Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy
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 deciding factor against me was the department’s struggle to “justify to their students that [I] was an ‘Anglo-Saxonist.’” My primary area of expertise and the majority of my work concentrates on Anglo-Saxon studies [now early English studies], so what other justification is necessary? Worse, I have witnessed a handful of competent people of color leave early English studies because they believed there was no room for visible minorities to work in the field.
Even the few, barebones opportunities to support diverse scholars are being squandered. The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) has upwards of 700 members. No official stats are available, but judging from the members list, one might generously estimate between 2–3 percent of present members are non-white. At the group’s biannual meeting in Hawaii last year, Dr. Adam Miyashiro, a native Hawaiian, proposed to discuss the ways that Beowulf yields specific readings that continue to be used by white supremacists. He was turned down by organizers. Although many good proposals are turned down — this decision, understandable in the abstract — takes on a different character in a field that consistently shuts out diverse voices. The conversation of race is continuously shifted into the hands of white scholars, even in fields like early English studies which is one of the least equipped fields to discuss critical race theory in relation to its literature and history. Miyashiro (who gave me permission to share his story) and I are not alone in having experienced exclusion, but we are increasingly alone in the field. This is not just about individuals losing out on positions because competition is high, rather there are guardians and gate-keepers on hiring committees committed to keeping the field white. Demonstrably, merit has no meaning.
By and large, this gate-keeping has been the modus operandi for specialists of early English studies. Silence or resistance to acknowledge scholars of color reinforces ever present white supremacy. Silence makes one complicit, but, on the same hand, so do empty words and undertaking zero practical measures to counter racism. There is nothing structurally available for scholars of color in our field and no movement within academia to work on eliminating racism. People are leaving, deciding to pivot, changing careers, and choosing to never study early English studies or related material because racism is prevalent in our field. Recent attempts to address racism in my field have been done without PoC voices (apart from a number of vulnerable and brave grad students and early career researchers), as was reflected at ISAS 2017. Additionally, when we are present, the people with institutional power are absent as was evident in the abysmal representation of senior scholars for panels centering MoC (Medievalists of Color) voices and emphasizing race-related issues in the field at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Congress 2018 in NYC. (Spoiler alert: no senior-level scholars of early English studies attending the conference were present for those sessions, particularly session 491.)
The situation in early English studies is not isolated. Plagued by Euro-centrism, Medieval Studies as a whole continues to stumble along in attempts to address ‘otherness’. This was evidenced during last year’s controversy involving the tone-deaf white scholar’s ‘joke’ about ‘otherness’ during the plenary at the annual International Medieval Congress in Leeds. Scholars of color are not just walking away from plenary talks in disgust, they are completely walking away from the field.
Over the past eight months I talked to several scholars of color about their choices to pivot out of early English studies. Choosing to stay anonymous for professional reasons, several told me racism was their deciding factor. They told me things like: “I had no choice. There was no room for me,” and “in my interactions with medievalists, I always felt ostracized and pushed out.” Another said that skin color was a constant distraction to their scholarship. “It’s beyond difficult to jockey your way in and continue to try and justify your work when your currency and worth is based on your skin color. As a brown ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ I had no currency, so I realized I needed to switch course.” Another told me about facing racist harassment from their supervisor in graduate school.
Early English studies is struggling as a field as interest in pursuing early English studies at the graduate level wanes, and more departments decide not to replace retiring early medievalists; thus, the field is trying to make a case for its relevance and survival. Greater diversity among its professors would not only help the field engage pressing issues like race and racism, it might also attract new types of students. Instead of expanding the scholarly community to include those who would offer fresh and innovative scholarly ideas, the field has resorted to insularity and tribalism. We need to make a strong case for our relevance as scholars of pre-modern history given recent decisions like the US College Board’s revision of its K-12 Advanced Placement (AP) World History exam, limiting its assessment to content circa. 1450 — present.
