In the late Middle Ages, Christian conversion could wash a black person's skin white—or at least that is what happens when a black sultan converts to Christianity in the English romance King of Tars. In Black Metaphors, Cord J. Whitaker examines the rhetorical and theological moves through which blackness and whiteness became metaphors for sin and purity in the English and European Middle Ages—metaphors that guided the development of notions of race in the centuries that followed. From a modern perspective, moments like the sultan's transformation present blackness and whiteness as opposites in which each condition is forever marked as a negative or positive attribute; medieval readers were instead encouraged to remember that things that are ostensibly and strikingly different are not so separate after all, but mutually construct one another. Indeed, Whitaker observes, for medieval scholars and writers, blackness and whiteness, and the sin and salvation they represent, were held in tension, forming a unified whole.
Whitaker asks not so much whether race mattered to the Middle Ages as how the Middle Ages matters to the study of race in our fraught times. Looking to the treatment of color and difference in works of rhetoric such as John of Garland's Synonyma, as well as in a range of vernacular theological and imaginative texts, including Robert Manning's Handlyng Synne, and such lesser known romances as The Turke and Sir Gawain, he illuminates the process by which one interpretation among many became established as the truth, and demonstrates how modern movements—from Black Lives Matter to the alt-right—are animated by the medieval origins of the black-white divide.
"Cord J. Whitaker performs an archaeology of how blackness came to be embedded as a fixture of persuasion, religious thought, and poetic imagery. Exploring the logic of 'contrariety' through medieval poetics and argumentation, he reveals the long intimacy of rhetoric and racial discourse from the Middle Ages to the present."—Rita Copeland, author of Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages
"Cord J. Whitaker's captivatingly well-written book takes on the centrality of blackness as a metaphor used in medieval romance, spiritual writings, rhetorical treatises, and travel writing. Weaving modern racialized news accounts of biker rallies together with contemporary folk music and popular medieval texts, Whitaker shows the lasting importance of the European Middle Ages on Western, particularly American, interpretations of white and black skin. An extremely important work in the field of race studies."—Lynn Ramey, author of Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages
"Cord J. Whitaker's rich and textured readings of both lesser-known and well-known texts render them wholly new, fresh, and exciting. Black Metaphors demonstrates an incredibly learned mind at work; Whitaker deftly maneuvers between religious philosophy, philology, classical rhetorical tropes, and contemporary critical race studies."—Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America
"Black Metaphors is a bold, disruptive, penetrating study of the foundational grammars of modern racial thinking in late medieval literature. With provocative new readings of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century works, Cord J. Whitaker dials back the beginnings of modern racism from our commonplace understanding of its original flourishing in the widespread scientific racism of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the rhetorical and religious obsessions with metaphors of blackness and whiteness in the Middle Ages. An important intervention in medieval studies and black studies alike, Black Metaphors sparkles as it fills a longstanding gap in between."—Maurice Wallace, author of Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995
"Black Metaphors states plainly that its investigation into matters of race in the European Middle Ages is urgently informed by the agonizingly critical events of today, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the commonplace, quotidian racisms visited on black citizens of the United States. This book imparts stunning insights and will grace many a bookshelf for a long time to come."—Geraldine Heng, author of The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages