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19.08.29 Vernon, The Black Middle Ages

19.08.29 Vernon, The Black Middle Ages

Matthew X. Vernon's timely study The Black Middle Ages generates dialogue across two disciplines that can often be perceived as antithetical or even mutually exclusive: medieval literary studies (usually understood as the analysis of European medieval literature and culture), and African-American cultural studies (an approach to the histories and experiences of black Americans, especially from the nineteenth century through the present). Through his innovative approach integrating literary analysis, archival research, and cultural theory, Vernon demonstrates how these two fields can interrelate and contexualize one another.

Medievalism studies, as an academic field or subfield, most often takes the form of analyzing how modern readers and audiences engage with medieval works, including texts and art, by adapting or reinventing them. Until rather recently--with rare exceptions including Christopher Hanlon and Dennis Looney, whose two book-length studies of African-Americans and medievalism are acknowledged by Vernon (26)--the overwhelming tendency among Anglophone scholars of medievalism has been to presume a white audience for medieval texts. Whether by deliberate choice or by unintentional oversight, the effect of such disciplinary bias is to constitute an imagined, and nostalgic, white identity across time and space. As Vernon states, "the dominant narrative of medievalism [is] a uniform and clearly-defined means of consolidating white identity" (29). Vernon deftly observes that "questions of medievalism and the Middle Ages have been read as the province of whiteness," and as such the field often deems "race and African-American identity as subjects external to or defined against the products and interpretation of the Middle Ages" (23). Rather than carving out a niche for his study within medievalism studies as it is currently constituted, Vernon stresses the importance of centering early (19th- through early 20th-century) African-Americans, with his work demonstrating that "African-American literature and political writing should be read as a source for medievalisms that can be read against narratives advanced by white authors" (23). Most importantly, "what early African-American scholars and writers undertook when studying the Middle Ages or making use of medievalisms was not a mere curiosity to be studied at a remove" (viii), and the cultural and sociopolitical implications of engaging with medieval materials is of critical importance, in the historical past as well as today.

Vernon's engaging transhistorical study interweaves discussions of canonical medieval European authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales, and Sir Thomas Malory, with touchstones in African-American literary history: Charles Chesnutt, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor, to name a few. The introductory Chapter 1, entitled "Reading Out of Time--Genealogy, African-American Literature, and the Middle Ages," addresses foundational "mythologizing of Anglo-Saxons" and "pure cultural identity" (5) in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and subsequent Anglophone writings that deploy the Middle Ages in the service of white imperial and expansionist fantasies. One of the most astute arguments that Vernon makes in this chapter is how "the adoption of medieval texts" creates a "surrogated kinship" for African-American writers, a "convergence point where metaphorical relationships subsume literal ones" (29). By richly tracing how early African-American writers use the Middle Ages to engage in dialogue with--or speak back to--their white contemporaries, Vernon's readings complexly reveal how racial notions of kinship and national belonging are expressed. Chapter 2, "Medieval Self-Fashioning: The Middle Ages in African-American Scholarship and Curricula," opens by noting that Frederick Douglass not only famously adapted (or adopted) his new name from a character in Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake (45); he also "used the Middle Ages" [emphasis is Vernon's], "actively manipulat[ing] the cultural significance of the period" and claiming it as "a symbol for black enfranchisement within his country" (47). Chapter 3, "Failed Knights and Broken Narratives," puts Twain's oeuvre in direct conversation with his contemporary Chesnutt. Vernon's work creates new dialogues while also expanding the known archive of early African-American publications embracing medieval sources and themes, such as Benjamin Brawley's poems on "Chaucer" and "My Hero" honoring Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the African-American Civil War regiment (93) and an appendix after Chapter 2 reproducing Henrietta Cordelia Ray's poem "Dante" (95-96).

Vernon's research incorporates archival material with fresh readings of neglected or underappreciated publications, and the book makes welcome interventions into current conversations about race and medievalism by centering nonwhite voices too often marginalized in medieval studies or deemed improper objects of study within medievalist paradigms. Vernon convincingly shows that early African-Americans used medieval materials to contend with fundamental and urgent issues such as racial identity and myths of nationhood and citizenship. African-American readers, authors, and intellectuals mobilized medieval materials to combat racism and to create affirming and empowering counter-narratives (or an "anti-genealogy" [29]) to white European hegemony, and both the intellectual and cultural dimensions of medieval studies such as philology and political discourses of virtue and chivalry influenced early African-American writing as well.

