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Symposium considers how classical texts address contemporary social issues

January 16, 2019

More than 200 scholars, students and community members will gather for Race Before Race in Tempe this weekend

For many years, there existed among scholars of the medieval and Renaissance periods the old chestnut that those were the times before the concept of race existed.

We know better now, said Arizona State University English Professor Ayanna Thompson: “We’ve uncovered so much archival material to show that race did exist as a social issue back then.”

The title of an upcoming event hosted by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, for which Thompson serves as director, takes a playful jab at the outdated notion.

Race Before Race will bring together more than 200 scholars, students and community members from across the nation to ASU’s Tempe campus Friday and Saturday for a symposium that asks them to consider the study of race through the framework of classical texts.

“There’s a way in which having all these scholars together, talking through medieval and Renaissance texts and making them relevant to today is really, really powerful,” Thompson said.

The symposium will feature a dialogue between her and internationally renowned theater director Peter Sellars, in which they will consider the ways classical texts address contemporary issues.

Sellars, a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship, has staged plays internationally and collaborated with Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison.

“Peter Sellars is one of my favorite directors because he always forces his audience to dive headlong into the most challenging topics,” Thompson said.

Thompson talked to ASU Now about how Sellars does that and her thoughts on what medieval literature has to teach us about social issues today.

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Ayanna Thompson

Question: How did you become interested in medieval literature?

Answer: I’m interested in race studies, and it’s the time period in which the first major encounters with different cultures, religions and races were occurring on a mass scale. You can’t really understand how we think about race without going back to those origins of initial encounters and constructions of racial identity. It’s an extraordinary moment right now, because there’s a significant mass of medievalists of color and Renaissance scholars of color who are thinking along similar lines but never get to be in same room together. I initially thought of Race Before Race as a small event to bring these scholars together, but there are so many of them that what I imagined as an intimate dialogue will now be a public dialogue that includes students and community members from all over.

Q: Can you give an example of a classical work being employed to address a social issue in modern times?

A: In the wake of the Los Angeles uprising after the Rodney King beating, Peter Sellars staged a production of “The Merchant of Venice” on Venice Beach in California that made the audience think of race relations"The Merchant of Venice" is known for a famous speech on humanity. through a Shakespearean text. He also staged a production of “Othello,” a play that looks at what happens when black men are in positions of power, right after President Obama was elected. At the time, there was a national discourse around America being a post-racial society. Now, we all realize, “No, no, no, we’re not living in a post-racial society.” There’s so much we haven’t addressed yet.

Q: What are some contemporary works that owe something to classical texts in the way they address social issues?

A: I think there’s a lot in pop culture, for example, in rap songs, like when Jay-Z references “Hamlet” in his song “Marcy Me” on his album “4:44.” Maya Angelou always said she thought Shakespeare must have been a black woman. And Toni Morrison, who has worked with Peter Sellars, wrote a response play to “Othello” called “DesdemonaToni Morrison’s play "Desdemona" revolves around the title character’s relationship with the African nurse who raised her..” So there’s so much of that that swirls around, from visual art to music to theater to novels, in which classical texts are invoked as ways of thinking about contemporary issues, whether it be race, class, gender or ability. Classical texts end up being a common touchstone we can go back to. They often become a way to launch into the current moment in a more profound way.

Q: Are there any particular classical works that have especially salient lessons for today’s readers?

A: Yes, but it changes by the minute. I was just in London for an event for the Aspen InitiativeThe Aspen Initiative for Europe is a joint endeavor of the seven European Institutes that aims to pool the national resources and strengths of each partner around common values, shared ideas and policy proposals., and I led a session called “BrexitBrexit, a portmanteau of “Britain” and “exit,” refers to the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. and the Bard” at the same time they were having the vote of confidenceOn Dec. 12, 2018, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May won a vote of confidence, defeating an attempt by some of her party to oust her and install a new leader to take control of Brexit. with Theresa May. It was unbelievably profound because even though Shakespeare could not anticipate Brexit, his work has so much to say about how an English national identity was forged and what parts of that still work and what parts don’t. In reading plays like “Henry V” and “King Richard II” and “King Lear,” the participants couldn’t believe how prescient certain passages were.

Race Before Race

What: A two-day symposium that will bring together medieval and early modern race scholars who are seeking to push their fields in new archival, theoretical and practical directions.

When: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18–19.

Where: Carson Ballroom in Old Main, on the ASU Tempe campus.

Admission: Free and open to the public. Registration is requested.


