Carol Mejia LaPerle

How does it feel to be a problem?
~ W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

How does it feel to be the problem of feeling?
~ Fred Moten, In the Break (2003)

To be a problem is the being-ness of blackness
~ Calvin L. Warren, Ontological Terror (2018)

In W.E.B. Du Bois’s development of the concept of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk, he evokes the metaphor of the color-line to critique the obstacles to African American civic engagement, economic prosperity, and social standing. In this landmark analysis of early twentieth-century racial politics, he poses a distinctly intimate question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”[1] In his provocation, feeling is simultaneously an experience and an attribution. He articulates a social categorization embedded in the accusation that the individual is disjointed from or disruptive of the dominant ideology, that the individual is a “problem.” But beyond this attribution, the syntax (as a question) extracts from the subject’s position an articulation of affect. “How does it feel” is an invitation to put into words the nexus of relations, dispositions, and sensations that constitute the racialized subject’s lived experience. Fred Moten conjures this sentiment when he asks: “How does it feel to be the problem of feeling?” indicating not just the affective experience of a divided self, but also a nonnormative phenomenology characterized as the sense of error or erasure in relation to feeling itself.[2] For Moten, to be “the problem of feeling” is to dwell on a condition manifested as both a disruption of order and the source of creative potential. Building on these philosophical considerations, Calvin L. Warren locates in Blackness the disturbance, the contradiction, and yet the very foundation of racial subjectivity. “To be a problem is the being-ness of blackness” signals a metaphysical claim to selfhood marked by its own alterity.[3] It is a complaint about the epistemological grounds for being-ness itself, locating in metaphysics the imbrication of subjugation and erasure within doctrines of autonomy. But Warren’s statement is also, in a less lofty, philosophical sense, a truism. The troubles, the struggles, the questions — the problems — of racialized subjectivity are disclosed by Black intellectuals as entrenched in feeling.

In its investigation of plays, poetry, letters, travel accounts, medical treatises, social documents, and performances, this collection connects modern Black scholars’ insights to a much longer history. It does so by building on the foundation established by early modern race scholarship, such as the ground-breaking collection Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period.[4] The editors, Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, stress the scare quotes around race in order to make apparent the institutionally sanctioned suppression of research on race in early modernity. From accusations of anachronism to outright denial of the existence of Black subjects in England, the critical status quo represented by those scare quotes determined not just whose findings were published, but also the influence and impact afforded them. The significance of racial thinking to early moderns had to be justified repeatedly, despite evidence and analyses to prove not only the presence of this thinking, but also the widespread social impact of English engagements with, and representations of, racial difference. The process played out something akin to Joyce Green MacDonald’s investigation of racialized women in Women and Race in Early Modern Texts.[5] MacDonald brilliantly demonstrates that the compulsion of early modern authors to appropriate dynamic representations of non-white identity nonetheless Europeanized, and attempted to elide, racial difference. This form of gaslighting, as it were, is replicated in the field’s compulsion to undermine race scholarship by insisting that the presence of racialized characters in literature was not indicative of the formations and operations of racial thinking.

Inevitably and permanently, the efforts of premodern critical race scholars shattered the scare quotes around race. [6] Hendricks, Parker, and MacDonald prevail as crucial arbiters for reading the intersections of race and gender in early modern English literature and culture. The painstaking archival work of Imtiaz Habib, the critique of humanist education and Renaissance rhetoric by Ian Smith, the connections between sexuality and racial formation by Arthur L. Little Jr., the innovative methodologies and performance analyses of Ayanna Thompson — these represent a portion of the substantial contributions to understanding how race influences social attitudes, political investments, interpersonal engagements, economic interests, and self-fashioning, then and now.[7] An anthology of primary texts on race compiled and edited by Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton, Race in Early Modern England, offers a crucial resource for teachers to share previously inaccessible materials with students.[8] Decades of premodern critical race scholarship, employed in the study of genealogy, language, economics, religion, clothing, behavior, skin color, and ethnicity expanded the materials and the methods through which Englishness, and its investments in racial formation, are analyzed.[9] For instance, Patricia Akhimie’s Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference is a milestone in bridging the visual and the nonvisual markers of race by showing how conduct literature, and the modes of surveillance and discipline it codifies, inflict the painful physical marks and ascribe the intellectual defects that racial subjects are accused of being born with.[10] Notably, the revolutionary examination of colonialism and empire in Kim F. Hall’s Things of Darkness models an intersectional lens for examining race, gender, and class across a wide range of literary texts and visual artifacts. Many of the chapters in this collection are profoundly indebted to Hall’s inimitable scholarship.[11] Racial thinking influences the reading, performance, and experience of literature today, and fundamentally shapes the future of our discipline. In the inspiring words of Thompson, whose RaceB4Race initiatives and symposiums have challenged the racism endemic to the field, “Race is not a niche subfield. Wake up academy. We’re here.”[12]

