MAA News – Working Group on Race & Gender Spring Programming

Spring 2024 Schedule 

Friday, February 9, 2024 at 12pm-1:30pm EST 
Dr. Elizabeth (Holley) Ledbetter, Department of Art History
Oberlin College

“The Racialized Scentscape of Fatimid Automata”

This paper explores the eight life-size mechanical sculptures stationed in the majlis of the early twelfth-century Fatimid vizier al-Afḍal Shāhanshāh (r. 1094-1121) as technological embodiments of enslavement. Performing for viewers, the jewel-bedecked female figurines purportedly bowed their heads when al-Afḍal entered the hall and returned to their upright position when he found his seat. The detailed textual description of these female mannequins also notes that four were white and made of camphor and four were black and made of ambergris, indicating that these automata would have likely released an aroma into the spaces they shared. Through their mechanical performances and material properties, the robotic replicas performed the enslaved, racialized female body in order to undergird the supremacy of the Fatimid caliphate. Using al-Jāḥiẓ’s concept of synesthesia and the theoretical framework of mediality, I consider how olfaction might have been used to aesthetically define racialized subjects and their representations in the Fatimid world.

Respondent: Dr. Denva Gallant, Rice University

Friday, March 8, 2024 at 12pm-1:30pm EST 
Jonathan Correa-Reyes, Assistant Professor of English Clemson University

“Towards a Christian Genre of Man: Revisiting The Siege of Jerusalem”

In this chapter, I look at the rhetorical strategies through which subjects are reduced to objects in the Middle English romance The Siege of Jerusalem. For a long time, scholars neglected the Siege because of the undeniably violent treatment exercised against Jewish bodies over the course of the narrative. Recent readings of the text, however, seek to rehabilitate the narrative, arguing that the poet is sympathetic towards the Jewish victims of Roman violence. My approach to the Siege revises some of these more recent interpretations, ultimately arguing that if the poem extends sympathy or pity to the Jewish victims, these emotions still contribute to the upholding of a power structure that benefits from the oppression and exploitation of non-Christian bodies. Through my discussion of the text, I evince how the language and narrative structure of the Siege discursively lengthen the distance of non-Christian bodies, especially Jewish ones (but also those of pre-Christian Romans), from a Human ideal imagined to be coterminous with Christian subjectivity. This ontological distance allows the Christian actors of the story to claim that they are God’s chosen, a position reserved for the people of Israel in the Old Testament. The chapter first accounts for how The Siege advances notions of a Roman race that remains flawed, but closer to the ideal than the Jewish race. Next, the mass criminalization of the Jewish people is addressed, showing how throughout the story, this discourse facilitates their progressive dehumanization. The romance ends in a stark insistence that Jewish bodies are proper objects of systemic violence, ultimately sanctioning their eradication and enslavement.

Friday, April 5, 2024 at 12pm-1:30pm EST
Matthew Vernon, Associate Professor of English University of California, Davis

“Slumbering Legacies”

I will be sharing what I hope to be a chapter of my latest work. It explores the understudied legacies of W. E. B. Du Bois as a writer of “silly romances.” While this term is capacious in the time Du Bois uses it, I am particularly interested how he mobilizes the term as it relates to medieval romance. Throughout his work he returns to medieval romance as a form and a rhetorical maneuver that is meant to evoke a sharp contrast between accepted notions of Black and white subjectivities as well as historical trajectories. I will be positing that Du Bois is strategic in this deployment of romance to break down such clear binaries; at the same time he offers a model for a type of Black fiction that escapes the representational trap of political writing that was expected of him. Read in this way, we can see Du Bois as an antecedent to a contemporary move in African American literature away from the formative Civil Rights-era politics into a more opaque version of constructing Blackness.

Friday, May 17, 2024 at 12pm-1:30pm EST
Kristina Richardson, University of Virginia
John L. Nau III Professor of the History and Principles of Democracy Professor of History and Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures

Title: Abuse of Black Slaves: Reading Sufi Literature Against the Grain

Abstract: Both Sufism and Ibadism focus on the spiritual equality of all Muslims, and they also arose in Basra, Iraq, sometime between 650 and 680. Strikingly, from the mid-seventh century onward, Basra was also a primary disembarkation point for Indian Ocean slaves. Eighth- and ninth-century Sufi literature, especially in Basra, tended to equate the lowest social status (enslaved eastern African common laborers) with the highest spirituality. Reading the rise of Sufism in its historical context, I argue that extreme Sufi devotional behaviors, namely excessive weeping, fearfulness, fasting, and sleeplessness, were pious reenactments of, respectively, enslaved people’s grief, terror in hostile environments, undernourishment, and forced labor day and night.

This paper draws on early hadith, Ibadi legal opinions, poetry, literary prose, agricultural manuals, and chronicles in support of this allegorical reading. The argument also challenges the presumed benignity of Middle Eastern slavery and explores the consequences of disciplinary silences around non-elite agricultural enslavement.

**You only need to register once to be added to the working group and to have access to the shared Google folder with the Zoom link.

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