The Signs of the Times

Bakary Diaby, Skidmore College

“She demonstrates the difficult labor of thinking the world anew”
              —Katherine McKittrick on Sylvia Wynter

*content warning: racial slurs*

The night before the written component of my doctoral qualifying examination, I was reviewing Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” when the air was pierced by shouting. No more than a few feet from my ground floor apartment’s windows, my upstairs neighbor was making it clear that he “f--king hate[d] ni---rs” and that he planned to “kill every last goddamn ni---r in the country.” He swore that if the six police officers charged for the murder of Freddie Gray were found guilty, then there would be a “race war” and that I “would find the Klan right outside [my] window.” He then threw a recycling bin at my front door, went upstairs, and continued yelling. Clearly, he was upset about something.

As a Black student in a predominantly white professional and social environment, I was accustomed to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or exhausted, but never had I felt so scared. The threats threw me into an everyday where the desire to hurt me was commonplace and even sanctioned.

And then I had to think about Romanticism.

Just about six weeks later, I began working on my dissertation prospectus when we saw another sign of the times: Dylan Roof killed six women and three men during a Bible study in what they believed to be a sanctuary. I watched vigils for the Emanuel Nine and saw the Confederate flag on Roof’s car.

And then I had to think about Romanticism. 

I could keep listing these events, and we know there have been many more. They just keep happening. Now, with the most recent signs of the times, I knew that at some point, for my own sake, I would have to grapple with how (or if) Romanticism fits into the mélange of feelings I have been experiencing as of late.

In her 2016 book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe suggests that “for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force…,’ thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise.”  To resist this force, Sharpe engages in what she calls “wake work,” a mix of interdisciplinary and undisciplined approaches to objects of study. Clearly now is the time for such work, to engage with the difficult labor of thinking the world anew, of teaching to influence the infinite, and of imagining otherwise.

After my neighbor’s targeted racist episode, I ended up writing an essay on Austen’s Mansfield Park, Shelley’s Defence, and Smith’s Beachy Head. It was a meditation on what Romantic agency could look like amidst precarity and fear. It was the essay that I needed to write. I concluded that Romantic consciousness requires presence in the world, and that Romantic politics requires attention to the people and things in it. But this presence and attention should not be limited to subjects of the past. Instead, I hope more underprivileged scholars take the space that they deserve and I hope we pay more attention to historically unappreciated work. The essay crystalized for me how Romanticism at its best––and perhaps only at its best––holds the potential for transformative empathy with the vulnerable. But I work in the wake of another Romanticism as well, one whose liberationist philosophy was subsidized by enslavement, genocide, and imperial expansion.

Many period-based scholarly organizations are posting statements condemning racism and promising diversity (but, of course, many have not). But what’s more, they are also admitting to their period’s complicity. For example, the American Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies posted a note “On the Killing of George Floyd and on the Persistence of Racism in America” on their website, describing how “those of us who study the eighteenth century know [that] today’s racialized violence in North America was prefigured by the eighteenth-century institutions of slavery and the slave trade and the practices of settler colonialism.” And the Renaissance Society of America remarks that “because the Renaissance is often considered an era that marked significant advancements in human progress and the beginnings of modernity, we must acknowledge that the structures, mentalities, and attitudes that emerged in this period also helped to shape the systemic injustice and inequalities we experience today.” Statements from organizations like NASSR and BARS have already observed how Romanticism has contributed to present-day oppressive structures as well.

While a statement is no panacea and it will prove to be hollow without substantive steps taken to change the status quo, perhaps these statements signal a greater acceptance of often overlooked and marginalized research. Perhaps we stand at the precipice of change and can expect more great work by BIPOC scholars to be celebrated and cited. Perhaps. Nonetheless, we and those future scholars must not give Romanticism an alibi for the current moment by continuing to subordinate the crucial task of thinking the world anew to dated ideas in the hopes of keeping Romanticism familiar. Instead, we should explore the role Romanticism played in how we got here and contemplate too what it has to offer for the present. I hope we collapse the space between the signs of the times and the work we produce. A more undisciplined Romanticism could perhaps put an end to our default business-as-usual quietism. Perhaps.