Not a subfield, indeed, since Premodern Critical Race Theory (PCRS) draws from scholarship in the social sciences, law, and humanities in order to expose the violence attending racialization in the archives and our classrooms, from metaphysics to economics, writ in law and widespread in popular culture.[13] In its dedication to social justice and opposition to white supremacy, Critical Race Theory exposes the histories and legacies of slavery.[14] These histories and legacies continue to create racial hierarchies, facilitate social oppression, and obscure the mechanisms of racism in everyday life. Literature is part of this legacy, but it is not enough to simply point that out. Beyond recognizing the operations of race formation and racism in texts, PCRS amplifies resistance and empowerment by employing what bell hooks calls “the right to gaze” at what is deemed normal or beyond inquiry: “an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.’”[15] Many of the chapters here begin with an unflinching look at the operations of race mobilizing whiteness in the formation of an English commonwealth. Ruth Frankenberg’s definition articulates how whiteness is not simply a matter of representation, but rather, central to the politics of domination:

[Whiteness is] a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically, and culturally produced, and, moreover, are intrinsically linked to unfolding relations of domination. Naming “whiteness” displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance. Among the effects of white people both of race privilege and of the dominance of whiteness are their seeming normativity, their structured invisibility … To look at the construction of whiteness, then, is to look head-on at a site of dominance.[16]

While sites of dominance in early modern English literature comprise a portion of our findings, they are only part of the antiracist orientation of this collection. Critical Race Theory, as it informs the study of premodern literature and culture, necessitates a different relationship with scholarship.

To this, the chapters abide by hooks’s defiant “oppositional gaze” as a posture of skeptical discontent, as a troubling of one’s relationship with the text, as a challenge to normative methods of inquiry, and as an apprehensive disposition towards Western epistemology. All of which is meant to lay the groundwork for change in how we read, research, teach, and experience early modern texts. As Marissa J. Fuentes points out in her study of enslaved women whose lived experiences must be culled from the documents of slavery, “How do we critically confront or reproduce these accounts to open up possibilities for historicizing, mourning, remembering, and listening to the condition of enslaved women?”[17] Borrowing Fuentes’s formulation, this collection historicizes, mourns, remembers, and listens with attentiveness to feelings and impressions that forgo adherence to established forms of knowledge building. To demonstrate this point in a deceptively simple manner, I ask readers to notice the range of approaches essayists have taken to tackle key racial terms. Instead of insisting on uniformity, the collection offers authors a chance to elaborate on their choices. It might seem like a trivial point to decide whether or not “Black” should be capitalized or to insist on lower case “east,” but in fact the choice, as well as the controversies and debates that choice evokes, is a demonstration of a kind of relationship to discourse — one that is self-reflexive and attentive to the moment. This is not a matter of being politically correct. It is safe to say that many authors in this collection are productively controversial. Instead, troubling key concepts reflects skepticism about the stability of racial terms and the concepts they are meant to capture; it demonstrates a willingness to critically interrogate foundational premises; it resists the reproduction of normative methodologies which have historically been used to serve white supremacy. We are not interested, in other words, in making the use of these terms easier for ourselves or for anyone else.

Additionally, engagement with Critical Race Theory includes questioning our premises about what is worthy of investigation.[18] Which subject positions are privileged and which are, by violent design, erased or distorted? How do we reckon with the incomplete traces left by this violence? Part of reckoning includes acknowledging the ephemerality and contradictions accompanying this kind of work. Critiquing the conventional heuristics that underwrite humanist agendas, Alexander G. Weheliye asks, “what different modalities of the human come to light if we do not take the liberal humanist figure of Man as the master-subject but focus on how humanity has been imagined and lived by those subjects excluded from this domain?”[19] To this important question, Race and Affect adds — what are the feelings, dispositions, and senses that accompany the representation of racialized subjectivities beyond the “liberal humanist figure”? For those “excluded from this domain,” how does race feel?

