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Yes, There Were People of Color in Pre-Modern Europe

A conversation with @MedievalPOC, an activist using social media to change how we see color in the past.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1515.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1515.

Breaking news: There were black and brown people living in medieval Europe! Many of them were full members of society, though others were marginalized, enslaved, or otherwise excluded. This shouldn't actually be news, but it's the kind of realization that's been missing from too many movies, novels, games, and even scholarly textbooks for too long.

The online activist "MedievalPOC" (Medieval People of Color) is pushing back against the myth that everyone in the medieval past was white. They've been educating the public about race in European history since 2012, when they started Tumblr and Twitter accounts with a simple mission: Show the presence of people of color in pre-modern European art. Today, MedievalPOC enjoys a reputation for excellent work, a thriving base of subscribers on Patreon, and an inbox full of hate-mail from white supremacists who want to claim the Middle Ages for their own.

MedievalPOC isn't alone in pursuing this fight. In 2017, scholars of pre-modern Europe have become newly aware of the links between modern white supremacy and the idea that everyone in medieval Europe was white. This heightened awareness is part of the Donald Trump effect: long-hidden bigotry made much more visible and pervasive.

For example, Nazis marched in Charlottesville carrying medieval symbols, and paramilitaries in Europe call themselves "the Knights Templar." Scholars, creators, and fans of medievalist content (history, television shows, fantasy books, games, and more) have a lot of work to do in confronting the spread of hateful ideologies.

Pacific Standard spoke over video chat with MedievalPOC, discussing the reasons they didn't pursue an academic career, the way their time in a disability resources center on a college campus affected their online activism, and the challenges of changing how we see color in the past.


Let's start with your origin story. Where did "medieval POC" as a concept come from?

It was a combination of circumstances and frustrations. Because I had a lot of really traumatic experiences in academia, instead of trying to become a professor, I went into disability services. If it wasn't [an encounter with] racism, it was sexism, or if it wasn't that it was homophobia or transphobia. Or [it was someone saying], "I don't think your accommodations would be fair to the other students." I realized quickly that in order to even survive this I would have to become an activist.

Were you already talking online about race and history?

I had an online presence on various social media sites, and I ended up having the same conversation over and over, which was: "Everyone was white back then." And "back then" was literally any time ever, or back in the good old days of Westeros. But I have to say that one of the breaking points was when some guy tried to tell me that the "Legend of the Hartlepool monkey" proved that English people didn't know what people of color looked like.

Wait, what monkey?

It's basically an urban legend where a monkey was shipwrecked in a little backwards town in England, and the residents thought it was a Frenchman, put it on trial, and executed it.

OK. But English people knew what monkeys looked like.

Of course they knew what a monkey was! This is modern anti-black racism being projected onto the past. Using a monkey-myth to prove there were no black people in England. And this was one of those white supremacists [saying], "Everyone in Europe was white and I know because I love Vikings." So I started going online to refute these arguments, specifically with those "White Middle Ages; I love Tolkien, stay away from my elves. You're not allowed to be in my white fantasy history, you disgusting, you know, expletive racial slur."

[These online conversations] seemed to be helping friends who, until that point, really thought that what the white supremacists were saying was true, because no one had ever told them any different. There are letters and documentation of the black British, [but] they didn't know any of that. So I asked, "What if I started a blog with just posts like this?"

Meanwhile, you were working in disability resources?

I was processing a lot of textbooks from paper to a text file to a screenreader.

Moving textbooks from a paper format to a digital format to make them more accessible.

Mmm-hmm. I was noticing a lot of information that was just wrong. They had cropped pictures of paintings so that the people of color were removed. "There are black people in that painting! I know there are. There's an Indian guy in that painting. So where is he?"

Not only that, but what professors decided to skip. They would call and say: "Oh, don't worry, we're going to skip that chapter on how everything affected the rest of the world. Oh, we were going to skip that chapter on Africa, on Southeast Asia."

It's so interesting that by sitting in disability resources office processing textbooks, you learn about the priorities of professors all across the university, and what they do and don't teach.

Every single discipline, from biology to what you chose for your world literature class.

So basically I started posting [pre-modern] works of art that featured people of color at all. The bar was pretty low. It wasn't two or three months that I realized no one else had done that. I thought there would be a million Tumblr blogs and Twitter feeds and Pinterests all about this, [but] so many people messaged me saying that they literally did not see; like in the Bosch paintings, their eyes just slid right over [people of color], until I put it on my blog.

What was one of your favorite paintings?

It's a Scottish aristocrat and her cousin. I saw it in college and it changed my life. A black woman and a white woman are shown on the same plane, just like hanging out in the garden with flowers, wearing pretty dresses. This is an "old-timey" painting and they're wearing "old-timey" clothes. That really changed a lot for me, because it's not just what you learn or don't. It's about the way the information is presented to you. We all are people; we decide what's important. We decide whether or not this person is someone who should be remembered.

John Phillip Simpson, The Captive Slave, 1827.

John Phillip Simpson, The Captive Slave, 1827.

Then there's the painting of Ira Aldridge. It's called The Captive Slave, and he's wearing an orange jumpsuit, and because it looks so much like an American prison jumpsuit now, it makes you sick to your stomach. I can say whatever I want about it, but that's not the point. This is a visual narrative. That's the impact of what I do. I'm not even going to tell you. I'm just going to show you.

And it makes people so mad. "You're not allowed to do that! How dare you! It's ahistorical."

Your core statement—that there were people of color in pre-modern Europe and they show up in art—seems so simple, but it makes people so angry.

People literally send messages like, "I want to shoot you in the head." Or "MedievalPOC, that's bullshit. You should die. I will kill you." It gets a lot worse than that.

I believe you. I'm sorry to hear it though.

It really amazes me how people who hold white supremacist views are allowed to believe that those are value-neutral perspectives, because that's just how it is. You've been taught to devalue people of color, both socially and aesthetically. And then here's a [type of] image that you've been taught to overvalue, because of its style or its origin. You overvalue this method of presenting things, with a figure of a person that you devalue. And seeing them together will either create a conflict or resolve a conflict depending on who you are.

They're not looking at a painting. They're looking at a mirror and being confronted with their own prejudices in ways that maybe they didn't even realize until they were confronted with this image. And it depends on who they are, whether or not they like what they see.

In this era of newly visible white supremacy (though of course you and I have talked about how it's not actually new)—what do we do? Are you hopeful that we can change things?

I've been trying to bridge between academia, fandom, and people who are neither, and trying to explain that there doesn't have to be this separation. This separation is the reason people can still say, "everyone was white back then." I am trying to take these ideas out of academia, and shove them into the public consciousness where they need to be.

It's a bit of a tall order. It's like running uphill into this avalanche of "no." But I am trying to change the dominant narrative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.