Whites’ fear of and oppression and violence toward blacks was born in the Middle Ages.
“White people are afraid that black people will wrest from them their greatest power—the power that comes with embodying the norm.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Cord J. Whitaker. Whitaker is Associate Professor of English at Wellesley College. His book is Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Cord Whitaker: The past several years have been dominated by high profile incidents of racism and anti-racist protest. The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and countless other young black men at the hands of police and, as in Martin’s case, police wannabes, have galvanized a movement to highlight the dangers blacks in America face—from acts as simple as walking down the street or waiting for a friend in the lobby of an apartment building. The rise of Black Lives Matter, with its spectacular freeway protests, and the alt-right, with its pretensions toward Nazi Germany-style fascism and predilection for violence as seen in Charlottesville, are not novel. They have their forebears in Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow and in the Civil Rights Movement and in KKK rallies. What each action and response conveys is fear. Black people are rightfully afraid of being gunned down in the street simply for being. White people are afraid that black people will wrest from them their greatest power—the power that comes with embodying the norm. Black Metaphors helps readers understand where this fear, and the binary racial system it creates and strives to maintain, comes from. Black Metaphors takes readers on a journey through the literature and culture of the Middle Ages to show them how, in the West—Europe and the Americas—whites’ fear of and oppression and violence toward blacks was born in the Middle Ages. It was born in the religious and cultural conflict of the Crusades when popular writing, religious writing, and preaching in the Christian world portrayed the Islamic world as evil—and eventually made people of color its symbol. Black Metaphors’ readers will be better equipped to recognize the racist rhetoric the Crusades helped make—whether it shows up in popular culture, religion, politics, or elsewhere. Understanding racism’s history and recognizing even its subtlest language, Black Metaphors’ readers will be better prepared to identify and combat racism, whenever and wherever it becomes apparent.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Black Metaphors offers activists and community organizers a new way to see race—as a rhetorical practice with historical roots that extend back well beyond the periods of Enlightenment science and American slavery to which it is often attached. Black Metaphors helps its readers understand the rhetorical and logical processes that went into creating race and racism. Take, for example, the rhetorical device enthymeme, in which a proponent strengthens her position by inducing readers to presume a hidden premise and then presenting that premise’s logical conclusion as a natural fact that relies on no premise at all. Enthymeme is a major element in racial ideology. When activists and organizers are well versed in the deep rhetorical, logical, and ultimately psychological processes that undergird racism, they can develop effective strategies for disrupting them, for breaking the line of reasoning that leads readers to presume that blackness is a sign of spiritual depravity and then presents as natural the conclusion that black people are inclined to criminality. They can disrupt the even more basic line of thought that takes as a hidden premise that anything abnormal is inferior and then presents as natural the conclusion that black people are somehow inferior to white people. Black Metaphors even offers a model for how to disrupt entrenched ways of thinking: the medieval rhetoricians featured in the book changed millenia-old ways of thinking about what makes a good metaphor. Their changes paved the way for the development of race, but learning from the dynamics of their intellectual and rhetorical revolution can teach us how to make changes that can do away with the racism they helped create.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Black Metaphors aims to dismantle racial ideology with its black-white matrix. The book encourages its readers to un-learn the related notions that race is natural, that race is a black-and-white matter, and that there is anything natural about a black-white dichotomy. I want Black Metaphors’ readers to come away knowing that race is constructed not only through visual cues such as skin color and facial features. Instead, race and racial judgments are the results of complex processes of rhetorical, logical, and psychological manipulation. Historically, part of the process has been making the results appear natural. But there is nothing natural about race.
The book also aims to teach its readers that the path to dismantling race and racism does not lie alone in teaching and agitating for equality. The discourse of equality leaves intact the concepts of race and racial difference, with their notions that cultural and religious differences are inherited and natural, even unchangeable. It is not enough to argue that different “races” should be treated equally because, as Black Metaphors shows, the very concept of race is designed for and inextricable from hierarchies and judgments that advance some people and disadvantage others.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
There are too many to name. They include well known contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison. Morrison’s subtle and brilliant uses of the Western canon—classical, medieval, early modern, modern—inspire me in their breadth. I am also deeply in awe of the ways she puts old material to novel uses, all while remaining true to the spirits of her characters, her modern readers, and the American and African American experiences. At the same time, she asks provocative questions, such as in her literary critical work Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, when she calls for examinations of the use of black figures in literature from before the American context. It is a call I have endeavored to answer in Black Metaphors.
James Baldwin is another. His deep engagement with the intersections of race and faith in his own and others’ spiritual experiences—I’m thinking especially but not exclusively of Go Tell It on the Mountain—is a model that informs my scholarly work. My work on the medieval history of race-making is not only an examination of religious institutional pasts but also how individual writers and readers understood their own spiritual lives. Striving for a critical understanding of our forebears’ inner lives, as well as our own and our contemporaries’, is necessary to shaping individual and global futures—hopefully for the better.
I am also indebted to C.S. Lewis. After his spiritual conversion experience, his dogged commitment to his faith informed his scholarship, lecturing and preaching, and creative writing. In him, spiritual inspiration showed the breadth of its value— from the very personal, such as the well-known story of how he used prayer during his wife’s illness and death, to lesser known texts such as his sermon “Learning in War-Time” delivered at Oxford in 1939. In the latter, and in the midst of World War II, he asks “whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this.” That is, in a world at war, a world always burning. For us now, that is a world where “Unite the Right” rallies happen, a world of rising fascism in the U.S. and abroad, a world of Wal-Mart shootings, burning Amazons, and churning hurricanes. Lewis concludes that “the life of learning” is “one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter.” It is my position that studying the methods by which we understand our world—including those methods that have fomented injustice, especially race—helps us approach Divine reality and makes more possible a world dominated by justice and equality.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Readers of Black Metaphors can expect to learn about the world before New World colonialism in the Americas. It was a world where blackness and whiteness certainly mattered, but not in the same ways they came to matter after the discovery of the New World. In Black Metaphors, the history of race is considered in light of the complex relationship between religious commitments, geography, and physical appearance that defined identity in the premodern world. What blackness and whiteness mean are considered in light of classical and medieval color theory and the sophisticated rhetorical devices whose mastery constituted learning in the medieval university. They will learn about a world where blackness might denote spiritual depravity or its exact opposite, righteous holiness. Readers will discover a world where blackness might mean both at once and also function to prove that whiteness is not the marker of purity and innocence it was increasingly supposed to be. It was a world where it was easier to see that the colors of our skin are metaphors, meant to inform how we are to be treated in the world, but that those metaphors’ meanings are not natural or factual. They are interpretations, and they can change as readily as the wind blows. Once we understand the world before race as we know it, then we can begin to imagine the world after race as we know it. Armed with imagination, we, the collectivity that is humanity, can bring the world we long for into being.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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