Compounding this problem of relevance is the recent focus of the alt-right on the field. Early English studies risks appealing to students who hope to uphold white supremacy, rather than to those who wish to challenge it. One of the attendees of the Charlottesville march, for instance, was identified as a student specializing in Medieval Studies. Others who end up aligning with Neo-Nazism start out with an interest in the Middle Ages, particularly the crusades.
Early English studies often attracts conservative-leaning students because much of its surviving material is Christian and taught with a Euro-centric angle. But consider important figures within the early English narrative, like the late 7th/early 8th-century monks Hadrian and Theodore — refugees from Asia Minor whose influence had an enduring effect. Hadrian described as “a man of African race” might be the most important ‘black Briton’ in English history, while Theodore brought with him the ancient Greek Christian traditions borne out of Syria and Palestine. Their imperishable legacy is hardly mentioned, if at all, in the classroom, and theirs and others whose origins were not Euro-centric are often downplayed or ignored because they don’t fit the Romantic narrative that the early English kingdom was self-made by white people. The monks’ ‘otherness’ is completely overlooked in light of the fact that these two men traveled throughout the kingdom, built a library, lectured, and trained the next generation of priests, artists, writers and administrators. Migration has always been part of the human narrative, and it is vital in our present day to reflect on what migration is and how it was/is beneficial. Throughout the kingdom’s entire history, Great Britain has not developed, improved and progressed in a bubble on its own. The aforementioned migrants and many others like them contributed immensely to what would become the cultural heritage of the British people while the kingdom was still in its infancy.
Even the 9th-century King Alfred’s appeal to attract foreign monks and scholars to rebuild the intellectual community after wars have ravaged the kingdom is glossed over in the British historical narrative. Arguably, the king may have exaggerated the need, but certainly the foreigners who came from abroad to ensure cultural and intellectual growth had a lasting impact. In the kingdom’s infancy, individuals from North Africa and the Iberian peninsula played an important role in the establishment and future of Britain’s cultural growth and influence. Within the Christian tradition in the English speaking world, it is often overlooked that many of the Church Fathers were from Northern Africa, and their theological commentary provided the framework for the works of the late 7th-/early 8th-century monk Bede. My own work on a poem within the 10th-century Exeter Book hints at the poet’s knowledge of Syrian Apocrypha, so these traces of a global influence should be further explored in relation to the early English narrative. Early English studies implies white, traditional and conservative and its current stars in the field often champion this representation. The field will not remedy itself if, at its core, it attracts white supremacists and/or continues to reject people from marginalized communities that offer new possibilities and promise to a dying field. Altogether, a more diverse set of scholars specializing in early medieval England would be more likely to explore ‘different’ angles, and other stories like them; thus broadening our understanding of the period in the process.
Early English Studies is a beautiful field, with both linguistic and contemporary relevance. It furthers our understanding of human history, allows us to draw parallels and highlight differences between areas around the globe, and helps explain today’s world. And yet it finds itself in a diminished position, applauded increasingly by white nationalists. The field need not reinvent the material, but we need to change. What can we do as scholars to reinvigorate the field?
Realistically, if change is going to happen, allies within and outside post-secondary institutions need to be more proactive. We need to teach differently. We need to change the field’s image both in the public eye and within academe. We need to counter false narratives about the field from the alt-right — something that cannot be done by an all-white field. Acknowledging and including the marginalized voices within the field would be a start. Let’s get to work.
Addendum: This article was originally to be published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, but was cut at the last minute. I have retained the rights and have altered that version slightly. The fact that there are reservations to publish pieces concerning widespread racism in fields such as mine (no doubt reflected in other fields and disciplines) seems a problem in of itself. It also speaks volumes when senior scholars (particularly in my field) catch wind of these publications before they are printed and do their utmost to ensure that such stories are not told or published elsewhere. The days for silencing our voices is coming to an end. Our stories will and should be told, not to destroy our fields, but to strengthen and ensure their survival.
By M. Rambaran-Olm, PhD.
*To reflect on-going changes in my field I have updated the article to refer to the field as “Early English Studies.”
**I have linked to various white supremacy websites using donotlink.
***I am indebted to Dr. David Perry and David Wescott for their feedback and support.