recall the essay, which is Midsummer Night’s Dream “Obscured by Dream,” was the Indian boy]—Somehow, giving our silent mestizo the voice of another mestizo, rather than that of an academic like myself, seems fitting. The words of this half-Scottish/half-Irish changeling stand as a vivid reminder that it is in the “antique fables,” the “fairy toys” produced in the colonizing dreams of Europeans, that the “shaping fantasies” of modern imperialism began. These words are a reminder that it will be the mestizos—the racialized descendants of those who framed the lexicon and practices of modern imperialism—who, in dealing with it, will write the final epilogue to the shaping fantasy of race.

This essay followed upon the heels of Women, Race, and Writing in the Early Modern Period. Of this book, I’m inordinately proud. It is a reflection of what I wanted to achieve as an early modern Shakespeare studies colonizer. The book was never intended solely for literary dialogue. Its purpose was to initiate conversations among and between academics working on race and gender in the early modern period. The absence of male contributors was deliberate. I believe Pat Parker and I succeeded with that book.

In 1997, I organized a University of California Humanities Research Institute residential research group, entitled “Theorizing Race in Pre- and Early Modern Contexts.” This group was made up of classics, medieval, and early modern academics. Now, 20 years later, I’ve been invited to speak about historical periods, race, and bridging a divide. What I learned from the members of the residency group: There is no divide.

There is, however, a problematic rupture worth exploration. For the purpose of this conversation, I’m going to refer to it as the “White settler colonizing” of “premodern critical race studies.” I’m also going to insist that we make a distinction between “premodern race studies” (PRS)—or “priss,” I can’t do this with the next acronym, so I’m sorry, I don’t have one—and “premodern critical race studies” (PCRS).

PRS is the practice of approaching race studies as if “you’ve just discovered the land.” Practitioners ignore the preexisting inhabitants of the land or, if PRS scholars deign to acknowledge the land is inhabited, it’s viewed as uncultivated and must be done so properly.

In this body of work, all evidence (or nearly all of the evidence) of the work done to nurture and make productive the land is ignored or briefly alluded to. In other words, the ancestry is erased. No articulation of the complex genealogy that produced premodern critical race studies exists, which in turn, drew these academic “settlers,” and I am calling them “settlers,” to premodern race. And just like capitalist “White settler colonialism,” PRS fails to acknowledge the scholarly ancestry (the genealogy) that continues to inhabit and nurture the critical process for the study of premodern race.

As Patrick Wolfe cogently reminds us, White “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” It is not an invasion, so much as it is a structural event, driven by “the logic of elimination.” Much of the theoretical and analytical critiques that form anti-settler colonialism are framed around indigeneity, which admittedly complicates the centrality of the notion of anti-Blackness being the center of “race” in the premodern period and what it means for premodern critical race studies. For the moment, I want to highlight—and I want to shift our gaze away from anti-Blackness—and I want to highlight why I link PRS to White settler colonialism and why it needs to go.

White Settler Colonizing in Premodern Race Studies

I want to suggest, I want to declare, “White settler colonialist” thinking is integral to premodern race studies. Why? Because “Whiteness” is centralized in PRS as the privileged narrative creep. PRS relegates its critical race studies’ ancestry to a citational entry, buried in a lengthy footnote, surrounded by scholarly Whiteness. This creeping Whiteness mediates the narrative by insisting on the sanctity of White-centric ideologies, genres, and, of course, the privilege of engagement: who gets cited, who doesn’t. Using this creep, anyone can wear the mantle of premodern race studies. What this individual fails to see in such practices is the ways PRS intersects with the ideologies of White supremacy, and PRS’s insistence on what Lehua Yim describes as the “arrogance of assumption” embedded in the inclusive “we.” Let me just take a minute and thank Lehua, because that woman talked me through some stuff. She’s friggin’ amazing. All right? That’s all I’m going to say. I love her.

