For Wellesley College Professor Cord J. Whitaker, “one of the most insidious and nefarious legacies of slavery and racism” is that Black people “are routinely led to believe that have no history beyond chattel slavery in the Americas.” At a lecture at Harvard on Monday, he set out to change that.
Whitaker studies the changing cultural interpretations of race by analyzing medieval art, Western political history, and religious texts. The very term medieval, he told his Harvard audience, has come to be associated with white Europeans, despite Africa’s mercantile power.
Whitaker explored how modern white supremacists have adopted medieval symbolism, including the Viking helmets worn by far-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., but made it clear that the Middle Ages had a far more complicated perception of Blackness than today’s Neo Nazis. He cited an English pastoral manual in which the color black described the bones of peasants, denoting universality; the color also represented demons and original sin. At the same time, however, “Blackness could characterize the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, St. Maurice; as well as Balthazar, the holiest of the three magi, who represented the promise of Christian dominance of Africa.”
Such contradictions began to preoccupy Whitaker as he grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, noticing such things as 18th-century phraseology in the liturgy. “My everyday Sunday experience begged the historical investigation of Black history, and this thing called Blackness. As I wondered why Jesus ‘sitteth’ at the right hand of the Father, it became clear to me that the legacy I experienced every Sunday did not jibe very well with the legacy of slavery — that we Black Americans did not have a long history.”
During the lecture, a Zoom event sponsored by the Standing Committee on Medieval Studies, Whitaker spoke at length about the genesis and development of his recent book, “Black Metaphors.” The work was informed by two chance encounters, he said, the first with a college student in Cairo, who didn’t believe that Whitaker had come from America.
“That cannot be, because you are the same color as me,” she told him.
“I had to inform her that there were millions of brown and Black people in America, and she was shocked and confused.”
The other was with a Black student at the University of Western Georgia, who said, “I never thought of us in the Middle Ages.”