image title

ASU center receives grant to expand, diversify premodern critical race scholarship

September 21, 2021

Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies will use $3.5M grant to extend reach of field in both higher education and wider public discourse

In 2019, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University made a definitive statement to the academic world about the issue of race in premodern studieswork that covers the ancient period up the 17th century when it hosted its inaugural RaceB4Race conference: Not only did race exist as a social issue back then, it deserves to be reconsidered in our modern-day interpretations of classical texts.

In the years since then, the RaceB4Race symposium — which comprises the ongoing conference series as well as a professional network community for scholars from across the country to engage on issues of race in premodern literature, history and culture — has grown considerably. Now, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is recognizing the impact RaceB4Race is making with a $3.5 million collaborative, cross-institutional grant to be dispersed over three years.

woman standing behind a lectern, clapping

Ayanna Thompson

“The investment that ASU has made in premodern studies is unprecedented, and the Mellon grant allows us to sustain, build and innovate the important work we started with RaceB4Race,” said Ayanna Thompson, director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and creator of the RaceB4Race symposium. “There can be no doubt now that ASU is leading premodern studies in the 21st century.”

The goal of the grant is to expand and diversify the reach and tools available to those contributing to the robust body of premodern critical race scholarship, which, while having revealed some of the earliest formations and elements of systemic racism, has yet to find its way into higher education curricula and wider public discourse.

“Our understanding of the foundations of our society from the past is essential,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “We created the destructive social construct of race over time, and need to understand how and why. This focused grant helps us to sort out and solve for this significant error.”

Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, also expressed enthusiasm for the grant’s potential.

“Under the visionary leadership of Ayanna Thompson, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies has become the leading international voice for finding in the past visions for a more just and humane future,” he said. “The center’s work on premodern critical race studies has been trailblazing, and to see its endeavors so robustly supported by the Mellon Foundation (itself a model for transforming the humanities) is a dream come true.”

Video by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

The grant will provide funding for the hiring of new staff members, postdoctoral fellows, predoctoral fellows and undergraduate students to engage in activitiesSome of the activities will be housed at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, headed up by Patricia Akhimie, and at Brandeis University with Dorothy Kim — both original members of the RaceB4Race executive board. that include:

  • Creating a full spectrum of premodern critical race studies content for use in higher education. This content will be a range of free material from exemplar syllabi and recommended readings for specific courses, units of study, standalone modules (for hybrid and online teaching), web-based annotated texts and primary documents, mini lectures (both audio- and video-based), demonstration lectures and recorded roundtables. These materials will be freely available.
  • Addressing the early stages in the academic pipeline by inviting postdoctoral fellows, predoctoral fellows and undergraduates to create Gen Z-targeted peer-to-peer social media content that reveals and explores premodern globalism and the earliest constructions of racial formations. The vast majority of this content will be researched, designed and created by postdoctoral and predoctoral fellows.
  • Changing the way scholars and graduate students are mentored in premodern critical race studies by developing a horizontal community of care that specifically addresses several different inflection points in a scholar’s career, such as isolation in their field and/or in their home department/institution; under-advisement about what it actually takes to transform one’s premodern/interdisciplinary critical race scholarship into a book; and multiple, competing institutional demands prior to promotion to full professor.
  • Training scholars and postdoctoral and predoctoral fellows in digital, personal and institutional safety as is prudent of those encouraged to become public intellectuals.
  • Supporting the development of premodern critical race scholars as public intellectuals in an effort to address a current dearth of diversity among scholars in the field. In two separate cycles during the course of the grant, a yearlong virtual workshop will be held to train cohorts of up to six scholars on the ins and outs of being a public intellectual.

This is a win not only for RaceB4Race but the field of premodern studies at large.”

— Associate Professor Ruben Espinosa

Ruben Espinosa, a noted Shakespeare scholar who is the author of “Shakespeare on the Shades of Racism,” joined ASU in March as an associate professor of English and associate director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

“ASU’s RaceB4Race has redefined the way we think about premodern studies,” Espinosa said. “With its field-changing, visionary programming, RaceB4Race has quickly ascended as one of the most significant professional network communities in the nation for premodern scholars of color. Without doubt, the Mellon grant allows RaceB4Race not only to deliver on its commitment to promote premodern critical race studies, but it will also provide us with the resources and opportunities to lead our field in exciting new directions with racial justice at the fore. This is a win not only for RaceB4Race but the field of premodern studies at large.”

Both Thompson and Espinosa look forward to seeing how the knowledge creation and dissemination systems made possible by the grant will challenge the European medieval structure of the academy — a system they say prioritizes individuality, competition and exclusion — and model what it means to re-create it in a structure that prioritizes the collective, cooperation and inclusivity.

Top photo: Scholars take notes during the "Appropriations: A RaceB4Race Symposium" event at ASU's Tempe campus in January 2020. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

image title

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.

ASU professor  headshot

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