On “Staging Africans”: An Interview With Noémie N’Diaye

Benjamin VanWagoner
February 03, 2020
Noémie N’diaye and Benjamin VanWagoner

In the aftermath of the general election, and amid growing anxiety about the re-framing of minority identity in this country, I wanted to revisit an inspiring conference from last year and a conversation that took place there with its organizer, Noémie N’diaye. “Staging Africans: Race and Representation in Early Modern European Theatres,” a multidisciplinary conference held at the Maison Française, brought together nationally and internationally recognized scholars, as well as members of the Morningside Heights and Harlem communities, to explore the representation of race in early modern European theatrical cultures.

Benjamin VanWagoner: I want to start by introducing the person sitting across from me. She’s a graduate student in the English and Comparative Literature program.

Noémie Ndiaye: I am a fifth-year student in the program. I am originally French, and I am writing my dissertation on the representation and radicalization of Africans in early modern theatre in England, France, and Spain. So, this conference topic was really close to my heart.

VanWagoner: I’m excited to be talking to you about this conference. I, too, am a graduate student in the department of English and Comparative Literature, and I also study early modern drama, although of the distinctly English variety. So, I just want to start by reading from the conference description a little bit, just to give some context. The description reads:

Staging Africans is a multidisciplinary one-day conference that will bring together nationally and internationally recognized specialists of early modern European cultures to investigate the representation of race in the theatrical cultures of early modern European colonial powers. Our speakers specialize in critical race studies, early modern theatre of England, France, and Spain; art history of Italy and Spain; visual culture from England and the Netherlands; and early modern cultures at large in Portugal and the Netherlands. This conference promotes a comparative methodology based on the idea that the transnational approach is the most exciting and productive way to advance critical race studies in the early modern field today.

We will be coming to a lot of these things to interrogate and pick apart, but it’s exciting that this conference actually happened, and seemed like a huge success. I want to ask you pretty openly: How did you feel about it? How did it go from your perspective? What were the intellectual highlights for you, and what were some of the intellectual challenges of structuring this—as we can hear from the description—really complex conference topic?

Ndiaye: I think it went really well. The whole organizing team—which includes Rosa Schneider, who is doing a PhD in theatre, Taarini  Mookherjee, who is also an early modernist in the English department, as well as Erica Richardson, who focuses on African-American literature—is really happy about how it went. I think the conference had a good energy, generally: the atmosphere among panelists was pretty collegial, and it was well attended. In the morning, I counted some twenty people, and in the afternoon, some thirty people. So that’s a pretty good turnout. And it was well attended by people who do not primarily focus on the early modern period, and that, I think, is relatively rare for early modern grad student conferences at Columbia. So we were happy about that.

There definitely were challenges in organizing this rather complex event. The first challenge was really just structuring the panels. We wanted to have the comparative structure: we wanted each panel to focus on two countries, and we wanted each panel to focus on theatre plus visual arts, which was, to quote Peter Ericsson, “ambitious.” It did happen—it did happen in some papers, but it is a lot of things to juggle in just twenty minutes for each speaker. We had to accept the idea that sometimes, in a panel, the comparative conversation or the cross-disciplinary conversation would happen between speakers, and not within each paper. When you have this kind of architecture, you need to be a little flexible. The second challenge, even bigger I would say, was just finding speakers, finding specialists, because there are just areas in which it is really hard to find someone who is competent—who is competent and interested—on this side of the Atlantic, or any side of the Atlantic, to be honest. For instance, I was really looking for an art historian who would focus on seventeenth-century France, and there was none!

VanWagoner: I didn’t know this, actually—you had very targeted topics that you wanted people to speak to?

Ndiaye: Well, the first panel was supposed to look at Anglo-Italian connections, the second panel Anglo-French, the third panel Anglo-Dutch, and the fourth panel Luso-Spanish. So we needed people who would fit that kind of structure. We also had trouble finding a specialist of Dutch early modern theatre who would be interested in race. As you know, we had Professor Allison Blakely, who is a big authority on early modern Dutch culture at large, and visual presentations, which he addressed, but theatre is not really his thing. It was just impossible to find someone specializing in this, so it’s a good reminder that even though early modern race studies is an active field, it is still a relatively young field that emerged in the nineties, and is too often ensconced in English departments. I think we need to keep training more scholars with linguistic skills who can keep expanding the field.

