Noémie Ndiaye

Noémie Ndiaye, associate professor of Renaissance and early modern English literature and in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. (Photo courtesy Noémie Ndiaye)

Staging race

Noémie Ndiaye explores the construction of race in the premodern world.

To understand how the modern concept of race was invented, we must turn to the premodern era, says Noémie Ndiaye, associate professor of Renaissance and early modern English literature and in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. “Now of course I say that because I’m an early modernist. My medievalist colleagues might tell you, no, actually it starts much earlier, and my classics colleagues might tell you the same thing, which is quite exciting.” But Ndiaye sees the premodern era, which spans from 1300 to 1800, as a decisive point of origin: “It is the beginning of the colonial age and the capitalist age and the enmeshment of these two projects.” As the two systems coalesced, Blackness and Indigeneity began “to be thought of as racial categories.”

That era’s visual culture was the subject of Seeing Race Before Race, an exhibition Ndiaye cocurated at Chicago’s Newberry library in late 2023. Ndiaye and her cocurators—Lia Markey, AM’02, PhD’08; Christopher Fletcher, AM’07, PhD’15; Rebecca L. Fall; and Yasmine Hachimi—“wanted to unambiguously convey that race is made,” she says. “It is a structure of power falsely packaged as a structure of knowledge—one societies cultivate, both in the past and in the present, through a set of practices, including representational practices.”

The curators, who collaborated with the RaceB4Race research collective on the exhibition, assembled 40 objects from around the globe, including illuminated manuscripts, maps, playing cards, automata, and—closer to Ndiaye’s area of expertise—theatrical scripts, costume books, and illustrations of theatrical scenes. “We wanted that profusion,” Ndiaye says, “because we wanted to think about how race works as a system that operates on multiple fronts at the same time, with incipient Whiteness—Whiteness under construction as a racial category—always at the center of the matrix.”

An illuminated Christian manuscript from 15th-century Belgium, Le miroir de humaine saluation (The Mirror of Human Salvation), provided one example of how Whiteness was constructed in contrast with racialized others. A two-page spread features four illustrations of biblical stories. In the first, a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, a magus is marked as foreign through his dark beard and turban, which contrast with the light skin and hair of Mary and Jesus. In two images on the facing page, figures are painted in grisaille, a technique used to give the appearance of white marble, to reflect events prefigured in the Old Testament.

As a result, two African characters— the Queen of Sheba (who declares in the Bible, “I am Black but beautiful”) and the Magus Balthazar—are shown with white skin. These choices align Whiteness with holiness, reflecting and furthering ideas of race-based superiority, the curators note in an online companion to the exhibit.

Ndiaye and her fellow curators also wanted to show representations of race that were in tension with such neat divisions. A painting from 17th- to 18th-century Peru, Our Lady of Loreto, features Mary and Jesus with dark skin. The solid figures are meant to represent the medieval European artistic tradition of Black Madonna statuary.

Our Lady of Loreto
Our Lady of Loreto, from 17th- to 18th-century Peru, depicts the medieval Italian tradition of Black Madonna statuary. (© Public domain, courtesy of the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation, photo by Christie’s)

Peru at the time was a Spanish colony, reliant on a labor force of both enslaved Black people and of Indigenous people, the latter subjugated to European rule in the encomienda system. The system required them to pay tribute, often through labor, to an encomendero, who in return taught them Christianity. Empowering as it may have been for Black and Indigenous colonial subjects in Peru to see themselves in this painting, Ndiaye points out that conversion to Catholicism was often a precondition of enslavement, “the first step toward the ultimate disempowerment.”

Religion was not the only way ideas about race were spread. Theater—which Ndiaye calls the mass media of the premodern period—also played an important role. Because all people, regardless of class, literacy, or gender, could access theater, she points out, it was a particularly efficient way to convey ideas, including those about race.

Trained as an actor, Ndiaye became interested in intersections of race and performance through her own experiences of racially fraught casting. Her scholarship focuses on how the strategies used to represent people of color onstage influenced how people understood race in everyday life. Her multi-award-winning first book, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022) explores how techniques of racial impersonation were employed in European performance culture to turn Blackness into a racial category.

In a second book project, Ndiaye is exploring how premodern European performances staged Black people in relation to non-Black people of color—Jewish, Muslim, Romani, Indigenous, and South and East Asian people.

Some items in the Newberry exhibition reflected her interest in theater, such as the script of a French adaptation of Othello. Dating from 1792, at the height of the French and Haitian Revolutions and just months after men of color in the French colonies were granted civil and political rights, the adaptation challenges the racial politics of Shakespeare’s original.

This adaptation, Ndiaye writes in the exhibition catalog, is filled with language that aligns the Venetian state (and Othello) with the new French Republic, framing Desdemona’s father’s racist opposition to her marriage to the Moorish general as a serious crime against the state. Performed at a time when abolitionist plays were in vogue in Paris, the updated Othello reflects a new racial consciousness and a new conception of citizenship.

Plans for the exhibition began in early 2020. “It is always urgent to talk about race,” Ndiaye says, but that spring, the murder of George Floyd and ensuing civil rights protests “confirmed that it was urgent to have those conversations, to have them together, to open them to as many people as possible.” In the United States today, she says, we tend to think of race in terms of Blackness and Whiteness. As important as this framework is, “thinking about race exclusively in those terms allows us to not see other forms of racism,” like anti-Muslim racism, and “it also prevents us from seeing the connections between those various forms of racism.”

In the complex categorizations of the premodern world, race depended as much on class and religion as it did on physical characteristics. Learning how race was defined then, in Ndiaye’s view, can help us “loosen a little bit that over tight way of defining race that makes us blind to very important racist realities.”

View objects from the exhibition and read related essays.