Ayanna Thompson and Daniel Greene

[Print edition page number: xi]
“It’s about time,” as Lia Markey and Noémie Ndiaye explain in their introduction to this groundbreaking book, to see anew ​—​ or perhaps, for some readers, to see for the first time ​—​ the many ways that race and racial thinking are represented in the visual culture of premodern times. This volume, accompanying an exhibition opening at the Newberry Library in September 2023, explores multiple expressions of racial formation in the visual culture of the premodern world (1300–1800). The visual archive brought to light here in words and images includes annotated and illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance costume books and travel books, maps and cartographic volumes produced by both Europeans and Indigenous peoples, mass-printed pamphlets, decorative arts, religious iconography, paintings, ceremonial objects, festival books, and play texts intended for live performance, among others. This expansive exploration is one of the greatest strengths of Seeing Race Before Race; indeed, we can see expressions of what co-editor Noémie Ndiaye calls “the racial matrix” across the medieval/early modern chronological divide and across vast transnational and multilingual geographies. The product of a remarkable collaboration between the Newberry Library and RaceB4Race® ​—​ an ongoing conference series and professional network community by and for scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern literature, history, and culture ​—​ the book intends to serve as a starting point for fresh and ambitious conversations among scholars of premodern race studies, art history, performance studies, and book history. [xii]

This shared commitment to multidisciplinarity and collaboration brought the Newberry and RaceB4Race® together more than three years ago to envision this project. In addition to the catalogue and exhibition, Seeing Race Before Race includes enduring resources for scholars, school teachers, and the public. As this project encourages both scholarly and public audiences to see race and expressions of racial thinking across the vast visual archive from centuries ago, we hope it will lead to deeper understandings not only of the past, but also of present and future expressions of race and racism.

The Seeing Race Before Race project has relied on contributions from staff at the Newberry Library and the RaceB4Race® collective. Noémie Ndiaye, Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Early Modern English Literature at the University of Chicago and Executive Board Member of RaceB4Race®, has been an essential collaborator with Newberry co-curators, Lia Markey, Christopher Fletcher, and Rebecca Fall, in providing curatorial vision for this exhibition and accompanying publication. Noémie and Lia brought together a dedicated community through this project, including both colleagues and students in their research process. Here, they have collected contributions from 39 individuals, including undergraduate and graduate students who helped write catalog entries. The book also highlights collaborative essays written by senior and early career scholars in diverse disciplines.

The Seeing Race Before Race book received generous funding from the Kress Foundation to defray the costs of publication. We’re also grateful to the University of Chicago Quad Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, which supported research by graduate assistant Vivian Lei. ACMRS Press, the publications division of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University, has been an essential partner in the production process of Seeing Race Before Race. And the stunning images of Newberry collection items included here are the work of staff photographer Catherine Gass.

It is our hope that this volume will inspire further collaborative, multidisciplinary projects. The co-editors, our institutions, and the RaceB4Race® collective have all benefited from seeing and thinking about the racial matrix anew. While this volume is innovative in its scope and focus, it is also intended to inspire other scholars, teachers, students, and artists to see and interpret archival materials in new ways. What have we not seen? How do we continue to challenge ourselves to see anew?

 Ayanna Thompson
Regents Professor of English and Director of the
Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies,
Arizona State University

 Daniel Greene
President and Librarian, Newberry Library


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Seeing Race Before Race Copyright © 2023 by Ayanna Thompson and Daniel Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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