Given the events of the past year, most of my detractors would say "don't even try," while most of my fans would say "why step in front of that moving train?"
But the piece I'm working on requires a Black medievalist to lead the action. I've benefited greatly from an amazing site called Writing with Color, that gives great advice for avoiding some of the most obvious tropes and stereotypes. That said, I'm posting this excerpt, very early in the process, to see if it rings true. I invite readers from all backgrounds to comment honestly (and I hope constructively) to tell me how it reads.
The piece opens with a grad student in a library study carrel. She's just figuring out that she is in the wrong carrel, and doesn't yet realize that she'll be sharing the space with another grad student.
Excerpt from The Medievalist (work in progress)
I knew some of the books from my days hanging out with the SCA and the Texas Renaissance Festival and some I’d read as an undergrad: Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, Emilie Amt’sWomen’s Lives in Medieval Europe, and Life in a Medieval Village, by Joseph and Frances Gies. There were a few books by Kantorowicz: Crips, Bloods, and Crusaders: Medieval Pre-cursors to Modern Gang Signs. Next to that, The King’s Too Bawdy: Urban Graffiti as Medieval Marginalia, the whole reason I’d come to Yale. Here was another by Kantorowicz that I didn’t know, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Weirdly similar title.
There followed a row of books on a similar theme. Lynn Ramey’s Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker’s Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, Matthew Vernon’s The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages, and Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. One particularly handsome volume caught my eye, not the least because of its lengthy title: The Image of theBlack in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood,2nd Edition, edited byDavid Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Professor Gates was at Harvard and hosted that “Finding Your Roots” show on PBS. The cover of The Image of theBlack in Western Art had a beautiful cover showing a sculpture of a medieval knight. The knight wears a hooded hauberk of chain maille, over which he sports a surcoat that still shows the original colorful paint across the belt. Most surprising, to me at least, is the face that peers out of the hood. It has a broad nose and full lips and is painted black. I noticed a flyer taped to the wall next to me that has the same image of the black knight. It advertised a grad student “mini-conference” that apparently happened last year called “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” As I read the flyer, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a face similar to the knight’s peeping into the window of the carrel.
The face outside the door backed away until I could see an entire body with tattooed arms and hands held in the air. One of the tattoos looked like the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral. The other arm also had a labyrinth, but in the Minoan style—the minotaur next to it was a dead giveaway. I was still shaken by his sudden appearance but, somehow, having these images to focus on helped me calm down. My inked-up peeper moved back further and leaned against the edge of a table. I opened the door slowly. He spoke first.
“You’re with Kantorowicz?”
“So am I,” he said. He pulled a chair out and sat down, closer to the carrel, but not too close. “This has happened before,” he continued. “In fact, when I first arrived and was given a key to this carrel, there was another grad student in it. It’s a faculty carrel, but the man doesn’t use it, so he portions its use like a benefice to his doctoral students. I’ve actually had the space to myself for the last two years, but I’m not surprised somebody new has shown up.”
“It is a faculty carrel,” I said, picturing “Use of carrels,” item 5, vividly before my eyes. “Isn’t that illegal or against the rules or something?”
“Oh, it certainly is. But Kantorowicz winks at the librarians and they look the other way.”
I looked down at his right arm.
“Chartres?” I said.
“Yes.” He smiled and stretched out his hand to introduce himself.
“Quigley,” he said. “Dante Quigley.”
“Isaacson,” I said, taking his hand, at first shyly, then more confidently as I remembered dad teaching me to shake hands “like a professional.” I looked Quigley in the eye and shook his hand with a firm grip.
“So how does this work with the two of us both ‘assigned’ to the same carrel?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “If you want to use the space, I can make room for you on the bottom shelf. We can figure out a schedule, if you think you’ll be here a lot.”
I nodded, then looked back at the shelving and all the books I’d been examining before my humiliating scare.
“These are your books?” I asked.
“Then you’re a medievalist, too?”
“But you’re …” I stopped myself before I said it. It was a ridiculous, horrible, stupid thing to think and I almost said it out loud. Yet there were those ellipses, hanging in the air like cartoon cannon balls that would soon drop on my head. I searched for a different word to fill in the blank. “You’re …”
“American?” he said. “Yes, I know. Exactly. So many people think that only Brits or Europeans can have any insight into medieval history. The same way they think that only Blacks can study Black history, or only Jews can study the Holocaust.”
“Yes,” I said, grateful, but quietly embarrassed.
White people are so …
Condescending, ignorant, arrogant, fragile, capricious, privileged, controlling, fascinating, adorable, fearful, uninformed, ill-informed, misinformed, hateful, dangerous.
