Things of Darkness: “The Blueprint of a Methodology”

Friday, September 4, 2020

 

This untimely review is a tribute to an unapologetic “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman—who dared to highlight in her early scholarship the significant problems of the field, and academia at large, and the crucial need for course-correcting with respect to racial dynamics, especially regarding racism, white supremacy/privilege, (anti)blackness and white invisibility.[i]

By assessing the field’s structure, and its racist structures, and by identifying the dire need for restructuring race conversations, particularly through the deployment of Black feminist methodologies, this BlacKKKShakespearean—a Black woman—altered the conversations (pre)modern scholars could have about race and early modern England. Through her eyes, many have learned to see scholarship, and the world, from a different perspective, a perspective that understands, rather than resists, how influential the personal and experiential are on the development of critical methodologies. By revisiting her words and reading through her eyes now, we can look back and see how she envisioned a strategy for the future that has since been a model for much needed critical action and activism from other scholars.

In 1995, this BlacKKKShakespearean issued a fierce scholarly call through the publication of her carefully crafted groundbreaking study, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. When published, this impressive and inspiring first book served as a prophetic program of action, or “blueprint of a methodology” as she humbly calls it, because it provided, as we see retrospectively, guidance for where premodern critical race studies (PCRS)[ii] needed to go and, more importantly, because it painstakingly showed readers how the field could possibly get there (261).[iii] With its Black feminist agenda and conscientiously constructed anti-racist framework, Things of Darkness appeared at a critical juncture for the field: when PCRS needed a scholarly visionary to outline a clear plan that could ensure the field’s longevity and show the importance of building on the earliest of key race studies such as Eldred Jones’ Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (1965) and The Elizabethan Image of Africa (1971); and Anthony Gerard Barthelemy’s Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (1987).[iv] Since the publication of Things of Darkness, several key PCRS studies have materialized; and they have relied directly and indirectly on the blueprint.[v]

30 years after Jones’ first book hit the stage, enter: Kim F. Hall, a BlacKKKShakespearean—a Black woman.

Unlike the helpful, timely late twentieth-century reviews of Hall’s text written by Margo Hendricks[vi] and others, my review only aims to acknowledge reasons why Things of Darkness, an extension of Hall’s genius, must be celebrated today—in its silver anniversary year—and why it will still need to be celebrated and cited as we move toward its golden anniversary year in 2045—and beyond. Any scholar, or student, who thinks, writes or teaches about race, gender, politics, colonialism, feminism, globalism, economics, material culture, slavery, identity, family, sexuality, power, intersectionality, courtship, beauty, poetry, drama, travel literature, skin, animals, art, people, women writers, Shakespeare, Donne, Spenser and Jonson, to name a few topics (and there are more), should know well Things of Darkness, if not just for its theoretical range and robust source material.

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman who taught us how to read.

“Sketch[ing] out links,” as she writes, Hall builds her cogent arguments, subtly calling attention to the blueprint that is Things of Darkness (66). In the Introduction, she takes her position on the contemporary deployment of scare quotes around the term race, opting to “hold onto the idea of race in the early modern period” so her chapters, arranged by but not strictly focused on genre, effectively illuminate trends pertaining to the different tropes she critiques throughout such as blackness and disorder (6). Chapter 1 engages travel narratives, especially those concerning Africa, and connects Hall’s discussion of race to gender as she reveals how deeply ingrained the language of dark and light is in naturalizing the white English identity. The second chapter examines economics in relationship to lyric poetry and England’s nationalist project: Hall asserts that through the lyric English women were exalted in ways that reaffirmed the centrality of whiteness, a rhetorical move that aided the patriarchal project of global white dominance. Chapter 3, nicely situated in the heart of the book, “bridge[s] the black/white polarity” exemplified respectively in chapters 1-2 and chapters 4-5 (10). Here, Hall draws on Jacobean plays that reflect xenophobic anxieties and English struggles with socio-cultural and racial identity. The fourth chapter turns our attention to how tropes of blackness serve as tools to create white beauty and tools to unearth white women writers’ “investment in the language of racial difference” as it pertains to travel (178). Rounding out the book’s focus on fairness, the fifth chapter—replete with startlingly beautiful images of early modern jewels, portraits and even an engraving—attends to visual culture’s impact, specifically the objectification, commodification and subjugation of Black people in association with “superior” white people, and sometimes even animals. Things of Darkness ends with a bracing epilogue where Hall reads the profession for its discriminatory defensiveness against pedagogical, political and historical race conversations.[vii] Make no mistake: The library is open, and Hall’s fingerprints are on the door handles.[viii] Below, I offer a critical forensic assessment of where we can spot Hall’s (im)prints.

