Matthieu Chapman and Anna Wainwright

[print book page number: ix]

“History is not the past. It is the present.
We carry our history with us. We *are* our history.
If we pretend otherwise … we literally are criminals.”[1]
— James Baldwin

In November 2019, three pathbreaking scholars in English early modern race studies, Kim F. Hall, Ayanna Thompson, and Kimberly Coles, co-authored a clarion call to arms for their colleagues. Published on the website of the Modern Language Association, “BlackkkShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” was a welcome jolt to the broader academic community. It reminds us that the very “assertion that studying medieval and early modern periods sheds light on the foundational texts of a so-called Western civilization has made the fields attractive to far-right extremists.”[2] Turning their attention to the “crisis of the humanities,” the three scholars tie recent drops in enrollments and the ever-present anxiety about the decline of the humanities directly to the lack of diversity in the fields of medieval and early modern studies. The world is not, they insist, “as it was imagined by the University of Chicago’s Great Books Program of the 1940s” — nor is the contemporary American student body the same as it was once constructed by the legally enforced “separate but equal” epistemology established in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) and overturned in Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In order for our fields to remain relevant and transformative, there is both a [x] “practical and ethical imperative” to expand the study of the past, the way it is taught, and who teaches it. We could not agree more.

Volume Origins

The production of this interdisciplinary collection on how to teach race in the European Renaissance was bracketed by two very American events which, nevertheless, are most relevant to the subject matter at hand.[3] The first was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017; the second, the attack on the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021. Both deadly events transpired in cities with a storied history. Charlottesville, founded in 1762, was home to two of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, who lived within its limits while serving as Governor of Virginia. Both chose to commute across the mountains to Richmond to conduct governmental business rather than leave behind their home in the lush forests of the Shenandoah Valley. Despite a population of little more than 48,000 today, the city boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Jefferson’s plantation of Monticello and the prestigious university he founded after leaving presidential office, the University of Virginia. The city’s deep significance to American history is perhaps why white supremacists chose Charlottesville as the location where they would “Unite the Right” in the summer of 2017 in ostensible protest over the removal of Confederate monuments.[4] With [xi] polo collars popped high and tiki torches held higher, these domestic terrorists — dubbed the “alt-right” by mass media — took to the streets, spewing hate-filled rhetoric from hate-filled hearts. One young woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when James Alex Fields, Jr., drove his car intentionally into a crowd of counter-protestors; many others were beaten and injured. The spectacular violence of the march recalled the early twentieth century, when the Ku Klux Klan and other groups would march openly through American streets, nooses in hand, in search of Black and brown citizens to hang from trees as both advertisement and affirmation of their belief in the superiority of the white race. In the flash of a flame from a two-dollar party store accessory, Charlottesville was forever repositioned in the American consciousness. No longer was this the birthplace of “all men are created equal.” Now the uglier side of city’s history — the slavery, the lynching, the violence — came to the fore. These white supremacists sought to assert exclusive ownership of the present by appropriating the past: the American Dream, that promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness dreamed up by the country’s forefathers, was theirs alone.

Charlottesville was still on the minds of many the following spring, including scholars of the early modern period. During a roundtable on teaching race at the 2018 Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting in New Orleans, numerous audience members began their questions with “In this post-Charlottesville world … ” The roundtable participants — many of whom appear in this volume — were not as willing as the audience to view this particular white supremacist rally as a watershed moment in American history. While the events of Charlottesville were shocking to many Americans both inside and outside of the academy, met with cries of “this isn’t the America I know!” for many others, the violent march in August 2017 was but the latest example in a long line of white supremacist attempts to appropriate the past as a political tool.

