- “A New Scholarly Song”:Rereading Early Modern Race
These seven essays and the seminar in which they first circulated emerged in the wake of the 2013 Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) meeting in Toronto, which had as one of its unspoken focuses early modern race studies.1 Two plenary sessions, three seminars, and a workshop engaged with the question of race in Renaissance studies more than twenty years after the major wave of scholarship that appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s.2 Each day of this meeting gave interested observers the chance to ask what has changed and where the field is going in the context of comparative approaches to race studies. While some seemed to feel that this programming gave too much airtime to questions of race, the plenary sessions themselves revealed that there had been very little transformation during the intervening decades in how we as a scholarly community think and learn about race. One plenary contained a paper featuring a strikingly offensive use of visual images and another paper that derailed a broadening of inquiry by suggesting, in an ill-defined way, that inadequate policing of our students’ sense of the past was “dangerous.” Race-conscious attendees struggled—within the confines of the politesse that makes the SAA both welcoming to newcomers and somewhat averse to political intervention—to suggest how the papers erased questions and epistemologies important to politically engaged scholarship, if not to the very humanity of black people. After public papers in years past alerting the SAA to its race problem, the 2013 meeting [End Page 1] marked a profound and disillusioning moment of alienation for many people of color at the conference.3
Even as the SAA had one of its largest meetings ever, with a correspondingly larger gathering of people of color, the sense of belonging for longtime attendees was revealed as precarious, and our sense of progress was shattered. Afterward, SAA members tried to diagnose and address the problem, both individually and collectively. With the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, questions of race seemed too urgent to continue business as usual at the place some of us consider our scholarly home. There was some agreement that the 2013 meeting represented a step back for the SAA and that it revealed the recursiveness of early modern race studies, where the importance of race is either ignored altogether or subject to an unhealthy back-and-forth in which scholars focusing on race confront the same (already addressed) questions and pushback from editors, readers, and audience members whose only investment in race seems to be disciplinary.4 This can be attributed partially to the fact that the vanguard of critical race theory with which we are in dialogue takes place elsewhere and that our Shakespeare interlocutors can’t be expected to be knowledgeable about the extensive body of race theory in the past fifty years. But after more than twenty years of scholarship in early modern studies, we can only conclude that these acts of refusal are also due to a pathological averseness to thinking about race under the guise of protecting historical difference.5 Many scholars genially dismissive of [End Page 2] race know little of the extensive scholarship on race—in either its early modern or modern form. More alarmingly, there will be fewer of us doing the vital work of thinking about race then and now if graduate advisors and other mentors continually discourage students from entering early modern race studies. After years of being on the forefront of questions of early modern race and colonialism in particular, the conversation in the world of Shakespeare had clearly stalled.
Ignoring or disparaging race will not make it go away as a question for our—or Shakespeare’s—time. We thus have set our sights on the next decade, using 2025 as a landmark by which to measure subsequent progress toward establishing the field of early modern race studies with a stronger foundation through a wide spectrum of social issues, a broader scholarly framework, a larger academic audience, and deeper public engagement...