Podcasting Las Casas and Robert E. Lee: A Case Study in Historicizing Race

Elizabeth Spragins

[print edition page number: 451]
Classes that focus on early modern history, literature, and thought have lost much cachet amid today’s academic interest in “marketable skills” and a fast-moving news cycle.[1] This may be due to our society’s commitment to what some early modernists decry as a prevailing “ideology of presentism,” the challenges of making pre-modern culture relevant to students trying to make the most out of an expensive education, or part of a broader crisis in the humanities.[2] In the face of waning humanities graduate programs and job markets, why should undergraduates read sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature? What does Bartolomé de las Casas, sixteenth-century Spanish friar and social reformer, have to do with twenty-first century political or social activism? How can a Portuguese chronicle from the fifteenth century possibly help us to better understand the United States or, even more microscopically, a small college in rural Virginia, such as the one where I taught this course?[3] These questions and so many others about the Renaissance and early colonial American history may be difficult for undergraduates to answer because of the devaluation of historical awareness in American secondary education and the myth that a degree in the humanities leads to poor employment prospects. [452]

The danger of “presentism” becomes even more urgent when we focus on the history of racist ideology and systems. A key feature of these systems of oppression is the insidiously widespread common-sense understanding of race as a timeless, biological category that divides humans into inevitable and natural categories.[4] If we accept that the notion of preordained racial categories remains a major factor in the perpetuation of systematic racism throughout the world and particularly in the United States, it is historically and ethically incumbent upon university instructors to debunk these preconceptions. In my experience teaching “Comparative Critical Race Theory and the Early Modern Creation of Race,” in this iteration, an intensive, four-week, bridge course aimed at second- and third-year Spanish majors, asking students to historicize race by listening to and creating podcasts engages them through a medium that is innovative and approachable. It also encourages them to develop empathetic and careful listening skills, and it provides a model for composing their own ideas into written and spoken form. Put in other terms, podcasting as a method for historicizing race asks students to think carefully about whose voices they are listening to, both literally and metaphorically; what voices should be amplified; and how to add their own voices to this important conversation. This essay presents the contours of one course that used podcasting to address the conundrum of how to historicize racial and racist ideology for students living in the United States after 2016, when Donald Trump was elected President. [453]

Questioning Audible Voices in the Classroom

As a teacher trained and experienced in teaching Spanish as a second language and tasked with teaching a bridge (200-level/intermediate) course for undergraduate Spanish majors, I approached the ethical and historical problem of how to teach early modern race in part as a question of language pedagogy. In part thanks to Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil’s more expansive understanding of second language pedagogy and learning, proficiency and literacy, I regard upper-level classes in Spanish as continuations of the language sequence and as opportunities to expand my students’ language proficiency as well as cultural, historical, and social literacy.[5] How could undergraduate students gain second-language proficiency by reading, writing, listening, and speaking about the history of race in the Western Hemisphere? How does developing their proficiency in those linguistic domains also enable them to think critically about their position within systems and ideologies of race and racism in the twenty-first century? In this course, analyzing and discussing emotionally charged issues like race in a second language allowed second-language learners to gain critical distance from ideas which, in their first language, they might take for granted along with their first-language fluency. Similarly, the course demonstrated that a greater depth of knowledge of systems of human classification in other languages, societies, and time periods allowed students to gain perspective on their own language, society, and time.

Since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016, the audibility and visibility of white supremacy in the nation has skyrocketed. Widely covered events like the white-supremacist dominated Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville (August 11–12, 2017); the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, PA, targeting Jewish people (October 27, 2017); and the El Paso shooting targeting Latinx people (August 3, 2019) have drawn media attention to what many critical race theorists and social justice activists have been arguing for decades: racism is alive and well in [454] the United States, and many of the country’s most respected institutions are not just steeped in but built on white supremacy. It has become clear that how academia deals with racism both inside and outside the classroom must extend far beyond calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and embark instead on the more challenging work of grappling with academia’s own complicity as historical beneficiary of literal and ideological violence directed at racialized minorities.