This “we” envisions itself acting inclusively, engaged in the political work of furthering premodern race studies by structuring race as an event. Okay, I’m going here, Michael. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the blurb for Stephen Greenblatt’s led edX online course, “Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor.” I’m going dramatic on you here, okay? And this is the blurb, or part of it:

In this course, we will read Shakespeare’s Othello and discuss the play from a variety of perspectives. The goal of the course is not to cover everything that has been written on Othello. Rather, it is to find a single point of entry [I’m a romance writer, and when I read that line, Lord, I was about to run with it]—Rather, it is to find a single point of entry to help us think about the play as a whole. Our entry point is storytelling. . . . From lectures filmed on-location in Venice, London, and Stratford-upon-Avon to conversations with artists, academics, and librarians at Harvard, students will have an unprecedented access to a range of resources for “unlocking” Shakespeare’s classic play.

Greenblatt’s online course typifies, in my opinion, a classic, “White settler colonialist” move. Through the “logic of elimination,” this course de-centers the theoretical, historical, and analytical work done by premodern critical race theorists and scholars, none of whom, to my knowledge, are at Harvard. In effect, by focusing on the play as a matter of “storytelling” and framing it as a filmic piece—if you haven’t seen this, I can only take 45 minutes, but it was filmed—Greenblatt ensures that the spectatorial gaze is always White centered (“eyes on me”) and Othello’s sovereignty is consumed so that his race is always received as a structural event, rather than a structural process. A structural event. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat—over and over again.

There is a deep connective tissue between a resurgence of White supremacy and fascist discourse at present and the “White settler” colonizing that informs PRS, a connection which reinforces the underlying belief systems inherent in White supremacy—perhaps out of ignorance for PRS, perhaps not. In both cases, anti-Blackness sits as a peculiar litmus test for who does or who doesn’t do PRS. On the one hand, PRS sees the value of race as anti-Blackness, and therefore will turn Othello, Aaron, Caliban, and Ithamore [editor: from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta] into an “I am woke to premodern race studies” badge to wear. The problem with such wokeness is that generally, though not always, it fails to turn inward.

Rarely do these individuals ask of themselves: How does my discursively arguing for Othello’s emasculation, Ithamore and Aaron’s vengeful turns, Caliban’s de-humanization sustain a White supremist ideology? In what ways can I think about these characters independent of a gendered Whiteness, of White supremacy, of White settler colonialism? What if, instead of anti-Blackness, I consider these characters from a critical lens of anti-Whiteness? In other words, what if I disengage from my White privilege?

Not asking these questions shows how deeply White settler colonialism and its logic of elimination are implicated in the direction premodern race studies has taken over the past decade or so. Those of you who heard me kind of do this riff at SAA [Shakespeare Association of America] 2011, this is a little bit more sophisticated. Don’t get me wrong, race equaling anti-Blackness is still a jumping-off point for, I think, premodern critical race studies. We need to not let go of that. However, within PRS, race has come to be used as a structuring event for gender, lineage (or blood), nation, and class without any attention to skin color or indigeneity. As an ancestor, I own my responsibility in these acts of diffusion. Some of my publications do lend themselves to this type of “race signifies ______” and you fill in the blank. However, what always stood behind my writings was the belief that colonialism/imperialism, capitalism, and White sovereignty were handfast. They were wedded.

When we fall into the trap of trying to pinpoint the “actual first use of race” as a definitional or critical device, we inevitably fall into White supremacist discourse. When we make anti-Blackness the pivotal narrative, we elide the anti-Indigenous strategies woven into White supremacy’s insistence on anti-Blackness. It’s actually a very good strategy on the part of capitalism and its colonial arm. White settler colonialism happens through the mind. The enslaved Indigenous peoples removed from the continent of Africa were the first to undergo the horrors of colonization. White settler colonialism stripped the enslaved of their right to sovereignty as a capitalist experiment. An experiment that involved the destruction of a relationship to land, a relationship to community, and a relationship to the idea of sovereignty itself. By elevating the idea of individuality, a fundamental tenet of premodern and modern capitalism, and by stripping Indigenous peoples of their relationship to the means of production—you hear my anti-historical materialism work in here—their labor, and most importantly, land, White settler colonialism ensured that not only descendants of the enslaved, but all Indigenous peoples, remained locked in a capitalist experiment.

This experiment is what PRS fails to see, when the storytelling narrative is about “anti-Blackness” and not about White settler colonialism and its “anti-Indigeneity.” I told you this was going to be short.

