Race Before Race

Historical Context Essay

Emily MacLeod (Penn State University); Anita Raychawdhuri (University of Houston-Downtown)
Download PDF Add to Bookshelf Tweet Report an Error

When people today visualize early modern London, what do they imagine? Crowded streets, alive with a wide array of smells and sights, such as an occasional person decked out in a ruff, doublet, and hose, as is depicted in the CBBC series Horrible Histories or the 1998 flick Shakespeare in Love. Based on these images from popular culture, they might also assume that everyone in early modern England was white, and that race as we define it today was not actually a concept back then. This current assumption is notable in outrage about, for example, Jodie Turner-Smith (a Black woman) being cast as Anne Boleyn in the miniseries of the same name. Some angry viewers protested the casting choice because it went against historical accuracy. Aside from a totally separate argument about artistic choices that are central to adaptation, Yasmine Hachimi has noted the way that Anne Boleyn was racialized using derogatory language of blackness in many early modern English documents (article forthcoming, 2022). This fact highlights the complexities of racial formation in the past and makes this casting choice rich with interpretive possibility. To argue, as some scholars, politicians, and members of the general public have done, that race is irrelevant in certain moments of history is dangerous and erases the nuanced pathways that formed ideas of race and racial difference in the past.

What we call the early modern era in England (starting circa 1500) contained a world of increasing globalization, spread of information, and colonial projects, making it a crucial moment in the history of race. To consider “Race Before Race”, scholars challenge the premise of race not existing in the past to interrogate the nexus of white supremacy that still continues to affect our lives and scholarship today. By evoking both past definitions and present concerns, we do not wish to conflate past and present understandings of race, but rather, as Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson write, “to trace the variations as the idea’s significance changes over time, as well as to consider how our own historical moment shapes our questions” (2016, 7). This essay will serve as an introduction to the pathways and systems of racial formation at this time as they are seen in primary sources (plays, poems, pamphlets, etc.). We will also include references to and a bibliography of secondary sources, foundational and cutting-edge scholarship in the field of early modern English critical race studies.

Premodern Critical Race Studies (also known as PCRS, the field underpinning the phrase “Race Before Race”) analyzes myths or fantasies of race while acknowledging the grave biopolitical consequences such fantasies have on people and their lives both then and now. We use the word “fantasy” to acknowledge that much of the ideology of race comes from white supremacist and colonial logic that attempts to impose ideas about bodies, capabilities, and experiences. The study of race in early modern England has developed over the twentieth century as a powerful discourse that combines the study of gender, sexuality, class, religion, and other forms of identity and embodiment to analyze the ways that early modern people thought, felt, and acted upon perceptions of human difference. We focus here particularly on early modern England (spanning years 1500-1700) to highlight the centrality of race to this moment in history. It is particularly important to talk about race in predominantly white spaces like England, and to acknowledge the fact that race does not actually reside in the bodies of people of color, but in the systems of power, privilege and discrimination that disenfranchise some while elevating others. Marking how whiteness works in early modern England is another goal of the scholars who work in PCRS. We see this essay as an invitation for further discovery and exploration in this rich field of knowledge that is growing every day, and we hope that it will help clarify for students the main issues at stake in the study of race in early modern English literature and history.