At the small college in rural Virginia where I taught my course on “Comparative Critical Race Theory and the Early Modern Creation of Race,” local concerns about race and racism were highly charged and urgent. Students and faculty alike were dissatisfied with the college administration’s tepid response to the Charlottesville rally and a KKK leafleting campaign on campus.[6] These troubling events were exacerbated by the college’s long-term commitment to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, its historical aversion to and ongoing difficulties with admitting a diverse student body and hiring and retaining diverse faculty, and the conservative leanings of some alumni.[7] Finally, some members of the community [455] immediately surrounding the college engaged in a number of troubling practices, including holding annual parades of people dressed as Confederate soldiers on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and openly displaying Confederate flags in the downtown area. The few Latinx students I taught in this context frequently expressed frustration at the institutional expectation that they would stand as representatives for their ethnic and cultural groups when these issues were addressed. These concerns were pressing for all the students entering my classroom, and they regularly entered our discussions from their various ethnic and cultural positions.

I realized that I could not solve any of these problems as an individual. During an intensive four-week term, however, I sought to make my classroom a community that opened a conversation about the history of race and racism as a Transatlantic phenomenon shaped by the influence of power and economic interests. At an institution where student and alumni voices can motivate change in the administration, it was my hope that the students I reached would go on to push for broader institutional changes both while they were students and after graduation. Even if the institution does not satisfactorily resolve these issues, I wanted my students to leave our class with a better understanding of what created our modern understanding of race, as well as a greater ability to engage in educated and civil conversations about the impact of race and racism on the world.

Amplifying Underrepresented Voices to Link Past and Present

In designing my syllabus, I sought a balance among podcasts, secondary sources that surveyed the major tenets and concerns of critical race theory, primary sources that situated the histories we were covering, and other materials that addressed contemporary issues in which the students were emotionally invested. The auditory component of the class emerged from one of its organizing principles: to disrupt institutional [456] silence on these points through conversation. In choosing a guide for the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, a movement originally based in law schools, I prioritized selections that were accessible and engaging but that challenged students to think critically about the role of race not just in a legal setting but more broadly in society.[8] Ultimately, I saw the early modern texts playing multiple and important roles in raising my students’ awareness about the historicity of race and the prevalence of racism in the present day. These texts were intended to be relatively safe sites in which to practice evaluating strategies of racism. Here, too, was evidence of the artificiality of racialized systems: the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of fifteenth-century racism are all abundantly clear. By learning to question these texts, students began to practice habits of antiracist thought.[9] While in other academic settings, I might have more heavily weighted the syllabus with primary texts from Transatlantic, Iberian, and Latin American literature, for this place and this time, I chose to teach the class as a primer for my predominantly white, American-born students.

The backbone of the syllabus was a collection of podcasts that deal with race from diverse perspectives and across a number of time periods, including Seeing White, Code Switch, and Uncivil.[10] Some of these podcasts [457] spoke to the early modern origins of race; some addressed particular contours of American racism in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries; still others highlighted the negative health effects of racism on particular human bodies through telomere shortening and other results of chronic stress. These podcasts accordingly gave students a sense of ongoing contemporary conversations (emotional, factual, and historical) about the devastating history and effects of race and racism on lives in this country. At an institution with a disproportionately high white population, the question of voice was a live and constantly present issue in my classroom.[11] Throughout her work on education as a practice of freedom, Black feminist bell hooks emphasizes the importance of “voice” in engaged classrooms. She asks: “Who speaks? Who listens? And why?”[12] Similarly, Delgado and Stefancic, in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, discuss the centrality of the “voice of color thesis” to justice for some critical race theorists: namely, the contention that “minority status [ … ] brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.”[13] On the one hand, it was important for students to hear voices of color speak to their experiences of race and racism, but on the other, it was an unfair burden to impose on the few students of color in my classroom that they be solely responsible for making voices of color heard.

The medium of podcasts was an obvious resource that introduced and amplified voices of color both in and out of the classroom and expanded the viewpoints to which students had access. It also redirected my students’ attention away from my own voice toward the voices on podcasts and toward one another’s voices. The visceral emotional impact of these podcasts on my students is best expressed in their own words. One course evaluation remarked: “There was never a time that I read something for class or listened to a podcast and didn’t have some sort of deep [458] thoughts about it. In fact, there were several times when I gasped aloud or audibly said, ‘Wow,’ because a shocking fact or story had been presented.” While, of course, many podcasts are just as edited and produced as written sources are, audible media can convey a personal and affective impact in ways difficult to achieve in writing, often because of the ineffable emotional effect of the human voice on its listener or the apparent spontaneity of the spoken word. On a more mundane level, presenting my students with a broad range of podcasts gave them an archive of models to imitate and adapt when they were asked to create their own podcasts for the final project, which I will discuss in greater detail below.