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman whose work endured in the face of resistance from non-Black scholars who bask in “the luxury of not thinking about race.”[ix]

Among the book-length studies in the broader field, Things of Darkness is undoubtedly canonical. And if you don’t know, now you know, reader.[x] Thus, Things of Darkness now needs to be treated as canonical, regularly lauded as one of those field-changing books that gets as much citational attention—if not more—than the “great” books published decades ago by the still often-cited white scholars, especially men, whose popularity precludes the mentioning of their names here. To put this differently: If you read post-1995 scholarship that positions itself in any way as touching on early modern race work and you see Hall’s study is not seriously engaged or, worse, that Hall is relegated to a footnote, in other words placed in the margins where she becomes a number and not a name (think deeply about misogynoir and general anti-blackness, here), then you should be suspicious. Side-eye should ensue.

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman who strategized.

Like Hall, who suggests that her study underlines a reading strategy inextricably linked to her Black womanhood, I want to propose a reading strategy for Things of Darkness­, an approach that will be useful for those who are either new to or already familiar with the book: Start with the provocative epilogue titled “On ‘Race’, Black Feminism, and White Supremacy” and then engage the study from the beginning so you end with an epilogue rereading. Beginning with the end allows one to see where Hall is taking the book, and it allows one to see, after one then goes to the beginning and reads the Introduction and subsequent chapters, where Hall’s work has helped take the field given that in the Epilogue she: challenges the race-neutrality and universality of Shakespeare’s oeuvre; attends to how Black feminists, and Black scholarship in general, get rendered invisible; champions the need for anti-racist programs in scholarly work; echoes Black feminists who cite “the need to interrogate whiteness as a social construct” (15);[xi] encourages readers to be activists and advocates for equity;[xii] reinforces how the black/white binary perpetuates racism in our modern world; criticizes tactfully virtue-signaling scholars, as well as those who appropriate, erase[xiii] and co-opt early modern race work—egregious practices still perpetuated today by scholars veteran and new, white and non-Black;[xiv] considers the importance of productive race conversations in the classroom and in pedagogy scholarship, especially as it pertains to the needs of Black students; and calls for “new anthologies” in the field that attend to race (267).[xv]

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman who made professional, and personal, sacrifices to answer her own call.

Twenty-one years after Hall published Things of Darkness she co-edited, along with Peter Erickson, a Shakespeare Quarterly special issue on race. Twenty-one years later and there was Hall, still in the fight to stabilize both the legitimacy and permanency of PCRS. In the powerful introduction of that special issue, Hall and Erickson cite 2025 as the next “landmark by which to measure subsequent progress toward establishing the field of early modern race studies with a stronger foundation through a wide spectrum of social issues, a broader scholarly framework, a larger academic audience, and deeper public engagement.”[xvi] In the context of Hall’s 1995 “blueprint of a methodology” discourse, however, I want to respectfully push back on her and Erickson’s desire to establish a stronger foundation because the sturdiness of the plan Hall outlined in Things of Darkness is undeniable (perhaps Hall was too modest to proclaim how essential her work has been for getting the field’s foundation in formation).[xvii] Instead, in my opinion, PCRS scholars simply need to continue building, keeping the critical as a key component of the work and generating publicly engaged scholarship with the cohesion and clarity that Hall’s Things of Darkness models so we can also use 2025, what will be 30 years since the publication of Things of Darkness, as a benchmark to measure the success of Hall’s continued influence on the field. Many, from secondary school students to senior scholars, are indebted to her.[xviii]

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black (fore)woman who continues to lead the field.

Today—and tomorrow—do not read Things of Darkness, for it is too foundational of a text for a mere reading. It is not a newspaper or an issue of Vogue magazine, although it does include over two dozen beautiful illustrations. Rather, Things of Darkness must be studied, embraced and internalized because it is that rich of a contribution to PCRS and early modern English studies—and beyond. With the decades-old foundation of PCRS firmly situated in the soil, I urge you to follow the #ShakeRace conversation that continues to develop in print and online.[xix] And while you are at it, do study and #CiteBlackWomen, for there is much more constructing to be done, and it must be done correctly and unselfishly, as this established field continues to look forward and move in new, non-traditional directions. Hall said as much when she delivered her brilliantly bold plenary talk on archival blackness, in her uniquely passionate “personal voice,” at the Shakespeare Association of America conference in 2019—nearly 25 years after she enhanced the field with her still-relevant Things of Darkness.[xx]

This is a tribute to a “BlacKKKShakespearean”—a Black woman, a Black scholar: Kim F. Hall.

