“Patching the poet’s garment”: Antar the Black Knight and Medieval Studies.

There are, in my opinion, many great reasons to be excited about Nnedi Okorafor’s new comic book series, Antar the Black Knight (Antar the Black Knight #1 Preview). You don’t need me to tell you that she is a master storyteller- she has the awards and reviews to prove it. Further, while I believe that the subject of her book is extremely timely it is not my place to write about that- I will leave it to others who are more qualified. What I do feel qualified to write about is not divorced completely from these aspects of the work, but stems from an issue that I have been thinking about a lot for some time.

For almost a year now scholars in medieval studies have been engaged in a long overdue self-evaluation of the field’s role in supporting various forms of European nationalism and White Supremacy. A number of factors have brought this about at this time: including vocal and explicit support of Milo by a prominent medievalist, the use of medieval and pseudo-medieval symbols at the White Supremacist rally at Charlottesville, and racially problematic comments made at a panel at last year’s International Medievalist Congress at Leeds. It became urgent to many of us to address the role medieval studies is playing (and had always played) in supporting White Supremacist thinking. Further many of us became certain that unless we were willing to do something to change the field we were part of the problem. There have been a number of good pieces written on this topic- see for example the statement on Race and Medieval Studies made by the Medievalists of Color: http://medievalistsofcolor.com/statements/on-race-and-medieval-studies/

or this one on White Nationalism and the Ethic of Medieval Studies by Sierra Lomuto: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of.html.

One aspect that I and others touched on is the role of fantasy people read growing up in inspiring them (us) to become medievalists, and how this in turn shapes our expectations of what the middle ages looks like. To put it bluntly if our fantasy middle ages looks like a white Christian or Pagan Europe, and that’s what prompts people to come study the middle ages, then that’s what they will expect to find in the “real” middle ages. Further we noted that many first (and even higher level) courses work on this expectation- knowing that students are interested in Templars, Castles, Dragons etc- choosing the texts and topics that will feed this interest hoping to draw students in to the field. Obviously this is just one strand of the problem- but it is not an unimportant one.

And this is why Okorafor’s Antar excites me- imagine students drawn to our field because they have read about a knight who is black, who is biracial, a story that does not come from a Eurocentric context (just look at the cover of issue #1 and you will get a sense of what I mean). Students who have seen characters from an African language in comic books, as well as quotations from pre-Islamic poetry? And that’s just for starters, because, and I won’t get into this at length here, Antar was both an important poet  in his own right (the first part of the title of my post is a play on a line of his poetry), as well as a character in a lengthy epic transmitted orally for many years. He connects and crosses so many different important cultural and literary categories that students who come to the field inspired by his story are really primed to engage with a very complicated middle ages. Imagine generations of medievalists who saw themselves represented in a comic book and said: “I want to study that middle ages”!

Now obviously I can’t predict that one comic book series will have such a profound impact- I think, or rather hope it can, but also I believe that we who are currently scholars and teachers of the medieval ages need to be proactive in changing the field or else this changes won’t happen. Imagine the student coming to study the middle ages inspired by a black Muslim knight who gets the message (explicitly or implicitly) that “oh no, that’s not really part of the medieval world), or is asked (again maybe it’s never stated explicitly) “why would someone who is not of European ancestry be interested in studying the middle ages.” This is why the Medievalists of Color collective is so important to our field- we must do more to support it. This is also why the work of @medieavlpoc, much of it public facing, which is aimed at showing people that even the European middle ages was not so white needs support. And of course there is other work being done to change the field- my point here not to list all the work being done- just to note how that work can be reinforced by pop culture phenomenon like this new comic book.

So, I would urge my fellow medievalists to support Antar the Black Knight (again if you happen to like comic books I also recommend it on that level). Here are some ways that I can think of:

  1. Perhaps the most easiest: we’ve all had that student who is super eager to talk about places where “medieval stuff” is found in pop culture- when/if you are having this conversation you can say something like “Also I heard about this new comic, that focuses on a medieval knight from the Arabian peninsula called Antar- you might want to check it out”. Some students might go out and read the comic, some might be blown away by it. But even if not, that sends a message- “this also is a moment of connection between the middle ages and pop culture, not just the Viking thing.”
  2.  If/When it comes out as a “trade”- collecting all five of the monthly issues of this limited series- ask your institution’s library to buy it. University library’s prefer this format because its more durable. They will occasionally buy the monthly format- but I’m told that then its stored in Special Collections- making it harder to access. (on the other hand for medievalists who might already teach classes in Special Collections this might open up interesting possibilities.)
  3.  If you teach courses that explore medievalism- consider adding this comic book to your syllabus.

Please note that I have a disability that impacts my writing- I try to make things as polished as possible- but sometimes in the interest of just getting something out there both in a timely manner- and in away that reflects my thinking- it’s not always possible to have it fully copy edited. Please don’t let any typos, grammar errors etc influence how you evaluate the post.