The first time I read Beowulf, I was hooked. Set against an ominous backdrop, the flawed hero immortalized for his pride just as much as his courage piqued my interest along with the complexity and foreignness of the archaic language in which the poem is told. It’s like that for a lot of us: One spark starts our journey into academe. That was nearly two decades ago. Today I am one of the only active scholars of color specializing in Early medieval England* in the native-English speaking world. I’ve struggled to prove my worth as a scholar, as my skin color constantly impedes on how I am perceived and in turn what I am capable of achieving. Additionally, I’ve watched as other colleagues of color leave the field. In a field laid claim to by white supremacists, this is a tragedy.
Over the past few years and with alarming frequency, medieval images have been turned into memes, and posted without context on white supremacist websites and social media. One recent example from the website Stormfront proposed a quixotic connection between swastikas and ‘Anglo-Saxons.’ Also on the neo-Nazi website, we find Beowulf grouped with other “western” texts as essential reading. The poem, they believe, links them to a supposed warrior past.** While these posts and the pernicious ideas behind them proliferate, medievalists of early England and our organizational leadership have largely remained silent over the years. One reason for this silence: The field is just too white.
Why is the field so white? Historically, Early English studies was perceived, taught and studied within an Empirical framework which most often created an implicit bias surrounding ‘British’ origins. The perpetuated false narrative continues to prevent students of color from connecting with the texts, and in short, drives away both students and scholars of color — people who, like me, grow tired of constantly being asked to justify their existence in a field assumed to belong to white people. The same bias is not present in disciplines like African American studies, which boasts of a diverse scholarly community.
I have been told many times I “do not look like an ‘Anglo-Saxonist.’” I’ve even been told after a campus interview, by the chair of a hiring committee (for a job I didn’t get) that the…