Locating Race in the Premodern World

While this piece focuses on early modern England, scholars like Geraldine Heng, Cord Whitaker, and Mary Rambaran-Olm have examined how older forms of racemaking were negotiated, created, and enforced in the medieval world. We note this to clarify that PCRS does not see the early modern as a starting point for race as a topic of interest, but instead goes back further to consider the relevance of these issues globally in both the classical and medieval periods. Heng’s definition of race is also particularly clear and instructive for thinking about the foundations of race-thinking. She writes that “race has no singular or stable referent”, and that it is “a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content” (2018, 19). Note the keywords like “structure”, “articulation”, and “management”. Nowhere does Heng refer to nationality, religion, or skin color, the leading markers associated with race today. Rather, she focuses on what race does in a society. It helps to organize social structures, despite being an unstable and insubstantial signifier, full of ambiguity and shifting meanings. It is the power that race has in society that causes Heng to “retain” the word when writing about the premodern period “for the strategic, epistemological, and political commitments it recognizes” (2018, 27). While she, like Hall and Erickson, does not seek to conflate past and present understandings of race, she uses the word to make her stance clear: concepts of race existed back then, just as they exist now. Sometimes scholars will use other terms such as “race-making”, “race-thinking”, or “racecraft” to emphasize the developmental nature of the concept at this time. Race is always in a state of “becoming”, always shifting and never static, a protean figure that also has material, often dire, consequences for those caught in its net.

Since we can look to both the classical and medieval periods for examples of early race-making, it is hard to locate an originary point in time that such ideas began. Much scholarship has countered claims that rely on neat start points for white supremacy and colonial logic, because in actual fact these moments are more complex and multifaceted. In other words, to simply look to, for instance, 1619 (while a crucial date in the history of transatlantic slavery) is to ignore other ways that white supremacy was operating prior to this date. Take these events, for example:

1562: Englishman John Hawkins sets sail to Sierra Leone where he then captures three hundred enslaved people and takes them to the Americas.

1596: Queen Elizabeth I issues several official warrants requesting the removal of “blackamoores” from London (there is no evidence this action was carried out, however).

1604: First recorded performance of William Shakespeare’s Othello, where the titular African character is played in blackface.

1605: Queen Anna of Denmark dances with twelve of her court ladies (including Lady Mary Wroth and the Countess of Bedford) in blackface, a costume choice that Queen Anna had requested from Ben Jonson who wrote the poetry of the masque.

1607: the Virginia Company establishes the first English settlement in North America.

Undoubtedly, race was a part of the early modern English mindset. And with ideas of race came a desire for conquest and empire.

The terms “British Empire” and “United Kingdom” are commonplace today, but neither existed in the early modern period. Instead, England looked enviously to powers in Spain and northern Africa and further east to the Ottoman and Mughal empires, while dealing with resistance to their expansions into Wales, the borders of Scotland, and Ireland. More information on the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires can be found on the Medieval and Early Modern Orients research site run by Lubaaba Al-Azami, Samera Hassan, Aisha Hussain, and Hassana Moosa. They provide a great resource to learn more about England’s interaction with the Islamic Worlds at this time. These empires and locations were shaping England’s own ideas about their power or lack thereof. Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia with its presentation of a far-away island society also recalls England’s capacity for imagining other lands, lands that could potentially be conquered. Aside from this, there was a deluge of travel narratives being published: from John Mandeville’s fantastical narratives to the “Turk plays” that dealt with encounters on the Mediterranean and the fear of English travelers converting to Islam or Turkish cultural customs, also known as “turning Turk”. The recent collection England’s Asian Renaissance (Su Fang Ng and Carmen Nocentelli, editors) touches on some of these travel accounts as well as Asia’s representation in early modern English literature. Closer to home, England’s colonial project in Ireland was ongoing. One only has to read Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland to see the colonial violence and process of othering Irish people that occurred under English rule. Situating England in its historical context here reminds us that it was not always a world power but rather a small island off the coast of Europe that had dreams of domination.

Displays of these imperial aspirations were also common in the early seventeenth century Jacobean court, seen particularly in the masques written by playwright and poet Ben Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones. The court masque was an ephemeral, multimedia production that featured dancing, singing, dialogue, and elaborate set pieces and costumes. The plots were often highly allegorical and focused on honoring the monarch and other nobility present. In particular, Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness highlights England’s desire for empire and the ways that racialization is entrenched in this colonial project. The Masque of Blackness features a group of twelve African nymphs (one of whom was played by Queen Anna, who requested the masque be performed in blackface) who are despairing because they have discovered the beauty of whiteness that they do not possess. They then go on a quest to find Albion (aka “white land”, another name for England) and the ruler there (King James) who can make them white. The monarch at this time, King James I of England, who was already king of Scotland, came to the throne of England in 1603 after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who had no children. James’s rule united the kingdoms of England and Scotland under one ruler, though the official Acts of Union to create the United Kingdom were not passed until 1707. Arguably, as is clear in The Masque of Blackness, James’s desire to create a “Great Britain” grew alongside interlinked projects of empire, undergirded by an investment in solidifying a British political and racial identity.