In addition to the assigned podcasts, students read Delgado and Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction to gain familiarity with the basic tenets and major contours of critical race theory, as well as to learn key terminology that scholars use to discuss race and racism.[14] This text proved useful for a number of reasons, many of which were due to its design as a text to be used in a classroom: the accessibility of its language, the clarity with which it defined and used terms, the thought-provoking questions found at the end of each section, and the extensive bibliography which directed students to more specialized resources depending on particular areas of interest. In blog entries for each class meeting, students often shared that they found what they had read in this text eye-opening, while in their final projects they incorporated frameworks and key terms that they had learned in this primer. While a wider selection of critical material about theories of race and ethnicity is available, Delgado and Stefancic is pitched at a level that is accessible to undergraduates while surveying the landscape of this sophisticated field.[15] [459]

Correspondingly, students learned about the historical and legal origins of twenty-first-century American racist ideologies by reading some of the early modern texts that scholars of race identify as the origins of white supremacist thought in the Western Hemisphere.[16] We start with the court historian Gomes Eanes de Zurara (c. 1410–c. 1474), who chronicled Portuguese conquests along the African littoral during the middle of the fifteenth century. Students read the first chapter of an English translation of his Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (1453), which establishes Prince Henry the Navigator as Zurara’s patron and thus delineates clear economic, political, and social motivations for portraying in a positive light the beginnings of what would become the Transatlantic slave trade.[17] They later read chapters twenty-five and thirty-six of the same chronicle, which depict the first slave markets in Lagos and Lisbon (Portugal) in the 1440s. Providing more context for Zurara’s text were excerpts from critical race scholar Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, as well as an interview Kendi recorded with John Biewen in Part Two of Seeing White. Students remarked on the dramatic cognitive dissonance at work in these scenes, in which Zurara simultaneously describes in detailed terms the suffering inflicted on these first victims of the global slave trade while also seeking to dehumanize them or justify that suffering in religious terms. The clear influence of the royal family’s economic interests in exploiting these human beings as assets became a touchstone for the remainder of the term. Referring back to Zurara as a tainted and unreliable source, students readily identified or questioned the economic interests underlying racial language in later works, while also doubting the credibility of certain faith-based pretexts for exploitative behavior and practices.

Students went on to read excerpts from the first voyage from Christopher Columbus’s Diary, in which they encountered depictions of Europeans’ [460] first encounters with the indigenous populations of the Caribbean basin.[18] In preparing students to read these sections, it was particularly useful to contextualize the intellectual underpinnings of the voyage as a continuation of “Reconquest” ideology, which pitted Christians against Muslims in stark religious, linguistic, territorial, and racial terms.[19] Constructive for unpacking these medieval precursors to Columbus’s worldview was historian David Nirenberg’s article on “Race and the Middle Ages,” which cogently summarizes concerns in the scholarly community as to whether “race” is anachronistic to the medieval period, while also acknowledging the productivity of drawing comparisons between medieval and modern understandings of human difference.[20] Key to their discussion of Reconquest discourse throughout the Diario was recognizing the extent to which prescribed language, actions, and concepts dictated what Columbus attempts to present as an unscripted encounter. A crucial point in our discussion of both Zurara’s and Columbus’s representations of European imperialism was unpacking the language of environmental determinism, the belief that race and its traits commonly associated with it (appearance, intellectual abilities, work ethic, etc.) are the result of environmental factors. Our discussion of this theory of race, and the closely related Curse of Ham, which exegetically assigns certain regions of the known world to sons of Noah and their descendants, [461] opened a conversation about the suspect role of science and scientific discourse in perpetuating systematic racism.[21]