VanWagoner: It sounds also like the international investments of the conference added to some of the difficulty, because it’s not just critical race studies in the early modern period—it’s critical race studies across an enormous swathe of Europe, ideally.

Ndiaye: You asked me what some of the highlights were, and one of those was the moments where we could see connections between the countries. I don’t know if you remember this moment where Professor Christian Biet, who was talking about early modern French theatre, was commenting on some engravings which one of the plays he addressed was published with, one of the engravings of a Moorish character being beaten by his master? He drew connections; he drew a parallel between that image and the portrait of this black musician who was performing at the Medici court, which Professor Paul Kaplan had talked about earlier on, commenting on the commonalities between the size and the posture. So you can see the unexpected connections across cultures. I think that was the payoff of the comparison.

VanWagoner: And that’s the sort of beauty of actually bringing people into the same room for a conference. That’s the kind of conversation that happens organically and quite suddenly. I do remember that moment, where the black figures were really diminutive, almost seemed as though they were in the distance, or literally children.

Ndiaye: And both aspects are interesting, and you can do something with that. What does it mean to be in the distance, or what does it mean to be in the position of the child? I think also another strong intellectual highlight was the moments where speakers were pushing to see connections between those questions. I don’t know if you remember when Professor Kim Hall from Barnard College was interested in the representation of labor—of Caribbean slavery in the seventeenth century—and how it’s hard to actually find it represented? But she was reading it in connection with Kara Walker—who is also Columbia faculty. Walker’s installation, A Subtlety, was a big hit last year at the Domino Sugar factory. [Professor Hall] was really trying to bring the present and the past together. And Professor Jean Howard, also, when she closed, was doing some of that, by introducing some of the controversy around the Met Othello cast scandal. So, those moments where you can see the relevance of those very specialized questions to the present—that’s definitely one of the highlights of the conference.

VanWagoner: I agree. Let’s move to some of the challenges that we brought up already. It seems to have been very important for the conference to engage early modern representations of blackness internationally—not just in England, or in France, or in any particular place or cultural location, despite that this is very difficult. Why was this specific international quality so important in building this conference?

Ndiaye: First, I would like to point out that not only is it difficult, it’s new. It has not been done so far. In the last ten years, there have been a couple of books published that bring together representations in England and in Spain, but it’s just a couple of books, so the field is still in its infancy.

VanWagoner: And when we say a couple of books in a field that regularly has—on the English side of things—fifteen books about, let’s say, the aesthetics of objects in Shakespeare’s late romances. So a couple of books is very young.

Ndiaye: But I think that the work that we’re doing at this conference is very timely. There was this other conference last year in May—I’m sure you’ve heard about it—this conference organized by NYU and Florence, which was called “Black Portraiture,” and it doubled up as an exhibition out there in Florence. The exhibition was called Re-Signification. That conference explored visual representation of blackness across the ages, starting in the early modern period and across countries. There is a strong kinship between what we’re doing and what they were doing, so I feel like we are at the moment where there is new current forming in early modern race studies, and that has to do with the international approach. So those are the stakes of the international approach. Now, why? Other than, “it’s fancy” or “it’s new,” what is the intellectual rationale behind it?

I think we need to insist on the fact that we are talking about blackness, and not just race. Blackness is a racial category that was constructed internationally in the early modern period. You need to go international, because it was constructed as an international mode. Maybe I should define what I mean when I talk about rationalization or “race,” because [laughs] it’s a terrible word. How do you define race, right? You always need to define this word before you develop your discourse, in my opinion. So: a group is racialized when people conceive of a number of moral and intellectual, physical, and psychological categories as hereditary—as intrinsic to this group. And those qualities, whether they be negative or positive, are used to justify the positioning of this group on the social ladder and in the social order. So race is an instrument of power, neatly packaged as an instrument of knowledge—but it’s about power relations.

Race exists to justify an already existing or nascent—in the early modern period—social order. In the early modern period, we saw the development of color-based slavery in Europe, all across Europe—so, black slaves, black people, were racialized to justify that new, economic order, which means that all the nations that participated in and benefited from [slavery] were using radicalization as a conceptual and legal tool. That includes Portugal, Spain, England, Italy, and the Netherlands—to mention just the most powerful ones.