Yes. I could’ve knocked on the door and stood back, offering a gentler, less threatening first encounter. But she was in my space, or at least I’ve thought of it as my space since what’s-his-name left. I submit that any normal person who walked up and saw a light inside their carrel where there shouldn’t be a light would justifiably peek in the window to see what the fuck was going on. And suddenly I’m Henry Louis Gates trying to explain to the Cambridge cops that I’m breaking into my own house because I’ve locked myself out.
Screams! She screams?!
And I back up, offering my best Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Hands up—Don’t shoot! Because mama trained me from the moment of my birth to code-switch into the least aggressive posture my melanized body could muster, lest I put my life at risk, though from the moment of my birth it was already too late.
Was it just that I caught her off guard? Or was it my black face catching her off guard? Hard to say, in and of itself. But her follow-up reveals all.
“You’re a medievalist? But you’re black!”
No. She said, “You’re a medievalist, too.” She’s just starting with Kantorowicz. His newest little rabbit.
Okay, little rabbit. You just got here and you don’t know a thing about POC in the Middle Ages. Hell, outside of Kantorowicz, most of the older generation don’t know anything either. Cut her some slack, Quigley. She’s probably never been exposed to anything but the all-white “real Middle Ages.” Probably started her medieval fandom as a festie or a rennie, driving every summer weekend to some “Ye Olde Ahistorical Faire,” wearing a laced bodice and playing the part of the wench.
On the other hand, she did recognize the Chartres labyrinth in my ink. She must have some knowledge beyond bad Robin Hood movies. Does she know anything beyond the image? That the Chartres labyrinth signifies a penitential journey to Jerusalem, the return to God? Does she know the difference between the Chartres labyrinth and the Minoan labyrinth? The former, a continuous path on which you cannot get lost, but can only travel deeper into the self. The latter, a path intended to disorient, to deceive, to contain the minotaur—shameful halfling aberration, product of an illicit union—until Theseus can kill it. One labyrinth to contain the “darkness” in men’s souls, the other to set the soul free.
Was she getting all of that, any of that, from looking at my ink? Or did she remain on the surface, marveling perhaps at “how vivid and vibrant the colors seem against my tawny skin”?
A tawny-skinned minotaur am I, born of a white father and a black mother, brought together in true love in the age of Third Wave Feminism—thanks, Anita Hill. Dad, a historian at Princeton, advocating a theory of “inclusive diversity as a core value of Western Civilization, in contrast to Plato’s dualism.” That’s how he talked at the dinner table and he expected me to keep up. He was way ahead of his time and the bright star of his career might have continued to rise if he hadn’t gotten side-tracked by conspiracy theories of secret societies. Ironic, for me at least, was his obsession over a group called the “Round Table,” allegedly founded by Cecil Rhodes for economic and political control of the whole world--orbis non sufficitand all that. And mama, a leading voice among the Black feminists of the 90s, matching dad’s inclusive diversity theory with her own theory of intersectionality: the notion that women’s oppression occurs on many levels at once, not just gender, but also race, class, etc. Her own star rose steadily if not quickly. She might have achieved greatness had dad not ended up in the looney bin. Conspiracy theories will do that to you. Mama’s career, hijacked by a severe case of single motherhood.
That’s me then: an ABD Minotaur trapped in the labyrinth of Yale’s graduate program in history; a PhD candidate with father issues, working with an adviser who has father issues of his own.
“Why the Middle Ages?” dad asked practically every time I visited him at Greystone Park. Mama was less blunt, but I could tell that she, like him, hoped that I’d do something more relevant, something that’d have an impact on the world. Both of them are long dead but their disappointment still follows me, which I suppose is less aggravating than the expectations that precede me. The expectation that a Black man must come from an impoverished background or from uneducated parents. The expectation that a Black man in grad school must be studying law or medicine or business because that’s how he can really help “his people.” The expectation that a Black man can’t be a medievalist.
Well, fuck you, little rabbit. You’ve brought your own expectations to this first encounter and I saved you from the embarrassment of a racist utterance. That one’s on the house. But we’re done. I’ll share this space with you ‘cause that’s how it goes, but I won’t be the magical Negro or sassy Black best friend in your grad school romcom action adventure movie. You’re on your own there. I’m here to subvert the dominant paradigm, to fight stereotypes with my scholarship and with every ounce of my being, not to play a game invented by White people.
And if a Black medievalist disrupts your worldview, what of it?
"On the ninth day there came riding towards them a knight on a goodly steed, and well-armed withal. He was all black: his head was black as pitch, black as burnt brands, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven. But in all that men would praise in a knight was he fair, after his kind. Though he were black, what of it?"
As Sir Morien shows us, there were Black folks in the Middle Ages, and not just a few.
What of it?