In its application of transdisciplinary methodologies to the study of intersubjective experiences, responses, dispositions, and emotions, affect studies is invaluable to literary analysis.[20] To early modern English literary scholarship specifically, affect studies has offered explanatory vocabulary and theoretical interventions for investigating the history of passions, querying the ecology of a performance space, and exploring the affective communities formed out of shared or diverging dispositions.[21] A characteristically broad and often abstract application does not hinder usefulness, as conveyed by Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg’s explication: “Because affect emerges out of muddy, unmediated relatedness and not in some dialectical reconciliation of cleanly oppositional elements or primary units, it makes easy compartmentalisms give way to thresholds and tensions, blends and blurs.”[22] In other words, feelings, responses, dispositions, arousals, intensities, sentiments, and the sensorium — some of the traces of affect that comprise this collection’s inquiries — are explored in their contradictory, messy, precognitive, linguistically elusive forms.[23]Affect’s circuitous and ubiquitous characteristics have been described by scholars as an unthinking reaction to stimuli. Eric Shouse explains that “At any moment, hundreds, perhaps thousands of stimuli impinge upon the human body and the body responds by infolding them all at once and registering them as an intensity. Affect is this intensity.”[24] Reaction to stimuli might take the form of a prickle of fear, or a stab of recognition, or a charge in the air. These are reactions to one’s external environment but intensely felt as if from inside, so to speak. Affect as intensity mobilizes, transfers, and gets under the skin, which is Teresa Brennan’s point when she claims that “The ‘atmosphere’ or the environment literally gets into the individual.”[25] It is precisely the autonomous, ambient features of affect that interest many contributors in this collection: the ways affects belong to no one, but is experienced by, and with, everyone.[26]

Yet to point out the blurring and blending of affect between individuals, to study what Seigworth and Gregg call the “in-between-ness [that] resides as accumulative beside-ness,”[27] is incomplete if it fails to account for how appositions influence group dynamics as these, in turn, shape individual experiences. Lauren Berlant reminds that “affective atmospheres are shared, not solitary,” and that “bodies are continuously busy judging their environments and responding to the atmospheres in which they find themselves.”[28] Building on Berlant’s point, it is worth noting that judgments are rarely neutral and that ephemerality is not innocuous. Kathleen Stewart captures this point in her study of the sensorium, claiming that “power is a thing of the senses.”[29] Individual experiences of intersubjectivity — for instance, a disposition towards certain smells, or a reaction towards another’s facial expression, or sensing that you are, or are not, welcome in the room you just walked into — are embroiled in ideologies, narratives, and forms underwritten by socially stratified power structures. The world affects always, but not equally.

Affects do not just transmit through bodies, they also influence, attribute, and categorize in ways that reflect and reinforce unequal power structures. In her study of spectacles of animated bodies and the nasty, bestiary affects they convey, Sianne Ngai illustrates how “emotional qualities slide into corporeal qualities in the case of racialized subjects, reinforcing the notion of race itself as a truth located, quite naturally, in the always obvious, highly visible body.”[30] Such demarcations not only render the raced body highly visible, easily manipulated, and sentience depleted (in Ngai’s words, “inert” or “mechanical”), they also serve a disciplinary function. Oppression and marginalization are inflicted on those represented and perceived as highly visible, easily manipulated, and sentience depleted subjects. In other words, the people of color targeted with the attribution of “emotional qualities [that] slide into corporeal qualities” are the very people often beleaguered by the disciplinary force of racialized, affective experiences.[31] It also goes the other way: whiteness is indexed by the affects that attend and enable its privileges. José Esteban Muñoz makes this point when he criticizes “a cultural logic that prescribes and regulates national feelings and comportment. White is thus an affective gauge that helps us understand some modes of emotional countenance and comportment as good or bad.”[32] Race informs affective experiences and vice versa: the intensities, sentiments, dispositions, and states that constitute affects have a long history of contributing to racial formation. Still, affect’s power to cultivate and intensify belonging or exclusion, its ability to render visceral and thus naturalize machinations of control enacted on bodies, its influential yet unthinking priming towards how we treat people, in other words, affect’s contributions to racial subjectivity and race relations, are as formidable as they are understudied.