VanWagoner: And when you say “tool,” in some sense, we mean this very literally—that it is an almost objectifying. It is objectifying.

Ndiaye: Literally objectifying.

VanWagoner: A mechanism to produce…

Ndiaye: Disparity.

Ndiaye: What I’m trying to say is that racialization happened in each of those countries, not exactly at the same time—things start much earlier in Portugal and Spain than in the rest of Europe. But overall, in the course of those two centuries, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, it happens, which makes blackness fit for comparative studies. But I think we also need to go transnational in our approach to blackness, because racialized representations circulated among European nations, and that’s one of the things we were interested in in this conference. To give a few examples: we know that the first theatrical representations of blackness started in Portugal. Professor Josiah Blackmore talked about Vicente and his negros. So it starts there, but it’s important in Spain—why?—because there are such close connections between Portugal and Spain, and Spain absorbs Portugal, militarily and politically, in the early modern period. Then you also find those representations in Naples, in Italy—why?—because Naples was part of the Spanish empire. So you have all those imperial movements that double up as cultural movements. And sometimes, you don’t even need the imperial movements. If you look at the Netherlands, which produced those gorgeous paintings in the early modern period that we all love, and they exported the paintings throughout Europe, so this is how things circulated. At the same time, you do find some Dutch painters working in other countries. In my paper, I was mentioning this Dutch painter, Abraham van Diepenbeeck, who starts painting black Andromedas because he was working in Paris in the 1630s, so he was somehow internalizing the climate of French culture. So you have all of those movements. Also, actors circulate, and bring their own repertoire with them, so you see the influence—Professor Biet was tracing the influence of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s play, on early seventeenth-century French plays. All those things circulate. And this, I think, makes race the result of a collective European effort in the early modern period.

VanWagoner: This is something, I think, that’s a little bit alien to those of us who “live” so distinctly in London, from 1550 to 1700. You read accounts of people visiting London, but my academic or scholarly brain is so entrenched in the space in which the rest of Europe sees England, and not in the kind of exchange and circulation.

Ndiaye: Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not discarding the traditional approach, as I mentioned during the conference. I do think we need both a horizontal approach—that is a comparative approach to phenomena—and a vertical one. Of course, we need to keep looking at English history and the English history of race relations if we want to understand what is happening in England at that time. But I hope this has answered your question of why an international approach, even if it’s challenging, is necessary and “hot.”

VanWagoner: It’s so hot. It’s good. It was made very apparent to me the rewards possible [in this approach]. Particularly at the end, as you organized the panels, so there were, as you said, multiple angles of intersection: both national, and in different media. It seemed really readily apparent, the kind of productivity of these intersecting elements of the scholarship. So I’m sold.

Let me ask about the other side of this. We’ve talked about why it’s so important that race is constructed internationally. Now let’s talk about blackness in particular. What about the performance of blackness was important to the conference? For people reading this who aren’t early modern scholars of the theatre, let’s just talk quite openly about what the representation of blackness was like onstage in this period.

Ndiaye: So, how were Africans and Afro-descendants performed in the period? There are wide regional variations. The commonalities are to be found mostly in the performance techniques. All performances were cross-racial; you had white actors using blackface. Blackface could be performed through masks, in sixteenth-century Spain, for instance, or black veils, in Italy, as we learned from Professor Joaneath Spicer. But usually, it was makeup, at least in the seventeenth century. And when we say blackface, we need to point out a big difference between early modern blackface and the traditional minstrelsy that we are more familiar with. The element of caricature was not as present in early modern blackface as it was in minstrelsy. You didn’t have those huge lips, for instance. It was really an attempt to try and render, un-realistically, the darkness of those people’s skin—what was perceived as extreme darkness. And it was completed by wigs, which tried to render the texture of natural African hair. They had a different kind of wigs. In England, for instance, they had short wool wigs—black wool—trying to render short hair. But in Spain, you did have some wigs that used black ropes in order to render braids, and later on, when you have those characters of mulatta, mixed-race women in seventeenth-century Spanish plays, you have wigs that necessitate long, curly, black hair. Actually, hair was very important in the construction of early modern blackface. So the commonalities are in performance techniques.