The third major primary text that anchored the course was Bartolomé de las Casas’s Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies] (1543), a critique of atrocities committed by Spaniards against the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas in the first decades of Spain’s colonial project.[22] In many ways, this was the text with which students most identified ideologically — Las Casas does not sugarcoat his descriptions of the abuses perpetrated in a wide range of contexts, and the grotesque behavior of the Spaniards makes it easy for readers to choose sides — but had the most difficulty getting through emotionally. While earlier in the class, students were eager to point out logical fallacies or contradictions committed by Zurara and Columbus, the graphic depictions of rape, murder, and torture in the Brevísima relación often left them at a loss for words. Despite their discomfort with these passages, they also recognized the discursive and moral force these sections marshalled to galvanize the reader to act against injustice.

This wide-ranging syllabus sought to make early modern texts accessible to students working in their second language by relating them to issues of immediate and urgent concern, as well as by assigning secondary materials, both written and aural, that provided historical and cultural context for what they were reading. The accessibility of the early modern materials, in turn, gave students a more comfortable arena to practice evaluating and criticizing racist behaviors and strategies of early modern people before being asked to turn the same lens on their own communities. The rich class discussions that emerged from the students’ deep engagement with these materials and the fluency with which they moved [462] between the pre-modern and contemporary issues speaks to the productivity of putting these materials in conversation with each other.

Students’ Voices in the Classroom

The central purpose of the course was to encourage students to develop the tools, linguistic and otherwise, to examine their beliefs and attitudes surrounding race and those expressed by others. Second-language literacy scholar Alan Hirvela insightfully identifies reading as a process and skill that is inextricable from writing; students who wish to become effective writers must first learn what it means to be a good reader.[23] It follows that students who wish to become proficient speakers must also learn to be good listeners. The assignments for which they were responsible asked them to use all modalities of language — reading, writing, listening, speaking — in different ways and contexts to enhance their proficiency in engaging with and discussing these issues. Assignments were designed to encourage them to rehearse language and ideas in lower-stakes environments so as to increase their confidence and willingness to participate in such conversations outside of the classroom. By engaging in formal and informal writing and speaking assignments both individually and collaboratively, students practiced using a broad range of registers and language to examine a wide range of issues.

In the first class, we agreed to create a community of mutual respect and understanding and to hold one another accountable for our shortcomings. We established a regular practice of reading, listening, and writing on low-stakes assignments, like blog entries and written responses to podcasts, to develop a common language for analyzing and examining racism at the level of individuals and systems.[24] Given the added complication [463] that the majority of my students were speaking and writing in a second language — Spanish — the question of appropriate vocabulary was a particularly present one for the class. One important activity from the first week of instruction came on the first day of class: students spent an hour before the next class looking for resources in Spanish for how to discuss race conscientiously. The next day, students worked in small groups to create an initial glossary of terminology that we as a community were comfortable using. Some of this vocabulary was, by necessity, literally translated from an American context into Spanish, since it reflected the particular needs and preferences of individuals in our classroom in the rural American South. As our discussions evolved over the course of the term, new vocabulary continued to flesh out this shared lexicon. The collaborative nature of this assignment was meant to get them thinking about community and the inescapable fact that racism can only be combated when groups of people mobilize to change systems.

Despite the lexical challenges presented by discussing issues of race in a second language, these proficiency limitations actually lowered affective barriers for the challenging conversations we were trying to have. During breaks, I would occasionally solicit informal feedback from students about how they felt discussions were going, and if they would prefer to continue a particular conversation in English rather than Spanish. While I knew these students were invested in maintaining a Spanish-speaking space for their pursuit of linguistic proficiency, almost without exception they explained that their linguistic preferences were dictated by a greater sense of safety in that second-language learning space. This sort of learning environment implied a greater degree of cooperative communication among language learners and generosity in listeners. On my students’ account, listeners in this setting would be more likely to assume that errors in communication or slips of the tongue were an inevitable result of the language-learning process, rather than of underlying ill intent on the part of the speaker. In other words, discussing race in a second language [464] meant that everyone assumed that everyone else would make mistakes, and those mistakes were just part of the process.