While royal courtiers presented non-European characters as blackface spectacles in masques, actual non-European people of color were living and working in English communities, including the royal court. London especially was a diverse and growing city, with populations that extended beyond white English people. Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: imprints of the invisible (2008) delves into parish records to uncover the presence of Black people in early modern England. Habib states “despite the plentifulness of black people that such documentary materials reflect, they do not, for the most part, appear in contemporary accounts of the land and its peoples as a distinct considerable population” which Habib attributes to the dehumanization of Black people in the archives where “more than even being foreign or poor, black people are unable entities” (2008, 4,7). Traces of particular individuals in the archives offer an image of a more diverse British Isles in this time. Joyce Green MacDonald in Women and Race in Early Modern Texts considers the possible participation of Elen More, a Black woman who worked in the court of James IV of Scotland, in the “Black Lady Tournament” in 1507. Bernadette Andrea in The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture analyzes a number of women of color, including Lucy N and a Tartar Princess in the court of Elizabeth I. These instances of women of color who lived in the early modern period complicates insistences that race is irrelevant to early modern England. Social philosopher Thomas More also noted the Black women who were in the train of Catherine of Aragon when she arrived in England for her marriage to King Henry VIII. Another notable Black individual was John Blanke, also recorded as the “Black Trumpet”, who was a professional Black musician in the court of King Henry VIII. While Blanke was paid for his service, we get another more disturbing picture of Black “entertainers” in an anecdote about the wedding of King James VI of Scotland (later, of England) and Queen Anna of Denmark in 1589. James hired a group of African men to dance naked in the snow, many of whom died as a result of the extreme cold. The use of people of color for and as entertainment (and expendable entertainers, at that) in early modern Britain links to much longer histories of performance, including blackface minstrelsy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The presence of people in color in early modern England shows the increasing contact that England had with the outside world and hints at their colonial aspirations. Habib yokes these ideas of race and colonialism together: “racism is not only a colonial reflex fashioned to deal with the distant other but a part of the very making of Europeans themselves, a setting up of the privileged hierarchies through which the European order itself will function” (2008, 12). Race therefore becomes a tool of empire, a useful structure to define English identity against the non-white, non-Christian “Other”. While the foundations of race-thinking were laid much earlier, early modern ideas of race and racial difference became quickly popularized in print, as we will discuss in our next section on poetry and drama, making the early modern era a key focal point for discussing the development of race as a social construct.

Early Modern Race: Page and Stage

In The Tempest (1611), Miranda refers to Caliban as an “abhorred slave”, who is “savage”, with a “vile race…which good natures / Could not abide to be with” (1.2.357-65). This play features the former Italian duke Prospero colonizing an island (probably in the Mediterranean), where the native inhabitant, Caliban, is brought under his tutelage and then punished for making sexual advances on Prospero’s daughter Miranda. Caliban’s name is notably an anagram of “cannibal”, referential of Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay “On Cannibals”, detailing his encounters with indigenous people in Brazil. While England’s settlements in the Americas had thus far been disastrous (see Jamestown), English interest in this “New World” stems back even to Elizabeth I’s Armada portrait (c. 1588) where the queen has her hand placed on a globe, specifically on the Americas (Singh 2021, 1-3). Caliban has become a significant figure in the study of early modern racial difference and formation, and Kim F. Hall used his description as a “thing of darkness” to title her book on early modern race, the foundational Things of Darkness: economies of race and gender in early modern England (1995). By looking at the key terms and representations of race on the page and the stage in this section, we get more of a sense for how English people in the early modern period viewed racial difference. Poetic language of darkness and fairness became explicitly racialized in sonnets and verse. Characters from the stage like Caliban, Othello in Othello, Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, and the Prince of Morocco from The Merchant of Venice all teach us about race in early modern England due to the way that they are talked about by other white characters and the way they talk about their own identities as outsiders in these European worlds.