This collection seeks to intervene by drawing from affect theory to understand the relational, interpersonal, and ambient operations of race-making in the early modern period. Race and Affect not only addresses racial formations and racist ideologies through affect theory, it also premises that race formation is connected to intersubjective experiences, responses, and dispositions in ways cultivated by and reflected in early modern English literature. Whether through plays or poems, letters or medical treatises, literature does something to those who consume it. Affiliations with or dissonance from the world represented on the page, impressions that lodge in the mind long after reading, the senses evoked by descriptions both alluring and disgusting, a ripple in the audience at a poignant moment in performance, sympathy with or rejection of a character’s suffering — these affective experiences inform our interpretation of, and interaction with, the world. Affects depicted in early modern English literature are not only available to racializing regimes, they also mobilize the experience and the attribution of race and racism.

Race is not a coherent ideology, or a stable experience, or an innate characteristic; rather, its operations and expressions are repeated, reiterated, reinvented in the context of social and cultural histories. Yet the insidiousness of race is precisely that it can feel coherent, stable, and innate at an immediate and visceral level, rendering spontaneous what is instead a complex network of ideological pressures. What is the role of early modern English literature in this phenomenon of the visceral components of racialized experience? The visceral denotes that which is “affecting the viscera or bowels regarded as the seat of emotion; pertaining to, or touching deeply, inward feelings.” Additionally, the visceral resides in both physiological and anatomical domains, existing in “internal organs” and “those parts of the brain which mediate bodily activity.”[33] The visceral blurs what is felt and what is embodied, and as such prompts the following questions with regards to race and affect: What are the visceral experiences of racial formation and racist ideologies as these shape the contours of affective communities? How do modalities of affect — through the sensorium, or via emotions, or in sexual encounters — come to signify race? What is the affective register of anti-Blackness woven into the production and reception of literature and how do its harms pervade scholarly practice? Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall assert, in the Introduction to their 2016 Shakespeare Quarterly special issue, that “race, as an ideology that organizes human difference and power, is always protean and sticky, attaching to a range of ideologies, narratives, and vocabularies in ways both familiar and strange.”[34] The visceral aspects of race take their cue from the “familiar and strange” in the circulation of affective relations, reactions, and resonances. Race and affect are embroiled in how we read, perform, research, and teach. The chapters to follow identify and analyze moments through which feelings experienced and responses encountered, sensations intensified and dispositions aroused, signify racial formation and mobilize the racism at its wake.

The first section, “Racial Formations of Affective Communities,” investigates how affect and race are foundational to group categorizations and the communities that emerge. These chapters tarry over moments of conflicted, concentrated, and affectively charged encounters that, on the one hand, provide the signs and the opportunities for belonging and, on the other hand, become catalysts for race-based exclusions. Preceding any coherent strategy for global engagement or a stable conception of nation-building, affectively charged encounters and imaginings in these texts nonetheless establish borders along racial lines. Ambereen Dadabhoy’s “Imagining Islamicate Worlds: Race and Affect in the Contact Zone” interrogates Islamophobic demonizations on the pages of early modern texts. Dadabhoy scrutinizes what this overdetermined affective register does to the reader who is excluded from an English, European, and white identity and who therefore identifies with the very subject who is demonized. Dadabhoy foregrounds the racialized subject’s vexed relationship with her scholarship by providing insights on the historical and contemporary affects of Islamophobia in Philip Massinger’s The Renegado, thus revealing the limits of a universalized, white subject. Troubling the universality of whiteness by exploring foreign queens in “Desire, Disgust, and the Perils of Strange Queenship in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene,” Mira Assaf Kafantaris examines state power and racial reproduction in allegory. As a groundbreaking intervention in Spenser studies, Kafantaris investigates “a racial logic that embeds miscegenation within the framework of allegory and its moral and apocalyptic concerns.”[35] Feelings of disgust and sentimentality are powerful nation-building forces, mobilized through the foreign queen whose role in the English commonwealth destabilizes the political, sexual, and religious foundations on which that commonwealth rests. Departing from the England allegorized in Spenser’s epic poetry, the next chapter considers the letters sent from the outposts of colonial expansion. In “New World Encounters and the Racial Limits of Friendship in Early Quaker Life Writing,” Meghan E. Hall innovatively examines the archives of white female voices in New World encounters. Hall provides an investigation of the expansionist missionary project of 17th century Quakers through an analysis of the affects of disorientation and disconnection emerging from such correspondences. A focused reading of Alice Curwen’s letters outlines the communities and affiliations that ultimately rest on exclusions and denunciations, thus illuminating the complicities of white femininity, particularly white female fear, in the race-making tactics unique to religious expansionism. The final chapter in this section enhances our understanding of affect and race by critiquing exclusionary technologies employed through the sensorium. Querying the circulation of prejudice in “Early Modern Affect Theory, Racialized Aversion, and the Strange Case of Foetor Judaicus,” Drew Daniel contextualizes anti-Semitism through an imagined and anticipated disgust. Foetor Judaicus, the allegation that Jews have a distinctive, unpleasant odor, conveys early indications of what will later be part of natural philosophy’s justification for racist differentiations. Daniel explores how affect anticipates exclusion and inclusion through the sensorium by asking how the senses “express, enact, and translate race into feelings, actions, and outcomes.” This chapter implicates the viscerality of the sensorium in establishing racial prejudice, as well as anticipates the next section wherein the expression, enactment, and translation of race intersect with early modern representations of gender and sexuality.

