Does Romanticism Need Black Studies? by Stacy A. Creech
In recent years, there has been a concerted effort recognized by academic, artistic, and educational spaces to reflect on how the field of Romanticism engages with race, racialization, and Blackness. The Romantic movement in Anglo-American literary spheres, spanning a period in eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century literary productions in Transatlantic locales, has traditionally been approached through the centering of whiteness—in one way or another, we have all heard (and probably read the works) of William Wordsworth and John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. But what does Romanticism look like when the works of these writers are put in conversation with texts produced by authors like Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Phillis Wheatley Peters? The ongoing call for these crucial, long-expected considerations necessarily questions the material histories of Romanticism, and invites us to attend to the lives and works of Black people in the period and beyond. Contemporary Black thinkers like Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe are engaged in the kind of work that doesn’t solely reach back to an eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century Atlantic world to make visible the lives of Black women and men; instead, their ongoing critical scholarship evokes the feelings and conditions of Black life in non-extractive ways, effectively illustrating the inequalities that continue to structure and support our academic fields of study. Since Sharpe reminds us that we are living “in the still unfolding aftermaths of Atlantic chattel slavery” (Sharpe 2016, 2), a generative engagement between Black Studies and Romanticism goes beyond framing Black existence within the parameters of oppression. Black Feminist thought, as Sharpe, Hartman, and others enact it, understands that when we consider race, racialization, and Blackness in the period, we must articulate it through life, joy, and acknowledgment of these topics in the context of colonialism, slavery, and imperialism, but reframing it to center Blackness. Certainly, we might ask to what end we can continue to engage with canonical works that center whiteness or that only consider race and Black life in the context of systems of oppression. Toni Morrison might present us with an answer when, in the context of American Literature, she writes that, “There must be some way to enhance canon readings without enshrining them” (Morrison 2019, 166). To carry out causal, constructive readings of Romanticism, then, it is key to understand that canonical readings, and indeed the building of the (white) literary canon, are always structured around colonialism and imperialism. If, as Morrison posits “Canon building is empire building… [and] Canon defense is national defense” (Morrison 2019, 169), then the study of eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century Romanticism cannot survive the present moment without thinking of the category of race. Thus, the basis of and traditional approaches to the field of Romanticism require rethinking, precisely because demarcation and taxonomy continue to be invested in colonialism.
As a Black early career researcher now completing a dissertation project on Black Feminism’s reframing of the Gothic in long eighteenth-century Transatlantic Literature, I am occupied daily with race, racialization, and Blackness in Romanticism and Enlightenment periods. It is no wonder, then, that I was excited and more than a little hopeful when I was invited to participate in the online conference, “Black Studies and Romanticism,” hosted by Mount Holyoke College this summer, and supported by the English Department, the Critical Social Thought Program, a Racial Equity Research and Action (RERA) Grant, and a Davis Educational Foundation Grant.
The Call For Papers, borrowing a phrase from Hortense Spillers, invited participants to consider new kinds of ‘grammars’ that studies in Romanticism and its legacies could adopt from Black Studies to continue engaging with a field which has reductively centered whiteness and patriarchy. In short, participants were invited to think about what a continued engagement with the field of Romanticism might look like, if there were to be a move away from “enshrining” these works and authors, as per Morrison. The “Black Studies and Romanticism” conference was a two-day virtual event which more than delivered on its promise to create an intimate but thoughtful and lively space for discussion. Organized to include a series of panels, two plenary events, and a keynote address, all of which revolved around questions of how Romanticism and Black Studies might be articulated together and whether there is a future for Romantic Studies, the virtual conference built a sense of community among participants and audience members alike, sharing an awareness of the pressing changes that need to occur to reconfigure the field of Romanticism. To note some examples, the conference featured a paper which presented a (re)reading of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2018) discussed alongside Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798); it also featured a paper devoted to the life, works, and legacies of African Enlightenment philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703 – c. 1759); and it included a panel focusing on the anonymously authored novel The Woman of Colour (1808), which highlighted papers that framed the text through Hazel Carby’s critical book, Imperial Intimacies (2019). An important aspect of this event was its deliberate and thoughtful inclusion of a forum designed to highlight undergraduate work being done on these topics, as well as a roundtable featuring the work of emerging scholars such as myself, in which papers considered aspects of race and racialization not only in eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century cultural and literary productions, but also in contemporary cultural and legal texts.
