Faculty Spotlight: Nahir Otaño Gracia
October 5, 2022 - Marsella Macias
Nahir Otaño Gracia is an Assistant Professor of English focusing on Medieval Studies and British and Irish Literary Studies. Her theoretical frameworks include translation theory and practice, the global North Atlantic (Brittain, Iberia, and Scandinavia), and critical identity studies. Recently, Nahir has taught courses such as Intro to World Literature: On Hate and Restorative Justice and Medieval Romance and Race. Her courses tend to cluster canonical works of literature, transgressive literature by women of color, and materials from popular culture that students already know and welcome in order to help students decenter, dismantle, and recreate the canon. Nahir is also a medievalist activist working to create a more inclusive medieval studies, an “ambitious goal” of hers. She helped create the Medieval Academy of America’s Belle Da Costa Greene award to be given annually to a medievalist of color for their research.
Why do your studies advocate for a more inclusive medieval studies and why is it important?
Medieval Studies is overwhelmingly white, easily over 95 percent of medievalists are white scholars. In some ways this is by design in that the kinds of works that people of color want to do often get sidelined. A famous example of that is Stuart Hall. When he was a student in England, he wanted to do a study where he looked at theoretical approaches and apply it to, I can't remember if it was Chaucer or (William) Langland, another early scholar. And then his language professor, J.R.R. Tolkien, dissuaded him from doing that, telling him that was not the point of the exercise, so Hall did something else. This is an example of a very well-known medievalist and writer, Tolkien, turning away a very famous person of color, Hall (now considered one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century) because he wasn't doing the “right” kind research at the time. And that's been part of the field for a very long time.
When I started doing medieval studies, at my first conference in 2007 people kept asking me why I was there. Why are you doing this research? Where are you from? Why was I doing research on Vikings which were so far away from Puerto Rico, where I’m from? And so constantly making me very aware that I'm not supposed to be there. That's just a very small example of many of the ways that the field, sometimes very subtly, but sometimes very aggressively, tries to push me out of it. And so basically, I don't want anybody else to have to go through that. I want to create a system capacious enough that students can do what they want, no matter what it is. Expertise doesn't have to look like anything. Expertise can come from anywhere.
What's inspiring for you at the moment in your area of study?
The most exciting thing for me that's been happening in my field is that critical race studies has become much more solidified. In 2018 Geraldine Hang wrote The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and the book basically opened the doors for people to be able to talk more about race in the Middle Ages in part because she laid the stakes - why race? Why is it that we need to use the word race? And of course, it's because of the weight the word race carries. And the fact of the specificity that it brings that we lose when we try to use words to distance ourselves from what we're seeing in the archives. What we're seeing in the archives is the construction of race, the material consequences of racialization to single out people based on race, and so we need to call it what it is. And that part is very exciting.
Also, the creation of RaceB4Race (symposium) which is housed in Arizona (State University) you have another angle, a new space by people of color for people of color to celebrate the work that we're doing. Margo Hendricks, who is an early modern scholar, really laid out what it should mean to do critical race studies in the Middle Ages by not only laying out ways to understand how class, wealth, and power work in conjunction to create race, but also actively pointing out how we are failing our societies in the way that we are doing our research. We have to recuperate writers that came before us who were doing the work and were dismissed by our very racist fields, and create a capacious, very activist perspective of what it means to do our job. For me, I think what matters is that right now our research is compatible with white supremacists because it does not, even as we think we're explaining to white supremacists that they're wrong, what we'd still tell them does not, in fact, change their minds or explain to them why they're not understanding. We must stop being compatible with white supremacists, and we have to show them, and ourselves, that expertise is not white.
Vikings are a good example of this. Vikings traveled everywhere, and they changed everywhere as they went and they pillaged - they did whatever they wanted. Look at these “manly men” changing the world. But what we need to show is, in fact, that these men were being changed by those interactions. Instead of using the active to talk about how we, as academics, are changing the world and the passive to talk about harm, we need to use the active to talk about the harm we have done and the passive to talk about our position within the rest of the world, how we are being changed by the world. Vikings were changed by the world. In fact, Vikings were everywhere because they wanted to be part of that world. The Mediterranean was the center of the world for them, not where they came from, not Britain. And so, I find that that's the best thing we can do with our research is to re-train ourselves, to stop thinking of ourselves as those that will enact change, but to accept how we are changed and how the objects of our study were changed by interactions with the rest of the world, by their neighbors, by those that these texts deem as different.
For example, people love to study Europe and how Europe changed the world, but there's so much evidence that the way Europe was shaped was because of interactions with North Africa and East Africa. We don't give that story space because that would go against the idea that Africa has no real history, so we in fact deleted and erased this history. Instead of seeing what's actually there, which is these complex interactions, our field has completely separated them so that we can deny them as interaction.
For those who may be unfamiliar with these themes but want to gain more insight, what book or article can you recommend as a solid jumping off point to understanding race and inclusivity in medieval studies?
Geraldine Hang’s book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages - the introduction and first chapter would be really helpful in understanding how race was in the Middle Ages. Another part of my work is I look at Caribbean medievalism, how Puerto Rican authors have used the Middle Ages and how it's very much tied to mulataje and mestizaje. I recently wrote an article (“Broken Dreams : Medievalism, Mulataje , and Mestizaje in the Work of Alejandro Tapia y Rivera”) where one of the ways I point out how race works in spaces like Latin American and Puerto Rico is that whiteness is absolutely tied to mestizaje. It's a different way of understanding whiteness, because it's not about the sort of concept of whiteness we see in the United States. It's more about the idea that you can always continue to whiten yourself to be included in mestizaje. And so mestizaje is always an ongoing project in the sense of how these Puerto Rican writers use both mestizaje and mulataje to create this medievalism, and how much medievalism is tied to that because of the way nineteenth-century thinkers used the Middle Ages to tie it to whiteness. Then you get these writers using it to tie it to mestizaje and mulataje, which is what my article addresses. I think that that's one of the things that we should do more work on. For example, I think that the way that mestizaje functions here in the Southwest versus in Latin America versus the Caribbean, and, also how it's tied to medievalism like the way that the Iberian Peninsula functioned in the Middle Ages, is very much tied to that. The more I live here in the Southwest, the more I think that race here absolutely functions more through mestizaje than through other forms of racialization that we've seen in the U.S., and I think that needs to be taken into account, and it (currently) isn't.