“Race” as a term appears in early modern literature often in discussions of family lineage, descent, and bloodlines. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word “race” also began to be applied to ethnic groups, such as the British race or the Roman race. Coming from the French race, similar words appear in Italian (razza) and Spanish (raza). The Oxford English Dictionary identifies one definition of race as “a group of people belonging to the same family and descended from a common ancestor” (race, n.6, 1a). Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra refers in this way to “the getting of a lawful race”, in other words, having children with his Roman wife, unlike the illegitimate offspring he fathers with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (3.13.135). In Richard III, the ghosts of Richard’s victims wish his rival Richmond (the future Henry VII) to “live, and beget a happy race of kings” (5.3.162). Connected in both these cases with the concept of race, infants and children are often used in literature to embody a society’s hopes for the future as well as anxieties about racial mixing and identity. We need look no further than Tamora and Aaron the Moor’s baby in Titus Andronicus to see how dangerous the early moderns perceived a mixed race child to be to the fabric of their social lives. David Sterling Brown notes a general absence of children of color in Shakespeare that holds “broader implications for how the period’s drama depicts black people’s development (or presumed lack of development) from youth to adulthood” (2018, 147). Considering another significant child figure, Margo Hendricks sees the Indian boy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a desirable object for Oberon to signify his “worldly authority”, and connects the boy to “the growing number of non-European (particularly African) children who were imported into England to serve as badges of status for England’s aristocracy” (1996, 54). Their dispute over the Indian boy signals “the European’s growing anxiety about the definition of race in the borderlands”, Gloria Anzaldúa’s term for the uneasy intimacy between different races and classes in shared spaces (Hendricks 1996, 58). This “anxiety” triggers the push toward establishing a kind of white European identity, one that is marked by its unmarkedness and most present in its absence from dominant discourse. The racialized child becomes a key figure to establishing that identity and representing the nation’s past and future. It is critical, therefore, for England’s racial project that their literary children be portrayed as white.

Poetic language as well as visual symbols had a powerful role in shaping early modern ideas about race. Hall’s Things of Darkness traces the way that blackness was weaponized in early modern England through the binary of dark/fair imagery in poetry and paintings. She notes that the tension between dark/fair appears particularly through differentiating women, and her readings consistently highlight an intersectional approach to gender and race. Furthermore, Hall states in her introduction that the “opposition between fair and dark…appears just at the moment of intensified English interest in colonial travel and African trade” (1995, 3). Her book counters previous arguments in new historicism and early modern cultural studies that referred to blackness or darkness as simple reflections of Petrarchan beauty standards (represented by the blond, fair Laura) or ideals of Christian morality where fairness represented God and darkness was evocative of death. In other words, she refuted scholarship that dismissed the idea that such representations could have anything to do with race and insisted that, while these metaphors of beauty and Christian morality are undoubtedly involved in fair/dark dichotomies, they are still intertwined with conceptions of race. One of Hall’s most compelling examples is a portrait of the English nobleman Peregrine Bertie. In this painting, Bertie sits astride a white horse and in the background is a Black man, holding a memento mori (a symbol of death). Rather than using the color of blackness as memento mori, the memento mori is represented here by a Black man. In this instance, the image of death becomes directly linked to Black personhood. This linkage did not just affect dark-skinned Africans; Hall also notes that “the trope of blackness” was “applied…to Native Americans, Indians, Spanish, and even Irish and Welsh as groups that needed to be marked as ‘other’” (1995, 7). But it is crucial, Hall argues, to recognize the centrality that English fantasies of African difference had in art and literature of this time period, even in a moment before the transatlantic slave trade was fully in operation.