Discussions of both primary and secondary sources were initiated alternately through direct contributions to the class blog or comments on classmates’ entries, due by midnight the night before class. Each class meeting began with discussions of the most recent blog contributions in pairs or small groups. A fixture in second language classrooms, discussions in pairs and small groups are widely recognized to do critical work for student learning: it gives students more opportunities to practice and produce language; it gives less-vocal students the chance to rehearse language in lower-stakes situations; it can serve as motivation if students compete with one another, and so on. In this class on critical race theory, the small group or pair was critical for allowing students to rehearse ideas in a more private setting. Many students expressed considerable anxiety about saying the wrong thing and inadvertently offending their classmates. By giving them the chance to first articulate ideas in writing on the blog, and then to discuss their ideas with a few classmates they trusted, students had several chances to settle on language they were comfortable with as well as question and refine underlying assumptions before having to speak their ideas in front of the entire classroom.

On days for which students had listened to a podcast, class began with time for individual, written reflections in Spanish on the podcast that had been assigned for the day. Students produced concise summaries, identified surprising or compelling facts or perspectives they had learned from listening, and related them to critical race theory concepts we had discussed thus far. Subsequent small-group discussions of these reactions meant that students uncomfortable speaking in front of the entire class could begin to explore these challenging and complex ideas with just a few peers before having to articulate their reactions more publicly. These initial conversations were opportunities for self-reflection and for beginning to build toolkits of antiracist habits of thought. The discussions acted as the backbone of the class as students got more comfortable with each other and with seeing, voicing, and starting to unravel their own internalized biases. Over the course of the four weeks, the conversations students had about “the problem of race” more frequently began to include recognitions [465] of the ways in which they themselves participated in perpetuating it, as well as race and racism as an abstract issue.

As they witnessed this conversation, students learned vocabulary and terminology to structure and monitor their own language, and looked for spaces to make their own, local contributions. Their final project was to deploy the critical framework we had begun to develop over the course of the term to produce a podcast that engaged in a meaningful way with an issue concerning race or racism. Students worked in pairs to create a podcast in which they used an element of critical race theory to frame an issue, text, or event of particular interest to the students. The assignment encouraged students to go out into the university community and engage classmates and mentors in conversation about some of the issues we were discussing in the classroom — thus expanding the range of contexts in which students felt competent to participate in and initiate conversations about race in their broader community. Using the free audio-editing software Audacity, groups edited and mixed ten-to-fifteen-minute episodes with music, sound effects, interviews, and recorded commentary in which they examined their topic. Along with their final edited podcasts, they created “show-notes” to accompany the sound file that provided background and context for the podcast. In these show-notes, students gave brief summaries of their theoretical framework, links to related articles, and research that allowed listeners to more fully appreciate their podcasts. The resulting podcasts discussed a range of local topics and concerns, including intersectionality and the margins of identity, the experience of students of color in the university’s system of fraternities and sororities, and the differences in racial discourse between Panama and the US, this final topic informed by a student’s bicultural background. The students presented their projects to the rest of the class during the final week of the course, with time for questions from classmates. This question-and-answer period productively pushed students to engage in spontaneous conversation about topics to which they had devoted considerable thought. [466]

Conclusions and Suggestions for Podcasts for Teaching Race in the Renaissance

One of the single greatest challenges of discussing race and racism for students in a predominantly white classroom, or in more general forums, is the fear of getting it wrong. What if I open my mouth and say the wrong thing, and, all of a sudden, everyone in the room sees me for what I am: a racist? Or, what if I’m asked to speak as the representative, token person of color in a predominantly white space? What if I’m made the object of racist microaggressions? Writing about race and racism is, if possible, even scarier. In the classroom scenario, there is at least the possibility that the faux pas one just committed will have been missed by other inattentive students, too busy scanning Twitter on open laptop screens to pay attention to a companion’s stuttering slip-up. Writing, on the other hand, leaves a record, a time-stamped mark on the page that indelibly records the time that you got it wrong. Such high stakes mean that conversations about race in the US are often superficial, “designed to protect our fortresses of identity and to spare us from excavating those places where guilt and hurt, bitterness and anger, lie not at all deeply buried.”[25]