And then you have wide variations. For instance, in England, black characters are for the most part tragic characters, and more often than not, villains. Of course, you have exceptions, like Othello, which is interested in exploring racial stereotypes. But that’s the general paradigm. By contrast, in Spain, black characters are for the most part comedic characters, and when they are the hero—the protagonist of the play—they are either military heroes or saints, so they are thoroughly positive characters. So, I would say, this is more or less how black characters were performed in the period. What I heard also as part of your question is “Why do we care about theatrical representations, and not just ‘race?’”—[not] how Africans lived in early modern Europe, but how they were represented.

VanWagoner: Making a distinction, of course, between the historical stakes of the question and the dramatic stakes of the question. Those things are related, yes, but I am interested in the dramatic stakes particularly.

Ndiaye: We are interested in theatrical representations because, as you know, theatre was the mass media of the time. Because theatre is a business, playwrights have to be in touch with what their audience thinks and feels on important social issues, such as the presence of black people in their lives, in their cities all of a sudden. The plays engage contemporary social perception of blackness, and they also make interventions: they can spread, or they can debunk, some ideas. Othello is making an intervention in the climate of early modern London. And they can do so more quickly, more efficiently, and more massively than any other medium of the time. So theatre is a wonderful medium to study when you want to look at the history of mentalities, to really take the pulse of some issue at a specific point in time—if you assemble a large enough sample.

VanWagoner: This has been really important—I remember speaking with you about this long ago—that it has been really important to your work to assemble as large a corpus as possible, right? An enormous body of texts. That’s exciting, and I can’t wait to hear more about that.

But let’s move on to some contemporary questions about both the impact of this conference and the impact of our scholarship—let’s say, the exchange between our scholarship and contemporary race relations in the U.S., or to some extent internationally. One of the presenters was Professor Peter Ericsson from Northwestern, who opened the conference with a kind of call to action: that we as academics need to do a better job of making our research and teaching more inclusive, aware, and active in its consideration of race, and in this case blackness. And somebody asked a question at the end of his talk: he was asked directly for concrete ideas of how to bring race into the classroom, and he suggested by teaching Othello. I’m really interested in your sense of this. I wonder if you can add to what Professor Ericsson said—this is, I suppose, kind of a question invested in a sort of social justice: “What can we do in addition to teaching Othello?”

Ndiaye: That’s actually a very important question. Thank you for asking it. I can speak only for my field, which is early modern studies. I cannot give a miracle recipe for all of humanist teaching.

I think the first thing we need to do is widen the canon. At some point, Professor Howard, during the discussion, said this wonderful phrase: “Shakespeare is not the panacea to everything.” And when you hear Professor Howard saying that, it just warms your heart. I think she’s absolutely right. Shakespeare does deal with race, but I think the early modern English corpus at large deals with race much more than the Shakespearean canon. So we have to widen the canon. We have to teach The White Devil by John Webster. We have to teach The English Moor by Richard Brome. We have to teach Abdelazer [or The Moors Revenge] by Aphra Behn. There’s so much more to teach, which we need to do. We can also teach court masques—Masque of Blackness—street theatre, the Lord Mayor’s pageants—we have to teach all of that. So the first answer would be: don’t take the canon for granted, widen the canon.

The second thing Professor Ericsson himself mentioned, when he was delineating different directions for the future of early modern race studies: whiteness studies. I think this is very important. When you do whiteness studies, you pay attention to how whiteness itself is constructed as a racial category. You pay attention to the values it is associated with, you pay attention to the cultural, historical, sociological aspects of whiteness, and you don’t need to have black characters onstage to do that. If you have white characters, don’t just assume that their whiteness is neutral; their whiteness is being constructed. It might not be at the center of the text; it might be in the periphery, and it might not be obvious at first. This has to be a methodological choice, to start actually seeing how that whiteness is constructed. So that would be the second way of engaging with race, more generally: don’t take whiteness for granted.

VanWagoner: This is something that happens a lot in studies of Jewish characters onstage, or other characters that are not distinctly colored or made up in particular ways to change the hue of their skin. But as we know, there are all sorts of really fascinating, and in some ways disturbing, ways of characterizing Jewishness, and this seems a little bit in kind with the suggestion that you’re making, that we study other forms of whiteness in particular as well.