While evocations of darkness/blackness and fairness/whiteness can be viewed as engines of racialization, there are more specifically racial terms that you will find in early modern literature that are often used as insults or slurs. Shakespeare in multiple comedies refers to undesirable women as “Ethiopes” or “tawny” (having darker skin). “Indian” could refer to someone from India or the “newly discovered” Americas. The term Moor is used throughout Othello, not only in its subtitle The Moor of Venice but also throughout the play in place of Othello’s name (even Desdemona in her profession of her love for him in 1.2 first calls him “the Moor”). The use of “Moor” on the early modern stage encapsulates the messy nature of early modern racial formation: it could refer to a nationality (from Northern Africa) and/or religious (Muslim) identity, but it could also be a generic term for simply one who was not white. It is important to recognize that Shakespeare was not the only playwright to portray characters of color, even if he is the most produced today. Christopher Marlowe’s work traffics widely in the depictions of racial and religious “others”, like Turks and Persians in both parts of Tamburlaine the Great and the eponymous Barabas in Jew of Malta. George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar has a large cast of Moors. Other portrayals of the stereotypical villainous Moor character seen in Alcazar and Titus can be found in the early seventeenth century plays Lust’s Dominion (Dekker) and All’s Lost by Lust (Rowley). Another popular dramatic type was the “blackamoor maid”, the often treacherous and highly sexualized black female character as seen in The White Devil, The Knight of Malta, and The Wonder of Women, or Sophonisba, among others. Early studies of race on the early modern stage tended to focus on these “types” of characters (see works by Anthony Barthelemy, Jack D’Amico and Virginia Mason Vaughan). Closet drama (a drama not necessarily produced for stage production) too, such as Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, traffics in narratives of race, with the titular character, Mariam, constantly referring to her whiteness while degrading her rival, Salome, through racial slurs.

In order to portray this wide array of characters on the stage, English actors employed different visual and performative strategies for performing blackness in the early modern theater, including using black textiles and cosmetics to darken their complexion and certain physical and vocal affectations to portray the Turk or Moor type. Blackened faces on the stage were actually associated from the medieval period with performances of devil characters in mystery plays, who would speak directly to the audience in a “roaring” voice. Famed actor Edward Alleyn was known for his long legs that he used to “stalk” across the stage as Tamburlaine or Muly Hamet in The Battle of Alcazar. These distinctive performance methods, from material to vocal to physical techniques, all combined to create an imagined characterizations of racially “othered” characters. When actual Black actors like Ira Aldridge began playing these roles in the nineteenth century, they had to contend with the audience’s expectations that they act in this heightened and stereotypical way. Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play Red Velvet chronicles that struggle in a piece of historical fiction about Aldridge’s 1833 debut as Othello in London and how he is haunted by the blackface performance of the celebrity white actor Edmund Kean.

