Scholars discuss the importance of race in medieval texts

Gailor Hall, where the 44th Medieval Colloquium at Sewanee took place. Photo by Luke Williamson (C’21).

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, Executive Staff

The 2018 seminar of the 44th Medieval Colloquium at Sewanee took place in Gailor Auditorium to a full audience of scholars, teachers, and students. Geraldine Heng of Texas University and Cord Whitaker of Wellesley College led the two-hour seminar entitled Medieval Race and the Modern Scholar.

The seminar focused on “the intersections, productivities, and even potential drawbacks of using critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and decolonization as tools for understanding medieval studies’ place in the world and shaping the field as a political and cultural actor—within and outside the classroom,” as stated on the seminar page on the Colloquium website.

Whitaker and Heng first introduced their papers, respectively titled Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future and The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages. Following their presentations, the participants of the seminar, whose papers had been circulated prior to the Colloquium, gave brief presentations on their respective papers.

Whitaker himself presented a paper by Dr. Elisa Foster, who could not be present at the seminar, entitled Black Madonnas, Medieval Race, and the Dangers of Modern Scholarship. The paper explored the ethics pertaining to the restoration of the Virgin of Montserrat, Spain, previously of a darker complexion, to a fairer face.

“No image lives in isolation,” read Whitaker.

Speakers spent around five minutes presenting their papers. Nahir Garcia spoke on race studies (or lack thereof) in Nordic Icelandic culture, pertaining to the Vikings. She spoke on the argument that the Vikings were not white supremacists, and called to question the Islamic and Judaic influences that they would have been in contact with although other cultures did not influence Viking culture.

Afrodesia McCannon of New York University discussed medieval memoir and autobiography, especially in relation to the image of Balthasar, one of the three Magi, in the commune of Les Baux-de-Provence in southern France. She recounted her own trip to Les Baux-de-Provence, and her disappointment at finding the carven image of Balthasar outside a local cafe. Remarking on the ‘Africanness’ of the image, she wondered what the connection the commune had – and still has – with Balthasar, the only one of the three Magi who had been described as black.

Upon arrival at Gailor Auditorium, attendees were given a coloured post-it note. When the presentations ended, Whitaker asked the audience to divide into small groups according to the colour on their post-it note. Discussions on how to teach race in the classroom, particularly pertaining to medieval texts, ensued, each discussion facilitated by the scholars who had presented their papers.

The seminar concluded with closing remarks from the audience and the scholars, with Garcia reminding everyone that teaching race in medieval texts in classrooms is a shared responsibility.

Carlos Zayas (C’20) remarked on the importance of the event itself and stated: “It was great; I learned things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”