Patricia Matthew on "Race, Blackness, and Romanticism"
The recently released Spring 2022 issue of Studies in Romanticism is a special issue titled "Race, Blackness, and Romanticism", guest edited by Dr. Patricia A. Matthew of Montclair State University. We asked Dr. Matthew to provide some background on this important issue, which explores "analyses, meditations, and provocations about Romanticism's complex relationship to Blackness". The entire issue has been made freely available on Project MUSE for the next month.
What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus?
I focus on the history of the novel, Romantic-era fiction and British abolitionist culture, a specialization I developed about 12 years ago when I realized how curious my students were about Britain’s abolition debates. I’ve written about this in a forthcoming essay (“Romanticism and the Abolitionist Turn”). Most of my students only understood slavery (and by extension abolition) in an American context, and I realized that whenever the writers we studied in my Romanticism class referred to the slave trade and its possible dissolution, students were more engaged with the readings and one another. In finding new ways to help them understand the period, I started re-evaluating and then reimagining what I could in my research.
How did you come to edit this special issue?
Joe Rezek was interim editor, and he asked me to edit an inaugural Forum that would include a handful of short essays on a topic of my choosing. We knew the Forum would focus on race, but when we talked about it, I realized how important it was that the Forum not be a catch all for everything that could fit under that broad category, so I proposed a forum on Blackness with the hopes that subsequent Forums could be very specific in their foci. Initially we thought the Forum would include four or five, maybe six essays ahead of a regular issue of the journal. We received so many submissions, and book review editor Ian Newman had already commissioned reviews on books related to the subject (Matt Sandler’s The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets and the End of Slavery and Derrick R. Spires’ The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States). Joe asked me to take over the whole issue, and I am so grateful.
Was there a call for papers for submissions on the topic?
Yes there was, and I think it is important to note what was happening in and out of the academy when I wrote it. I started working on the CFP in summer 2020, when the George Floyd protests lead to the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, UK. Bristol is a city important to Romanticism’s history, and I have been following how activists, scholars, and cultural institutions were confronting the city’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade (I was there on a research trip in summer 2019). There were also a number of organizations planning conferences and seminars that approached the nineteenth century in ways similar to what I hoped for the Forum: The British Women Writers Conference, Jane Austen and Company, and the Mount Holyoke English Department & the Critical Social Thought Program, which hosted a conference called Black Studies and Romanticism.
What do you hope readers of this issue will take with them?
I hope people will take two things away from this issue. First, I think it is so important to remember how long brilliant scholars have been working on Romanticism’s complex relationship to Blackness. Some of this is work in the archives bringing overlooked texts (poems, plays, novels, diaries, correspondence) to light. But some of it is about trying to develop the critical vocabularies we need to read this work. This issue would not be possible without those earlier critical interventions. Second, so often thinking about race and Blackness in the period takes the form of “diversifying” a syllabus by adding texts by or about people of color, and the focus is on pedagogy instead of reevaluating how we think about the period as a whole. I hope people see that it is as important to reread canonical authors as it is to read writers that are largely overlooked, in our research and in our classrooms.
Was there anything about editing the issue that surprised you?
I finished the issue while I was on a research trip to Kingston and Montego Bay in Jamaica. In early mornings I would work on the issue and then go to the archives, museums, or visit tourist sites. There were days when my morning writing and my archival work overlapped in ways that heightened my understanding of the stakes of this work. I never thought this issue was simply a theoretical exercise, but its political urgency was so much clearer to me because I finished it in the Caribbean. What we write about in this issue is not in the past but very much, quite materially in the present.
What are you currently working on / what's next for you, research-wise?
I’m in the middle of an interdisciplinary book project. I am working with novels, poems, paintings, and material culture to show how racial hierarchies that shape contemporary feminist projects emerge from Britain’s abolitionist movement, specifically the 1790s’ anti-sugar boycotts. My analyses move between the late eighteenth and twenty first centuries and among British abolitionist culture, accounts of West Indian plantation life, and contemporary Black art. I will be a 2022-2023 Fellow at the National Humanities Center and am very excited that I’ll be writing this book alongside an interdisciplinary cohort.
Patricia A. Matthew is associate professor of English at Montclair State University where she teaches courses on British Romanticism, the history of the novel, and British abolitionist literature. In addition to a special issue of Studies in Romanticism, she is the co-editor of a special issue of Romantic Pedagogy Commons and a cluster issue in European Romantic Review. Her articles and reviews have been published in Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, the Keats-Shelley Journal, and Texas Studies in Literature and Language, and her essays and reviews about race, British abolitionist material culture, and pop culture have been published in The Atlantic, Lapham’s Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. Matthew is the editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and has published essays and book reviews on diversity in higher education in PMLA, The College Language Association Journal, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and The New Inquiry. Her work on diversity and equity has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. She is co-editor of Oxford University Press's new series Race in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture and will edit Mansfield Park for W.W. Norton. She was a 2020-2021 Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University at Buffalo and is a 2022-2023 National Humanities Center Fellow. Her book about sugar, gender, and British abolitionist culture is under advance contract with Princeton University Press.