In a world where being a Black woman or girl, a Black person, is a literal and figurative death sentence, we must acknowledge how much Hall—her life and her work—matter. And we must acknowledge what it would have meant for the field to exist without Hall, without her pioneering scholarship situating itself in the world when it did:

 

For how do we construct,

and how do we build to last,

to withstand the shakes and quakes of race(ism),

without the aid of a concrete blueprint?[xxi]

 


In the Things of Darkness acknowledgements section, Hall thanks John Michael Archer for reading her work; I, too, thank him for continuing to be a generous scholar and for commenting on a draft of this untimely review. I am also incredibly grateful to Kyle Grady for his feedback and smart PCRS perspective. And I thank the editors of The Hare for inviting me to write something of my choosing and for giving me the latitude to be critically creative and say what I needed to say.

 


[i] Kim Coles, Kim F. Hall and Ayanna Thompson, “BlacKKKShakespearean: A Call to Action for Medieval and Early Modern Studies,” Modern Language Association Profession, Fall 2019. <https://profession.mla.org/blackkkshakespearean-a-call-to-action-for-medieval-and-early-modern-studies/>

 

[ii] I emphasize “critical” here because at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Race Before Race 2 conference, held in Washington, D.C. at the Folger Shakespeare Library in September 2019, Margo Hendricks—in her talk titled “Coloring the Past, Rewriting our Future: RaceB4Race”—made an important distinction between “premodern race studies” and “premodern critical race studies,” the latter being where Hall’s work is situated.

 

[iii] All in-text parenthetical citations are from Things of Darkness.

 

[iv] After Jones and Barthelemy, Ania Loomba published Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989).

 

[v]Around the time Hall published her study, there were very few big studies on race; Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker’s 1994 edited collection Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (Routledge) is one example. After Things of Darkness, the field saw the publication of additional books such as (and the following list is not exhaustive, nor does include the myriad post-1995 race-centric articles and essays that were written): Joyce Green MacDonald, ed. Race, Ethnicity and Power in the Renaissance (London: Associated University Presses, 1997); Imtiaz Habib, Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period (United States: University Press of America, 1999); Arthur Little, Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Joyce Green MacDonald, Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Francesca T. Royster, Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (New York: Routledge, 2008); Peter Erickson, Citing Shakespeare: The Reinterpretation of Race in Contemporary Art and Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Ayanna Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (New York: Routledge, 2008); Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); Matthieu Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other Other (New York: Routledge, 2017); Cassander Smith, Nicholas Jones and Miles Grier, ed. Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (New York: Routledge, 2018). A definitive genealogy exists. And the field is set to see additional book-length PCRS studies take the field in new directions while reaffirming that Things of Darkness is a critical, ancestral touchstone.

 

[vi] See Hendricks’ review of Hall in The Modern Language Review Vol. 93, No. 2 (April 1998): 465-466.

 

[vii] See Hall, 255. After the Epilogue, one finds over twenty-five chronologically arranged poems in the Appendix titled “Poems of Blackness.” Adding to the range of Hall’s source material, these poems serve as part of the blueprint: Hall writes, “I hope I have laid a foundation for further study” of such works—indeed, she did (269).

 

[viii] Here, I am using Black gay slang as a way to show Hall’s recognition of the profession’s flaws. See: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/read_someone_to_filth. When it is time for drag queen contestants to “read” each other on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a reality TV show, RuPaul—the host—informs her girls, as she affectionately calls them, that “the library is open.”

 

[ix] For the stylistic purposes of this review, I am not citing Hall parenthetically here. In this section, Hall takes to task white privilege. See Things of Darkness, 255.

 

[x] This line, as well as the one in my final sentence here, is borrowed from The Notorious B.I.G.’s wildly popular first single “Juicy” that hit the airwaves in 1994, just one year before Hall’s Things of Darkness emerged. Like The Notorious B.I.G., Hall “reach[ed] for the stars” through her work.