Ndiaye: And the last thing I would add is something that was not brought up during the conference but that I think is really important: why do we want to make the classroom more inclusive to start with? Because we want to accommodate the shifting demographics of our student body here at Columbia, and in the U.S. generally. So I think we need to have more comparative courses, and more courses exploring early modern Hispanophone literature. We must do it for various reasons—one of the most important is that you want to explore it.

I think early modern studies in America is very much informed by the notion of heritage. Probably because it’s the period that saw the western colonization of America, so there’s often a desire to trace an American heritage in the early modern period, which explains this American fascination with Shakespeare.

VanWagoner: There’s an implicit teleology there.

Ndiaye: Exactly. And so the way you build your early modern canon entails a certain vision of what the American heritage is. Thus, I think a heavy Anglo-centric canon represents a heavy Anglo-centric conception of what America is. That conception is not mine, and I’m sure it’s not yours, and it’s evidently not our students’. So we need a less Anglo-centric canon; we need a more Hispanophone early modern literature. If you look at the core, for instance, if you look at Lit Hum for Spring 2016, there’s only one work of Hispanophone literature. It’s Don Quixote. It would be hard to do without, right [laughing]? Just one. That’s as many as Russian works, or French works, which are not representative of what the American heritage is. So I would be in favor of doing more. That’s my third piece of advice: don’t take Anglo-centrism for granted.

VanWagoner: That is a really important answer, actually. Thank you. Let’s continue talking about contemporary movements. Of course, if we’re talking about contemporary race studies in America, we have to talk about Ta’Nehesi Coates. I was listening to him speak a couple weeks ago at the New York Public Library—it was actually an outing organized by the University Writing group.

Ndiaye: It sounds wonderful. Go UWriting!

VanWagoner: Yeah! We had maybe thirty or forty people there from the UW program, and one of the questions that he got was fascinating. Somebody got up and sort of challenged him, like: “Hey, look at the audience that you’re speaking to. They are predominately well-educated, well-off white people.” The challenge was that this was bad and wrong: “There’s a problem here. What are you going to do about it?” And Ta’Nehesi’s response was characteristically excellent. He said simply not to mistake this audience for all audiences. He’s speaking all around the country about his book, and as he described, many of the audiences are incredibly diverse; some of them are predominately black audiences, and some of them are predominately Hispanic audiences. In any case, I’m thinking of the audience for this conference, and I don’t know whether the demographics were quite as pronounced in the conference. The audience seemed to be quite diverse. Do you think that this is important? Is this something that we should pursue? To make it quite formal: do you think the demographics of the conference, or for other discussions of race, are important?

Ndiaye: I think the main part of our audience was white, but we did have a significant number of audience members of color—I would say larger than for the typical early modern conference. And this applied to speakers, by the way. We did have a majority of white speakers, but one-fourth of our speakers were of color. And among audience members of color, who were not exclusively African American, we had a group of ladies who had taken a personal day off work and pronounced it “worth it” during the reception. And Kim Hall said, “I can think of no higher praise.” I’d be curious to know how they heard about the conference, exactly—which of the channels we used reached them. That would be useful information to collect for how to do more community outreach in the future for these type of conferences.

Obviously, I think this is because the subject spoke to many, including non-early modern specialists. I think when you have lived in a racialized body all your life, you just know how important representations of your people are in the mass media, and you’re interested in seeing how those issues played out in the past, and how that relates to what you are seeing in the present. I also think many people of color—or not—who don’t normally associate blackness with the early modern period were just intrigued, and curious, and curious to hear more and be convinced—or not—by the concept of this conference, and by a past that is too easily forgotten.

Now, to answer the question regarding the importance of demographics, yes, I do think demographics matter for all conferences, especially for this type of conference. I think we do need people of color and white people to care about the topic, to contribute to the conversation, and to engage with one another’s contribution. So, I understand the discomfort of the audience member at Ta’Nehesi Coates’s talk. We do need to get a feeling that everybody’s intervention is taken seriously, and is legitimate.

And this is going to sound pretty basic, but I think early modern race studies is predicated upon the idea that we are in this together—that we have been in this mess together for at least five centuries, and that the only way out is not easy, is not comfortable at all, and it is through collective awareness, collective analysis, and collective action. That’s what we saw at this conference, and demographics are necessary to make that kind of conversation happen.

