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ASU medieval center brings conversations about race to our nation’s capital

The Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies will host the Race Before Race symposium to engage the past, ask questions about our present and imagine better futures

Participants engaged in conversation at RaceB4Race in January 2019

Participants engaged in conversation at the Race Before Race symposium in January 2019.

August 27, 2019

We don't often think about medieval and Renaissance culture. While brushing our teeth, driving to work or school, cooking dinner or checking email, we are not consciously sifting through our knowledge of Shakespeare, Chaucer or Beowulf. And yet, those narratives, those belief systems, are constantly swimming through us.

“These premodern stories are ingrained in who we are as a society,” said Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and professor of English. “Many people who don’t even know they’re quoting Shakespeare have used the phrase ‘To be or not to be.’” 

In the last few years, we have seen the destruction and despair that can be fostered by the misuse of these narratives. The shooter who committed acts of terror on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, inscribed references to medieval history on his clothing and weapons. White nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, displayed medieval symbols on their clothing and signs, not to mention the ongoing, continued misusage of medieval and Middle Ages rhetoric and symbolism in alt-right, white supremacist online channels.

Even within the field itself, concerns of systemic violence and racism are at the forefront of conversations. Earlier this year, the largest academic gathering of medievalists, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was boycotted by many scholars, including some members of the group Medievalists of Color, for suppressing the voices of marginalized scholars.

This is where Race Before Race comes in. 

In January of 2019, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies held the first Race Before Race symposium, featuring scholars of color focusing on urgent contemporary issues through the lens of medieval and early modern culture.

These scholars were Dorothy Kim, Patricia Akhimie, Noémie Ndiaye, Seeta Chaganti, Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, Cord J. Whitaker, Urvashi Chakravarty, Kim F. Hall, Jonathan Hsy, David Sterling Brown, Carla María Thomas and Farah Karim-Cooper. They are leaders in their fields in thinking about race in premodern contexts; they also push their fields forward with a focus on social justice through such canonical touchstones as the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer and the epic Old English poem "Beowulf."

#RaceB4Race has become one of the most-used Twitter hashtags for premodern race studies, garnering over 1,000 tweets during that first symposium, and many more since. References to Race Before Race are being published in academic journals and spin-off events are being curated all over the country. 

“Race Before Race has been so successful because there’s a hunger in medieval and early modern studies for understanding expanded archives, new methodologies and new scholarly practices,” said Thompson. 

Next week, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies is bringing Race Before Race to our nation’s capital. In partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., scholars of premodern race studies will gather to hear talks from Geraldine Heng, Margo Hendricks, Michael A. Gomez, Su Fang Ng, Marisa J. Fuentes, Michelle M. Sauer, Dennis Austin Britton, Haruko Momma, Mary Rambaran-Olm, Carol Mejia LaPerle, Elisa Oh, Wan-Chuan Kao and Ruben Espinosa.

“It’s particularly important to have Race Before Race in our nation’s capital — in this moment when dialogues about race are more fraught than ever, even in the highest levels of government,” said Thompson.

Medieval and Renaissance studies engages the past to ask questions about the present and imagine different, more inclusive, futures. And though we may not think about its daily influence on us, it is a politically urgent field — one that sets the stage for larger conversations about society, politics and the future.

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