How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist
It’s back to class for those of us who teach in medieval studies, and my medievalist colleague Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College (pictured in 2014), wants to make sure you understand the stakes.
The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students.That does sound bad. But, wait, it gets worse!
Don’t think western European medieval studies is exceptional.... ISIS/ISIL also weaponizes the idea of the pure medieval Islamic past in their recruiting rhetoric for young male Muslims. If the medieval past (globally) is being weaponized for the aims of extreme, violent supremacist groups, what are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side. Doing nothing is choosing a side. Denial is choosing a side. Using the racist dog whistle of “we must listen to both sides” is choosing a side. I am particularly struck by this last choice, since I want to know: would you say this about ISIS/ISIL?
How are you signaling in your classroom that you are not upholding white supremacy when you are teaching the subject loved by white supremacists? ... Neutrality may have worked in a distant past when white supremacists/KKK/white nationalists/Nazis were some imagined fringe group, but that is not going to work now.What should we do?! Alas, Professor Kim only points to the necessity of declaring ourselves pure of the white supremacist taint. She does not explain how those of us who do not have her advantages are to cleanse ourselves and our academic subject of this stain, only that we must cleanse ourselves – or else! She concludes with a warning:
You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgments and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.I’d better say something! Here goes: “I am not now, nor have I ever been a white supremacist.” You don’t look convinced. What if I swear on a Bible? Heretics won’t swear, they are famous for it. Except maybe I am a witch, and witches make false oaths all the time. And I am pretty sure that if you threw me in a swimming pool, I would float. (Years of being on the high school swim team – it is a hard habit to break.) What should I do? I know. Rather than swear on the Bible, I’ll open it.
Here’s one of my favorite verses:
Nigra sum sed formosa, filiae Hierusalem; ideo dilexit me Rex, et introduxit me in cubiculum suum.
I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem; therefore the king has loved me, and brought me into his chamber.Oh, wait, that is the antiphonal version. Believe it or not, this antiphon appears in the ninth-century Carolingian Antiphoner of Compiègne (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, lat. 17436) as one of the chants for the feast of the Assumption, making it one of the oldest known chants sung in honor of the Virgin Mary. The antiphon was used throughout the Middle Ages for the feasts of the Virgin as well as for the Common of Virgins.
(If you don’t believe me, you can check here on CANTUS, one of the major digital projects in medieval studies, as I am sure Professor Kim would like you to know; she works a lot with digital resources.)
The antiphon was also used in the Office of the Virgin from as early as the eleventh century. In the Use of Rome (that is, the Use that became standard after the council of Trent), it is one of the antiphons for Vespers, sung with Psalm 121 :
Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi, “In domum Domini ibimus.” Stantes erant pedes nostri in atriis tuis, Hierusalem, Hierusalem, quae aedificatur ut civitas, cujus participatio ejus in id ipsum, illuc enim ascenderunt tribus, tribus Domini, testimonium Israhel, ad confitendum nomini Domini. Quia illic sederunt sedes in judicium, sedes super domum David, rogate quae ad pacem sunt Hierusalem et abundantia in turribus tuis. Propter fratres meos et proximos meos loquebar pacem de te. Propter domum Domini, Dei nostri, quaesivi bona tibi.
I rejoiced at the things that were said to me, “We shall go into the house of the Lord.” Our feet were standing in thy courts, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which is built as a city, which is compact together, for thither did the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, the testimony of Israel, to praise the name of the Lord. Because there seats have sat in judgment, seats upon the house of David, pray for the things that are for the peace of Jerusalem and abundance for them that love thee. Let peace be in thy strength and abundance in thy towers. For the sake of my brethren and of my neighbours I spoke peace of thee. Because of the house of the Lord, our God, I have sought good things for thee.This is what the Song of Songs itself says, which is even more riveting (1:4-5 Vulgate numbering):
Nigra sum sed formosa, filiae Hierusalem, sicut tabernacula Cedar, sicut pelles Salomonis. Nolite me considerare quod fusca sim, quia decoloravit me sol.