 

[xi] Premodern critical race studies, thanks to seeds planted by veteran premodern critical race studies scholars, is now very well positioned to engage critical whiteness studies. Inspired by Hall, and the work of others like Akhimie, Little, MacDonald, Royster, Hendricks, Smith, and Thompson, my own forthcoming monograph takes seriously Hall’s suggestion that the interrogation of whiteness be centered in criticism.

 

[xii] As a member of the RaceB4Race conference series executive board, Hall continues to be an activist and an advocate for change and equity. In one of her most recent scholarly collaborations, she put her support behind a public message that the RaceB4Race executive board penned in order to call out exclusionary practices in publishing. See “It’s Time to End the Publishing Gatekeeping!” in The Sundial (June 2020): https://medium.com/the-sundial-acmrs/its-time-to-end-the-publishing-gatekeeping-75207525f587. You can follow the rich RaceB4Race conversation on Twitter, or through Google, by searching with the hashtag: #RaceB4Race.

 

[xiii] For example, when one thinks of Black people in early modern England, Imtiaz Habib’s name and scholarship should immediately come to mind because in 2008 he published his thoroughly researched study, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible, that examined myriad parish records and added to the historical evidence of the Black existence in early modern England (Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2008). Yet, some scholars, deliberately not cited here, have publish on early modern Black lives without citing Habib, even when there is clear overlap in the work. What is ironic, here, is that in 2008 Habib called out historians and critics whose scholarship erased real Black people by rendering them “untraceable” (7). In a way, that erasure continues with the dismissal of Habib’s work.

 

[xiv] Michael Eric Dyson discusses how appropriation, a form of theft, leads to the displacement of Black people. I urge you—especially non-Black readers, all those who do not identify as Black—to study Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2017), particularly section five titled “Repenting Whiteness” (41-132).

 

[xv] In the interest of moving the whiteness conversation forward, the 50th volume of Shakespeare Studies will feature a Forum I will co-edit, along with Patricia Akhimie and Arthur Little; this Forum is dedicated to examinations of Shakespeare’s “other race plays,” a concept introduced in my 2019 Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) plenary talk and revisited in his two 2020 SAA seminars.

 

[xvi] Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall, “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67.1 (Spring 2016): 3.

 

[xviii] Like many premodern critical race studies scholars, junior and veteran, my own scholarship has been influenced in one way or another by Hall’s blueprint—for her positive influence and intellectual generosity, I am grateful. See “The ‘Sonic Color Line’: Shakespeare and the Canonization of Sexual Violence Against Black Men,” The Sundial, August 2019: https://medium.com/the-sundial-acmrs/the-sonic-color-line-shakespeare-and-the-canonization-of-sexual-violence-against-black-men-cb166dca9af8; “(Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the Color-Line” Radical Teacher No. 105 (Summer 2016): 69-77; “‘Is Black so Base a Hue?’: Black Life Matters in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,” Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. Cassander Smith, Nicholas Jones and Miles P. Grier (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 137-155; “Remixing the Family: Blackness and Domesticity in Titus Andronicus,” Titus Andronicus: The State of Play, ed. Farah Karim-Cooper (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2019), 111-133; “(Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the ‘Sonic Color Line’,” Shakespeare and Digital Pedagogy, ed. Diana Henderson and Kyle Vitale (London: The Arden Shakespeare), forthcoming; “Code Black: Whiteness and Unmanliness in Hamlet,” Hamlet: The State of Play, ed. Sonia Massai and Lucy Munro (London: The Arden Shakespeare), forthcoming; and “‘Shake thou to look on’t’: Shakespeare’s White Hands,” White People in Shakespeare, ed. Arthur L. Little, Jr, forthcoming. Additionally, the following article will appear in a cluster of essays written by some of the RaceB4Race executive board members: “A Seat at the Table: Desegregating (Premodern) Scholarly Discourse in the Post-Postracial Era,” Literature Compass, forthcoming.

 

[xix] Hall’s #ShakeRace Twitter hashtag is one of many great ways to keep up with the PCRS conversation (even if you do not have a Twitter account—just simply put #ShakeRace into Google and then allow yourself to learn…but no poaching).

 

[xx] Hall’s talk is available as audio and begins at the 1:00:05-minute mark: https://youtu.be/szUlxHjUCOg

 

[xxi] Enter the hallways of Hall’s mind and read, and reread, Things of Darkness—and then do what’s right: cite.