As a new and diverse medium, podcasts exist in a liminal place between these two extremes. In generic terms, podcasts may provide one model for how civil conversations about race can take place going forward: on the one hand, citizens engaging in careful consideration and research in controlled environments, but on the other hand, those same citizens participating actively and spontaneously in interactions with other members of society. Wanting that conversation, believing that it is acutely important, and knowing how to engage in it are entirely different things. Approaching this problem through the frame of language proficiency gives the students concrete tools for thinking deliberately about what they do with their voice, while also giving them the space in which to use it. Producing a podcast requires extensive preparation and planning but can also emerge as the result of spontaneous conversations between [467] two or more people that happened to be captured digitally. A return to the Renaissance roots of modern-day racism through podcasts encourages students to develop their own voices and engage with others as they examine the ways power and economic interests shaped the earliest versions of present-day ideology.

Discussion Questions

  1. How should we adapt our pedagogical approaches to the racial and ethnic, composition of the class? Especially in predominantly white classrooms, how can we make space for voices of color without tokenizing them or making students of color into native informants?
  2. How do we create a classroom environment that fosters multi-racial dialogue and combats microaggressions and other forms of aggressive comments and behavior? In other words, how do we minimize harm to all students while still fostering dialogue and reflexivity in the classroom?
  3. How might engaging with contemporary issues of race from an early modern perspective open space for discussing race as a historical, social ideology not a biological inevitability, and, perhaps, provide a more affective distance for us to observe, reflect upon, and critique racist and racializing ideologies?
  4. How can podcasting and other forms of new media provide unique strategies for historicizing race? In what way do these media prompt us as a learning community to think carefully about voice: voices we are listening to, both literally and metaphorically; what voices should be amplified; and how to add our own voices to this important conversation?
  5. How might second language pedagogy give us new tools and approaches for teaching race in the Renaissance? Using these strategies, how might we constitute classrooms that lower affective filters (emotional variables associated with success and failure); empower learners to become socially aware risk-takers while learning; create safe environments for learners to share their thinking, make mistakes, and assimilate corrections? [468]

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bernhardt-Kamil, Elizabeth. Understanding Advanced Second-Language Reading. London: Routledge, 2010.

Branche, Jerome. Racism and Colonialism in LusoHispanic Literature. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds. Critical Race Theory; The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press, 1995.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. With a foreword by Angela Harris. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Earle, Thomas Foster, and K. J. P. Lowe, eds. Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Hirvela, Alan. Connecting Reading and Writing in Second Language Writing Instruction. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Jones, Nicholas R., Cassander Smith, and Miles P. Greer, eds. Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2015.

