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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1 (2001) 1-37
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The Difference the Middle Ages Makes:
Color and Race before the Modern World
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York
The motives for gathering the present cluster of essays stem, in part, from the session "Race in the Middle Ages" that took place during the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo in 1996. The event, sponsored by the Teachers for a Democratic Society, featured Michael Awkward, then Professor of English and Director of the Institute for African-American Studies at the University of Michigan, and included a brief response by me. 1 Professor Awkward, an Americanist with little professional interest in medieval studies, had nonetheless agreed to address this session on race, presenting the lecture "Going Public: Ruminations on the Black Public Sphere." This session, in prospect and panic, and in retrospect and reflection, urgently raised the question for me as a medievalist, What's race got to do with it? What, if anything, does medieval studies have to do with racial discourses?
Awkward's appearance at Kalamazoo, unusual from several perspectives, had a double effect, for in providing an immediate, even urgent, perhaps arbitrary forum for discussion, it also pointed up the prevailing lack of interest in race among medievalists. What would he do, what was he doing--the nonmedievalist, the "expert" on race--at a conference that, among those who care, is a byword for dedicated, extensive (and to some degree exclusive) study of all things medieval? Within the identity politics that obtains throughout American society, the position he occupied as a person of color defined his relation to his subject and endowed him with existential and political warrants that few at that particular conference might claim. My own status as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, male medievalist correspondingly shaped my role as an official respondent. It also determined my response to race and race studies as "a black thing," a subject on which any impressions I might offer might easily seem intrusive or inauthentic, [End Page 1] at least to those who, intellectually or experientially, claimed a more "serious" engagement with race. Particularly in circumstances so foreign to his usual academic interests, Awkward seemed to many of those present an "organic" intellectual, speaking on behalf of a community whose concerns were defined by a unified racial identity. 2 Though his topic, the place of feminist polemic among black intellectuals, female and male, underscored the absence of seamless common interests in the African American public sphere, its distance from the usual business of the seven hundred-plus sessions at Kalamazoo made the academic union of race and medieval studies appear exceptionally inorganic. The invitation to Awkward signaled that medievalists wished to address issues of race. It left open, however, the form that such address might take: Were medievalists to engage with race in contemporary society, as teachers and citizens? Were they to see Awkward's presentation as somehow extending the Black Public Sphere to medieval studies, opening (or forcing) access by medievalists to on-going intellectual controversies? Or was Awkward to present transhistorical motives and models, arising from his own scholarly work in modern literature, that medievalists might adopt or adapt in their own work on seemingly remote texts and events?
As a catalyst for the discussion of race, it was clear at the Kalamazoo session that Awkward's appearance made all the difference. Awkward's visible presence as a lone black man in an overwhelmingly white milieu, his announced interest in racial discourse, and his status as an outsider/nonmedievalist did more to make difference an issue among these historically engaged scholars than any of the evidence or argument he offered in his talk. As a spectacular anomaly, Awkward's intervention was symbolic and performative, rather than a systematic and integral feature of the academic inquiry routinely sponsored by a medieval studies conference. What remained unclear was whether this was a sensational, "one-off" event, a singular chance to envision or discuss...