[Over the next few weeks two ITM will be publishing as blog posts the presentations from the New Chaucer Society congress session "Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016." This collaboratively shaped roundtable pondered the ways in which literary medieval studies has both changed and resisted some profound challenges to its self-identity over the past decade and a half. Returning to the theme of Carolyn Dinshaw's 2000 Biennial Lecture in London "Pale Faces: Race, Religion and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers," presenters wondered about diversity among medievalists, the place of the personal, the matter of race, and the decolonization of medieval studies as a discipline. Please share and add to the discussion! It is our hope to formulate an action plan out of the event and its aftermath. -- JJC]
Pale Like Me: Resistance, Assimilation, and ‘Pale Faces’ Sixteen Years On
African Americans of at least average height are supposed to play basketball. This kept me from learning to play ball until I became an adult. For as long as I can remember, I have been about doing what everyone else is not doing. I have been about going against the grain. This is probably a trait I share with many of you.
There is sanctuary in being different, but it can also cause you to need sanctuary. This was the case for Texas journalist John Howard Griffin. In his 1961 book Black Like Me, Griffin writes that “In medieval times, men sought sanctuary in churches. Nowadays, for a nickel, I could find sanctuary in a colored rest room” (140). It didn’t occur to Griffin, trained in the reporting and analysis of current events as he was, that some nowadays might find sanctuary in the Middle Ages. To address today’s question—are we dark enough yet?—is also to ask how medievalism and the identities of persons of color can and do intersect.
Griffin’s book was groundbreaking. From October through December 1959, Griffin, a white man, assumed the identity of a black man through a combination of skin darkening medication, tanning, and staining his skin brown. He travelled through the American South. One might say he masqueraded—and a number of news outlets used exactly that term—but the masquerade no doubt seemed very real when he was being chased down the street and bombarded with racial epithets. One might also claim that something of his black experience—and the extreme media attention it received—marked him for the rest of his life. Griffin writes: “Both Negroes and whites have gained this strange certainty [that] because I was a Negro for six weeks, I remained partly Negro or perhaps essentially Negro” (175).
Griffin’s experiment shows that a masquerade can have very real implications. It can reveal very real truths. For Griffin, it revealed that there is a wall between the experiences of blacks and whites—a wall that usually makes experiences mutually unintelligible. In “Pale Faces,” Carolyn Dinshaw writes of her father’s conversion to Christianity:
The Parsi religion of his family, so vague and so strange, as he put it, with its rituals and prayers in an indecipherable language—my father left all that behind…But his conversion, like the medieval ones I mentioned earlier, left a residue…There was a racial/religious remainder in the household. (39)
She goes on to say that she “picked up and lived out” this unassimilable remainder, and that it informs her queerness. Dinshaw offers us stark realities—some real truths—about the walls that disrupt even familial relations across axes of geography, time, and social acceptability. Her comportment toward the world and her medievalism are realities born of and revealed by her father’s—and to some extent her own—masquerade.
Dinshaw turns to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale to study what the unassimilable remainder looks like. The tale also offers another bridge between masquerade and reality. In it, the remainder appears in the Syrian Muslims who convert to Christianity in order that their Sultan might marry the Roman Christian princess Custance. Famously, the whole thing fails when the Sultan’s mother and her co-conspirators feign conversion in order to murder everyone except Custance, including her Roman retinue, the Sultan and the converted Syrians, during a wedding feast. But in the end, the Romans have their revenge and the remaining Syrians are slaughtered, too. There seems to be no difference between the falsely converted Saracens and the real converts. All die horribly because, in Dinshaw’s words, “the Saracen will always be a Saracen, even if baptized” (26-7).
The Saracens, Dinshaw’s father, and Griffin have all been dark in one way or another. And the reality is that darkness, interpreted as essential, seems to stick.
Today I consider my own position in this game of masquerading and tainting. I am an African-American and a medievalist. And to many, these are incommensurate roles. I must be masquerading in one or the other. The accusation is nothing new. Growing up the son of a public relations professional, I was taught to speak only the Queen’s English outside the house. African American Vernacular English was fine only at home. The result was that I was regularly accused of talking and acting white. Well before medieval studies came into view, I was already juggling incommensurate roles.
When I started to fall in love with Chaucer and medieval literature in college, it was in part because Middle English made me a much better reader of modern literature—including modern African-American literature—and in part due to the defamiliarizing wonders of medieval literature in its own right. Still, there were some who believed my interest in medieval studies could be nothing more than a passing fancy. That I was merely playing around. These included one of my senior thesis advisors. (It was a good thing I had more than one!) When, several years later, it was clear that I was going to grad school, he admitted that he had never taken me seriously. He apologized.
In my second year of grad school, a prospective student visiting my program—a fellow person of color—learned that I am a medievalist. Her face drooped and her eyebrows rose. She looked me up and down. With disdain, she said, “You’re a medievalist?”
Even now, I take care when I tell people what I do. Sometimes, fellow persons of color light up when they learn that I’m a professor—but when they learn my subject, their faces become like Custance when she is on trial for murder: pale, as pale as the face of a man being led to the gallows [II.B.645-648]. They exhibit what Dinshaw calls “a mark of loss: sudden loss of blood, loss of family, even…loss of purity” (23). I have broken faith. I am no longer family. No longer pure. Perhaps they fear the taint of my medievalism, my expertise in things too white. Surely the scene was similar when Griffin’s experiment was revealed to his white neighbors during a nationally televised interview. Only the skin colors of those who feared being tainted and those who represent the tainting were reversed.
I work on the history of race, too, I add hastily. In this claim, I seek sanctuary from the pallid storm caused by another sanctuary: my medievalism. The claim is my colored restroom. Some of my interlocutor’s color is restored. Only some. But it is enough that I will be sure to add the caveat more quickly next time.
Personally, to be dark enough would be to embrace the taint until it is no taint. To no longer give into the desires to massage my professional and personal identities to fit present company. To refuse to assimilate. I’m working on it.
But the question of today’s roundtable is meant—first and foremost, I think—for our field. And I propose that, for the field to be dark enough would be to embrace our subject as a kind of taint. (And I don’t mean adopting a pose of lowliness: Oh, I’m just a medievalist, nothing I have to say is relevant to the modern world.) Instead, I mean to embrace that in our field inheres the ability to criticize modernity, to pick apart and expose the dynamics that make modernity comfortable and allow it to appear monolithic, to utterly annihilate narratives of interminable progress. When medieval studies takes these stances, it is necessarily seen as a dark stain on the supposedly glimmering, above-the-fray, modernizing face of the neo-liberal university. But, here we have a choice. We in medieval studies can all too easily adopt the pose of those who study a most venerable subject and are the most non-threatening of professors—who would never rock any boats because we practice in a field that is by its very nature conservative. Neither approach is a masquerade, even as each masks the other mutually.
If we have learned anything from the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Or before them, Walter L. Scott. Or going back further, Trayvon Martin. Or in 1999, Amadou Diallo. And on and on and on through the history of slavery and conquest. If we have learned anything from these ongoing terrors, it’s that to be dark is to be taken as a threat. Medieval studies can choose to be dark.
Suffice it to say, we as a field are not dark enough yet. And neither am I.