I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Do not look upon me [with contempt] because I am brown, because the sun has discolored me.Why should the bride of the Song of Songs compare herself to the “tents of Kedar”? I talk about this puzzle in my forthcoming book (pp. 227-28):
Kedar was a son of Ishmael, the son of Abraham driven out into the desert when Isaac was born (Genesis 16:15; 21:8-21; 25:13). In the psalms, as we have seen, the tents of Kedar are associated with exile, sojourning in the midst of lying lips and treacherous tongues (Psalm 119 :2-5); in Isaiah, “the villages that Kedar inhabits” are set in the desert (Isaiah 42:11 RSV), while Ezekiel associates “all the princes of Kedar” with Arabia (Ezekiel 27:21 RSV). According to Isaiah, however, there would come a time when “all the flocks of Kedar ... [and] the rams of Nebaioth” would serve before the altar of the Lord, “bring gold and frankincense, and proclaim the praise of the Lord ... and I [the Lord] will glorify my glorious house” (Isaiah 60:6-7 RSV). “For behold,” the prophet promised Zion, “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isaiah 60:2-3 RSV) – just as the Magi came (from Arabia?) with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to worship the child in his mother’s arms under the star (Matthew 2:9-11).Yes, that’s right. One of the most ancient chants sung throughout the Middle Ages in honor of the Virgin Mary said she was black, like the tents of the son of Ishmael. Don’t you bet the (white) European Christians hated that? You would lose that bet. Big time.
Here is the Virgin Mary as she was depicted in the late twelfth century in the heart of European Christendom in one of the most beautiful windows – that’s what it’s called, Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière – at the cathedral of Chartres:
Notice anything? Wait, let me give you a close up:
Our Lady’s face is dark, you might even say, black. Everything about this window suggests that the color is purposeful, that here we see the Virgin Mary as medieval European Christians wanted her to be seen: black, but beautiful, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
Because, you see, medieval Christians did not care what race the Virgin Mary was; they were quite clear, as many seem to forget these days, that she was Jewish. What they cared about was that she was the Mother of God, the woman who had contained in her womb the one who could not be contained, the Creator of Heaven and earth. What they cared about was that she was human – and at the same time a living temple of God.
It’s all there in the window. Again, from my forthcoming book (p. 244), where I am in conversation with Margot Fassler, the current president of the Medieval Academy of America (internal quotations from her book on the Virgin of Chartres, pp. 217-19):
“The first thing to notice about the window,” [Fassler] comments, “is the emphasis on the Virgin’s robe. As the light comes through the window, the blue robe enshrines the Virgin’s body with a gleaming cloud” – just as, we may recall, in the temple tradition Wisdom enveloped the Lord like a cloud as he rode upon the cherubim (Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 1:4-28). “The Christ Child’s body, clothed in the purple appropriate to his royal stature, is framed by that of his mother, whose shimmering garment completely surrounds him like a cloth halo made splendid by light” – just as, according to the early Christians the purple of the temple veil framed the Lord as he entered into the world from the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 8-9). “Radiant too is her restored head,* surrounded as it is by a beaded orb of light that is the same radiant blue as her robe” – for so, as her Orthodox devotees depicted her in their icons, the face of the Virgin must have shone when she gazed upon her Son, the Lord (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). “Around the Virgin and Child is rich ruby-red glass, the bejeweled counterpart to the luminous blue robe, which shines all the more brightly because of the contrast. The tent of the tabernacle was red (see Exodus 26:14), and the use of the color here may be symbolic.”Mary, as she is depicted in this window at Chartres and as she was hymned throughout the Middle Ages, was the tabernacle through which God made himself present to the world. That is why, in the window, she is surrounded by angels with thuribles. Again, from my book (p. 245), citing Fassler:
“They provide the appropriate cloud of incense,” with which, as we have seen, the Lord was believed to have become present in his temple (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). Along with the lower four angels, who also hold thuribles, these same [upper] angels also hold pots of manna in their hands, recalling the manna kept in a golden pot in the ark according to Hebrews 9. Again, in Fassler’s reading: “This is a visual sign that the viewer has entered the holiest place of a New Testament configuration of the Temple.” The other two angels hold candles, recalling the candelabra of the temple, while four angels (for a total of twelve, plus two to either side of the dove of the Holy Spirit at the top) stand directly beneath the Virgin’s throne, each holding a golden pillar with which, in Fassler’s reading, to support the Virgin’s veil, alluding at once to the physical relic kept at Chartres, “which was a veil for the tabernacle of her body,” but also to the veil of the tabernacle itself, which surrounded the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:31-33).There is nothing in this image of the Virgin to suggest that the Christians who designed it cared a toss about race. What they cared about was depicting the relationship between God and his temple, whose curtains were dark like the skin of his mother. It is true that in the thirteenth century, the French who built this cathedral would, thanks to the piety of their king (see Professor Jordan’s scholarship on Louis IX and his crusade), behave abominably towards the Jews whom previous kings had protected with their laws. (One of the most chilling lectures I ever heard was Professor Jordan talking about the efficiency with which the French kings rounded up and expelled the Jews from their domains.) But this did not stop medieval Christians from insisting that Mary had dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes, as befitted the most beautiful woman God ever made.