Numerous scholars have written on the varied techniques that white actors used to portray Black characters. Like Hall, Dympna Callaghan in Shakespeare Without Women (2000) considers gender and race together, but in the context of performance, given that neither women nor Africans performed on the public stage but were instead portrayed by white men and boys. She distinguishes between the “exhibition” of Black people in court or city spectacles, people on display as spectacle, and the “mimesis”, or simulation of blackness by white actors in the professional theatre (Callaghan 2000, 7). Mimesis results in an “embodied performance” controlled by the actor; with exhibition, by contrast, “power resides almost entirely with the spectator”, though she acknowledges that an actor’s performance is also subject to the interpretation of the audience (Callaghan 2000, 77). This distinction between exhibition and mimesis is illustrated respectively in the examples above of the Africans dancing at the royal wedding and the royals portraying African characters in Masque of Blackness. Regarding the visual spectacle of face-painting on the early modern stage, Ian Smith and Farah Karim-Cooper have made dynamic contributions to our ideas about cosmetic and textile prosthetics in performance. Ian Smith’s essays, “White Skin, Black Masks: Racial Cross-Dressing on the Early Modern Stage” (2003) and “Othello’s Black Handkerchief” (2013), look at the materials used to signify blackness on the early modern stage. He reads Othello’s handkerchief, so often assumed by scholars and theatre practitioners to be white, as a black piece of cloth that mirrors the use of black cloth and dyes in the portrayal of characters like Othello by white actors. The handkerchief Othello says has been dyed in mummy, which Smith concludes would have been of a darker hue. Smith questions the assumption by critics that the handkerchief is white and asks “what reading whiteness in the handkerchief, despite evidence to the contrary, reveals about the habits and intellectual reflexes that inform our critical imagination” (2013, 25). Along with authoring a monograph on cosmetics in Renaissance drama, Karim-Cooper in her chapter on “The Materials of Race” in The Cambridge Companion of Shakespeare and Race (2021) draws on Hall, Smith, and Habib in elaborating on the use of cosmetics in constructing both whiteness and blackness on the early modern stage. And finally, Noemie Ndiaye’s Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (2022) looks beyond cosmetics and costumes to also consider speech and song, as well as performances of kinetic blackness through dance.

The presence of Black characters onstage (played by white actors using wigs and blackface cosmetics) certainly contributed to the formation of racial ideas in English in the early modern period, yet differences in skin color and/or religion or nationality are not the only ways in which race is constituted as a social construct. Linking conduct and class status with race works to establish the alignment of whiteness with gentility and blackness with immorality. While most critical attention on race in early modern performance has focused on plays in which characters of color appear, scholarship has expanded to focus on how technologies of race have been used in plays with all white characters. For instance, Ayanna Thompson and Benjamin Minor’s essay on “Blackface in King Lear” looks at Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom and his use of dirt to “grime” his face as a racializing tool: “By adopting blackface in his disguise as ‘Poor Tom,’ Edgar accesses the world of rogues and gypsies - social and racial groups of concern at the time of the play’s construction” (2013, 153). These markers of class as well as race also inspire Patricia Akhimie to look at “somatic markers” in plays like The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream: bodily marks like bruises or rough hands that designate individuals as incapable of being cultivated or moving up in society, much like darker skin became an indelible mark that precluded social advancement in white society.

Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton point to “the eclectic range of cultural differences that are used to explain, manage, or reorganize relations of power” as fundamental to the study of early modern race (2007, 2). A shift from viewing race as the representation of different identities to a structural system used to exclude and punish individuals classified as “different” pushes scholars and readers to consider how race appears in literature even when characters of color do not. The study of whiteness and the formation of whiteness as a hegemonic device in this period in England should not be ignored. Scholars such as Smith, David Sterling Brown, and Arthur L. Little, Jr. have argued for the necessity of scrutinizing whiteness as a category in the early modern period and considering more generally how whiteness builds, strengthens, and develops into a racial identity in early modern England. Of particular note is Smith’s words in his 2020 talk for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Birthday lecture, entitled “Whiteness: a Primer for Understanding Shakespeare”, where he argued that whiteness has become a “racial blindspot” where scholars have not fully considered the ways whiteness is formed and maintained in early modern England. To say it more explicitly, whiteness is a category that gains strength over categorizing other people as “non-white”. In line with these considerations of race, early modernists have also noted the necessity of surpassing the black/white binary to think about other, perhaps less visible, instances of racialization and how such moments contribute more broadly to the process of race-making in early modern England.

