Skip to content Skip to navigation

Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 354 - Sidney at Kalamazoo: The Sidneys and Their Circles II

Friday, May 14, 2021 - 13:11

I picked this session in part for the promise of an LGTBQ+ topic, and in part for an examination of race in early modern literature. But the middle paper also potentially intersects my interests (see the LHMP tag for Mary Wroth).

Sidney’s "Black Boies": Race as Emblem in the New Arcadia - Dr. Kathryn DeZur, PhD, SUNY Delhi

Description from Sidney’s Arcadia of a coach drawn by white horses ridden by “black-a-moor” boys, with the entire equipage in themes of black and white. The speaker provides a context for the vocabular of Sidney’s phrase “black” “boys”. Sidney’s use of visual imagery is discussed with considerations of how to interpret the connections between life and art in the text. In this episode, the reverse is present: a description of (in-text) life that is present as if a work of emblematic art, where the symbolism is more important than the contextual reality.

What can this particular image tell us about the concepts of race and difference in Sidney’s social context? Even though the word “race” was not used in the modern sense associated with ethnicity, racialized descriptions still carry symbolic meanings indicating essentialized traits and judgments. Does it matter that these characters are black? And does this blackness count as “race”? The presenter answers “yes” and will go on to support this conclusion.

Examples are presented of “emblems” treating the blackness of “Ethiopians” as an essential characteristic, something that cannot be changed. And although black skin is not directly equated to negative traits, the parallels of other unchanging essential characteristics that are mentioned imply negative polarity. In the Arcadia heraldic emblems are used as identifying features. The character of Helen (the inhabitant of the black and white coach) is discussed in dark/light terms with her virtue being “light” and her sorrow being “dark”. The black and white color scheme of her coach and servants thus are not about the coach and servants, but are merely a medium for the symbolic color scheme representing Helen herself. The boys’ Blackness, in itself, doesn’t matter because they don’t matter—not because they are Black, but because they are a living “emblem” of Helen’s qualities. And yet, their skin color matters because they were presumably chosen for the position in order to be part of that color scheme.

The presence of racialized individuals in European households, and their association with non-Christian cultures, combined with the context of Western color symbolism makes it inevitable that negative (from a Christian perspective) essential characteristics would be projected on dark skins. But within the Arcadia some of the traits projected on the Black riders (such as fear of the attacking knights) can be understood as a rational reaction to their vulnerable status as servants, rather than being an essential trait.

Given the potentially ambiguous interpretations, this consideration is not a claim about Sidney’s own views on race, but is intended to address oft-overlooked themes of race that should be foregrounded by scholars.

Lady Mary Wroth Now - Paul J. Hecht, Purdue University Northwest

This paper also touches on issues of race, as well as queerness, looking at the linked poem. The poem may relate to court masques involving black-face. The speaker suggests that she is “blackened” by her love, just as “Indians” are blackened by the sun. But the black/white imagery is ambiguous and confusing, with a certain uncertainty of pronoun reference. (We’re getting a very close reading of the verse and I’m not going to be able to summarize in any detail.) The general topic has to do with racialized conceptions of religious faith. (I’m drifting away from the details at this point, but the preceding is the theme.) We move on to a second poem. This poem of disappointed love uses imagery of day/brightness/happiness and night/darkness/sorrow. Alas, the speaker didn’t have time to touch on the matter that the beloved in this poem appears to be referred to with female pronouns.

Taking Cleophila Seriously: LGBTQ+ Students and the Old Arcadia - Nancy L. Simpson-Younger, Pacific Lutheran University

The speaker notes that this is more of a pedagogical paper than an analysis. There is a question about whether one can identify “coming out” moments within historic contexts. Is it appropriate to use modern terminology of gender and sexuality when discussing historic figures and characters? And how does one affirm the identities and experiences of modern students when teaching this material? The focus is primarily on transgender experience, and so there is a certain focus on cross-dressing motifs in early modern texts. (I’m not going to take notes on the basic theoretical concerns here, since my blog has gone over this sort of topic a lot.) The overall thesis seems to be, yes, queer and trans students can see themselves in early modern texts and this gives them a rooted investment in the material as well as a framework for moving forward within the cultural context.

The focus of this discussion is the character of Cleophila in the Arcadia (the assigned-male character who presents themselves as an Amazon to woo the princess Philoclea). But the discussion is strongly focused on classroom dynamics that can help make queer students feel welcome and included in the discussion without feeling singled out or highlighted. Also, what the students anxieties may be around subject matter that potentially includes queer interpretations and how that will be handled within the classroom. (This is actually very fascinating, but not easy to summarize since it involves a lot of anecdotal material. Also, as noted above, mostly about the process of teaching. So I’m pretty much leaving it here.)

Major category: