Just as often as anti-Blackness seeps into new places and discussions, Black folks always find new ways to clap back. According to a racist on social media, recently, my “type are not going to be tolerated any longer.” He went on to say that I would “be lucky if [I] have a job cleaning toilets by the end of this decade, if [I didn’t] fix [my] attitude.” This type of misogynoir is familiar territory. As a mixed, Black/Brown woman, and as one of the few scholars of color in my field—I am a medievalist of early England—I am not new to dealing with white supremacists inside and outside of academia. But it does make me return to one particular question, which I ask myself often: “Who are the gatekeepers of history?”
I’ve made it no secret that I believe Medieval studies operates within the parameters of white supremacy. This fact, along with the latest round of white supremacist attacks, explains why Koritha Mitchell’s latest book, From Slave Cabins to the White House, resonates so deeply with how I exist in my own field. Mitchell explores “know-your-place aggression” and reminds readers how “hostility has shaped Black experience.”1
At the core of Mitchell’s work are various snapshots in American history, which exemplify how Black women created, and continue to create, “homemade citizenship.” Despite those who say that we do not belong, we have always fiercely and brilliantly made room for ourselves in spaces designed to exclude us.
“Why do [we] continue to invest in achieving conservative goals,” asks Mitchell, “especially heteronormative domesticity, when [we] know [our] accomplishments will more likely inspire attack than respectability and safety?”2 This question is not lost on someone like me, who works within a predominantly white field that, until recently, referred to itself, by and large, as “Anglo-Saxon” studies.
The field that investigates early England has identified itself, in part, with a term fraught with inaccuracies and loaded with colonial baggage. Historically, “Anglo-Saxon” studies itself has reinforced superiority of northern European or “Anglo-Saxon” whiteness, and, yet, the term “Anglo-Saxon” was hardly used in the early English period. Among the sparse uses of the term before the Norman Conquest, there is no record of its use in the first-person singular to describe an individual from the early English period. The term “Anglo-Saxon” gained popularity in the early modern period, as England reimagined an uncivilized past to justify their imperial conquests. Whiteness has been central in what and who we study as a field. Black people are often devalued and dehumanized, and this is no different in how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) exist within academia as a whole.
Take, for instance, the self-professed “most significant historian of early medieval Europe,” who described one of my public pieces on Black erasure and COVID-19 as “8th-rate scholarship.” While women of color may be fiercely oriented toward achievements, we know we face “a crisis [we] don’t deserve because [our] accomplishments inspire aggression.”3 This aggression and hostility also appears in the archives. Judith Butler reminds us that BIPOC are often left with “the difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably unpure.”4 Our predecessors struggled to leave records, and what has survived has often been read through a white lens. Throughout our lifetimes of grappling with white violence, our victory in preserving our own agency comes with viewing history and historical narratives without the scales of whiteness.
Just like Mitchell’s work gives us an appreciation for marginalized women who are often left out of historical narratives, Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold Story and Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America, offer insights into BIPOC in Anglo-American history and explores how marginalized people built communities despite obstacles and anti-Blackness. Mitchell, Otele, and Fielder’s works illustrate that our very presence as women of color is disruptive. Appealing to whiteness has been the default in history, but many BIPOC historians are reexamining historical narratives and texts to undo white-washing and erasure. This is also disruptive to white supremacy and the “good trouble” the late John Lewis described.
The archives of Black and Brown people are indeed fractured, and whiteness continues to spring into action to deny us our place in history, in our fields of expertise, and, sometimes, in life, in general. Anti-Blackness and misogynoir manifest in insidious ways, particularly in the academy.
