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  • Race, Culture, and Openness:An Early Modern Precedent
  • William Over


A group of poems praising blackness as an aesthetic and moral quality in human identity remains a startlingly early expression of racial and cultural inclusiveness in early modern English literature. Their author, Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, is remembered today, not without justification, as the founder of English deism. Recent critics have largely ignored the racial and intercultural implications of the poems, preferring instead to study them as liberal prescriptions for institutional religion, or as extended metaphors for Cherbury's epistemological undertakings, wherein blackness becomes a privileged metaphor for the invisibility of universal truth.1 I will argue that Cherbury's "blackness poems" are not limited in meaning to doctrinal and rhetorical notions. Rather, they express a rare early modern openness, a dialogic stance, towards the cultural other, which Cherbury emblematizes in the colors black and brown. Paralleling his pluralistic theology, these poems effect an important expansion of European identity, and anticipate, by hundreds of years, the relation of intercultural contact to notions of [End Page 1] self-identity. Following Cherbury's affirmative approach towards the other, recent postcolonial and other critics alike are defining in positive ways the association of human identity with the perception of the other. In these views, points of intercultural contact can become either welcoming spaces for human-rights discourse (Bhabha 1994; Ahmad 1996),2 or important expositions of what has been denied or hidden by dominant ideologies (Nussbaum 1997).

Elizabethan and Jacobean literatures drew upon a consistent record of biblical and classical references to Africans, blackness, and the lands of Africa. When such poets as William Basse, John Davies, George Herbert, and the playwrights Thomas Dekker, Philip Massinger, and Ben Jonson, among others, represented black characters, they remembered descriptions from contemporary ethnographers and travel writers. In turn, popular Renaissance travel writers were influenced by Old Testament references, classical writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, and Medieval commentators. The portraits of Africans were usually compatible with nascent colonialist discourses under Elizabeth I and James I, and augmented continental European references that justified early agendas for European expansion into Africa and the New World.3

However, not all literary works of the period assumed a transparent Eurocentric perspective. In certain works, notably Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness (1605), anti-assimilationist voices challenged arguments for European dominance over people of color. In Jonson's play, the black character Niger offers a strong African-centered view (also drawing on biblical and classical references) that questions the "poore, brain-sicke men" who would write of the superiority of European values (Jonson 174, 1. 156). But Jonson's play is highly ambivalent (see Over 2004); by contrast, Cherbury's poems offer an unequivocally positive view of Africans. An early deist theologian, broad-minded [End Page 2] churchman, and brother of the famous religious poet, George Herbert, Cherbury challenged prevailing notions of European superiority in Jacobean writing and on stage. What I would call his "blackness poems," grouped together in his first edition of poetry, present a new perspective on aesthetic standards. They respond to the context of interracial relationships and ponder the identities of non-European cultures. Their inquiries demonstrate an explicit affirmation of other cultures, implied but never fully developed in the deist writings that became Cherbury's main contribution to modern thought. While the theological paradoxes evident in these poems clearly stand within the Christian literary tradition of mystical contradiction, Cherbury's clear prioritization of a black identity contrasts markedly with the apotheosis of whiteness evident, for instance, in Ben Jonson's early court masques. In fact, George Herbert chose a similar theme challenging Eurocentric perceptions of otherness in a poem written in Latin (discussed below).

Presenting a discourse of racial equality and pluralism, the blackness poems did not go unnoticed by Cherbury's contemporaries.4 Their divergence from the dominant political ideology reveals a dialectic within early modern English culture—and European thought as a whole—indicative of the crisis of identity between colonizer and colonized. This tension is apparent, for example, between the English and Irish during the period, but becomes even stronger when imperialist relationships involve interracial contacts. Cherbury's poems...


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