Nearly thirty years ago, a small group of Black, Indigenous, Brown, and Asian scholars working in “Renaissance English Literature” challenged the idea that race was unimportant before the “Enlightenment.” The insertion of race, racism, and race-making as a defining element in constructing universalities based on whiteness, settler colonialist and colonialist ideologies, and anti-Blackness was deemed unnecessary and anachronistic. The construction of a historical past within and around early modern English history ignored the presence of non-white peoples or insisted the numbers were too negligible to matter. Of course, as we’ve come to learn, the Past is never as obvious as it may appear on the surface, especially when one is removed from said histories by centuries, geographic spaces, and a techno-global economy burdened by the ideologies and systems of racial capitalism.
It is not an understatement to say writing about “race” in relation to early modern English literature and its Past was a challenge. Yet, a theoretical and critical practice emerged that fundamentally altered twentieth-century scholarly writings about early modern English culture. Premodern Critical Race Studies (PCRS) insisted on the intersectionality of race-making, gender, sexuality, and class in the early modern English cultural representation of itself. From the start, PCRS concerned itself with the literary, visual, performative, social, and cultural moments of racism and recalibrations of race-making necessitated by the advent of early modern imperialism, early modern white settler colonialism, and the ideological use of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous representations. Indebted to Critical Race Theory and Black feminism for its theoretical foundations, PCRS recognized and continues to recognize the importance of attending to the usage and circulation of texts local to a specific culture and temporality while questioning the idea of their universality.
From this theoretical and critical intervention, the collection of essays in this anthology emerges as next gen PCRS. The authors strategically explore the relationship between “affect” and “race” in early modern texts such as William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Thomas Heywood’s Fair Maid of the West, Edmund Spenser’s The Faire Queene, or Philip Massinger’s The Renegado — texts that circulate in classrooms, on the stage, and in publications. In the aftermath of the murders of Black men in the United States, the rampant rise of fascism across the globe, the indifference on the part of white-centric governments primarily in Europe and the United States toward indigenous peoples around the world in the advent of the coronavirus, and deadly misogynist assaults on LGTBTIA people, these authors brilliantly demonstrate why, even in the twenty-first century, continued attention must be paid to early modern English literary texts and their role in race-making.
Often, we cannot be sure a book will have an impact beyond a small coterie. Can and will Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature have an effect? The answer is yes. The authorial voices here represent a fundamental sea change. These are the descendants of that small band of intrepid scholars who insisted on the study of race, racism, and race-making in early modern English culture. These voices complement and carry forward the need for critique, interrogation, and revolutionary thinking about the Past and its histories — both as affect and effect. Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature is the collective resistance of an emerging generation of Premodern Critical Race scholars and scholarship to a field rooted in racism, homophobia, misogyny, and classism. With these profound and intuitive readings, this collection reminds us that affect is central to race-making.