“The Mongol Princess of Tars: Global Relations and Racial Formation in The King of Tars, c. 1330.” Exemplaria 31.3 (2019).
This essay examines the racial formation of Mongols in The King of Tars, a fourteenth-century Middle English romance, in relation to the Syrian geopolitics and Latin European historiographical records that inspired its composition. Because the romance features overt instances of racialized physiognomy, such as skin color changing across confessional lines and the normalization of whiteness for the Christian body, scholars have overlooked how race operates in the text in less visible ways. Critical interest has largely focused on the familiar, oppositional binary of Christendom versus Islam that characterizes the crusade romance genre, thus emphasizing how the text demonstrates a racialization of religion in the period. However, by analyzing the romance in relation to its historiographical source material, this essay reveals how the less visible, yet still present, Mongol figure — represented principally through the Princess of Tars — operates within a nexus of eastern alterity that drives the colonialist fantasy of Muslim conversion and genocide. The essay coins the term “exotic ally” to describe this particular racial construction of Mongols and capture how a romance that is often read through a white-black and Christian-Muslim binary of racial-religious conflict is engaged in a much more complex process of racial thinking.
“Race and Vulnerability: Mongols in Thirteenth-Century Ethnographic Travel Writing.” Rethinking Medieval Margins and Marginality, eds. Debra Blumenthal, Kathryn Reyerson, Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher, and Ann Zimo. Routledge. 2020.
The earliest Latin records about the Mongols are found in the ethnographic travel writings of the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries of the 1240s and 1250s. In these accounts, the authors perform a production of knowledge that purports to be objective. However, what they present as either neutral curiosity or objective facts, which will later populate European encyclopedias, “obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced,” as Edward Said has famously put it (Orientalism, 1978, 18). As with any colonial project, these writers transformed the cultural, religious, governmental, and physical differences of the Mongols into racial alterity.
“Becoming Postmedieval: The Stakes of the Global Middle Ages.” Special anniversary issue: Race, Revulsion, and Revolution, eds. Mary Rambaran-Olm, Bre Leake, and Micah Goodrich. postmedieval 11.4 (2020).
The concept of the ‘medieval’ emerged as a node of colonialist ideology that placed Africa, Asia, and the Americas into a backward and uncivilized—premodern—time. Even as it demarcates Western Europe as its purview, the ‘Middle Ages’ has also implicated the rest of the world as an invisible ‘other.’ This article argues that as Medieval Studies develops a ‘Global Middle Ages,’ it must necessarily account for this racial colonial project. Drawing from Sara Ahmed’s theories of institutional diversity work, my analysis contextualizes the global turn as a public relations campaign that repairs and protects the field’s reputation after white supremacists displayed their love for the Middle Ages in Charlottesville in 2017. I caution against a ‘Global Middle Ages’ that makes a platform of diversity its focal point, and call for a coupling of the ‘global’ and the ‘medieval’ that confronts the field’s deeply entrenched Eurocentrism and breaks the ‘Middle Ages’ apart from within.
“Chaucer, Geoffrey: Teaching in Classroom.” The Chaucer Encyclopedia, ed. Richard Newhauser. Wiley. In progress
An inclusive classroom is one that liberates students from the oppressive systems into which they have been conscripted. When inclusivity stops short of liberation, it risks facilitating what Sara Ahmed has called the “performance culture” of institutional diversity work. It is not enough to simply admit more socially and historically disadvantaged groups into higher education—or into the Chaucer classroom—where entrance is granted by those in power. A liberated classroom is a space in which the oppressed transform themselves from “beings for others,” as Freire puts it, into “beings for themselves,” and are able to enter and belong in higher education as fully constituted selves. Professors of Chaucer can help to build spaces with this potential through pedagogical frameworks that take Chaucer not as an emblem of literary excellence but rather as an entry toward the critique of knowledge and power, particularly in relation to literary history.
“White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” In the Middle. December 5, 2016.
When we refuse to see race in the Middle Ages, the stakes are much greater than etymology or linguistics; we are refusing to see how hierarchical structures of difference operate in all of their nuanced complexities, including within multicultural and transnational contexts. We are allowing the Middle Ages to be seen as a preracial space where whiteness can locate its ethnic heritage. And we end up convening conference panels that uncritically present the use of the medieval in perpetuating white supremacy. I keep returning to this idea that it would have been incredibly powerful, and leagues more significant, if the panel I attended had framed the discussion with a consideration of just how racialized the engagement is between modern pop culture and the medieval world.
“Chaucer and Humanitarian Activism in Refugee Tales.” Public Books. April 24, 2018.
Refugee Tales, a recent adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, is more than a retelling of one of our “great books” of English literature. It is a project of humanitarian activism that reveals the entangled, and often impenetrable, links between language and culture that have created an inhumane immigration system in the UK. Through its engagement with Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English frame narrative, Refugee Tales takes us back to a crucible of English culture in order to construct a new one in which the recognition of humanity across borders is paramount: where the social and political response to immigration involves believing in, respecting, and upholding the dignity of people whose life experiences lead them to faraway new places.
“A White Canon in a World of Color.” Medievalists of Color. March 26, 2019.
For me, as a professor who teaches Chaucer, it is my job to show students how our reverence for whitewashed literary histories must be taken down. I can’t look around at the devastating effects of modernity, like the gentrification of my home town, and let what I study and teach—what I do every day—evade it all. Because of course how we teach and produce knowledge about the past affects our present. All knowledge is subjective, and even in historically white fields like medieval literature, white male subjectivity needs to stop dominating our epistemologies.
“Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique.” In the Middle. April 4, 2019.
The overwhelming whiteness of the field and the public appropriation of the medieval by white supremacists are undoubtedly related to how the field has been formulated. Sometimes too much focus is put on distinguishing ourselves from them out there so that we can allow white supremacy to be seen as something existing outside of ourselves, as if white supremacy were not something we uphold in the institutions we serve. […] If we want to be anti-racist, we need to start thinking more radically about how we can reformulate our field in our teaching, graduate training, and public outreach. These priorities will necessarily require institutional change, and may even mean leaving behind this thing we currently call Medieval Studies.
“Exotic Allies: Mongol Alterity and Racial Formation in the Global Middle Ages, 1220-1400” (2018)
This dissertation investigates the long and diverse lineages of medieval European engagement with the Mongol Empire from the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) to the end of the fourteenth-century. It examines the literature this cross-cultural encounter produced, including historiography, travel narratives, and romances, in order to reveal the discursive practices by which racial ideologies were formed during the period under study. Existing scholarship on medieval ideologies of race has concentrated on representations of religious difference or descriptive analyses of physiognomic differences. At the same time, this work has been heavily scrutinized with charges of anachronism grounded in the idea that race is a modern phenomenon, a social construct engendered by the institutions of colonialism and transatlantic slavery. This project draws on the theories of race advanced by Geraldine Heng, taking the literary representation of Mongols as a case study to show how racial ideologies of the period were not limited to religion or the body. It argues that geopolitical circumstances led to the construction of Mongols as exotic allies , a term this project coins to define a racial formation characterized by the consolidation of fear, desire, and control. In using the conceptual framework of the exotic ally to analyze the racial function of Mongols, this project reveals the ontological features of medieval European racial ideologies and the role that global relations played in their formation.