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University History Departments Have a Race Problem

The alt right is appropriating medieval studies and classical scholarship. What can academics do to stop them?

Ian Waldie / Getty Images

This October, Professor Matthew Gabriele of Virginia Tech’s religion department co-hosted a symposium at George Washington University called “The Middle Ages, the Crusades, & the Alt Right.” The conference was aimed at “bringing together scholars and journalists” to discuss “popular contemporary nostalgia for the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades and ideas about Race.” The resurgent white supremacist movement has been appropriating medieval (or medieval-flavored) motifs in the public eye this year, taking up the “Deus Vult” slogan (or “God wills it,” purported to have been chanted by medieval Crusaders) and the so-called Celtic Cross. The symposium aimed to discuss “where those ideas come from, what the real Middle Ages was like, how universities are reacting to this newfound interest, and how these modern groups are themselves evolving.”

White nationalists have a long and storied history of abusing the premodern past for their own ideological ends. In our moment as in the original Nazis’, the nationalists believe that white identity’s roots lie in some long-lost cultural heritage dominated by white men. When I spoke to Professor Gabriele, he told me that the symposium was in part an extension of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post in response to the London terrorist attacks in June, which had prompted an uptick in the use of the word “crusade” in the press.

The new urgency of historical studies’ situation prompts a broader question for the humanities, especially for fields whose object of study is politically sensitive or prone to right-wing appropriation. Should historians take responsibility for the abuse and exploitation of the past by amateurs, or even by those within their own ranks? Is scholarship doomed to be complicit in the violence done in its name?

In 1987, the scholar Martin Bernal published the first volume of Black Athena, an academic work arguing that African and Semitic people and influences had been erased from Greek history by the de facto racist academics who founded the field in the nineteenth century. The fallout was swift and disproportionate, like a kick from a stung horse. Bernal argued that racism had inhibited classics’s understanding of itself. This enraged some in the field, who said that he had fabricated African roots for Greek civilization for political purposes. The two sides of the controversy are split in an interesting way. Bernal thought that he was showing what had been taken away; his critics thought he was adding something false.

The intellectual scandal that Bernal kicked up in classics is a good key to race controversies in academia in general, because they tend to redefine—or at least open up to scrutiny—the boundaries of subjects that were originally formulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The humanities as we know them grew out of more technical forms of language study, or philology, that were developed in European universities in the period of exploration, imperialism, and then colonial expansionism. Early practitioners in literary study, the history of language, and anthropology were often ideologically manacled by the cultural mores that encased their object of study. A medievalist might sympathize with Crusading Europeans, for example, indeed believing that “Deus Vult” was a righteous motto. An ethnologist might study people of other races and categorize them in ways that we clearly see as racist, but which to them felt objective and scientific.

We moderns are no more free of our historical moment than they were. In recent months, white supremacists have publicly claimed the iconography of medieval Europe in an attempt to shore up their identification with a fictional, homogenous or “pure” white past. Some academics have been willing to indulge them. From within medieval studies itself, the University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown has become a notable supporter of Milo Yiannopoulis (she is cited in the Buzzfeed Breitbart investigation), and writes blog posts with titles like “Three Cheers for White Men.” She has also been a contributor to Breitbart. This solidarity between outright advocates of white supremacy and a conservative academic was already scandalous. But Professor Brown strained matters further when she publicly attacked the nontenured, woman of color scholar Dorothy Kim, encouraging her to “learn some fucking western European Christian history” after Kim wrote about the field of medievalism’s complicity with white nationalism.

As Donna Zuckerberg wrote, Brown’s response to Kim was formulated in the terms of a “fact check.” For her part, Brown pointed to blackness in the Song of Songs. Since medieval Europeans did not react badly to nonwhite people in this text from the Middle Ages, she claimed, Kim’s argument could not be right. But the argument totally misses the terms of Kim’s, which—much like Bernal’s intervention—called for a historiographical critique of the field’s relation to race, not a historical one. Kim’s question was not whether medieval peoples were racist, it was whether the study of them itself had perpetuated white supremacy. In the controversy that erupted over the fight between Brown and Kim in mainstream publications like Inside Higher Ed, that question was somewhat lost.

Similar controversies are raging within classics departments today, as those who would appropriate classicists’ work to promote reactionary agendas split the field. Zuckerberg cites a blogger who goes by “Quintus Curtius,” who fears a future where classical knowledge will be “purged from schools … for not being in tune with modern feminism and political correctness.” But what is “classical knowledge,” in the mind of Quintus Curtius? It is not likely, writes Zuckerberg, to be knowledge of the experience of slavery.

The British scholar Mary Beard has also fallen afoul of conservatives who wish to see the classical period as a repository of white purity. “It all started,” Beard blogged for the TLS, “when an ‘alt-right’ commenter picked up on a BBC schools video that featured a family in Roman Britain in which the father, a high ranking soldier, was presented as black (as it is a cartoon it is harder to be more precise than that).” That commenter objected online that ‘The left is literally trying to rewrite history to pretend Britain always had mass immigration.’”

Beard and others pointed quickly to the “evidence for ethnic and cultural diversity” in Roman Britain. She then came in for a vicious onslaught from viewers with conservative views. “Overall among most tweeters and commenters,” Beard writes, “there was far too great a desire for certainty in the face of the diversity of the past.”

“Certainty,” in this context, means just that: the idea that historians can really ever know anything for sure. Certainty is exactly what Bernal was warning against. Critics like Bernal encourage a historiographical awareness around all scholarship. They want to stress three main things: First, what we know about the past is shaped by our contemporary biases; second, the tools we use to study the past were fashioned by long-dead scholarly forebears whose ideologies have to be interrogated; and third, there is no one fixed version of the past. History exists in a million fractal ways in a million different places and according to a million different subjective experiences. “Certainty” can offer us nothing but lies.

Only by knowing that, and taking those forces into account, can we come to a good faith understanding of the world that has gone before. This project has an enemy, Bernal says: “purity.” Bernal is not against Europe or Eurocentrism, but he is against “the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture.” Here, he means both ethnic “hygiene” and intellectual blinkeredness. Bernal’s “purity” and Beard’s “certainty” have a great deal in common: Both words describe the homogenization, reduction, and appropriation of the past for the political purposes of the living.

An earlier version of this article described Quintus Curtius as an “alt right personality.” He is in fact a blogger.