Our students see images from the periods we term the Middle Ages and Renaissance almost every day in popular culture; what they see, almost without exception, is a whitewashed version of a period of enormous diversity. The growing awareness in our field of how the history of racism — both American and globally — intersects with the study of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in particular, along with the conversations that occur between scholars about this violence, are too often contained [xii] to hotel conference rooms hundreds of miles from our classrooms. The whitewashing of imagery and ideas from the premodern periods both in popular culture and by open white supremacists thus goes undiscussed in classrooms, as well as unchallenged. So too does the role of nineteenth-century nationalism and the construct of “Western Civilization” in classes on ancient Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy, and Elizabethan England, as well as the deep cultural investment many have in propagating a linear narrative that leads directly to the neoclassical monuments and statehouses across the country. And while many of us who study the past know just how fundamental racial, religious, national, and ethnic diversities were to the fabric of premodern Europe, white supremacists rewrite history, spinning a tale of Renaissance racial purity and casting it as a societal, cultural, and ethnic ideal for contemporary America. Indeed, many of them arrived in Charlottesville in full Crusader regalia, complete with chainmail, helmets, and swords. Marching with shields and banners bearing premodern symbols — the red cross on a white background of the Knights Templar, runes from the Elder Futhark — they offered a false and dangerous narrative of history to consumers of mass media, from Fox News and Breitbart to CNN and Twitter. These mostly young, mostly male, white Americans offered the public an inaccurate pre-modern European history in their all-white image, presenting themselves as the modern manifestation of “white knights” of yore. Indeed, the term “white knight” itself, while positive to many, has nefarious, racialized undertones.[5] The “whiteness” of these knights is not divine, but rather relational. And while it does signal a moral cause of medieval crusaders, that morality establishes its whiteness as an antithesis to a series of darkened, racialized Others. In both the Medieval and modern senses, these cavaliers battle for the sanctity of their imagined white homelands and the mythological purity of their white race.

Since the public outcry over Charlottesville, the longstanding historical trend of weaponizing an idealized white past to legitimize racist ideas [xiii] has become more difficult for people to ignore.[6] In February of 2019, when Maryland police uncovered a white nationalist Coast Guard Lieutenant’s stockpile of arms and documented plans to start a race war, they also uncovered writings that hearkened to fantastical visions of restoring a racially “pure” Viking homeland to America.[7] In the March 2019 massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, the mass murderer covered his gun with the scratched-in names of “inspirational” figures from Western history who crusaded against Muslims. These included not just medieval warriors but early modern figures such as the Renaissance Venetian duke Sebastiano Venier, who played a central role in the Christian victory over the Muslim Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, a leader in the Battle of Vienna against the Ottomans in 1683. And on January 6, 2021, a white supremacist mob — whipped into a frenzy over false allegations of a stolen presidential election — invaded the neoclassical Capitol building in Washington D.C. to “stop the steal.” The insurrectionists included the man dubbed the “QAnon Shaman,” whose costume mixed appropriated symbols from cultures indigenous to the American continent with medieval Nordic ones.[8]

From slavery and colonization to the fight for Civil Rights and the epidemic of extrajudicial police violence against Black bodies, white supremacy has always governed our nation and guided both its discourse [xiv] and its conscience.[9] What makes the trajectory from Charlottesville to January 6th unique is that these events eschewed the veil of plausible deniability that usually conceals the racist underpinnings of American society and unabashedly embraced the myth of America as a whites-only nation. It is no coincidence that this primetime racism has come in the same years as the openly manufactured panic over the way the history of race in the United States is taught. Since August of 2020, right-wing media have led a “Crusade” against a new public enemy: critical race theory in American schools. While the sophisticated legal framework developed in the final decades of the last century by scholars including, among others, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell, is not actually being taught in most K-12 classrooms, that is very much beside the point. “CRT” is now used as a cudgel for any mention made of race or racism in American history by teachers, and 42 states have proposed or passed laws forbidding the mention of terms like “implicit bias,” “systemic racism,” etc. Members of the New Hampshire State Legislature recently proposed a bill that would update a McCarthy-era “loyalty oath” for public school teachers, by which they would have to swear not only to indoctrinate their students in Communism, but also any “theory” that suggests America was founded on racism.[10] The 1619 Project, conceived and spearheaded by the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and Macarthur fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones, argues that 1619, the year the first enslaved Black Africans arrived on [xv] North American soil, is a more accurate starting point for American history than 1776. Although the 1619 project is purely history and has no connection to Critical Race Theory, it, too, has become a flashpoint.[11]

Teaching the history of race and racism in the United States is under fierce attack. But racism and white supremacy are by no means America-only problems. Quite the contrary: racism and white supremacy pre-date the United States as a nation, regardless of whether one considers its founding to be 1776 or 1619. Education in the diverse history of premodern Europe — and its central role in the creation of the racialized modern society in which we live — is key to understanding the history of racism and shattering the mythological narratives of racial purity embraced by white supremacists. Indeed, the very historical symbols that hate groups deploy in support of their narratives are often grounded in a history that runs counter to such myths. The round, golden shield emblazoned with a black eagle that appeared in so many newspapers and media reports from the march on Charlottesville was the standard originally borne by Saint Maurice — a Black Roman general of African descent.[12] The classics scholar Sarah Bond was targeted in 2017 by white supremacists online for reminding readers of Hyperallergic, one of the world’s most popular online magazines of contemporary art, that the seemingly pure-white statues of ancient Greece and Rome were originally painted to demonstrate the many different ethnicities of antiquity, among other meanings.[13]

In their attempts to remake the past into an idealized, racially homogeneous vision for the future, contemporary American white supremacists thus draw attention to the problematic nature of “history” itself. [xvi] While it would be simpler to dismiss the problem of contemporary white supremacy and its relationship to the European past as a handful of radical terrorist organizations and far-right extremists, the ways in which the history of the period has been recorded, written, and legitimized by academia has long played a role in these bad faith appropriations. In recent years, resistance to early modern race studies — which has been instigated and produced overwhelmingly by scholars of color — has made its way into contentious debates over inclusion in conferences, often resulting in violence for those who dare to challenge the white status quo.[14] Scholars of color who have dared to transgress the white-limed walls and ivory towers of pre-modern histories have been met with resistance ranging from passive aggressive condescension to virulent hostility to outright racism. From public accusations that they owe their jobs to their race[15] to assertions that they don’t belong,[16] the evidence and argumentation of scholars of color and their attempts to de-anachronize race in pre-modern history have encountered an onslaught of emotion and white fragility.

Even with the obstacles to this work, over the past twenty-five years, scholars such as Kim F. Hall, Margo Hendricks, Ania Loomba, and Joyce Green MacDonald, and many others cited in the pages that follow, have worked diligently to problematize racially homogeneous constructions of premodern histories. These scholars have wielded evidence of racial thought with nuanced precision, uncovering the non-white presence buried within the whitewashed past. In doing so, they have challenged the white supremacist appropriation of a history that belongs to us all, and [xvii] opened up numerous fields of study to a more accurate, inclusive, and intellectually engaging history.[17]

The truth is that we all teach race in our classrooms, even if we do not do so consciously. We can either directly wrestle with the elephant in the room and through our struggle create something productive; or we can ignore the elephant, and in doing so, perpetuate a whitewashed history, alienating many of the students in our increasingly diverse classrooms.[18] More often than not, the elephant remains in a corner while students are taught one of the myriad versions of early modern European history in which the word “race” — and its multifaceted manifestations in multiple intersecting discourses — is absent from discussion. On occasion, the topic might sneak into the room, concealed by the handkerchief in Othello or the black skin of a demon in Dante’s Inferno, but absent larger contextualization and direct engagement in the classroom, the issues of race in the texts that students read become divorced from the world around them, relegated to a past that is not a part of “history.” To ignore race is to ignore the extraordinary opportunity to make the past accessible and relevant to today’s students, and to lose sight of a crucial tool for providing not only a more nuanced and accurate history, but also a more compassionate, progressive, and antiracist present.

But how does one incorporate race into a class on the premodern when race is not their area of scholarly expertise? We recognize the tension and [xviii] anxiety that can come with attempting to bring race into classroom discussion. Without proper training, this task can be damaging — the students’ education and the teacher’s status are both at stake. Discussing race openly immediately transforms the classroom into a political space; in today’s political climate, we understand the discomfort and danger that accompanies discussion of differentials of power in history in the past and today, as the raft of laws that attempt to outlaw any discussion of race in the classroom attest. We believe that the consequences of erasure, however, far outweigh the comfort of depoliticization — and that the more educators who bring the topic up, the less taboo it will be for future scholars and students. Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi have already asked teachers of Shakespeare, “Who benefits from a race-free, gender-free, sexuality-free and ability-free approach [in the classroom]? … Is it sufficient to espouse the value of diversity and not touch upon it in a Shakespeare unit?” Nahir I. Otaño Gracia likewise queries in an editorial on “What has academia lost? What have we lost by allowing racism to hurt people of color? … For one, we lose the scholarship of people who never return.” We encourage all educators to brave the discomfort in an effort to embrace those voices before they are lost. It is our responsibility to show students not only why the humanities matter today, but that they belong to them.

