Symposium considers how classical texts address contemporary social issues


Emma Greguska

For many years, there existed among scholars of the medieval and Renaissance periods the old chestnut that those were the times before the concept of race existed.

We know better now, said Arizona State University English Professor Ayanna Thompson: “We’ve uncovered so much archival material to show that race did exist as a social issue back then.”

The title of an upcoming event hosted by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, for which Thompson serves as director, takes a playful jab at the outdated notion.

Race Before Race will bring together more than 200 scholars, students and community members from across the nation to ASU’s Tempe campus Friday and Saturday for a symposium that asks them to consider the study of race through the framework of classical texts.

“There’s a way in which having all these scholars together, talking through medieval and Renaissance texts and making them relevant to today is really, really powerful,” Thompson said.

The symposium will feature a dialogue between her and internationally renowned theater director Peter Sellars, in which they will consider the ways classical texts address contemporary issues.

Sellars, a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship, has staged plays internationally and collaborated with Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison.

“Peter Sellars is one of my favorite directors because he always forces his audience to dive headlong into the most challenging topics,” Thompson said.

Thompson talked to ASU Now about how Sellars does that and her thoughts on what medieval literature has to teach us about social issues today.

ASU professor  headshot

Ayanna Thompson

Question: How did you become interested in medieval literature?

Answer: I’m interested in race studies, and it’s the time period in which the first major encounters with different cultures, religions and races were occurring on a mass scale. You can’t really understand how we think about race without going back to those origins of initial encounters and constructions of racial identity. It’s an extraordinary moment right now, because there’s a significant mass of medievalists of color and Renaissance scholars of color who are thinking along similar lines but never get to be in same room together. I initially thought of Race Before Race as a small event to bring these scholars together, but there are so many of them that what I imagined as an intimate dialogue will now be a public dialogue that includes students and community members from all over.

Q: Can you give an example of a classical work being employed to address a social issue in modern times?

A: In the wake of the Los Angeles uprising after the Rodney King beating, Peter Sellars staged a production of “The Merchant of Venice” on Venice Beach in California that made the audience think of race relations through a Shakespearean text. He also staged a production of “Othello,” a play that looks at what happens when black men are in positions of power, right after President Obama was elected. At the time, there was a national discourse around America being a post-racial society. Now, we all realize, “No, no, no, we’re not living in a post-racial society.” There’s so much we haven’t addressed yet.

Q: What are some contemporary works that owe something to classical texts in the way they address social issues?

A: I think there’s a lot in pop culture, for example, in rap songs, like when Jay-Z references “Hamlet” in his song “Marcy Me” on his album “4:44.” Maya Angelou always said she thought Shakespeare must have been a black woman. And Toni Morrison, who has worked with Peter Sellars, wrote a response play to “Othello” called “Desdemona.” So there’s so much of that that swirls around, from visual art to music to theater to novels, in which classical texts are invoked as ways of thinking about contemporary issues, whether it be race, class, gender or ability. Classical texts end up being a common touchstone we can go back to. They often become a way to launch into the current moment in a more profound way.

Q: Are there any particular classical works that have especially salient lessons for today’s readers?

A: Yes, but it changes by the minute. I was just in London for an event for the Aspen Initiative, and I led a session called “Brexit and the Bard” at the same time they were having the vote of confidence with Theresa May. It was unbelievably profound because even though Shakespeare could not anticipate Brexit, his work has so much to say about how an English national identity was forged and what parts of that still work and what parts don’t. In reading plays like “Henry V” and “King Richard II” and “King Lear,” the participants couldn’t believe how prescient certain passages were.


Race Before Race

What: A two-day symposium that will bring together medieval and early modern race scholars who are seeking to push their fields in new archival, theoretical and practical directions.

When: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18–19.

Where: Carson Ballroom in Old Main, on the ASU Tempe campus.

Admission: Free and open to the public. Registration is requested.


Top photo: An ancient tome with miniature illustration, open inside a display case of the Austrian National Library in Vienna on May 20, 2017. Photo by Getty Images

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