Vernon's Black Middle Ages effectively challenges readers and future scholars to not just set individual works in dialogue, but to also ask how academic fieldscan remake one another. One important outcome of this work is a careful reassessment of the implicit assumptions made in medieval literary studies and in African-American cultural studies. Rather than replicating nineteenth-century discourses casting the medieval period as upholding "Anglo-Saxon" purity, African-American thinkers "read the hyphen" (33), attending to the distant historical era as one of dynamic cultural hybridity and mixing. Instead of using philology to solidify a uniform history of a language implicitly tied to a nation state, philological endeavors became a tool for African Americans to recover a dispersed history. Medieval romance could be claimed by some nineteenth-century authors as a structuring device for nostalgic fantasies of white hegemony, but the genre could also provide a rich vocabulary for alternate futures.

Conversant with important postcolonial and comparative approaches, Prof. Vernon's analysis of medieval literary texts and theorizing of medievalism are strong. Chapter 4, "History, Genealogy, and Gerald of Wales: Medieval Theories of Ethnicity and Their Afterlives," offers a persuasive reframing of cultural hybridity and ethnic belonging in Gerald of Wales' two twelfth-century works discussing Ireland--a reading effectively launched by citing Paul Gilroy's work in Black Atlantic studies and engaging with scholarship by postcolonial medievalists. Chapter 5, "Other Families: Dryden's Theory of Congeniality in Dante, Chaucer, and Naylor," presents innovative perspectives on major works in medieval literary reception history. The discussion of Naylor's sequential novels Linden Hills and Bailey's Café moves beyond any simplistic source comparison with Dante and Chaucer; rather, it demonstrates how Naylor reinvents the "vernacular" as literary mode granting access to a European literary tradition from which black women had long been excluded. Naylor "theorize[d] a plurality of vernaculars, an international community" (210) that cannot be reduced to a direct lineage or set of influences, and Vernon unpacks the oblique yet evocative structural parallels between Chaucer's theorizing of sound and voice The House of Fame and the narrative form of Naylor's Bailey's Café (241). By enacting "surrogated" forms of literary analysis not based on a metaphor of direct descent, Vernon crafts a much more challenging and rewarding approach than the source/comparison approaches that can still structure less-ambitious forms of medievalism studies.

If there were one aspect of The Black Middle Ages that could have been stronger, it would be a fuller acknowledgment that scholarship within contemporary medievalism studies has been attending to race and more contemporary African-American contexts. A number of works in medieval European literary reception studies have centered black and modern African diaspora contexts even if these works are not specifically cited in this book: Candace Barrington's analysis of Brawley and Chaucer (Dark Chaucer: An Assortment [punctum, 2012]), Kofi Omoniyi Sylvanus Campbell's Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic (Palgrave, 2016), Kathleen Forni's Chaucer's Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (McFarland, 2013), and most noticeably Cord Whitaker's special issue on "Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages" (postmedieval 6.1 [Spring 2015]). Even if Vernon acknowledges "a rich vein of criticism...interested in transnational blackness" and that The Black Middle Ages is addressing earlier American questions of "national citizenship" especially (27, n. 66), it would be useful if readers of this book could at least be directed to where some of these broader transnational conversations about medievalism and blackness are occurring. This being said, Vernon's approach to his materials is so generative and engaging that the study stands on its own.

Vernon ends the book, rather unexpectedly and provocatively, with a coda on Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained (2012). Aptly revisiting Carolyn Dinshaw's influential book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (1999), which Dinshaw names after an iconic scene of "getting medieval" in Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction (1994), Vernon's coda addresses Django's exploration of homosocial bonds, race, and violence. Tracing the film's internal references to the Siegfried myth, Vernon astutely traces how Django uses Western genre motifs to critique a mythos of the antebellum South, all the while revisiting tropes of medieval romance (i.e., it "adds medieval romance" to the "two overlapping fantasies of the past" characterized by the "southern gothic and the Western" [215]). Ultimately this book does much more than put two fields in dialogue: it exhibits strong literary analysis, models generative comparative practices, and makes rich theoretical interventions.

The Black Middle Ages provides a welcome corrective to hegemonic whiteness in medieval literary and cultural studies. Vernon's enmeshed interests in romance, nostalgia, and mythmaking across divergent genres and media set the stage for productive future exchanges among the fields of medieval studies, African American studies, and cultural analysis.