VanWagoner: That’s a key element. And I’m thinking again of Ta’Nehesi, and of his insistence on precisely this kind of history. It seems as though we, as academics, have the opportunity to be doing the literary historical or the dramatic historical work in the five centuries from the first moves of colonization and the first moves, as you’ve been describing, to racialize particular groups of people.

Ndiaye: All groups of people, including white people! [Laughs.]

VanWagoner: True! Thank you. That historical work is absolutely necessary for understanding where we actually are—that indeed, we’ve been in this together four, five hundred years.

I want to close then by asking another pragmatic question about what we can do, maybe a version of the question that was put to Professor Ericsson. Given your experience planning and putting on the conference, what do you think we can do as a body of scholars, as a community of scholars, to stimulate more engagement and discussion with questions of race—and questions of blackness particularly, but also broad conversations—even those of us who don’t, or don’t specifically, engage with racialized history in our research?

Ndiaye: I think we’re getting back to the question of whiteness studies a little bit, as in there is no such thing as a non-racialized source, or history, if you have people. So it’s about changing the way you look at texts, changing the questions you are trying to unfold. I don’t think race is a black or Hispanic or an Asian issue; it is an American issue writ large, and once you have a minimal awareness of the concept of white privilege, or of the social order in which you live, then of course you realize that your white body is racialized too. So I think once we adopt that methodology, that just clears a lot of questions as to how you can make race evident—it’s there, it’s just there.

VanWagoner: Right, it is not a battle to be sought out. It is in fact simply paying attention to the literature and drama that we’re already mired in, attending to the work we’re already doing.

Ndiaye: Part of what I heard in your question is “How do we organize more events like these? How do we make sure they don’t fly under the radar and that they don’t go unnoticed?”

VanWagoner: I’ve heard of but not attended events like this—in the past. Do you have thoughts, now that it is over and has been so successful, what can we do to mimic that success?

Ndiaye: Again, I don’t have a magic recipe, but a couple things you can pay attention to when you are planning an event: I think the first one, very simply, is timing. October is really, really good. People are here in October. People are enjoying the city in the fall. They are here.

VanWagoner: And they’re in an intellectual mindset. They’re ready to think.

Ndiaye: Don’t organize a conference in June, or during the summertime, when there is no way students are going to attend. Location, also. I really wish I had been able to attend the NYU conference in Florence, Italy, but just like many people, I was not able to. [Laughs.]

I would also say you need to pay attention to is get as many sponsors as you can. Not just because you need money, which you do, but because this is Columbia and this is New York. Columbia is a monster. There are so many things going on all the time. People are just overwhelmed with information. I cannot tell you how many people I know who don’t even open emails they receive from Columbia. So if you want people to get the message, they need to get it more than once, which means you need to send it through as many channels as possible. Your sponsors all have their own various channels, so I would say, don’t be afraid of going for as many sponsors as you can.

The last thing would be a question of technology. I think that if you are going to put together events that are comparative, that put together several countries, then you will find that your experts are spread all over the world. If I were to redo this conference now, something that I would involve more technology so that we could have experts from Europe speak, through Skype. We have the technology now. It’s possible.

VanWagoner: We have the technology! Even simply to record, perhaps, responses to papers. That makes sense.

Ndiaye: Technology is definitely something we need to pay attention to, but not just because it can enhance the conference, but because it can really change the conceptual architecture of it. If you can have specialists from the Netherlands chime in live from Amsterdam, it would be amazing.

VanWagoner: Why don’t more conferences do this?

Ndiaye: I don’t know that it’s something that’s widespread already. I think conferences are pretty much predicated on the idea of live presence.

VanWagoner: Sometimes, as we said earlier, that leads to realizations and really important genesis of ideas, and yet…

Ndiaye: And yet, I think there is a lot to gain from a more sustained use of technology.

VanWagoner: For anyone planning a conference, I think you and I can both say, “Good luck.” It’s really rewarding, though, and obviously this one in particular has addressed a lot of things that are hot issues for very good reasons, both in early modern scholarship and contemporary conversations. Thank for you joining me to talk about this.