In From Slave Cabins to the White House, I was struck by Mitchell’s analysis of how Black women have always made a place for themselves and made meaning out of their lived experiences. In one example, she points to the expertise of 19th-century Black feminist, liberation activist, and author Anna J. Cooper, whose words, more than a century ago, became foundational for Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality. When we need it most, our ancestors remind us they are still here. Our work is sometimes reverberations of their words. If it wasn’t for Black women scholars rediscovering Cooper’s work, her work would have remained among those erased.5
These rediscoveries, particularly by Black and Brown women invested in our own histories, are not simply protest, as Mitchell highlights. We “look through the lens of achievement, rather than protest,” she says.6 Similarly, it is not protest to exemplify Black women’s achievements, as Mitchell details in her book. Her work encourages a reading practice with a “fierce orientation toward accomplishment” that helps shine light on people of color in history whose achievements have gone unrecognized or underappreciated.7
Mitchell’s celebration of Cooper was striking to me as a medievalist, because very few people, if any at all, emphasize that Cooper was a trained medievalist. In a forthcoming publication, my colleague, Dr. Erik Wade, and I explore Cooper’s near erasure from our field. Even before Cooper’s initial thesis—a critical edition of a medieval French text, Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne—was rejected, she pined for a more inclusive history focused on Black history and folklore. She states in her 1892 compilation of essays A Voice from the South:
It was the glory of Chaucer that he justified the English language to itself—that he took the homely and hitherto despised Saxon elements and ideas, and lovingly wove them into an artistic product which even Norman conceit and uppishness might be glad to acknowledge and imitate. The only man who is doing the same for Negro folk-lore is one not to the manner born. Joel Chandler Harris has made himself rich and famous by simply standing around among the black railroad hands and cotton pickers of the South and compiling the simple and dramatic dialogues which fall from their lips. What I hope to see before I die is a black man honestly and appreciatively portraying both the Negro as he is, and the white man, occasionally, as seen from the Negro’s standpoint.8
Nearly 130 years ago, Cooper passionately wrote about representation in history telling and keepers of history. The preservation of English history has not been afforded to people of the African diaspora and just like Joel Chandler Harris capitalized on preserving Black folklore, white scholars have historically designated themselves authorities on every culture under the sun.
Cooper is part of a long line of Black women who have been making the case for the importance of Black history presented and preserved by those whose connection is deeper than simply understanding the “other.” Her rejected thesis served as a catalyst for her to pursue PhD research for another decade on “The Attitude of France on the Question of Slavery Between 1789 and 1848,” a compelling topic that speaks to the heart of revolution. Freedom, after all, was still not entirely within every Black person’s reach when Cooper was conducting research in the early 20th century.
Perhaps we are not still entirely free. Yet, Black and Brown people continue to create homemade citizenship in the field of history, despite not being welcome.
As historians, we are doing the “necessary housework” and are custodians cleaning up messy history. White supremacy tells us we do not belong, but we do have a place in history.
We often hear the phrase “representation matters.” This is particularly true in Mitchell’s work, which speaks specifically to the African American experience and examines canonical texts like those of Harriet Jacobs, Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, and in the embodiment of Michelle Obama. Yet, the idea of Black women’s place-making/meaning-making is relevant beyond the United States. To get an even broader analysis of “homemade citizenship,” Olivette Otele’s African Europeans tackles the first two millennia BCE to highlight “what has been forgotten and lurks on the outskirts of [scholarly] discourse” in relation to African presence in European historical narratives.9
Africans, as Otele demonstrates, have always existed in Europe outside of slavery. Nonetheless, white commentators have historically classified non-European narratives in Europe via exceptionalism. The destructiveness of whiteness within academia results in selective white-washed narratives where the authorities are also often white. In highlighting how European-based BIPOC created “homegrown citizenship,” Otele builds on the work of Geraldine Heng and David Theo Goldberg to illustrate how race and “otherness” emerged in the European Middle Ages, at times, as a means of exclusion.10
Otele emphasizes stories of European Africans that “give us an insight into the way the relationship between Europe and Africa was built over time in areas where there was no strict delineation between the two continents.”11 These stories reminded me of the seventh-century north African abbot Hadrian, whose work in England is instrumental to English church and literary history. His work has been the subject of inquiry for decades, particularly because the eighth-century early English monk St. Bede describes Hadrian as “vir natione Afir” [the man of African race].12
Preoccupied with his origin or his skin color, scholars have tried to argue that Hadrian was not Black. But borders and movement were more blurred than we might imagine. In fact, in African Europeans, Otele shows the collapse of borders to give us a better image of movement and people in a Europe that is not quite as white as has been ingrained in western thinking. For example, Otele describes the legendary Roman Theban legion leader, Maurice’s birthplace, which is near what is now the Sudanese border in present-day Egypt. Throughout history, Maurice has been depicted as a dark-skinned Black man. And Hadrian, who hailed from a similar locale as Maurice (though centuries later), is depicted in many of the surviving images of him with dark skin. Yet, previous scholarship has always downplayed the significance of this Black man’s birthplace in early medieval English history.13
To include BIPOC in traditionally white, Eurocentric narratives—as Otele illustrates—very often comes at a price. White-washing BIPOC identities from historical narratives is not only ahistorical, it perpetuates the myth of an all-white Europe. Hadrian is lauded for his work in educating and converting the early English people, and scholars have historically accepted his achievements by renouncing his heritage for him.14 Cedric Robinson reminds us that for hundreds of years “European notions of history . . . [have] negated the possibility of the true existence of” Black people on the continent.” In reviving and highlighting these narratives of Black men and women, we recapture what was occluded in white-washed narratives.15
We can find community by returning to the archives, no matter how fractured they are. Like Mitchell and Otele’s works, Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races is a sophisticated addition to ongoing discussions of race, kinship, and community.16 Fielder offers an alternative theory of how race is constructed in which race includes “different lineages in narratives of interracial kinship.”17 What weaves through all three works is the idea of finding community and creating space, despite anti-Blackness and attempts to erase Black narratives.
