A few weeks before the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, I was invited to give a talk on race in the early modern period by the Shakespeare Club of Pomona Valley. This group is comprised of seniors who have either a lay interest in Shakespeare or were teachers at the secondary or post-secondary level. My talk was called “Why Black Lives Matter in Shakespeare” and while I did discuss how race was understood in the early modern period, the bulk of my presentation focused on why it is necessary to wrestle with the racism embedded in Shakespeare’s text and the ways in which it seems to confirm a truth about blackness for its audience, then and now. Three reactions to my talk stand out for me: the older white man who immediately turned in his chair when I began speaking; the other older white man who said that religion and the Ottoman Empire and not race was the critical problem of the play; and the two black women who approached me after my talk to affirm what I had been saying. This experience and these reactions were unsurprising, but they confirmed for me why I need to keep pursuing such work, even as I was disappointed by the usual objections to my work.
Going to the SAA conference a few weeks later, I was reminded of this experience: the reluctance of some to consider the implications of the racial thinking/racism of the early modern period because “race as we know it didn’t exist then,” and the persistence of others (in whose company I include myself) to challenge the grip of historicity on our investigations so that we can think through the intents and effects of representations of race through and beyond the period. For me, this was perfectly articulated by Kyle Grady, speaking at the Next Gen Plen, when he said, “If the early moderns are incoherent about race, then so are we.” His words questioned the apparently stable position we have granted race in our own contemporary moment and suggested a fruitful point of intersection for the kinds of conversations about race we should be having about the past and present. The importance of critical methodologies and objects of inquiry that are attuned to race were visible throughout the program, from the inaugural #ShaxFutures plenary on “The Color of Membership” and the Scholars of Color Social to the seminars that probed the materiality of race, the diversity of Shakespearean performance, and how Black America responds to Shakespeare. This was an SAA conference program that was determined to prominently feature the scholarship of those of us who work on race and who want Shakespeare studies to be the vehicle for this work. What became clear to me during the conference was that I had not only found my place in the world of Shakespeare scholarship but also that I had found my people. Not every conference experience is the same, but I can say that the last two years, the SAA conference program has reflected in some way the diversity of its membership and the diversity of our research interests. I’m very much looking forward to what SAA in LA will bring. Here’s to #ShakeAss18!