Instead of rising to the bait thrown into my inbox by someone who, after the merest of cursory glances at their blog, appears to be living in an AU that very much resembles Bizarro World, I’m going to use the opportunity to mention a thing. Actually, two things.
1. I receive a massive amount of criticisms that either assume or accuse medievalpoc of only posting Black people in European art.
2. I receive at least as many messages like the one above, with “PoC” in scare quotes and some variation of “those are white people did u know that/how dar u”.
How can both these ideas be true at the same time? They are basically opposite ideas: that all of the posts here are of Black people; that too many of the posts are actually of white people. The answer is, well, neither one is true.* There are multiple ways to explain why, and how both those concepts really serve not only white supremacy, but anti-Blackness.
The first is, to receive the framework and context to come to the answer for yourself, read the Introduction (p 1-27) to Images of Black Modernism: Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance by Miriam Thaggert; University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. Those pages should be visible in full. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination is also what I’d consider to be an absolutely essential text on use and function of Blackness as a cultural concept.
The second is this.
Race, racial features, and racial constructs are so stereotyped in our culture that we are incapable of recognizing images of people of color without these stereotypes being present.
Because whiteness is considered “default” in our culture (and infinitely more so when viewing European art from history because of the retroactive erasure** of Europeans of color), whiteness is assumed until proven otherwise. The fact that I invert that expectation in my research, as in, assuming that any image of a human figure I view could be a person of color, flouts that concept to a degree that is often seen as completely outrageous. Again: the idea of *not* assuming whiteness when doing my research is so controversial that some people consider that enough to completely discredit anything I write about it. That is how culturally ingrained these ideas are. And that is how this idea serves white supremacy.
But when these stereotypes in appearance are present, in the form of exaggerated racialized features, stereotyped activities, or stereotypical clothing, social status, or placement in composition, they are hypervisible. Because whiteness is perceived as default, expected, or “unmarked”, the presence of the Other is seen as more numerous, over-represented, or pervasive than the reality. For examples of the kind of stereotypes I’m talking about, this painting of a cockfight in 18th century England (probably London) is a pretty good place to start.
[The following should be taken with a grain of salt, since I am a non-Black person writing about Black people, depictions of Black people, and anti-Blackness, which I do not and cannot experience or claim it affects me personally. I am absolutely accountable for what I write on this topic at any time.]
There is an especially pervasive and insidious cultural lie in American culture that all Black people from the past were enslaved. No matter where, no matter when, that Black people all over the world were subject to white people. This is believed because that is the way students in the U.S. are educated; any education on Black history almost always begins with American chattel slavery and ends with the Civil Rights movement, and that actually is everything required to be covered (YMMV). This current racial hierarchy is projected into the past via both education and media produced about the past.
And that is why many people will argue that images of noblemen are “really” white men:
But very rarely will try to argue that these workers carrying stones up and down ladders are “really” white:
The most backlash happens when a figure or personage considered to be important, accomplished, or elevated is referred to, recognizably depicted as, Black. There was definitely what I would call actual outrage when I made an offhand comment referring to this medieval King David from a Greek Manuscript as “Black”.
Because apparently “Black” is considered to be a completely exclusive category all on its own; if he is “Black” he cannot, by definition, be any of the following: Jewish, Greek, Mediterranean, or “mixed”. The problem is, none of those are exclusive categories to each other! The notes and messages I received about that post were more truly baffling than any I’ve seen, because so many terms that do not exclude Black people were used in attempts to “correct” or “refute” what they perceived as my “assignment” of race to that particular drawing.
The idea of monolithic, unchanging and perpetual, all-exclusive and all-encompassing Blackness is definitely anti-Black. The idea that Blackness is the only category or label applicable to Black people, and that Black people do not/cannot have religions (Jewish), nationalities (Greek), regional affiliations (Mediterranean), or variable heritage is definitely anti-Black.
It also is what creates/explains the initial paradox of how Medievalpoc can possibly post “only” Black people, and “actually white people” at the same time. Fallacies like these being present serve to underscore the desperate need for nuance, accessible complexity in analysis, and understanding of social constructs of race when engaging in the topics encompassed by this blog.
If these words and concepts are new to you, it is crucial for you to understand that my writing is only possible because of great Black scholars whose works have transformed their disciplines. All of these terms and ideas have been coined, expressed, and explored by Black authors, scholars, and educators. I owe all of them a great debt, especially Black women like Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Melissa Harris-Perry, and of course, Miriam Thaggert, whose book I have linked to above.
* 400th reminder that I’m an American, talking about U.S. ideas and racial categories.
** the concept of “retroactive erasure”as I define it is nearly identical to the convention in serial fiction like comics, serial dramas and soap operas, and radio series/podcasts of “retconning” or Retroactive Continuity: more recent writing that contradicts, explains, overwrites, and/or changes the past narrative. One of the most important things to note about retconning is that the newest narrative is not necessarily more true or reliable than the previous one.
Everything. All of it. Thank you.