Included in this community discussion in Relative Races is the recounting of the capture and adoption of Irish-Scot settler Mary Jemison in her youth, who, raised by a Seneca family, assimilated into Native domestic spaces. As a descendent of Irish-Scots, Jemison became “Indian by a process of racialization and re-racialization that is relational rather than generational.”18
Fielder is careful to draw on the work of Indigenous scholars and echoes what Jodi Byrd refers to as “the entanglement of colonization and racialization,” in order to “describe non-heteronormative, non-biological models by which genealogies of interracial kinship (re)construct race.”19 Settler-colonial thinking permitted scholars and Jemison’s white contemporaries to read this “white woman of the Genesee” as someone who needed to be redeemed. But Jemison saw her own adoption as “comparable to a blood relation, emphasizing the fact that her adoption creates a kinship relation that is not inferior to biological kinship.”20
White-washed readings have allowed continued erasure of these important discussions of race and kinship. Fielder recounts how “most scholarly discussions of Jemison have either ignored or given minimal attention to the autumn and winter she and her children spent with the two African American men who helped save them from starvation.”21 Jemison not only created home and kinship among non-white people out of necessity but because it brought a sense of belonging. Fielder’s rereadings of historical episodes of kinship in domestic spaces in the 19th century urge us to revisit the archives, and shed light on stories that have been erased and ignored.
James Baldwin described with piercing accuracy how BIPOC are expected to exist within white supremacist frameworks, whether they be in academia or otherwise. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin asserts:
The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.22
Mitchell, Otele, and Fielder’s works do not make peace with mediocrity, but instead undo centuries of biased narratives whose authors painted Black and Indigenous people as worthless or as exceptions to the white default.
Whether or not we might have jobs, cleaning toilets at some point is not the insult racists believe it is. The truth is, as historians, particularly BIPOC historians, we are doing the “necessary housework” and are custodians cleaning up messy history.23 White supremacy tells us we do not belong, but we do have a place in history, even though anti-Blackness has tried to erase and displace us from being included in narratives of our own worlds. Our “homemade citizenship” as BIPOC historians continues to disrupt our fields, and we’ve made a space for ourselves as the keepers of history, too.
The author would like to thank professor Marlene Daut and Ben Platt for this writing opportunity. This article was commissioned by Marlene Daut and sponsored by the UVA Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.
- Koritha Mitchell, From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2020), pp. 2, 19. ↩
- Mitchell, p. 3. ↩
- Mitchell, p. 92. ↩
- Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (Routledge, 1993), p. 241. ↩
- Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conaway, eds., Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds (University Press of New England, 2007), pp. 249–308. ↩
- Mitchell, p. 3. ↩
- Mitchell, p. 24. ↩
- Anna J. Cooper, A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South. (Aldine Printing House, 1892), pp. 224-5. ↩
- Olivette Otele, African Europeans. An Untold Story (Basic Books, 2021), p. 5 ↩
- Otele, pp. 13–28. ↩
- Otele, p. 15. ↩
- This quote comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed 731) and is translated as “a man of African race” by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 329. ↩
- My forthcoming publication “A Wrinkle in Medieval Time: Ironing Out Issues Regarding Race, Temporality, and the Early English,” NLH, no. 53, p. 1, addresses this in more detail. ↩
- Otele discusses how African Europeans sometimes gained acceptance by renouncing their own heritage or one of their parents, see p. 7. “A Wrinkle in Medieval Time” serves as a corrective to works like Michael Lapidge’s “The School of Theodore and Hadrian,” Anglo-Saxon England, no. 15 (1986), pp. 45–72. ↩
- Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 86. ↩
- Brigitte Fielder, Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America, (Duke University Press, 2020). ↩
- Fielder, p. 3. ↩
- Fielder, p. 164. ↩
- Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. xxiii. ↩
- Fielder, p. 176. ↩
- Fielder, p. 170. ↩
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (Michael Joseph Ltd, 1963). p. 19. ↩
- Mitchell, p. 2. ↩