Studying “Race Before Race”: The Formation of a Critical Field

Margo Hendricks defined the field of premodern critical race studies in her talk “Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future” for the 2019 RaceB4Race “Periodization” symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the following manner: “Unlike PRS [premodern race studies], PCRS resists the study of race as a single, somatic event (skin color, in most cases) and insists that race be seen in terms of a socioeconomic process (colonialism)”. When we say “RaceB4Race”, we are not simply signaling a study of race in the past, but rather a critical engagement with race in the past, while considering the impact of white supremacy and colonialism. Yet, PCRS has faced controversy and resistance. Some scholars claimed that race was not relevant in early modern England until 1619, the first documented date of when enslaved African people arrived in Jamestown. The alleged lack of racial and ethnic diversity in early modern England and the fact that this time period predates the full-blown colonial project of Britain (that peaked in the Victorian era of 1837-1901) has caused many to argue that those reading race in the Renaissance were projecting modern understandings of race onto a past where such concepts would not have been relevant. Scholars have argued that non-white characters such as Shakespeare’s Othello, Aaron, Morocco, or Cleopatra, Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Barabas, or Elizabeth Cary’s Salome, are simply fantasies of people of color, as opposed to representations that have any validity in everyday England. Yet, countless studies have proved such claims to be false and tinged with a desire to make early modern studies the purview of white scholars. As Ambereen Dadabhoy has noted “the unmarked and unremarkable nature of white bodies and white people has resulted in an understanding of the early modern period as race-less or race-free” yet “the period’s interest in so-called others served to construct and affirm white identity” (2020, 229).

We end by detailing the context of RaceB4Race, the conference organized by Ayanna Thompson and the history behind this field changing moment. On the RaceB4Race’s website they describe the “catalyst” for the program as namely “the rejection of proposals for sessions on race and antiracism by Medievalists of Color in favor of sessions proposed by their white colleagues by the International Congress of Medieval Studies (ICMS) in Kalamazoo, MI. RaceB4Race offered an “alternate home” for the rejected MOC sessions and a much-needed opportunity for a collaboration between the MOC and ShakeRace communities”. Since 2019, RaceB4Race has hosted symposia (as well as a mentorship network, and a first book institute) to support BIPOC scholars and scholarship on race in the premodern era. This context notes that RaceB4Race is not simply about scholarship but also community. The rejection of sessions that sparked the first symposium was not an isolated incident (in fact, it was representative of a long history of marginalizing scholarship on race in premodern studies). In 2020 the executive board of RaceB4Race published a letter in The Sundial addressing publishing gatekeeping in premodern studies. The letter urged journal editors to interrogate their practices, their editorial boards, and evaluative criteria, with an example of PMLA (the Modern Language Association’s flagship journal)’s rejection of a cluster of essays on PCRS for being a “constrained” cluster, despite the diversity of the essay topics. Many journals did release official responses to this letter with a stated dedication to change practices to address these concerns. Countless scholars have also noted moments of “correction” at conferences, seminars, and other scholarly venues, where the study of race has been questioned or undermined.

In conclusion, the phrase “race before race” brings to mind a host of vibrant and diverse intellectual projects spanning disability studies, trans studies, gender and sexuality studies, ecocriticism, asexuality studies, biopolitics, book history, postcolonial studies, and many, many other forms of analytical inquiry. It also, crucially, recalls the tireless work of people to create a community amongst scholars, students, and beyond, to make meaningful inquiry into race in the past and the present. The work of race before race is, in many ways, about the exciting scholarship that has advanced the field in so many ways. It is also, however, about the ways that BIPOC scholars and scholars working on race have been historically marginalized in the field of early modern studies. PCRS is not a “niche” field, as demonstrated by this overview it touches on all aspects of early modern studies. Thus, it must be central and essential reading. It is a field that both honors the great work that has come before and makes space for future work to be done and shared. Some scholars have dismissed the relevance of race in the early modern period, saying that it was not yet a concern, or that our definitions of race as we understand them today are drastically different and thus it would be anachronistic to use race as a lens when analyzing the past. Yet the scholarship of PCRS has provided such statements to be erroneous. The work of PCRS has made it possible to interrogate texts like Sonnet 120 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”) as referring to a Black woman rather than a brunette. Such “correction” of the possibility of the Dark Lady sonnets being about a Black woman has been reacted to or resisted in diverse sources from Caroline Randall Williams’ poetry collection and ballet Lucy Negro Redux to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth. Lucy N (whose presence is recorded in archival documents) was possibly a brothel owner and described in such a way that implies she was a Black woman living in London at the same time as Shakespeare. Williams’ creative work imagines them meeting and becoming lovers. The presence of Lucy N as well as the other individuals we’ve discussed, and their depictions in poetry, painting, and drama, show the rich and varied tapestry of race and racial difference present in early modern England, a world that has not been depicted in pop culture renderings of London at this time. While life in early modernity may very well have been dingy, smelly, and loud, it was not a world where we can assume whiteness.

