Maghan Keita 


Race and Renaissance Historiographies

I am at a point in my life and my career where research and writing become ‘personal’—or, at least, in a moment, where I can overtly state that they are. It is a moment where ‘everything is text’; where the interdisciplinary, the historiographic, and the epistemological stand in high relief. It is a moment when Du Bois is summoned to remind me to ‘challenge authority’; where Toni Morrison compels me to challenge ‘reading as I was taught.’ A la Morrison, I am engaged in re-reading and reinterpretation. Possibly, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen suggests, I also might participate in ‘toppling’ an epistemology or two.

I am concerned with the global medieval and Renaissance. In that regard, what I present here is theoretical and conceptual, and centers on historiography. I am greatly concerned with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of historical argument and the circumstances it satisfies. I am in ‘awe’ of colleagues who have just ‘discovered’ dark bodies—sometimes feminine bodies—in periods and materials presumed to be ‘white’, and dominantly male. I am in awe of an ignorance of, or disregard for the works of earlier scholars—many of whom were of color—who researched and made arguments the paved the way for current scholarship decades, if not centuries ago. The awe that awes me is rooted in Morrison’s observation that there is an “entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning” and that undergird white supremacy. In that regard, again, in league with Morrison, my intent is to explore how the knowledge I encounter might be “transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice.” Stuart Hall seconds this in evoking Franz Fanon on the quest of the ‘rediscovery’ and ‘reclamation of identity’.

Somewhere within this process, there has been the question of why I might evoke scholars such as Du Bois, Morrison, Hall, and Fanon on behalf of the global medieval and Renaissance. They are of the greatest help and importance because they help to focus—theoretically and methodologically—the ways in which we might ‘read’ the medieval and the Renaissance in order to globalize them. They pose the first question: how do modern theorists teach us to read and then write these periods? They allow for a challenge to existing historiographies. They participate in providing the spaces to challenge conventional notions of how the cultures of Europe—‘European culture”, writ large—have been shaped. These, of course, are spaces ably opened by scholars of the period such A. C. de C. M. Saunders and Jeremy Lawrence. They are spaces that compel greater exploration.

One task here is to more directly bring the conventions of race into play and to challenge them interdisciplinarily. This brings to bear an aesthetic analysis as the basis for conceptual reconstitution—as the basis for revisioning through ‘re-visioning’ the ‘texts’ before us, and therefore the periods in question. This revision through re-visioning employs the energy generated in Aurelia Martin Casares’ assertion that “[A]lmost no black Africans took part in the movement in Spain”.

Casares is my foil. Her assertion poses several questions, first among them, “black Africans”—terminology broadly used but hardly interrogated. Terminology that carries sundry implications, many of them broaching the capacities of those described by the modifier “black”. Terminology that begs Elias Saad’s trenchant analysis that the ‘division’ between ‘SubSaharan Africa’ and Africa north of the Sahara is simply fiction. The question here focuses on what Africans might be found in Europe at the moment of Casares’ analysis? The answer seems to be ‘many’, and in greater variety than she assumes.

Another turn in questioning Casares’ position is ‘who’ actually ‘took part’ in the Renaissance in Spain, or in Europe as a whole. Conventionally, the Renaissance has been examined as an elite phenomenon. If one took part, how was it known; how did they know it, and characterize themselves in the moment? What were the sources of their motivation? What sustained their efforts; their inquiries; their discoveries? More importantly, from the standpoint of this inquiry, are the ‘mundane’ worthy of mention as ‘participants? This becomes central to a Spain that had the largest African population in all of Europe in the 15th century; to a Portugal whose major cities boasted African populations that approached 10% or  better; and a Europe at large that found Africans conspicuous and significant across its length and breadth.

The nuance of all this is important. Assertions, like that of Casares, run counter to the demographic and intellectual ferment of  the “moment”—the Renaissance, and the period that precedes and births it. These assertions and the countering data suggest the need for new ways of engaging and interrogating the data. Here we return to Morrison, and the notion that everything is text.

This analysis uses five works of art as tropes: Paris Bordone’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor

with Two Pages” (mid 16th century); two portraits by Jacobo da Pontormo, “Portrait of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici”(c. 1553), and “Maria Salviati de’ Medici and Guilia de’Medici” (c. 1539); “The Chafariz del Rey in the Alfama District”, by an unknown artist (late 16th century); and the work by the Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore which re-envisions Baltimore through the tableaux of “Chafariz del Rey” and Fra Carnevale’s “Ideal City” (c. 15th century). My reading of these ‘texts’ is accompanied by readings in literature and history—both primary sources and secondary analyses—which in combination provide not only a new way of seeing and interrogating the eras and their diversity, but which also give a certain richness to the historical process itself. The ‘richness’—literally the notions of opulence associated with the Renaissance—becomes an entrée into the interrogation of power and beauty; questions posed by the aesthetics of power, and the power of the aesthetic. It allows for the interrogation of another gaze, as it were—a black gaze. A gaze that is re-directive in asking the question of the powers of the ‘object’ and the objectified over the presumed ‘objectifier’. What is the agency of the subject of a work of art; a literary piece; an historical or geographic tome? How does the black subject shape and re-vision our discourses on the medieval and The Renaissance? These are some of the questions critical re-readings pose for me.

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question: 

I am most compelled by issues of race and historiography. Of greatest interest are the ways in which historical analysis and narrative are informed and constructed by concepts of race, and what those analyses and constructions say of who we are, and who we might become.

Provisional sketch of essay:

My work would be a continuation of my ongoing examination of the “global medieval and Renaissance.” Its foci are three-fold. First is the critique of colleagues—all well-meaning and courageous—who are still in awe when they find peoples of color in the seas of whiteness defined by modernity, in spite of primary sources, secondary analyses (of course from sources we’ve all been taught to disregard and disavow), and common sense. My second goal would be an exploration of the implications of such findings on how we might write our histories and live our lives. Finally, I’d like to truly entertain the notion of a “global medieval and Renaissance” and explore some of the ways in which the world was interconnected in numerous and various ways. The point is an examination of similar, contiguous, contentious, and sometimes mutually reinforcing socio-political economic constructions and their historical gravity well beyond Europe.