Letters Archive

Fall 2007, Vol. 15, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Newberry Library and Warren Center Join in Hosting
Pre-Modern Race and Sexuality Symposium

On March 30, 2007, the Robert Penn Warren Center and the Newberry Library co-sponsored the interdisciplinary Pre-Modern Race and Sexuality Symposium in Chicago, Illinois. Drawing together scholars from across the United States, the conference was the product of the Warren Center’s 2005-2006 faculty fellows’ seminar, which had involved scholars from across the English, French, history, and Spanish and Portuguese departments. Organizers Leah S. Marcus (English, Vanderbilt) and Holly Tucker (French, Vanderbilt) put together four discussion-centered panels intended to raise and address questions regarding the overlap between pre-modern race and sexuality, and pre-modern and modern vocabularies of race and sexuality.

Throughout the symposium, panelists invited attendees to reevaluate their most basic assumptions about race and sexuality; they also raised questions about whether time boundaries exist that limit our ability to discuss such concepts, and about the costs of periodization. Geraldine Heng (English, University of Texas), for example, asserted that our post-9/11 culture calls for a “long history of race” that might recalibrate our present understanding of race and racial conflict. Her co-panelist, David Nirenberg (Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago), reiterated this idea. In his own presentation he pointed to methods of cultural reproduction that perpetuate racism; however, he also warned against the “tendency of the historical imagination to think of ideas and concepts as having a discrete origin in a particular people.” A search for connections, according to many at the conference, should not be mistaken for a search for origins.

In this sense, the conference was a great success. The Warren Center and the Newberry Library’s joint effort was able to bring scholars, graduate students, and members of the Chicago area into a conversation about the important connections between race and sexuality. Such a conversation, in a concrete way, tied together with the fellows’ original project of interrogating pre-modern cultures’ interactions with contemporary discussions of race, sexuality, and subjectivity as well as the breakdown of modern understandings of difference.

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