For those intrepid adventurers who wish to journey into the perhaps uncharted waters of race in the European Renaissances, we offer this book as a guide. What follows is a collection of essays, exercises, and lesson plans designed to be a star chart to help teachers navigate through these choppy waters both safely and productively, not only in the college classroom but in the high school one as well. While the gears of the academy slowly turn and the pool of scholars specializing in race in the European Renaissances slowly expands, this book will allow those already on the seas a beacon through which to shine light on the diverse bodies that contributed to the diverse European Renaissances, in various disciplines and topics of early modern history and literature. You may find yourself serving as a life raft for your students, letting them know “I see you, I hear you” — an ally in their struggles both inside and outside of the classroom.

The breadth of topics found in this volume are designed to open doors into discussing race in your classes on Renaissance topics regardless of [xix] your specialty or focus. Whether you are teaching literature, culture, art history, or music, are exploring Britain, Italy, France, or the Iberian Peninsula, this volume offers tools for combating white supremacy and diversifying your curriculum to incorporate the diverse bodies and voices that made the Renaissances periods of immense artistic, social, cultural, and scientific growth. Some essays are positioned to speak directly to students as assigned reading, but all are aimed at teachers, and many can be used across national traditions and subject matter.

Mapping Race: Britain from Shakespeare to Aphra Behn

The vocabularies and ideas of race with which Americans are most familiar, including the ways in which race intersects with skin color, nation, religion, and gender, exist in a continuum with those found in the Early Modern British Isles. This grammar, although originating from studies of Early Modern England, resonates throughout Anglophone studies of other early modern nations and cultures. To familiarize the reader with the varying discourses on race to be discussed in the following chapters of this section, Matthieu Chapman offers a brief description of and review of literature for each to help the reader expand on and contextualize the ideas presented. Chapman breaks down early modern British racial thinking into ten distinct but often overlapping discourses: blood and genealogy, nation, religion, color, gender, transnational constructions, processes and actions, pseudo-science, materiality, and metaphysics, designed to help teachers find ways to incorporate race into discussions of any of those topics that may occur in their classrooms.

Once the reader is familiar with the discourses on race in the early modern British Isles, the section turns toward the most familiar relic of the period to appear in modern classrooms: William Shakespeare. Maya Mathur’s “When Students Recognize Gender but not Race: Addressing the Othello-Caliban Conundrum” offers a lesson helping students to unpack the networks of racial and gendered violence in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Tempest. Mathur’s chapter guides professors and students through multiple primary sources from George Best, Richard Hakluyt, and others to help students understand how colonial and patriarchal oppression manifests across and throughout the racial and gender spectrums. [xx] Matthieu Chapman and Joshua Kelly then deploy contemporary critical race theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis in “Sight-Reading Race in Early Modern Drama: Dog Whistles, Signifiers, and the Grammars of Blackness” to argue that the early modern English audience’s familiarity with the genealogy of racial signifiers that appeared in devil characters on the stage allowed the audience to “see dog-whistles” of race where conventional blackening techniques may not have appeared. They analyze the intersection of racial, gendered, and religious discourses to unpack the semiotics of the staged witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth to argue that the figures contain a confluence of signs that made them read to the audience as the unrepresentable Black woman.

To limit the teaching of race in Renaissance English literature to the Bard, however, would be to do a disservice to the diversity of materials, thoughts, and scholars working on race in the time and period. The next three chapters argue for how race appears in three other literary titans of Early Modern Britain. First is Dennis Austin Britton’s “Teaching Spenser’s Darkness: Race, Allegory, and the Making of Meaning in The Faerie Queene,” in which he tackles how to work through the allegory and racializations evident in a text often accompanied by interpretative anxiety. Next, in “Causing Good and Necessary Trouble with Race in Milton’s Comus (Especially for BIPOC students in Early Modern English Classrooms),” Reginald A. Wilburn applies Congressman John Lewis’s famous term “good trouble” to teaching Milton in the early modern English classroom, especially for BIPOC students. Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey then turns to Aphra Behn with “Teaching Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as Execution Narrative.” Lodine-Chaffey shows educators how to use primary source documents related to slave rebellions and executions to re-read the connections between race, humanity, and violence present in Behn’s novella.

