‘A harbinger of the much more to come’: an (un)timely review of Women, “Race,” & Writing in the Early Modern Period

Friday, September 4, 2020


For better or for worse, the impetus behind Women, “Race,” & Writing in the Early Modern Period (1994) remains timely.  For better: these foundational essays, edited by Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker feature a satisfyingly diverse group of women scholars who have produced unapologetic, interdisciplinary literary and historiographical research about the intersections of race and gender in the early modern period. And for worse, through no fault of the scholars themselves: over twenty-five years later, the urgent questions and ensuing scholarship that this book has inspired continue to be marginalized in the field at large. It is unfortunate that members of our academic community still refuse to engage fully with this research that asks us collectively to reflect upon the effect of whiteness on early modern texts, in scholarship, and in scholars themselves. This book must be used for more than a perfunctory gesture of inclusiveness in scholarly bibliographies. It is work that should guide all research in early modern studies until the field has fully reckoned with its history of exclusion.

This group of essays, I argue, is a model of epistemic cohesion without consensus; it remains a wonderfully, nearly utopic, place where scholars who do not share unified definitional or theoretical approaches to race or gender nevertheless converse in truly collaborative and generative ways.  From work that posits the societal dangers associated with Black existence and motherhood, to ocular metaphors that connect Leo Africanus to Othello, to the travels of a single white woman to the “land of the Moors” in the Fair Maid of the West, this book also presents myriad examinations of the global and local nature of race and the early modern. Women, “Race,” & Writing has given so many scholars—especially those of us underrepresented in the field—the permission, academic frameworks, and encouragement to think broadly and deeply about the roles that gender and race play in history, historiography, literature, and material culture.

In their introduction, Hendricks and Parker call for scholars to pay more attention to the critical functions and realities of race within the context of difference. They immediately establish for their readers some uncomfortable truths about studies of gender and sexuality in early modern texts—particularly as (it continues to be) practiced in the United States:

…until recently, (with a few notable exceptions), “race” has largely been absent from or only peripheral to such discussions [about gender]. In fact, in the much-contested area of the marginalized position of women (or the position of women writers), very little has been made of the racial (as well as class) positions constructed for and assumed by early modern European women (1).

They also address the necessity of scare quotes used around “race” in their title (something which might cause consternation in readers in 2020). They explain that race—particularly as it may have been understood between 1492 and 1800—was a highly unstable and occasionally contradictory term. “Race” included conversations and texts about people based on more than immediately recognizable somatic differences or the inevitable racist defenses of Black people’s enslavement in the so-called New World.  The English had an array of Others against whom they defined themselves in the sixteenth century, which allowed for the allying of various ethnic and racial groups. These included “the ‘wild Irish,’ the Moors, the Scots, as well as the Scythians as members of a ‘barbarous nation.Rival Spain was racialized as being of “‘all nations under heaven…the most mingled, most uncertayne and most bastardly’” (2). Hendricks and Parker note the complications of language about difference, but prove that despite arguments to the contrary, it is indeed possible to consider the role of race while thinking about early modern people.

As they examine the current state of the field in the early 1990s, the editors call attention to Valerie Wayne’s introduction to The Matter of Difference (1991) in which she regretfully explains that race could not be addressed adequately in her edited collection. They accept her deferral of discussions surrounding race as well as her acknowledgement that whiteness should play a role in the study of difference. They then succinctly center their own discussion of race in terms of whiteness throughout the rest of the introduction, and carefully establish how whiteness is often disguised as a neutral racial category against which all difference should be measured. It is here that they tacitly demonstrate that in early modern texts, whiteness is a powerful political structure and social construct that constantly transmogrifies in order to maintain hegemony by redefining difference as needed. This very notion becomes obvious as they describe Scots,  the Welsh, the “wild Irish,” and the Spanish as people whom the English may have marked with difference, but who could also immediately ascribe and conform to a racial majority of whiteness in solidarity against Moors, Turks, Africans, and Others. As they deconstruct the very core of early modern whiteness itself, the editors situate their book theoretically alongside feminist scholarship that addresses race including that by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Andzaldua, Norma Alarcón, Amy Ling, Trinh T. Minha, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Chela Sandoval, bell hooks, and Gayatri Spivak. They frame the essays that follow within postcolonial interrogations of imperialism, travel narratives, and the role of the colonial subject in early modern America, Africa, and Asia along with the multiplicity of identities, narratives, and perspectives that result.


From the start, this collection makes trenchant, general observations about the role of race and race-making in early modern texts by and about women as it provides readers with a scaffold to explain how race functions in a great deal of the literary work produced during the early modern period. Whether they deal with historical or literary material the authors of the essays take pains to emphasize the centrality of discourses concerning race. As a result, readers are not subject to declarations of a wish-list that includes “world enough and time” as necessary conditions to examine this critical subject. The writers in this edition instead confront race head on in forthright, and sometimes difficult, ways.