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson delivered an inspiring keynote address building on her work in Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, where she discusses human-animal distinctions and interrogates Western conceptions of what it means to be human. In her conference address, titled “Against Criticism: Notes on Decipherment and the Force of Art,” Jackson thinks alongside Sylvia Wynter’s philosophy of aesthetics and frames the future of art and literary criticism through a nuanced ontology of plasticity. Consequently, Jackson’s work joins the intellectual tradition of Black Feminism in generative ways to challenge binary systems that have traditionally posited Black existence as human/non-human or humanized/de-humanized, arguing that inclusion has been and continues to be extended to Black peoples only in the interest of ‘plasticizing’ their very humanity.
What this conference has made evident, with its range of vibrant and reflective takes on these topics, is that if we have any hope of restructuring the ways in which the field of Romanticism has typically operated, it is necessary that we think beyond aspects of Black inclusion and representation. It strikes me that the very erasure of certain forms of Blackness from the eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century Transatlantic literary canon structures and supports this hemisphere. To inquire what it means to be human, and to think about questions of identity-formation, Black geographies, and how Romanticism might borrow from the field of Black Studies in order to subsist, is to already think beyond inclusivity and representation. To echo Eugenia Zuroski’s plenary address, “if there is any hope of the fields currently known as eighteenth-century studies and Romanticism becoming sites of meaningful reckoning with the worlds that took shape then and continue to condition our lives now, then they urgently need to reorient themselves in relation to Black and Indigenous ways of knowing” (Zuroski 2021, 2). To put it even more plainly, and to offer an answer to the question in the title of this post, I would like to cite Kerry Sinanan’s own plenary talk: “Black Studies doesn’t need Romanticism… Romanticism needs Black Studies” (Sinanan 2021). But I remain hopeful for the future, since a main takeaway from this virtual conference for me was the growing understanding that racialized, minoritized, and marginalized writers and scholars need not fit within the confines of those who set the parameters of those categories. When the conference’s Call For Papers asks how Romanticism and Black Studies might meet in other ways, in other speculative futures, I am inclined to recall that people like John Keats and Mary Shelley, for instance, were not asked about how whiteness functioned in their (future) imaginary—our fields of study have traditionally placed this burden on writers of color who have been asked to account for themselves. But it is promising to know that—as the papers presented in this conference have revealed—Black modes of accounting have always disturbed and agitated notions of time and linearity, effectively intervening in existing social orders, and perhaps present us with a model to reconfigure our fields of study as sites of generative scholarship, pedagogy, and activism.
Stacy A. Creech is a Dominican Ph.D. candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Specializing in transatlantic literature in the long eighteenth century, her research focuses on British, Caribbean, and American Gothic literatures and Black Feminist Theory. Her dissertation examines the unspeakable yet tangible trauma of slavery and its persistent presence in Gothic works. Stacy’s background is in medicine, education, linguistics, English, and Comparative Literature. Her areas of research/interest include Caribbean Studies, Black Diaspora Literature and Theory, Black Feminism, Transatlantic Studies, American literature, Gothic studies, Black Studies, African American literature, Latin American/Latinx literature, 18th-century British literature, and Black British literature.
Morrison, Toni. 2019. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sinanan, Kerry. 2021. “Citation, Appropriation, and Abolition.” Black Studies & Romanticism Virtual Conference.
Zuroski, Eugenia. 2021. “Citation, Appropriation, and Abolition.” Black Studies & Romanticism Virtual Conference.