When Romanticism is brought to mind, we tend to think first and foremost of the era’s revered artists: Keats and Byron, Beethoven and Chopin, or Goya and Géricault. But how do scholars reckon with the cultural exclusions of the 18th century during a call for racial reckoning in the 21st?
Kate Singer, associate professor of English who teaches in the overlap of English and Critical Social Thought, got to work on an answer last summer. Singer, along with her colleagues and students, organized the Black Studies and Romanticism conference after a national flare of frustrations in many fields and industries following the murder of George Floyd.
“Romanticism is lacking substantial encounters with the long lineage of Black studies thinkers,” Singer said. “There has certainly been important historical work in our period on the institution of slavery, abolition and enslaved peoples, but the field has yet to grapple fully with questions of the fungible enslaved body, the subject of the unthought, social death and so on.”
The conference was sponsored by the English Department, the Critical Social Thought program, a Racial Equity Research and Action (RERA) grant and a Davis Educational Foundation grant.
This year’s keynote speaker was the author of “Becoming Human,” Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, who spoke to the inherent anti-Blackness needed to uphold foundational tenets of the Romanticism era. Jackson’s speech brought together different strings running through many panels and papers: What should no longer be elegized in a field notorious for its aesthetic?
Though the conference was littered with scholars hailing from Chicago to Cambridge to Los Angeles, Singer said that for her, this conversation began in the classroom with her students. In spring 2021, she led a course entitled Revolution & Change in the Age of Necropolitics.
“The students were interested in thinking about ecology without nature, about the nature of white subjectivity as constructed by a necrocolonial system and about the arts in response to the promises and failures of emancipation and revolution,” Singer said.
Rachael Amoruso ’22 of Wethersfield, Connecticut, found the class to be uncharted territory. An English and Italian major, she had never taken a theory-heavy course like Singer’s before.
“One of my favorite qualities of a liberal arts education is the overlap of different areas of study in the classroom,” Amoruso said. “In this class, I became interested in the presence of religion in the narratives we were reading and ended up investigating religious complexities through a new lens.”
A’mara Braynen ’22 of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, felt right at home in Singer’s class. Majoring in Africana studies and psychology with a concentration in Black feminist thought, Braynen was drawn to the promise of imagining a world beyond “necropolitical white supremacist regimes.” Her final paper, featured in the conference along with those of her peers, tackles the concept of an “ordinary subject becoming a revolutionary one” using “Stella,” a fictionalized narrative of the Haitian Revolution.
“For me when I think about necropolitical power in action today, the first thing that comes to mind are the nefarious ways in which dominant oppressive powers keep so many of us in survival mode instead of living,” Braynen said. “We’re kept in a liminal space with the perception that true freedom is only present in death. But is it?”
Singer said she designs her courses to “examine questions about social and political power both through literature and theoretical discourses.” Braynen was encouraged by Singer’s method of unpacking the heavy material of the course together with her class and by the challenge overall.
Maggie Kamb ’22 of Palo Alto, California, agrees with Braynen. Kamb majors in critical social thought and found Singer’s course subject to have a significant impact on her theoretical understanding at Mount Holyoke College.
“My paper topic was originally on Indigenous resistance to colonial death making, highlighting the ways in which necropolitics was equipped to eliminate and eradicate native presence in North America,” Kamb said. “Professor Singer helped steer me away from the settler perspective and had me consider the continuation and futurity of Indigenous resistance and critique.”
Now in its second year, the conference and its resulting papers continue to shake the table during a period where critical race theory is challenged on the larger sociopolitical stage. Singer, her students and her colleagues feel like the conversation must charge ahead in spite of it all — even if that means redefining the very nature and definition of Romanticism.
“Black studies has nothing to gain from Romanticism,” said presenter and Professor Kerry Sinanan of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Romanticism needs Black studies.”