Top photo: An ancient tome with miniature illustration, open inside a display case of the Austrian National Library in Vienna on May 20, 2017. Photo by Getty Images

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What spots did we miss? Tweet your photo @asunews.
January 16, 2019

Iconic locations on all four campuses that are perfect for taking your latest profile pic

You dreamed of going to Arizona State University. You applied, were accepted, and now you’ve arrived. You’re a Sun Devil!

You’re also a member of the digital generation, which means you’re going to want to post a picture of yourself somewhere on campus.

ASU Now has put together a list of places that provide a perfect backdrop to proclaim you now bleed maroon and gold. Forks up, Devils!

Tempe campus

The mothership of the ASU empire has a scenic spot for every taste: vintage, contemporary, natural or Southwestern.

Old Main Steps

ASU Old Main Tempe campus

On a campus packed with state-of-the-art buildings, students flock to have their picture taken in front of the oldest building in the entire university.

Old Main was constructed before Arizona became a state. It was the first building built at ASU (then called the Tempe Normal School). It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated the Roosevelt Dam from the front stairway in 1911.

Anywhere on the steps will work, but some people like to pose beside the “Normal School 1894” engraving at the top of the steps.

University Monument Sign at University Drive and Cady Mall  


At the other end of the spectrum from a Victorian building built from sandstone is the monument sign at the north end of Cady Mall. Sleek, contemporary and built from granite, marble and steel, it has the full university name and logo as well. During graduation week there’s practically a line there.

The Pitchfork


The 6-foot, 3-inch-tall bronze pitchfork sits at the southeast entrance of the newly renovated Sun Devil Stadium. A symbol of school spirit and the perfect place for fan photos, the statue was installed just last August.

Palm Walk

ASU Palm Walk

Connecting the north and south ends of the Tempe campus, Palm Walk is the most beloved corridor on campus. It is lined on both sides with date palms, which provide shade and an annual date harvest.



Nothing says, “I’m in Arizona,” like standing next to a saguaro. (No — literally. They don’t grow anywhere else.) The Arizona state flower can be found on the west end of Orange Mall or in the Desert Arboretum Park, a 2.5-acre botanical park located north of Wells Fargo Arena.

West campus

ASU’s arm in the West Valley, this Oxford-inspired campus is quieter than Tempe, but no less lovely and with traditions of its own.

Paley Gates

paley gates

Touching the Paley Gates links the beginning and end of a Sun Devil’s experience at the West campus. The gates, designed by modernist sculptor Albert Paley, are touched by incoming freshmen and by graduates each year before their commencement ceremonies. Anticipating the impact of the university on incoming students and looking back on life lessons learned by graduating students, the tradition pays respect to how ASU has touched the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s leaders. 

The Bool Bell

bool bell

Sandwiched between the University Center Building and Faculty/Administration Building sits the Bool Bell. Named after donors Herb and Betty Bool, the bell’s silver and copper clapper is sounded to mark the beginning of convocation twice annually. It also calls high school student marchers to gather each year for the Jan. 15 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Seniors traditionally ring the bell after completing their last final exam.

Statue of a Woman Looking Into the Future

ASU West statue

This spectral statue in front of Fletcher Library may not spark recognition outside the ASU community, but posing beside her indelibly stamps you as a Westy.

Polytechnic campus

The “Maker Campus" with an airport right outside its classroom doors, a bee lab, an algae farm and wildlife aplenty definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer. So do its students and faculty. Show your Poly pride at these spots.

The Water Tower

ASU Poly campus water tower

The water tower is to Poly what Old Main is to Tempe. Head out to the flagpole or the parade grounds to catch the tower over your shoulder in the back of the shots.

The Iron ASU on Backus Mall

asu logo

This icon seems to resonate with everyone.

Downtown Phoenix campus

ASU’s pitchfork point in the heart of Phoenix, the downtown campus produces lawyers, journalists, nurses, businesspeople and public servants — many of whom will spend the rest of their lives in cities. If this is your campus, you’re going to want something that says “big city” as well as ASU.

'Her Secret Is Patience'

Her secret is patience

Actually her "secret" is this large-scale art piece's proper name, which almost no one knows. The floating sculpture across the street from the Cronkite School building was called “Sky Bloom” during construction. Names aside, "Her Secret is Patience" makes for a great backdrop. Head over to Civic Space Park, get the Cronkite building with its ASU logo and recognizable floating nets behind you, and strike a pose. You’re a Downtown Devil now.

Photos by Marcus Chormicle/ASU Now; top video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News