In the opening salvo, “The Color of Patriarchy,” Ania Loomba takes an antagonistic, and yet, not entirely unfriendly, stance to narrate her frustrations about a simultaneous need to resist and reconcile her scholarly work on race and gender as an Indian woman who writes about early modern dramatists and postcolonial studies.  She explains that her work meets at this intersection “via their common interest in marginalized peoples of different sorts, and in their disparate attempts to theorize and recover subaltern resistance (or agency) and locate it in relations to power” (17).  She then vociferously challenges the power of white feminism, which she argues disallows “black and ‘Third World’ women” opportunity to resist and criticize early modern texts (especially Shakespeare) as a rejection of “pleasurable reading” as defined within the structures of a dominant Anglo-American culture (22).  Loomba demands of American scholars in particular to broaden their understanding of race to “transcend the black presence in [Shakespeare’s] plays” to allow all “others” the room to exist in early modern texts and in the field in general (26). Although her very real concerns are ably addressed by the other authors in the volume, we need to welcome and include far more BIPOC voices in all areas of early modern literature, history, and culture.

Margaret W. Ferguson’s and Dymphna Callaghan’s essays directly answer Loomba’s charge. Ferguson observes the juxtaposition of the New and Old World in an “unstable triangular model of race” involving a white woman, a Black enslaved man and “group of Native Americans reminiscent of Adam and Eve” in her essay on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (217). Callaghan investigates the function of “racially marked others” in the bodies of the darker Salome in conjunction with the much lighter Mariam in Elizabeth Cary’s Tradegie of Mariam. She determines that race and racial makers are a function of culpability, and then interrogates the troubling purity associated with whiteness in the play, which also seems to coincide with a burgeoning English investment in Jewish culture (171). Jean Howard studies transactional, social, and political relationships among the Spanish, the English, and the Moors as understood through the lenses of culture and race in The Fair Maid of the West, in which a virginal white woman manages to purchase a ship and negotiate her way to Morocco in order to retrieve the body of her suitor. 

As a historian, Natalie Zemon Davis thoroughly recounts cultural exchanges between French colonial religious communities—the Jesuits and Québec hospital nuns—and their recorded encounters with the Algonquin, Montagnais, Iroquois, and Huron people of North America in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Verena Stolcke meditates on the unspeakable harm Spanish colonial settlers inflicted upon indigenous Incan women in Peru in the early sixteenth century. Patricia Parker argues that Leo Africanus’s descriptions of fantastical monsters, Amazons, and lands of Africa open to European readers the inevitability of its colonial exploitation. Jyotsna Singh traces Othello through adaptions created in the West Indies and in postcolonial Africa through a compelling reading Tayib Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North (1966). She does so while reminding readers through Saleh’s work that “Africans, Turks, Moors, among others, recognize Shakespeare’s Othello as a ‘character’ in a family, Orientalist landscape, both erotic and violent, a composite fantasy of the Europeans’ ‘colonial harem” (298). Seemingly in response to Loomba’s directive, these essays view race as a global phenomenon that occasionally addresses blackness but does not center upon it. These essays also leave several open-ended questions for future scholars to consider.

Fortunately, while addressing Loomba’s concerns, other essays in this volume do not overcorrect to the point of erasing the “black presence,” in early modern texts or of the scholars working in the field.  In her essay, Lynda E. Boose traces the erasure of Black women in early modern texts in The Battle of Alcazar as well as in the legend of Morien. Because they are a threat to white patriarchy through the act of motherhood—unlike other women who may easily pass on somatic traits of white fathers—Boose argues that Black women are relegated to the margins of early modern texts as unrepresentable. Boose nevertheless searches for them in the hope that their perspectives and stories may be eventually told.  Kim Hall proposes a critical paradigmatic shift in her reading of Mary Wroth’s Urania in a study of the ways that women writers in early modern England pay preternaturally close attention to differences—particularly to those of Black women characters and what she calls “tropes of blackness”—as a way to “strengthen their own rhetorical and social positions at the expense of more marginalized groups” (183). Hall subtly demonstrates how these rhetorical moves to devalue Blackness for the sake the other groups is a historical phenomenon (that continues to manifest itself in early modern studies and academia at large). 

Margo Hendricks traces the notion of civility, “a paradigm where native cultures exist as a    “‘primal state,’” which functions as both a value judgement and discourse, that suppresses indigenous people in Aphra Behn’s The Window Ranter (227). She also lays out the complications of “race” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a fluid term that “had been employed to describe “personal identity—lineage, nation, typology, biology, and status” (228).  For the Indigenous Americans in the play, Hendricks demonstrates that civility is a “sailors knot,” which tightens its hold and marks them as perennially different from the English who slowly subjugate them in a burgeoning system of colonial power. This discourse of civility is, at times, frighteningly analogous to the realities of BIPOC women scholars in early modern studies whose intellectual dissent is unabashedly marked as uncivil. Civility discourse, like Hall’s observations about Black women in the Urania, has evolved historically from imaginary harms enacted upon white women by Black women in a fantastical world. It now includes imaginary harms that white scholars, cloaked in hegemony, believe that BIPOC scholars’ work could be doing to the purity of their research in early modern studies.  This volume highlights the value and necessity of research in the study of gender, power, and especially race in this field.