  1. Benjamin Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis. Students are abandoning humanities majors, turning to degrees they think yield far better job prospects. But they’re wrong.” The Atlantic, August 23, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/the-humanities-face-a-crisisof-confidence/567565/.
  2. Sidney Donnell, “Don Quixote in the Balance: Early Modern Studies and the Undergraduate Curriculum,” in Approaches to Teaching Cervantes’s Don Quixote, 2nd ed., edited by James A. Parr and Lisa Vollendorf (New York: MLA, 2015), 200.
  3. As I discuss in greater detail later, this institution was a small liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 1,800 undergraduates and 400 graduate students.
  4. This misconception is common, despite ample scholarship and mainstream media that attests to the contrary. Disseminating information about the history of race as a constructed category also pushes back against white-washed images of pre-modern Europe, a live issue among pre-modern scholars in light of recent controversies about white supremacist appropriation of medieval studies. See, for example, Jennifer Schuessler, “Medieval Scholars Joust with White Nationalists. And One Another,” The New York Times, May 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/05/arts/the-battle-for-medieval-studies-white-supremacy.html.
  5. I am indebted to Bernhardt for this training. See her Understanding Advanced Second-Language Reading (London: Routledge, 2010).
  6. Will Dudley, “KKK Leafleting,” W&L Messages to the Community, October 26, 2018, https://www.wlu.edu/the-w-l-story/leadership/office-of-the-president/messages-to-the-community/2018-19/kkk-leafleting/. Alison Graham, “W&L condemns hate group’s flyers found on campus,” Roanoke Times, October 29, 2018, https://roanoke.com/news/education/w-l-condemns-hate-groups-flyers-found-on-campus/article_aa16a3ef-6e97-501d-a2d5-fd118a37008c.html.
  7. I taught this course in a previous appointment in the Romance Languages Department at Washington and Lee University. US News & World Reports currently ranks WLU’s “campus ethnic diversity” in the bottom third of their list of national liberal arts colleges. “Campus Ethnic Diversity: National Liberal Arts Colleges,” US News & World Reports, accessed August 5, 2019, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-liberal-arts-colleges/campus-ethnic-diversity. Certainly, such statistics are not the only way of thinking about race or diversity in academia, but I use this here as a metric of the extent of the institution’s particular limitations on this point, both historically and at present. I am not the first to draw attention to WLU’s struggles with race, diversity, and its history of white supremacy. See, for example, Taylor Dolven, “Faculty consider leaving college named for Robert E. Lee after president rejects recommended changes to campus,” Vice News, September 9, 2018, https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/kz5eye/faculty-consider-leaving-college-named-for-robert-e-lee-after-president-rejects-recommended-changes-to-campus.
  8. For graduate students already familiar with some of the basic concepts of critical race theory, for example, the comprehensive edited volume Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: The New Press, 1996), would directly expose students to foundational articles that shaped this school of thought. Given my undergraduate students’ lack of familiarity with these ideas, I instead adopted the more accessible summary given by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in their volume Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, with a foreword by Angela Harris (New York: New York University Press, 2001).
  9. On such habits, see Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019).
  10. Scene on Radio: Seeing White, season 2, February–August 2017, produced by John Biewen, podcast, MP3 audio, https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/. Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, Code Switch, produced by Shereen Marisol Meraji and others, podcast, MP3 audio, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/. Uncivil, produced by Kimmie Reglar and others, podcast, MP3 audio, https://gimletmedia.com/shows/uncivil.
  11. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 40–41; 148–51.
  12. hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 40.
  13. Delgado and Jean, Critical Race Theory, 9.
  14. Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory.
  15. The bibliography is now extensive. Some more sophisticated options addressing race past and present might include: Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, and Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory; Thomas Foster Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, eds., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M. L. Moya, eds., Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (New York: Norton, 2010); Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2015).
  16. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016), 15–30. James H. Sweet, “The Iberian Roots of American Racist Thought,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997): 143–66.
  17. Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, trans. Charles Raymond Beazley, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  18. Christopher Columbus The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. and trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).
  19. The ideologically loaded, nineteenth-century historiographical term “Reconquest” or “Reconquista” broadly refers to the period of conflict between 711 and 1492 in which Christian forces “re”-conquered tracts of territory throughout the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim control following the Umayyad conquest of the region during the first half of the eighth century. For a survey of the idea of reconquest in medieval Iberia, see Luis García-Guijarro Ramos, “Reconquista and Crusade in the Central Middle Ages. A Conceptual and Historiographical Survey,” in Crusading on the Edge: Ideas and Practice of Crusading in Iberia and the Baltic Region, 1100–1500, eds. Torben Kjersgaard Nielsen and Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt, 55–88 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2016).
  20. David Nirenberg, “Race and the Middle Ages: The Case of Spain and Its Jews,” in Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Difference in the Renaissance Empires, edited by Margaret R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 71–87.
  21. See Benjamin Braude’s excellent survey of the relationship of the Curse of Ham to medieval and early modern discourses of race in “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997): 103–42.
  22. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, ed. André Saint-Lu (Madrid: Cátedra, 2003); Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, ed. and trans. Nigel Griffin, with an introduction by Anthony Pagden (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).
  23. Alan Hirvela, Connecting Reading and Writing in Second Language Writing Instruction (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2004), 1–8.
  24. Chenjerai Kumunyika speaks eloquently to the importance of focusing on the systematic rather than the individual. “Part 1: Turning the Lens,” February 15, 2017, in Scene on Radio: Seeing White, produced by John Biewen, podcast, MP3 audio, 10:15–12:50, http://www.sceneonradio.org/episode-31-turning-the-lens-seeing-white-part-1/. See also The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, “Our Principles,” Undoing Racism®, accessed July 23, 2019, https://www.pisab.org/our-principles/.
  25. Leonard Pitts, Jr., “The Challenges of Writing for White People,” Literary Hub, February 12, 2019, https://lithub.com/the-challenges-of-writing-for-white-people/.


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