- The Race Thing
At the 2017 NASSR annual meeting, I gave a presentation that spoke about some of the most beloved Romantics in the same breath as the phrase "white supremacy." As a first year PhD student just venturing into Romanticism, I was haunted by two thoughts: would anyone care about anything I had to say? Would anyone care too much? My panel went on at 3:00 p.m. A little over an hour before, at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. The historical, the abstracted, the seemingly distanced racism I had been so very worried about felt brutally contemporary in that moment. In the years since, the racial legacy of Romanticism continues to feel brutally, urgently contemporary.
And yet, even with what feels like daily reminders of this urgency to understand the history and pathways of racism, it's sometimes difficult [End Page 139] to begin the work. I'm trying, and succeeding, to get over an impulse to apologize for incessantly bringing up the race thing. For making everything into a race thing. For feeling like a bother for not being able to shut off the part of me that sees race in all things. The thing chipping away at that impulse to apologize, besides the support of people both in and out of my field, is the realization that I'm not the one who made race a thing; that work has already been done for me by the very authors I study. This realization hit me particularly hard when I first read Charles Lamb asking, in reference to Othello's interracial marriage,
whether the actual sight of the thing did not overweigh all that beautiful compromise which we make in reading;—and the reason it should do so is obvious, because there is just so much reality presented to our senses as to give a perception of disagreement …3
"The actual sight of the thing"—"the thing." In his disquiet over the idea of blackness touching whiteness, Lamb puts his finger on what we should perhaps consider as the beating pulse of the nineteenth century.
I propose we bring into focus "the thing" that both Romantics and Romanticists often want to look away from: race. Instead of buying into Lamb's beautiful (dangerous) compromise, and leaving race on the periphery, out of sight and barely in one's imagination, we should think about how the years commonly associated with Romanticism map almost perfectly onto the dates of slave rebellions and legal acts of abolition. We should think about the compromised positions of the Big Six. We should look deeply and intersectionally at the race and racism embedded in poetry, novels, and letters. In the coming decade and beyond, we should embrace fully the "reality presented to our senses"—the reality of the centrality of race to Romanticism. [End Page 140]
Atesede Makonnen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University, working on the relationship between race and media in nineteenth century Britain.
3. Charles Lamb, "On the Tragedies of Shakspeare," The Works of Charles Lamb (London: Edward Moxon, 1848), 31.