Some white supremacist, eh? Spending my life studying the devotion of medieval Christians to a Jewish woman of color!
Let me put it even more bluntly, for those who think the most sacred teachings of the culture aren’t enough. Medieval European Christianity was focused not on Europe, but on Christendom – and the center of Christendom was not in Europe, but in Asia. In the East, where the tents of Kedar came from. I have written already about how medieval European Christians looked to the East as both the place of Paradise and of much greater centers of civilization than they knew at home. Professor Kim knows this – at least, I think she does – but she and her friends have persisted over the past year and a half in labeling me and many of my fellow medievalists as “white supremacists” because it suits their narrative. It is not a narrative that makes any sense if you know anything about our field; as Professor Jordan said when he gave his presidential lecture to the Medieval Academy two years ago, that he could stand there as our president as one of the most respected historians in our field spoke volumes for which he was humbly grateful. (Bill is quite modest, despite being the single best political historian of medieval France we have ever had.)
I have never met Professor Kim; perhaps she does not attend the meetings of the Medieval Academy. But what I know from what she has written about me is this: Professor Kim wants you to be afraid. I don’t. I want – like Mary – for you to know that you are loved and that God so loved the world that he gave his Son in sacrifice that the world might be remade. How should you signal that you are not a white supremacist if you teach the “medieval western European Christian past”? Learn some f*cking medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.**
Image credit: Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Arch. Cap. S. Pietro B.79, fol. 151v (digitized here).
*Not being an art historian, I am a little unclear about what Fassler means here. Even if Mary’s face has been restored (and who is to say whether it was restored accurately), my argument still stands: somebody in Europe wanted Mary depicted as dark, whether in the Middle Ages or the nineteenth century, when, according to Professor Kim, white supremacism was rife. But the temple imagery works regardless, and matters more, as does the evidence from the liturgy. Plus, this is not the only Black Madonna that survives; there are hundreds more.
**And, yes, I know that Hitler had himself depicted as a knight. I don’t recall hearing that he had a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. After all, she was a Jew.
[UPDATE: I understand from friends that some of my colleagues in medieval studies were hoping to be able to comment. I post all my blog posts on my Facebook feed. If you are a friend or a friend of a friend in my Facebook salon, you are most welcome to post comments there.]
[UPDATE: Since there seems to be some question, how I know that Professor Kim’s target in her blog post was me:
|Facebook Group Screenshot, December 22, 2016|
Professor Kim is right, I did choose to have my article describing Milo’s method published on Breitbart, which is why I did not respond to this screenshot when I received it back at Christmas. But I recognize now that my criticism of her ultimatum in her recent blog post for In the Medieval Middle comes somewhat out of the blue for those not familiar with the Facebook group where she has been having these conversations. She has been public, too, about denouncing me. This is what free speech looks like: disagreements about fundamental perceptions of reality.]