Medieval People of Color: Visibility Is Not a 'Zero Sum' Game
About a year ago, amid the Tumblr minefield, I came across a blog called Medieval People of Color. Rather than use my (albeit limited) platform today to highlight the (good) work of another museum—while often worthy and fair game—I choose instead to share this incredible resource. Yes, I’m not a person of color; and please consider me liable, as always, for whatever words I say.
Medieval People of Color exists to provide counter-argument to the popular sentiment, grown up from the art history canon and product of systemic elision, that people of color did not exist en masse prior to the Enlightenment. Medieval POC uses social media—Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr—to present works of art that either feature or show people of color, elucidates their context, and sometimes reinterprets their more traditional reading. Their tagline is deliciously snotty: Because you wouldn't want to be historically inaccurate, a nod to the rejoinder often touted around by ignorant history teachers and news pundits who insist that European History is a thoroughly white affair.
In their own words, Medieval POC explains their mission in this way:
The ubiquity in modern media to display a fictitiously all-white Europe is often thoughtlessly and inaccurately justified by claims of “historical accuracy”; this blog is here to emphasize the modern racism that retroactively erases gigantic swaths of truth and beauty.
This blog addresses situations regarding North American and often United States-specific misconceptions and miseducation about history, race, and racism. European history is already misrepresented in American classrooms. This blog is dedicated to providing a counternarrative to dominant social, cultural, and political narratives about European history in relation to both white identity and white supremacy as an institutionalized form of oppression. Those who control our knowledge of history also control our present, and putting resources and knowledge back into the hands of those most affected by the misinformation and misrepresentation codified into the U.S. education system is a large part of the purpose in curating this blog.
If a statement like this strikes you as too pointed, perhaps too accusatory, I’d recommend a quote from Toni Morrison—also found on the site’s Mission Statement tab. Morrison ties up the experiential reasoning for such a place as Medieval POC quite nicely:
The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
It is easy, and cheap, as a white person or as an educator (or both), to suggest that knowledge is a zero-sum game. That more knowledge about a more inclusive art history somehow results in lesser access or a poorer understanding of the canon. This is simply not the case. To mount a defense of the canon, because such a place as Medieval POC exists and presents preexisting historical work that has traditionally been overlooked, is, in the very least, having your heart in the wrong place, and, at most, a work of pure biased animus.
Yet Medieval POC’s mission is more encompassing as well. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the project hopes to do some justice through its sharing of art and inclusive creative work. Medieval POC has amassed a lengthy body of resources, part bibliography and part quotation database, around such issues as representation, spoon theory, women’s issues, etc. The blog also highlights working writers—something close to my heart, via our own mission at Backwords—by sharing the stories of published people of color working (typically) in fantasy and science-fiction, one of the especial loves of the blog runner.
Most handy, though, is the way Medieval POC organizes its project: by century. Travel to their blog, and you can hop back in time by 100-year period to access the oft-overlooked art and artists of European History, displaying a richer picture of how people interacted in the so-called West.
Above is Fragment 33r, by The Bristol Psalter of the 1000CE period, depicting King David’s crowning in Israel—one of many illuminated manuscripts on the blog, illustrative of a non-white Christianity. You can read more about that here.
Below-left is a 12th-Century carved statue, in paint and gilded wood, called The Black Virgin of Meymac. It hails from France, and carries its own considered history of symbolism and tradition—which you can read about here.
Likewise are other artisan goods considered, not just trade goods but products of influence, such as this lampas cloth (above-right) from 1240-1260 by an unknown (probably Jin Chinese) artisan. More on that here.
You may also recognize this portrait (below) of Sir Jean-Baptiste Chardin, 1711, as a classic example of the British School period. Yet often in history books, publishers tighten the focus onto John’s face and crop out the map and servant. Here’s the post with the full portrait.
Where Medieval POC truly shines are in posts like these, highlighting a portrait by William Hoare of Bath of the freedman, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, dated 1733. Diallo was educated, sold into slavery in America, then freed through his own enterprising fortune in London several years later after publishing his Memoirs in 1734. Though the outlaw of slavery in England wouldn’t happen for another 100 years, Diallo’s writings were cited by nineteenth-century abolitionists and his figure credited with asserting the moral rights and humanity of black people. Posts like this provide links to a history whose effects are still very much alive today, while expanding the narrative around how the West has encountered the Other. (See this portrait at the end of the post.)
There are many more posts. If you’re on their available platforms, I’d suggest you follow Medieval POC and support them.
Coincidentally, Medieval POC is also on Patreon—I started my own Patreon page, for @mkulischphoto, last month—and I would recommend supporting them. You can find the Medieval POC Patreon Page here. This is a way to provide ongoing monetary support to a project, to help them cover costs and meet goals, or often expand their reach in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. One of Medieval POC’s goals: to provide a ‘print shop’ with printed educational materials, historical images, even clothing, in “appealing and aesthetically pleasing design.” Pretty neat, huh?
Some transformations aren’t earth-shattering. Some are about plain, consistent visibility—a slow but firm chipping away at long-held traditions and assumptions. My own budding expansion of awareness around people of color throughout European History is one of these cases. I largely have Medieval POC to thank for it, for their presentation and extensive resources. Well-worth following.
Matthew D. Kulisch