LURe’s Interview with Dr. Cord J. Whitaker

In preparation for Dr. Cord J. Whitaker’s visit to the University of West Georgia for the English & Philosophy Undergraduate Research Conference, LURe has asked Dr. Whitaker a few questions about his research, scholarly interests, writing process, and his book.

Dr. Whitaker is an Associate Professor of English from Wellesley College who specializes in medieval literature, particularly examining religious conflict and the history of race. During our conference, Dr. Whitaker will act as the plenary speaker to discuss Black Metaphors: Race, Rhetoric and the Middle Ages Today in relation to recently-published book, Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking where he examines the rhetorical and theological moves through which blackness and whiteness became metaphors for sin and purity in the English and European Middle Ages.

His scholarship transcends periods, critical/theoretical schools, methodologies, and so forth, so his talk should be appealing to everyone and not just students focusing on Medieval literature. Be sure to join us on October 24, 2019 at the University of West Georgia Campus Center to hear his talk! LURe would like to thank Dr. Whitaker for taking the time to answer out question, and we look forward to his upcoming presentation.

INTERVIEW WITH DR. WHITAKER

During my undergraduate career at Yale, I fell in love with medieval literature and Middle English language—especially the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was only much later, during my graduate career that I noticed something unexpected in the medieval romances I was studying for their implications regarding gender and medieval popular understandings of theology. These romances, it appeared, were quite interested in the development of identity—religious, geographical, and physiognomic. The dynamics I found reminded me quite a bit of what I knew to be the dynamics regularly employed in race and race-making in modernity.

While I was researching and writing Black Metaphors, I experienced anger and frustration as well as great joy. Anger and frustration at the many terrible events that comprise the history of race-making: from lynchings to the assaults and murders of anti-racist protestors in modern America to the beatings and massacres of Jewish inhabitants of medieval England and Europe, the violent expressions of race and race-thinking led to moments when I could do little but bury my head in my hands at my writing desk. But the extraordinary resilience of people and communities in the face of racism brought me, on many occasions, great joy at the bold and creative ways people rise above adversity. In many cases, how people have used their enemies’ strategies against them is nothing short of genius. Also, from a philological point-of-view, the power of language—whether put to edifying and equality-building use or to racist and community-destroying use—never ceases to amaze. There is joy, or more properly awe, to be had in studying deeply language’s power to shape and construct the world. I found myself impressed with that power many times during the decade or so it took to write Black Metaphors.

It depends on what you mean by “hard.” The most emotionally difficult thing to write about was Charlottesville—the “Unite the Right” rally that took place in August 2017 and resulted in the death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer and the injuries of many other demonstrators for racial justice. As I watched it unfold, as I watched racist demonstrators donning the trappings of their fantasy version of medieval Europe, I knew that this event was an expression of the long and troubled history of the racist cooptation of the Middle Ages. Medieval literature and culture are an object of love for me, and to watch them put to such a horrifying use in this day and age, right in front of my face, was heart-rending. To write about Charlottesville, while analyzing its political implications now and the historical forces that led to it, was cathartic indeed, yet still heart-rending all at once.

The part of the book that was most difficult intellectually to write was my Chapter 5: “Separate and Together: Strife, Contrariety, and the Lords and Bondsmen of Julian of Norwich, G. W. F. Hegel, and W. E. B. Du Bois.” This chapter compares the philosophical work of fourteenth-century English anchoress Julian of Norwich; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German philosopher Hegel; and twentieth-century African American sociologist, race scholar, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Each uses a metaphorical pairing between the powerful and the powerless—whether God and human or feudal lord and bondsman—in order to explore the dynamics of agency. Though Julian, Hegel, and Du Bois are writing in very different times and contexts, there are fascinating overlaps in their thought. It was difficult to bring them together, while remaining intellectually responsible to each of them, because no other scholar has before done this in print. At the same time, it was extraordinarily rewarding to produce a reading that draws out similarities in the dynamics of power and disempowerment across such varied times and spaces.

Black Metaphors offers activists and community organizers a new way to see race—as a rhetorical practice with historical roots that extend back well beyond the periods of Enlightenment science and American slavery to which it is often attached. Black Metaphors helps its readers understand the rhetorical and logical processes that went into creating race and racism. Take, for example, the rhetorical device enthymeme, in which a proponent strengthens her position by inducing readers to presume a hidden premise and then presenting that premise’s logical conclusion as a natural fact that relies on no premise at all. Enthymeme is a major element in racial ideology. When activists and organizers are well versed in the deep rhetorical, logical, and ultimately psychological processes that undergird racism, they can develop effective strategies for disrupting them, for breaking the line of reasoning that leads readers to presume that blackness is a sign of spiritual depravity and then presents as natural the conclusion that black people are inclined to criminality. They can disrupt the even more basic line of thought that takes as a hidden premise that anything abnormal is inferior and then presents as natural the conclusion that black people are somehow inferior to white people. Black Metaphors even offers a model for how to disrupt entrenched ways of thinking: the medieval rhetoricians featured in the book changed millenia-old ways of thinking about what makes a good metaphor. Their changes paved the way for the development of race, but learning from the dynamics of their intellectual and rhetorical revolution can teach us how to make changes that can do away with the racism they helped create. 

My editors were always thinking ahead. On more than one occasion, while I was deep into the nuances of a particular line of inquiry, my editors were able to offer a birds-eye-view. They gave helpful perspectives on how sections or lines might be read in ways I did not intend, and how to most effectively harness the power of the argument with attention to the current U.S. political climate.

My writing process varies. I have no single process. But a lot of my writing, and even more of the intellectual work that allows me to organize my thoughts, occurs while in locomotion. Whether I’m on a plane, on a train, or driving, there is something about moving through the world quickly, crossing paths with a multitude of others who all have different agendas, who are all headed to different places for different reasons, that attunes me to the myriad impulses that drive a piece of literature or that contributed to an historical event. Sitting on an airport tarmac or running through a crowded train terminal, I am reminded that some of these impulses—and their implications—compete with one another, disrupt one another, and slide by one another obliviously. It is my job, as the analyst, to tease apart these impulses and implications and trace their relationships to one another. The work is just as much fun as it is to gun the engine in a powerful sports coupe.

Black Metaphors required years of research in libraries all over the world. I spent time examining a number of medieval manuscripts, but I also spent time engaging with the newest works in critical race theory. I spent time thinking through the implications of colonialist pedagogy for the idea of the Middle Ages in the modern West, and I also paid close attention to events in the contemporary news cycle. I engaged with today’s analysts on current events even as I situated those events within longer histories than most analysts do.    

When I feel burned out from researching and writing, my favorite place to think is by the sea. The calming swell and crash of the waves frees my mind to identify and explore connections—between texts, rhetorical devices, historical events, concepts, and ideologies—that have not yet been adequately explored.

I am most excited for time spent sharing my ideas with, and learning from, the brightest young minds at UWG. Often the greatest scholarly insights have come from those who are new to their fields—because they see evidence with fresh eyes, and they are not yet wedded to modes and methods of analysis that may be ripe for rethinking. I look forward to learning how UWG’s ungraduate researchers are intervening in their fields.

In addition to enjoying medieval and African American literatures, I am an avid connoisseur of black musical forms—jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop. I sing African American gospel music, and I have performed chorally and as a soloist with a number of groups over the past several decades. I also enjoy political analysis, and I am the founding co-editor-in-chief of The Spoke, the blog of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute for Global Affairs.

Also check out an image representation of his interview below!

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