Closing out the section on the British Isles are two pieces that move beyond the bounds of the literary world and examine the larger culture of Renaissance Britain. In “‘The Present Terror of the World’: The Ottoman Empire in the English Imaginary,” Ambereen Dadabhoy tracks the ambivalent attitudes of envy and alterity present between Britain and the Middle East in the early modern world by analyzing Richard Knolles’s compendium The Generall Historie of the Turkes and its influence on Othello. [xxi] Her analysis unpacks the racializing logics that undergird the ambivalence between the two kingdoms, and she argues that these same logics undergird America’s current “War on Terror,” bridging the gaps between the early modern and the world of today’s classrooms. And lastly, Amrita Dhar’s “When They Consider How Their Light Is Spent: Intersectional Race and Disability Studies in the Classroom” shows educators how to use two sonnets of the same name, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” written centuries apart — one by early modern poet John Milton and one by modern poet Tyehimba Jess — to create intersectional awareness between race and disability studies for modern students.

Continental Europe

While there has been significantly less work done on race in continental Europe than in England during the Renaissance, the essays in this section are a sign of the growing attention to the subject in multiple national traditions, including Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese. Anna Wainwright opens the Italian section with an overview of how race can be addressed in the Italian Renaissance classroom. Discussions might include the racialization of Ottoman Turks after the “Fall” of Constantinople in 1453; Christopher Columbus’s role in the racialization of Italian Americans in the nineteenth-century United States; Italy’s participation in the slave trade; the Black African presence on the peninsula; and “lyric whiteness” in Petrarch.[19] Suzanne Magnanini then offers instructors a way to explore an understudied component of Giambattista Basile’s classic book of fairy tales, Lo cunti de li cunti, or The Pentameron, in “Ogres and Slaves: Giambattista Basile’s Fairy Tales of Race.” She centralizes the often-ignored character of Lucia, a Black enslaved girl who becomes princess through trickery and is generally read as a “negative exemplum” in contrast with the white Zoza. Magnanini guides teachers through how to use the book of fairy tales, which finds its way into many a college classroom [xxii] both within and outside of Italian Studies, to address the broad questions: “How might a literary genre grounded in “long ago” and “far away” fantasies allow us to examine the complex social historical realities of race and slavery in the early modern Mediterranean? How do gender and genre shape representations of race?” In “The Black Attendant in Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and in Modern Oblivion,” geared toward students, Patricia Simons situates the artist Titian’s famous representation of Diana and Acteon from 1559 within the broader intersecting contexts of race, gender, and trade in Venice. Simons challenges existing scholarship on the painting’s myopic focus on whiteness by analyzing the presence of a Black female servant in the context of recent art history scholarship on the popularity of the Black female attendant in Italian Renaissance painting. In doing so, Simons argues for a new, more nuanced reading of the figure that does not reduce her to the position of “aesthetic foil” to Diana’s glaring whiteness, or, alternately, to an allegorical representation without historical meaning or value. Instead, Simons focuses her attention on this Black servant, thus allowing for a consideration of her relative autonomy in the piece. In “Whitewashing the Whitewashed Renaissance: Italian Renaissance Art through a Kapharian Lens,” Rebecca Howard next offers teachers a way to study the “whitewashed Renaissance” through the important works of contemporary Black artist Titus Kaphar, which focus on incorporating the Black subject into canonical works of art. Used together, Simons’ and Howard’s pieces offer teachers a productive new way to approach and incorporate the study of race into Italian Renaissance art history, tying it to contemporary considerations of how European art has consistently erased or ignored non-white subjects. Shifting from visual art to music, Emily Wilbourne offers students important new work on seventeenth-century Florence with the case study of Buonaccorsi “the Moor,” an enslaved Black singer at the Medici court, in “Gio: Buonaccorsi ‘the Moor’: An Enslaved Black Singer at the Medici Court.” Wilbourne makes clear that “race and racial difference were an important part of Florentine court life,” as well as demonstrating the obvious similarities between Renaissance racist stereotypes and those today, often left unexplored in the Italian context. These six pieces together argue compellingly for the urgency of integrating and centralizing race in Italian Renaissance Studies. [xxiii]

Turning to France, Anna Klosowska examines the use of blackface or barbouillage in early modern lyric poetry, visual arts, and theater produced in Paris, and its relationship to French engagement with the slave trade. Taking as her point of entry French imitations of Giambattista Marino’s poem La bella schiava, she offers instructors a host of primary sources that make plain the popularity and cultural impact of anti-blackness in Renaissance Paris, and also highlights new and important scholarly work in early modern critical race studies.[20] The next chapter moves from Paris to France’s colonial project in the Americas. In “Learning to Listen: A New Approach to Teaching Early Modern Encounters in the Americas,” Charlotte Daniels and Katherine Dauge-Roth discuss the ways in which Bowdoin’s French Studies program overhauled their instruction of canonical literature in order to incorporate Indigenous responses to French colonialism and imperialism. This thoughtful and activist approach to linguistic and cultural instruction offers a powerful model for all instructors of foreign languages, whose students must constantly contend with expressing themselves on issues of import while faced with linguistic instability. Moving from French culture to German, Noam Andrews’s “Racial Profiling: Delineating the Renaissance Face” draws on scientific discourses from around the world to argue that the delineations between races and ethnicities found in phrenology, physiognomy, and other pseudoscientific discourses predate the Enlightenment and originated in the early modern period through the example of Albrecht Dürer.

Global Renaissances

The Renaissance was, of course, a time of travel and movement; this was a primary factor in the way race was understood and theorized. In “Contextualizing Race in Leonard Thurneysser’s Account of Portugal,” Carolin Alff offers a comparative analysis of the varying cultures observed by the [xxiv] Swiss-German traveler and scholar during his time in Portugal, and the ways in which he deploys a racial discourse in both the content and structure of his manuscript to separate humans from animals. Dana Leibsohn and Barbara Mundy then take up the Transatlantic discourses of race and colonization in their essay, “Settler Colonialism, Families, and Racialized Thinking: Casta Painting in Latin America.” Using casta paintings, which depicted the sixteen-category race-based caste system that structured society in early modern Spanish Mexico, as the objects of analysis, Leibsohn and Mundy argue that ideas of nation, race, blood, and indigeneity were varyingly fixed and fluid, destabilizing the widespread notion of the colonial “other.”

Two further articles provide techniques for incorporating contemporary technologies and materials. Lisandra Estevez’s “Teaching Race in the Global Renaissance Using Local Art Collections” offers a practical, adaptable case study for encouraging both teachers and students to engage with local museum resources to analyze structures of race across time and space and contextualize the local and the modern within larger, more complex, global and temporal contexts. And finally, Elizabeth Spragins’s “Podcasting Las Casas and Robert E. Lee: A Case Study in Historicizing Race” guides teachers through using podcasts both as teaching aid and assignment to get students to engage with centuries-long discourses of nation, blood purity, honor, and religious orthodoxy that undergirded race from the Western Mediterranean, to colonial New Spain, to twenty-first century Charlottesville, Virginia.

Beyond the Early Modern: Global Pasts and Presents

In the last section, the volume expands the temporal frame of Renaissance Race Studies with three chapters that explore ways in which contemporary classrooms and performances engage with and echo early modern constructions of race. First, Marjorie Rubright and Amy Rodgers present “American Moor: Othello, Race, and the Conversations Here and Now,” an analysis of the performance of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s groundbreaking American Moor at UMASS Amherst. Their conversation engages with the ways in which the shifting racialization of Othello intertwines with racial politics in contemporary America, ultimately arguing that the eponymous [xxv] Moor has become Black cultural property. Next up, Roya Biggie’s “Mapping Race Digitally in the Classroom” offers educators a method for helping students understand that notions of race do not develop in a vacuum by using digital mapping techniques. Closing out the volume are Ann Christensen and Laura Turchi. Their chapter, “Editing the Renaissance for an Antiracist Classroom,” argues that educators must re- and un-edit classroom editions of early modern texts along with their students so that they may all engage in proactive discussions of the language that is racist and sexist. Instead of dismissing the language as a product of its time, Christensen and Turchi offer methods for working with the students to address not only the early modern contexts of this language, but also how it interacts with the world today.

COVID Classrooms and Looking Ahead

The pieces in this volume were finalized during a pandemic that has disproportionately harmed communities of color in the US: there has been much talk that the country is suffering from the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and racism. While some academics joked on Twitter about how much writing Shakespeare got done during his own era’s plague, many scholars, some in this volume, took this time to host and present in antiracist teaching workshops that incorporated early modern work and tied today’s racism and white supremacy to the longstanding racializations we have mentioned.[21] In this COVID-19 moment of social distancing and isolation, masked classrooms and the politicization of vaccine mandates at universities, early modern critical race studies is more important than ever. Pandemics, like white supremacy, are nothing new — and they are connected, in the violence perpetrated against the bodies of those oppressed and erased from history. Students looking to understand the pandemic will have to understand white supremacy, and its historical trajectory, as well. [xxvi]

This project is intentionally open-access, and the current pieces of the volume are intended as a beginning, an introduction for how to teach race in the European Renaissance based on the field as it stands at the beginning of 2023. As early modern critical race studies continues to grow and a new generation of scholars pushes the field forward, it is our hope that this volume will grow as well, as will discussions of race in the Early Modern/Renaissance classroom.

