At twelve, I caught the magic bug, as many a twelve-year old boy does. I studied with a man named John Novak, an internationally known magician and escape artist. Novak invented new tricks and illusions, had written 25 books on magic, and served as a consultant to David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy, and other big-name magicians of that era. Earlier in his life, he had served as a translator in the Army and later the Air Force, first during the Korean War and later during three tours in Vietnam. He spoke Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French. It was with John Novak that my love of languages was born. He owned a magic store where I worked, demonstrating tricks and spending every penny I earned on more props from that same magic store. I accompanied Novak to his shows and helped him set up. I didn’t get paid for this, but I didn’t care. He was my “master,” and I was his apprentice, at least in my young mind. I was a fast and eager learner. I soaked up sleight of hand techniques and practiced constantly. It was a lot of work, but the dopamine rush that I got when I eventually began performing was better than getting all the flash cards right. Suddenly, with John Novak as my teacher, the world was opening up for me.
My parents were not keen on what they must have seen as a strange, symbiotic relationship. They probably felt that Novak was using me for what turned out to be free labor. But the approval I got from my master, was worth any disapproval that might come from my parents. My mother, especially, was so full of disapproval that I hardly noticed any difference. You can imagine how proud they were when I announced that I was switching from magic and had decided to be a clown.
“John Novak says I can get more gigs as a clown,” I said. “And he sold me this clown costume and a make-up kit and a book on how to juggle.”
Imagine a cartoon hole in the shape of my dad in the roof he’d just gone through.
“I’m going to be a clown. John Novak says I can get more gigs.”
“If John Novak said you could get more gigs in a bearsuit, would you get a bearsuit?”
Part of me wanted to say yes, but my training as a provocateur was not yet complete. All I managed to say was that I’d paid for this stuff with my own money, which I had earned, not from them, and it ought to be my choice. I performed as a clown all through high school, at children’s birthday parties and as a busker on San Antonio’s River Walk. My parents hoped this was just a phase, but I kept at it. The more I performed, the better I got and the more I loved it. I made more money as a clown than any of my high school friends did as lifeguards or grocery clerks. I loved making people laugh and I loved the freedom I had to make fun of things, even things that one shouldn’t normally make fun of. I didn’t yet know the word, but I had discovered my vocation.
Neither of my parents had gone to college. As the oldest son who made excellent grades, they had big plans for me. But I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a clown.
“You can be a clown if you find a school where you can study that,” my dad said. I’m sure he must have thought that such a school did not exist. At eighteen, I was accepted into Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, an eight-week training program that also served as an audition into the circus. I passed, joined the circus in 1977, and toured for a year. This was where my understanding of diversity really blossomed.
The red unit of the RBB&B circus had roughly 300 people, a herd of about 18 elephants, various tigers and other big cats, dogs, chimps, and a donkey named Peggy. The diversity of the animals was impressive, but that didn’t interest me as much as the diversity of the people. There were families of Mexican trapeze fliers, Columbian high wire walkers, Polish trampoline artists, Bulgarian teeter-board acrobats, German tiger trainers, a British couple with a comedy dog act, a Hungarian clown, and a Dutch couple with trained chimpanzees. Dozens of languages were spoken, and most people knew more than just their own. An amazing man name Ben Said kept his trunk in clown alley, the clowns’ dressing room. He was the whip-master for the famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. This sounds like a fairly kinky job, but it really just meant that he took care of the whips and harnesses and any other leather contraptions associated with training the animals. Ben was born in Egypt and had spent his whole life in the circus. He must have been in his sixties when I knew him. He had no formal schooling beyond the third grade, but by the time I knew him he had traveled the world and spoke two dozen languages fluently. I was more enthralled with Ben Said than I was with any of the performers!
Ben embodied the cosmopolitan nature of the circus—it was indeed a “world city.” He never talked about racism or inclusivity or diversity. He just lived it, as did everyone else on the show. People had conflicts, but that was just because people could sometimes be assholes. Everyone respected each other for who they were. People worked hard and worked together. There were jokes based on ethnic humor, but nobody took it seriously. Nobody got their feelings hurt. Nobody had time for that because people were literally risking their lives every day, twice a day, and three times on Saturday. I can’t imagine anyone who lived that life ever saying, “Your words were a physical assault.” Please.
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?