How these shaping views of inclusion and exclusion intersect with various forms of sexuality, from legitimate procreation to deviant longings, is the topic of the second section, “Racialized Affects of Sex and Gender.” In “Conversion Interrupted: Shame and the Demarcation of Jewish Women’s Difference in The Merchant of Venice,” Sara Coodin theorizes the internalization of shame as part of the racialized and gendered experience of self-loathing. The convertibility of the passing fair Jew, in plays like The Merchant of Venice, conveys how race thinking has the power to direct negative emotions inward. Shame and self-loathing, Coodin proves, are bound up with the processes that attend the racial othering of the fair Jewish woman, despite her ostensible inclusion into the fold of Christianity. Contrastingly, Kirsten Mendoza’s analysis of a female character whose claim to belonging is beyond reproach traces the racialization of gendered affects through the kiss of a white woman. In “Navigating a Kiss in the Racialized Geopolitical Landscape of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West,” Mendoza troubles the erotic politics of Heywood’s play by illustrating its cultural investment in white womanhood and racialized masculinity. Tracking how “the play validates xenophobic feelings in the process of cultivating racism,” Mendoza outlines the ways global encounters are rife with the intensified feelings and affective reactions that incorporate idealized Englishness abroad. Continuing the examination of assemblages of desire in erotic, commercial, and political realms, in “Branded with Baseness: Bastardy and Race in King Lear” Mario DiGangi locates in bastardy the problems of masculine racial formation. DiGangi’s attentiveness to Edmund’s famous soliloquy demonstrates that sexual transgressions attribute dispositions and emotions that constitute racialized affects. DiGangi outlines how the categorization and broadening of hegemonic power, as crucial features of racial formation, are problematized by the bastard because he disrupts indexes of sexuality in performance, virility, and procreative futures.

While the essays in the first two sections innovatively bring into dialogue the fields of affect studies and Critical Race Theory, this methodology is urgently needed for the study of anti-Blackness in early modern English literature. In his investigation of racialized subjectivity in the period, Matthieu Chapman demonstrates how the “staging of black flesh on the English stage [was] part of a continuum of anti-Black thought in the English psyche.”[36] The third section, “Feelings and Forms of Anti-Blackness,” investigates the emergence of an English psyche fundamentally invested in the negation and denial of Black personhood. The chapters analyze the corporeal, psychological, and emotional vectors in representations of anti-Blackness. These vectors cultivate the racialized affects that are later mobilized as justification for enslavement and its atrocities. The chapters also premise that what is felt and what is embodied in racist operations unleashed on Black subjects is unique and needs to be understood as such. In Frank B. Wilderson III’s terms, the extractive and dehumanizing violence that is the condition of enslavement and the foundation of Black suffering needs to be understood unfettered by the “ruse of analogy”: “because analogy mystifies, rather than clarifies, Black suffering. Analogy mystifies Black peoples’ relationship to other people of color. Afropessimism labors to throw this mystification into relief — without fear of the faults and fissures that are revealed in the process.”[37] Afropessimism outlines the exclusion of Black subjects from the identifications and privileges of humanity and, furthermore, argues that this exclusion is the very foundation of humanity.[38] As Sharon Patricia Holland reminds, “our examples of racial being and racist targets are often grounded in black matter(s). In this instance, the black body is the quintessential sign for subjection, for a particular experience that it must inhabit and own all by itself.”[39] Early modern English literature contributed to the feelings, dispositions, and senses that made the enslavement and subjection of Black people possible. To deny the canon’s complicity is to continue that subjection today.