  1. James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintages Books, 2011), 125.
  2. Kimberly Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” last modified November 19, 2019.
  3. A note on word choice. Throughout this volume, the editors and chapter authors use the terms “Renaissance” and “early modern” somewhat interchangeably, to denote the period between roughly 1400 and 1650 in Europe. While the volume is primarily concerned with this period, we also refer regularly to the Middle Ages and the medieval period, which we generally identify as between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. As we explore in this introduction, we are also aware of the way these modern periodizations themselves are often conflated and stereotyped in popular culture, and in political discourse. We use “American” here to mean “of the United States.” We have tried to remain conscious throughout this volume of the bad habit academics in the United States, including we two, have of conflating “America” with the United States.
  4. Dara Lind. “Unite the Right, the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, explained,” August 14, 2017.
  5. On the white knight and race in the premodern, see especially Heng 2018, 191–209.
  6. David M. Perry, “How to Fight 8Chan Medievalism — and Why We Must,” last modified June 27, 2019.
  7. Isaac Stanley Becker, “‘They Hate White Males’: A Norwegian Mass Murderer Inspired the Coast Guard Officer Accused of Plotting Terror, Feds Say,” last modified February 21, 2019.
  8. We detest the media’s uncritical deployment of this appropriated titled. This man is not a Shaman. He is a terrorist. And describing him as a Shaman is the type of uncritical cultural, racial, and ethnic appropriation that continues to support and perpetuate white supremacist violence through the supposedly mundane and quotidian.
  9. While the literature on the history of American racism and white supremacy is of course vast, a helpful initial reading list for both teachers and students looking to learn more about the ways in which racism, especially antiblack racism, has been legislated into American law might include Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project: A New American Origin Story (WH Allen, 2021); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (Harper Collins, 1988); Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (Penguin, 2021); Carol Anderson, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury, 2021); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012); Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020).
  11. Katie Robertson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones Denied Tenure at University of North Carolina,” New York Times, May 19, 2021.
  12. Becky Little, “How Hate Groups Are Hijacking Medieval Symbols While Ignoring the Facts Behind Them,” last modified September 3, 2018.
  13. Colleen Flaherty, “Threats for What She Didn’t Say,” last modified June 19, 2017.
  14. Jennifer Schuessler. “Medieval Scholars Joust With White Nationalists. And One Another.” New York Times. May 5, 2019.
  15. See Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Some thoughts on AIA-SCS 2019,” last modified January 7, 2019.
  16. Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, “Lost in Our Field: Racism and the International Congress on Medieval Studies,” last modified July 24, 2018.
  17. While Renaissance Race Studies is a growing and exciting field, the majority of work produced comes from the Anglophone tradition, either written in or engaging with sources in the English language. Although present, Renaissance Race Studies has a much smaller foothold in other national traditions. We recognize this imbalance and the problems inherent with it and are hopeful this volume will help inspire scholars in those fields to pursue future work on race in their national traditions.
  18. From 1976 to 2008, the distribution of race among college undergraduates shifted immensely. In 1976, 82% of undergraduates were white. By 2008, that number was down to 63.2%, with every other racial group seeing an increase in their proportion of students. In addition, the percentage of 18–24-year-olds in every non-white racial group continued to increase through 2018. See and
  19. On “lyric whiteness,” see Kim F. Hall, “‘These bastard signs of fair’: Literary Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, edited by Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (Routledge, 2003), 64–83.
  20. Of particular note, she highlights Noémie Ndiaye’s Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), which is required reading for any instructor who wants to talk about early modern race on the Continent with their students.
  21. Of particular note, Ambereen Dadabhoy gave numerous Zoom presentations on the importance of race in the Renaissance classroom, including “Cultivating an Anti-Racist Pedagogy” at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


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Teaching Race in the European Renaissance: A Classroom Guide Copyright © 2023 by Matthieu Chapman and Anna Wainwright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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