15 September, 2017

See something, say something

Dr. Dorothy Kim (DK) of Vassar, a true public medievalist, doesn’t need a white knight like me to defend against innuendo and attacks. However, over the last year especially, she has shouldered a heavy burden on behalf of many of us: to help renew and expand the field of medieval studies, to make it inclusive or even accessible, to expose the many traditions, inside and outside the academy, that link the cultural phenomenon of medievalism (including academic medieval studies) with misguided masculinity, white supremacy, renascent nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and racism. Such engaged public activity and activism will not go unpunished, to be sure, and DK has had numerous altercations with those who disagree with her views, especially those gate-keeping individuals who feel comfortable with a narrow and exclusivist definition of our scholarly field. Most recently, a tenured historian at the University of Chicago, Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown (RFB), has lashed out at DK in a September 14, 2017, blog post entitled “Howto Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist.”

The post reminded me eerily of Ernst Robert Curtius’ 299-page review of a German colleague’s Habilitation in the 1930s. Curtius’ stated intent then was “to cleanse” his discipline, and RFB’s attack sounds as if she wants to do the same. Next to her blog post, RFB includes a picture of DK, to confirm her ad personam goals; she underlines DK’s rank of assistant professor, an implicit threat unworthy of any professionally minded tenured colleague; she clarifies that some of her best friends are famous medievalists, and there’s even an “esteemed” POC she likes (William Chester Jordan; he gets a picture, too); she quotes in Latin (translations, in case we don’t read Latin); she mentions, horribile dictu, that she has never seen DK at a meeting of the Medieval Academy (insinuating she isn’t part of the medievalist Valhalla), and that DK dabbles, horribile dictu 2.0, with the Digital; she then proceeds to claim that medieval Christians must be immune to racism because they like the (Jewish) Virgin Mary and often depict her as “black” (stained glass image evidence); she even manages to plug her own forthcoming book as part of her attack.  It’s hard not to feel cowed by so much auctoritas and apparatus. I thought I should speak up, because, let’s see: I am white; I am male; I am a tenured professor; I was educated in Europe; I have a degree in hardcore Philology; I hail from a region dedicated to the Virgin Mary; I was baptized in a church that features a “Black Madonna”; I am a Roman Catholic (albeit one who likes the spirit that informed the Second Vatican Council); and my father was a member of the Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani.

Insufficient credentials? Ok, so how about this: I have among my medievalist colleagues a brilliant Korean American who, a mere assistant professor, has already found the support of the Fulbright Commission, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Mellon Foundation.  She collaborates with me on the editorial board of a new ARC Humanities book series, Medieval Media Cultures, and I have been profiting from her Facebook posts as well as her scholarly work, and both have helped me learn how much more inclusive medieval studies could (and will) be. Her name is Dorothy Kim. And it is her inviting and embracing version of the field that will create the future of the study of the medieval past.

I appeal to my senior and tenured colleagues to step up and say something when they see something like the troubling attack just launched on Dorothy Kim. And RFB's ally, Milo Y., just summarized and repeated her attack on his website. It's time to act, medievalists. Here are some tips on how to support a harassed scholar.

Update: Please see here the response from our Canadian medievalist colleagues.