After Race Before Race: Appropriations

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#RaceB4Race #ShakeRace #medievaltwitter

This past weekend (Jan 17-18), the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, held the third iteration of its RaceB4Race conference at Arizona State University. The theme of the conference was “Appropriations,” and as the program explained, “this RaceB4Race event focuses on how the term appropriation has recently signified in different ways for early modernists and medievalists.” The theme of appropriations contains some urgency, particularly when we think about how the premodern is mobilized in the service of racist and nationalist discourses that invoke a white historical past to justify erasure and violence in our present. All of the speakers at the conference articulated the importance of thinking about race and racial power through appropriation, whether marginalized communities “are always in appropriation,” and Lehua Yim exposed about indigenous identity in her presentation or whether the means of appropriation are withheld from BIPOC artists, scholars, and creators or whether the work of BIPOC offers a means for those in the dominant identity group to appropriate without citation or finally whether the whiteness and Northern Europeanness signaled by the term medieval must be shed for a more accurate and inclusive designation, as Sierra Lomuto interrogated. All of the papers offered provocations investigating race in and beyond the premodern through the power dynamics inherent in various forms of appropriation, focusing particularly on who can do it and who is the site/sight for it.

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Given the seemingly recent surge in critical popularity of race studies in the premodern (the MLA had numerous sessions on the topic on its 2020 program and the many jobs asking for candidates to be conversant in early modern critical race studies and transnationalisms), this program on appropriations was timely because it offered BIPOC scholars who work on race the opportunity not simply to showcase their stellar scholarship but also to expose the risks of that work, one pernicious one being its theft or appropriation. While Adam Miyashiro’s presentation was on the mobilization of crusade rhetoric and crusader imagery in the global War on Terror which is linked to many forms of white nationalism and settler colonialism, Dorothoy Kim reminded us during the Q & A, of the appropriation of Adam’s work by a recently published volume on Beowulf and the material risks BIPOC scholars take in doing and presenting this work. It is denied legitimacy by gate-keeping institutions in the academy when we present it, but when taken up by scholars in the dominant group it is affirmed and accepted. Columbusing in the academy is real.

Similarly, Sierra Lomuto pointed out that the response of medievalists to white nationalist appropriations of their field was either to call out “a few bad apples,” in the field who promoted a white idea of the premodern past or to seize the moment as a way to accrue material and intellectual capital at the expense of BIPOC scholars and their research. She exposed, for example how the recent volume “Whose Middle Ages,” asked her to support its mission to combat the racist appropriation of the middle ages by offering a blurb for the back of the book but not inviting her to write an essay in the book. More egregiously, one of the essays in the book was “inspired by” Lomuto’s work.  What this situation exposes is how BIPOC scholars are changing their fields yet remain marginalized by the power structures that reward certain scholarship when it’s done by certain people in certain identity groups.

This conversation about intellectual theft, citation, and racial capitalism occurred alongside other investigations into how the artistic endeavors of BIPOC shape and are mined by dominant culture, which has the power to imagine, to name, to enslave, to create, and to destroy. This power is harnessed by the dominant group in various ways and even efforts at inclusion can fall flat or rehearse damaging stereotypes when the decision making process for inclusion does not include those in the minoritized culture. Vanessa Corredera and Justin Shaw exposed how Black artistry and musicality in hip hop and blues is routinely appropriated in the service of white identity and subjectivity and how these appropriations hollow out the cultural critique, beauty, and pain from which these genres emerged. Whiteness destroys as it appropriates. Kathryn Vomero Santos launched a powerful critique of the 2016 Folio tour whose mission of access was potentially undermined by the status of the object, the security measures required of the institutions on its itinerary, and the “multicultural” programming that was meant to convey the importance of Shakespeare to marginalized communities but instead reinforced problematic stereotypes about those communities. These processes maintained the whiteness and exclusivity of Shakespeare even as the Folio traveled around the country in a show of the playwright’s importance to the American public. Arthur Little’s talk offered a powerful conclusion to the conference not only by picking up threads in other presentations about BIPOC race scholarship and its appropriation by white scholars, but also by asking us to consider the ways in which BIPOC are policed in their approach to and engagement with Shakespeare. What possibilities of appropriation are allowed of scholars whose scholarly legitimacy is always questioned?

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My reflections here, which are in no way comprehensive, offer a glimpse into the intellectually rich and rigorous presentations and discussions provoked by all of the speakers at RaceB4Race. This conference continues to further the ambit of premodern critical race studies and its promotion of BIPOC scholarship exposes the commitment of the organizers of RaceB4Race to justice, inclusion, and equity. The very fact that I can attend this conference and expect to see a reflection of myself on the program, to hear the language and vocabulary that affects my existence and scholarship, and to know that my presence is valued is immeasurable. Such forms of anti-racist scholarship and pedagogy, BIPOC centering, and activism don’t just happen. They are the result of deliberate and reflective work on the part of those who are organizing and funding the conference. To keep doing this work, which as Carissa M. Harris reminded us, takes a real, physical toll on the minds and bodies of BIPOC scholars, we need spaces that will support and nourish us. For me, RaceB4Race is such a place.

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See you in September, #RaceB4Race!

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