It is immensely satisfying that Women, “Race,” & Writing in the Early Modern Period refuses to efface varieties of feminism for the sake of an awkward unity. As a result, readers witness intersectional feminism at its finest, where differences between and among women, whether as subjects of the book’s chapters, or as writers themselves, are not only observed but also celebrated as indispensable in a counter narrative to harmful second-wave white feminist academic practices.


To me, there is something especially incredible about this volume.

It is an edition that has a Black woman working on early modern literature as one of its editors, and it includes several women of color as scholars in its pages. Hendricks and Parker draw attention to this fact as they very consciously and optimistically predict the growing numbers of other women of color who will eventually work in the field:

As a collection, finally, that includes work by the small but increasing number of women of color engaged in the study of early modern culture and history, the book that follows is also self-conscious in its hope that in this respect as well it will be ultimately left behind, a volume that in retrospect will be only a harbinger of the much more to come (5).

At the very moment that the editors wrote these words, I believe they put a powerful intention into the universe; they created space for future BIPOC scholars all over the world to enter the field of early modern studies.  This volume has encouraged a scholarly renaissance in academic work on early modern race, and it is now (re)introducing new generations of academics to the critical intersections of race with all subfields of early modern studies. This book, the parthenogenesis of its authors, has catalyzed outstanding editions, single-authored books, and countless articles by BIPOC academics in early modern studies (including scholars who do not center race in their research). I wish I had encountered this collection of essays as an undergraduate, or even as a graduate student. It would have shaped a lot of my thinking about my own place in this field as a Black woman who has become increasingly fascinated with the ways that power, privilege, race, and gender manifest in the history of the book.

This group of women academics has shown us that truly inclusive, intersectional academic volumes are possible. Everyone interested in editing a volume of essays should read this book; it is the epitome of collaborative scholarship. Women, “Race,” & Writing purposefully centers the research and writing of women scholars of color who challenge epistemological and historiographical practices that for have centered the scholarship of everyone else for far too long. This book, which I believe in part is the genesis of #ShakeRace as well as special issues of Shakespeare Quarterly and the Journal of American Studies, has buttressed the scholarship and research of countless individuals.  Through it, BIPOC women have come to see themselves as worthy subjects of research, as theorists who may guide the field, and as cultural and literary historians who are welcome to examine the lives of anyone in the early modern period. This book is also a call for scholars to ask themselves how race is inherently a part of the discourse of every subfield of early modern studies—not just literature by and about women. Using this line of thinking, Dennis Britton and Miles Grier have outlined ways that all scholars should consider the histories and realities of race in early modern fields as wide ranging as material culture, ecocriticism, textual studies, trans studies, queer studies, manuscript studies, adaptation, religion, labor studies, genre studies, sound studies, and theater history.[i]

To keep from marginalizing or tokenizing scholars who focus on race (who work on so many other areas simultaneously), we in early modern studies need to be more capacious in our thinking. It is easy enough to recognize that the texts and histories we study are neither politically nor religiously neutral; therefore, it is absolutely necessary to accept that nearly all of these texts are also not racially neutral or a central part of a manifest destiny of western cultural imperialism. It should be a truth universally accepted that early modern canonical and non-canonical texts are monuments to the whiteness and colonialism that have founded, constructed, continually attempt to define our field. However, because of the work accomplished by the women in this volume (and other truly invaluable scholars) who sought to dismantle pervasive structures of supremacy in our field, there is now space for new generations of students to not only find themselves but also to look for Others as they encounter the early modern period for the first time.  

It is in this spirit of open research and collaboration that Women, “Race,” & Writing asks us to look both within and outside of the archives for the signals and traces of early modern Black, Indigenous, and People of Color—wherever our research may take us. It should not be a controversial statement to make that we all deserve to have the space to think, work, and most importantly, to feel a sense of belonging in early modern studies.  This volume, with inclusion at its center shows us what could be possible as it teaches us masterclass in ethical scholarship. I am sure that it will remain a lifeline for me and countless others as we strive to produce engaging and thoughtful scholarship and work relentlessly to ensure that our students and colleagues thrive and always feel welcome in the field.


[i] See Dennis Austin Britton, “Ain’t She a Shakespearean: Truth, Giovanni, and Shakspeare,” and Miles P. Grier, “The Color of Professionalism: A Response to Dennis Britton,” in Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. Cassander L. Smith, Nicholas R. Jones, and Miles P. Grier (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) 223-238.