The chapters in this final section show how early modern English texts participated in the formation of racial slavery and its attending affects in various ways, from material production to theatrical performance to literary form. What is the affective register of anti-Blackness mobilized by the early modern English canon? In “Black Ink, White Feelings: Early Modern Print Technology and Anti-Black Racism,” Averyl Dietering answers this question by scrutinizing print history. With specific attention to medical treatises, Dietering demonstrates how anatomical woodcuts convey the formation of feelings through the visual and textual codification of bodily difference. Whose bodies are afforded interiority and emotion versus whose bodies are the surfaces on which villainization and dehumanization are read, is recorded in the materials and ideologies generated by the technologies and artifacts of book history. Anti-Blackness in performance is the topic of Matthieu Chapman’s “Away, You Ethiop!”: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Denial of Black Affect — A Song to Underscore the Burning of Police Stations.” Chapman conveys the limits of affect in relation to the valuation of Black lives and the recognition of their suffering. Racist modalities in theatre go unnoticed because Black death is so integral to public entertainment. Chapman reveals how Shakespearean production, with its history of challenging the prejudices of sexual and gender difference, nevertheless remains complicit in normalizing racist language. Cora Fox considers the affects of anti-Blackness in the history of emotion in “Othello’s Unfortunate Happiness.” Fox probes the intertextual relevance of happiness to illustrate that Othello insistently and self-consciously challenges the “irregular and doomed circulation of joy” that attends the racialization of emotion. Contextualizing the appeal of happiness in the early modern period — from an outcome of good fortune to a mood — Fox challenges narratives of happiness and exhibits the exclusionary mechanisms embedded in “the hue of Othello’s joy.” Exclusion from positive affects is likewise formative in Shakespeare’s sonnets. In “The Racialized Affects of Ill-Will in the Dark Lady Sonnets,” I theorize ill-will as a racializing affect that problematizes kinship and kindness within the stylized, erotic persuasions delineating the poet’s fair and virtuous friend from the ruthless dark mistress who seduces both men. Rendered kinless and unkind, the dark lady’s consequent exclusions from the privileges of kin and the designations of kind underwrite the anti-Black violence embedded in the genre’s sexual politics.

Investigating the affective economies that contribute to the depictions and performances of race, this collection offers new ways of reading and interpreting literary traditions, religious beliefs, gendered experiences, class hierarchies, sexual knowledges, and social identities. The chapters pursue the overlapping questions relevant to book historians, theatre practitioners, early modern scholars of history, literature, and culture, as well as their students. But how relevant are these inquiries today? Why study race and affect now?

We struggled with this question during a pandemic, stalled by quarantine and paralyzed by uncertainty. Race and Affect was written while enduring the unprecedented anxiety and, at times, inconsolable grief, brought on by this extraordinary global event. In the course of completing this collection, some of our most visceral reactions, intense sensations, and profound feelings — our fears and confusions, certainly, but also loss and longing — were underscored by race and racism. And so it is just as important for this collection and its readers to ponder the racialized affects of millions of lives lost — many from the global south and, disproportionally in the United States, people of color on the front lines of 21st-century consumerism. Although far from being as important as documenting the loss of lives, it is also critical to dwell on what this collection could not bring to fruition. From the commencement of this project at the Shakespeare Association of America’s 2019 conference to its final configuration in front of a reader, good work was lost. An antiracist revolution, in which this collection aims to participate, remains unrealized partly because the labor of pursuing social justice and racial equity are laden on the backs of scholars of color. In rethinking our relationship to scholarship, it is worth considering the costs borne by the most vulnerable in our field and how much we all lose when their scholarly work is unrealized. The pandemic exacerbated inequities and enmities already directed at Black, Indigenous, and people of color scholars. This fact should be an impetus to action, in the form of eradicating biased gatekeeping in the profession, combating macro- and microaggressions in academia, and instituting measurable changes in hiring, publication, and funding.[40]