Works Cited

Akhimie, Patricia. Shakespeare and Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World. Routledge, 2018.
Andrea, Bernadette. The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture. University of Toronto Press, 2017.
Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard. Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne. Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Brown, David Sterling. “‘Is Black so Base a Hue?’: Black Life Matters in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus”, in Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: a critical anthology, edited by Cassander L. Smith, Nicholas R. Jones, and Miles P. Grier. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, 137-56.
Callaghan, Dympna. Shakespeare without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. Routledge, 2000.
D’Amico, Jack. The Moor in English Renaissance Drama. University of South Florida Press, 1991.Dadabhoy, Ambereen. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in) Shakespeare”, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, vol.11, no.2-3, 2020, 228-35.
Erickson, Peter and Kim F. Hall. “A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 67, no.1, 2016, 1-13.
Habib, Imtiaz. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible. Routledge Press, 2008.
Hachimi, Yasmine. “A beauty not so whitely': Anne Boleyn and the Optics of Race”, Race-ing Queens, special issue of The Scholar and the Feminist Online, edited by Mira Assaf Kafantaris, Treva B. Lindsey, and Sonja Drimmer, Forthcoming 2022.
Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Cornell University Press, 1995.
Hendricks, Margo. “‘Obscured by dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 37-60.
–––. “Coloring the Past, Rewriting Our Future: RaceB4Race”, Uploaded by The Folger Library, September 2019. https://www.folger.edu/institute/scholarly-programs/race-periodization/margo-hendricks [accessed 6 December 2022].
Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
“It’s Time to End the Publishing Gatekeeping! A letter from RaceB4Race Executive Board”, The Sundial (ACMRS), 11 June 2020. https://medium.com/the-sundial-acmrs/its-time-to-end-the-publishing-gatekeeping-75207525f587 [accessed 6 December 2022].
Karim-Cooper, Farah. Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
Loomba, Ania and Jonathan Burton, eds. Race in Early Modern England: A documentary companion. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
MacDonald, Joyce Green. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Minor, Benjamin and Ayanna Thompson. “‘Edgar I Nothing Am’: Blackface in King Lear”, in Staged Transgression in Shakespeare’s England, edited by Rory Loughnane and Edel Semple. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 153-64.
Ng, Su Fang and Carmen Nocentelli, eds. England’s Asian Renaissance. University of Delaware Press, 2022.
Ndiaye, Noemie. Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.
RaceB4Race, https://acmrs.asu.edu/RaceB4Race [accessed 6 December 2022].
Smith, Ian. “White Skin, Black Masks: Racial Cross-Dressing on the Early Modern Stage”, Renaissance Drama, vol. 32, 2003, 33-67.
–––. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief”, Shakespeare Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2013), 1-25.
–––. “Whiteness: A Primer for Understanding Shakespeare”, Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger, 2020.
Singh, Jyostna, ed. A Companion to the Global Renaissance: Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion, 1500-1700 Second Edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2021.
Thompson, Ayanna, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race. Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Vaughan, Virginia Mason. Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1470-1800. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

6731 words

Citation: MacLeod, Emily, Anita Raychawdhuri. "Race Before Race". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 December 2022 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19691, accessed 03 June 2023.]

19691 Race Before Race 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here

Leave Feedback

The Literary Encyclopedia is a living community of scholars. We welcome comments which will help us improve.