Premodern Critical Race Studies

Someone asked me, “What does that mean?” [LAUGH] “I don’t know.” So I thought about it. So what does PCRS look like? I have no idea, except it’s not PRS in its current iteration. I do want to suggest, as part of the larger critical race theory practice and practices, PCRS actively pursues not only the study of race in the premodern, not only the way in which periods helped to define, demarcate, tear apart, and bring together the study of race in the premodern era, but the way that outcome, the way those studies can effect a transformation of the academy and its relationship to our world. PCRS is about being a public humanist. It’s about being an activist.

Unlike PRS, PCRS resists the study of race as a single, somatic event (skin color, in most cases) and insists that race be seen in terms of a socioeconomic process (colonialism). What truly distinguishes PCRS from PRS, of course, is the bidirectional gaze, the one that looks inward even as it looks outward. As bell hooks observed, “spaces of agency exist . . . wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see. The gaze has been and is a site of resistance for colonized . . . people globally.”

I want to argue that PCRS entails, or requires, both an oppositional and an insider definitional gaze. That like the term “Indigenous,” PCRS is strategic and political. It recognizes the analytical gaze’s capacity to define the premodern as a multiethnic system of competing sovereignties. PCRS will resist PRS’s tendency to make the study of race something akin to ecotourism (a passive-aggressive form of White settler colonialism). PCRS is an intellectual, political, and public interrogation of capitalism’s capacious erasure of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, whether in the Americas, the Pacific islands, Asia, or the African continent.

PCRS is the work of humanists/activists who recognize that the kinetic importance of their work is not strolling through Venice, posturing your PRS creds, but finding ways to destabilize the academy’s role in furthering capitalism’s use of White supremacy to sustain itself. That’s what PCRS does.

PCRS also recognizes and acknowledges its genealogies. It celebrates that lineage—citation—and it uses it “to dismantle the master’s house” since the master’s tools are ineffective.

I’m going to end now.

This is an epilogue. Since I’m both an academic and a romance writer, I will end with something I wrote years ago.

Willoughby Plantation, Barbadoes 1649

The young girl sat at the feet of her Black nurse, entranced as the woman’s aged fingers moved swiftly and certainly through the cane husks, bringing to life a past nearly forgotten. “Tell me once more, Nana. Tell me about the Negress Maria.”

“In the veins of the Negress Maria flowed the blood of kings. Both she and her sister (who was called Phillipa), were taken as young girls, no older than you. Maria was perhaps fifteen. The Spaniard who stole her kept her as his mistress. Her beauty then bewitched an Englishman. It was he who taught her the secrets of love and hate. Francis Drake, the Dragon,” the old woman spat.

The woman stroked the girl’s dark hair. “Drake fathered Francisco, your mother’s grandsire, on the Negress Maria then left her to die on an island with no women to care for her. None to bring the babe into the world. They lived, mother and child. They lived. Francisco was always a wild seed, not African like his mother but not English like his father. The Spanish called him Mulattos, little mules. He was of that temper. When an English ship came to the island to take on food and water, Francisco persuaded the captain to take him on. Maria’s son worked hard for the merciless White man, and when Francisco came to England he left the barbaric captain and went in search of his father. Alas, it was not to be. The Dragon was dead. With no mother, no father, no lands, Francisco was lost. Desterrado.”

“Exile,” the child mouthed.

“Exile,” the old woman acknowledged. “His child begat a child and that child begat a child, you, and with each generation, the Negress Maria’s blood grows thinner and Drake’s stronger. Francisco knew that those of his seed would wear the Whiteness of his father and pass among the English as one of them. Before his death, he made his daughter Elizabeth swear to remember his line. His daughter’s daughter was to be called Aphra. For the dark earth that nurtured her ancestors. Aphra, A-P-H-R-A. To remind her that, despite her Whiteness, she was of the land, of Africa, was forever mestizaje, forever desterrado.

All right, one last comment before I walk away—well, not permanently, because Ayanna won’t let me. Y’all are the next generation. I’m handing it over to you. Don’t come looking for me to be brilliant. Don’t come looking for me to save y’all. Don’t look for me to be theoretical. I’m just going to be me.

Thank you so much.




Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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