Race and affect, intertwined in circuits of feeling and identity, reveal something fundamental about contemporary lived experience. Beginning in summer 2020, a surge of righteous anger swept the globe. Protestors exacted reckoning for the deaths of innocent Black people, tore down statues of slave owners, and demanded the legislation of antiracist policies. Revolutionary awakening to the vestiges of slavery, as these played out in social media, in the news, in diversity statements, and in the streets, made apparent the burden of emotional and physical labor of advocacy and activism. But it did little to alleviate this burden for those most affected by the slings and arrows and bullets of white supremacy. Because, unlike the alt-white, fully armed radicals who, with minimal consequence, stormed government buildings and launched a traitorous insurrection, antiracist protestors — mostly unarmed and peacefully marching on public streets — were pepper-sprayed, hosed down, pushed away, kidnapped, beaten, and intimidated into disbursement by a militarized police force. And so the dire consequences of a global health crisis, and the racial injustices woven into the fabric of democratic life, are viscerally experienced — felt — by racialized subjects on the body and under the skin. The inexorable toll of COVID-19, as it sacrifices lives and lungs to assuage global capitalism from its own fragilities and flaws, reveals the glaring racial chasm between who bears the brunt of these crises, and who is spared.[41] The crushing omnipresence of systemic racism, funneled through a police officer’s knee bearing down on the neck of George Floyd, puts on display the targeted brutality unleashed on Black lives for centuries. Race and affect are in the breath taken in, and in the breath taken away.

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Millennium Publications, 2014), 4.
  2. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 77.
  3. Calvin L. Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 29.
  4. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds., Women, “Race” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London: Routledge, 1994).
  5. Joyce Green Macdonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  6. For the state of the field, see Ayanna Thompson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).
  7. Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible (London: Routledge, 2008); Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Arthur L. Little Jr., Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); Ayanna Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (London: Routledge, 2009); Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  8. Jonathan Burton and Ania Loomba, eds., Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  9. Many scholars consider historical contexts alongside their analyses of literature to investigate ideologies of power and iterations of racial identity. Beyond scholarship previously cited, see also Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Lara Bovilsky, Barbarous Play: Race on the English Renaissance Stage (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); Jonathan Burton, Traffic and Turning: Islam and English Drama, 1579–1624 (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2005); Kimberly Anne Coles, Bad Humor: Race and Religious Essentialism in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Sujata Iyengar, Shades of Difference: Mythologies of Skin Color in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Barbara Fuchs, Mimesis and Empire: The New World, Islam, and European Identities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Elizabeth Spiller, Reading and the History of Race (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). These are some of the monographs that have shaped the discussion of race in the Renaissance in enduring and influential ways by focusing on genealogy, language, rhetoric, economics, religion, clothing, skin coloring, and comportment. Understanding racial formation based on ethnic, physical, religious, or behavioral differences is essential to historicizing and critiquing the colonial projects and formative narratives of early modern race ideology.
  10. Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2018).
  11. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).
  12. Ayanna Thompson et al., “To Protect and Serve: A RaceB4Race Roundtable” (roundtable, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Arizona State University, 23 July 2020), recording posted by ACMRS on YouTube,
  13. For an introduction to Critical Race Theory, see Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, and Angela P. Harris, eds., Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2017); Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and George Lipsitz, eds., Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).The following scholars, many of whom are cited throughout this collection, constitute an important body of scholarship in Critical Race Theory: Derrick Bell, James Baldwin, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Jennifer L. Morgan, bell hooks, Achille Mbembe, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Patricia Hill Collins, Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, Patricia Holland, Toni Morrison, and Fred Moten.
  14. The impact and outcome of enslavement as a sociopolitical order that Hortense J. Spiller articulates as “human sequence written in blood,” as “a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile” cannot be overstated. (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 [1987]: 67).
  15. bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in The Feminine and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (London: Routledge, 2003), 94.
  16. Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 6.
  17. Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archives (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 1.
  18. Importantly, this change builds on, rather the obscures, the work of critical race scholars. Margo Hendrick calls out the “white settler colonizing” of a particular kind of analysis that obscures the mechanisms of racism by neglecting, erasing, or appropriating the decades long work of critical race scholars (“Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future: RaceB4Race” [lecture, “Race and Periodization” symposium, Folger Institute, Washington, DC, September 2019],
  19. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 8. In Denise Ferreira da Silva’s formulation of Sylvia Wynter’s challenge to ontology, she traces how Wynter “focuses on the ways in which the architectures of colonial juridical-economic power are encoded, and thus sustain, what it means to be human while also offering a refiguring of humanness that is produced in relation to the monumental history of race itself” (“Before Man: Sylvia Wynter’s Rewriting of the Modern Episteme,” in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. Katherine McKittrick [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015], 93 original emphases).
  20. Emotions and affect are not synonymous, but they occasionally overlap in that the “specific physiological responses that then give rise to various effects … may or may not translate into emotions” (Elizabeth Wissinger, “Always on Display: Affective Production in the Modeling Industry,” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007], 232).
  21. Early modern scholarship drawing from affect’s versatile “relatedness” to investigate audience/actor performances, to examine the history of passions, and to explore the networks of feeling informing early modern culture include Ronda Arab, Michelle M. Dowd, and Adam Zucker, eds., Historical Affects and Early Modern Theater (London: Routledge, 2015); Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson, eds., Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Robert Cockcroft, Rhetorical Affect in Early Modern Writing: Renaissance Passions Reconsidered (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Drew Daniel, The Melancholy Assemblage: Affect and Epistemology in the English Renaissance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013); Jeffrey Masten Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Amanda Bailey and Mario DiGangi, eds., Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts: Politics, Ecologies, and Form (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). While these monographs and collections address the transdisciplinary potential of affect theory in discussing representation and performance in the Renaissance, affects are not explored in relation to the structurality of race.
  22. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” in The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 4.
  23. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect (Cambridge: Polity, 2015); José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31, no. 3 (2006): 676–88.
  24. Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal 8, no. 6 (2005):
  25. Theresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. “The transmission of affect, whether it is grief, anxiety, or anger, is social and psychological in origin. But the transmission is also responsible for bodily changes; some are brief changes, as in a whiff of the room’s atmosphere, some longer lasting. In other words, the transmission of affect, if only for an instant, alters the biochemistry and neurology of the subject. The ‘atmosphere’ or the environment literally gets into the individual. Physically and biologically, something is present that was not there before, but it did not originate sui generis: it was not generated solely or sometimes even in part by the individual organism or its genes” (1).
  26. “Affect is autonomous to the degree to which it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is. Formed, qualified, situated perceptions and cognitions fulfilling functions of actual connection or blockage are the capture and closure of affect” (Brian Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” Cultural Critique 31 [1995]: 96 original emphasis).
  27. Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 2 original emphases.
  28. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 15.
  29. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 84.
  30. Sianne Ngai, “‘A Foul Lump Started Making Promises in My Voice’: Race, Affect, and the Animated Subject,” American Literature 74, no. 3 (2002): 573.
  31. For biopolitics of affects of sentimentality and impressibility, and hierarchies emerging from it, see Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
  32. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” 680.
  33. OED Online, s.v., “visceral,” adj. 1.a.; 2; 5.c.
  34. Peter Erickson and Kim Hall, “A New Scholarly Song: Rereading Early Modern Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 12. This special issue features innovative race scholarship that bridges historical and presentist work while providing a re-vision of our engagement with the past.
  35. An important call to amplify research on race and Spenser is made by Dennis Austin Britton and Kimberly Anne Coles, “Beyond the Pale,” Spenser Review 50, no. 1 (2020):
  36. Matthieu Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other “Other” (London: Routledge, 2017), 33.
  37. Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020), 228 original emphasis.
  38. “What civil society needs from Black people is confirmation of Human existence” (Wilderson, Afropessimism, 219). The “confirmation of Human existence” hinges on the negation of the Black experience in relation to the privileges granted to full personhood within the commonweal.
  39. Sharon Patricia Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 4.
  40. See Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” MLA Profession, November 2019,
  41. For an explanation of the disproportionate health risks of/to minority populations, start with “Risk of Exposure to COVID-19: Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated 10 December 202, accessed July 2021,


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Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature Copyright © 2022 by Carol Mejia LaPerle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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