Humanities Scholar Receives the Prestigious William Nelson Prize
By Sara Patterson
For revealing how the Romani people of Europe and sub-Saharan Africans were similarly racialized from the 17th century onwards, Noémie Ndiaye received the 2022 William Nelson Prize from the Renaissance Society of America for the best article annually published in the journal Renaissance Quarterly. Her article “Black Roma: Afro-Romani Connections in Early Modern Drama (and Beyond)” focuses on performance practices in English and French settings showing the same legacy of bondage, enslavement, and human trafficking in theatrical representations for the Romani people and sub-Saharan Africans.
“In plays such as Molière’s Imaginary Invalid, Romani performers were performing Black dances,” said Ndiaye, the Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language. “The connection is consistent, and I got curious about this. What if this is not a coincidence?”
Ndiaye’s in-depth research into the previously unnoticed network of Afro-Romani connections in 17th century French and English drama shows how that network serves as conceptual and ethical genealogy for the bonds that exist today between Black studies and the developing field of critical Romani studies. Her essay persuasively argues that the theatrical culture in Europe depicted similar positionings of enslaved Roma and sub-Saharan Africans within the hierarchy of early modern white supremacy.
Her work builds on the foundation of leading critical Romani scholars such as Ethel C. Brooks, Sydnee Wagner, and Angéla Kóczé. And while Romani scholars compare the treatment of Roma to those under Black slavery, Ndiaye has found that Black scholars have not looked at Romani studies, although it’s just starting to be a two-sided conversation. For example, Roma rights activist and scholar Margareta Matache and Black scholar Cornel West recently demanded “reparations for the comparable histories of enslaved people” in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Romania.
“What makes Noémie's scholarship so astoundingly good is how she is able to combine archival depth, historical breadth, and philological skill with conceptual precision and argumentative verve,” said Timothy Harrison, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago. “Noémie unites scholarly rigor with theoretical imagination in order to rethink the history of European ideas about race in relation to performance practices in English, French, and Spanish contexts, across several centuries—all with a flair that makes her first book, Scripts of Blackness, seem effortless in its ability to make all but forgotten features of the historical past speak to the present in ways that genuinely illuminate.”
Ndiaye describes her research and teaching as exploring the relation between theater and the social, political, and cultural struggles of early modernity. The center of those struggles and her interest lie in crucial processes of racial, gender, and identity formation, which she studies in way that incorporate comparative studies, transnational research, and transhistorical knowledge.
In her book, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (2022), Ndiaye’s central argument focuses on what early modern scripts of Blackness were, where they can be located for historigraphic purposes, and what the phrase “performative Blackness” means in the context of the time and how it influenced subsequent generations. Also, she shows how the scene of ideological production, where scripts of Blackness coalesced and functioned.
“Noémie has shifted the paradigm of early modern theater and performance studies by showing us how the embodied arts made adjustments to their means of production—cosmetic, acoustic, and kinetic—to suit an age of global expansion and exploitation, toppling the fiction of a makeshift and powerless early modern racial imaginary,” said Ellen MacKay, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago.
Ndiaye expanded her dissertation into Script of Blackness during six months in 2020—the spring and summer—when the Humanities Division allowed her a course release for the Spring Quarter. She used her new tenure-track faculty stipend of $3,000 to print 20 color images within her first book.
“The book is beautiful to look at, and the images support the book’s argument in an important way,” Ndiaye said.
Through UChicago’s strong reading culture, her colleagues, including Harrison, MacKay, Adrienne Brown, C. Riley Snorton, and John Muse, among others, reviewed the introduction and specific chapters of Scripts of Blackness, giving Ndiaye constructive advice and critical framing devices.
“I heard when I was visiting UChicago about colleagues reading each other’s work, and I thought it was just talk,” Ndiaye said. “But it’s true. I was so surprised and happy to find it here.”
“As her colleague, I recognize how transformative her research and work is for performance studies, translation, and race for early modern fields and many others,” said Brown, associate professor in the Departments of English Language and Literature and Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity at UChicago. “I admire her work on University of Chicago initiatives in Theater and Performance Studies and around admissions, as well as her field-building work in early modern studies. More broadly, I've been lucky to work with and, more importantly, learn from Noémie as a scholar, teacher, and colleague.”
On the horizon, Ndiaye is co-editor, with Lisa Markey, of Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in Pre-modern World, which is coming out in open access in a few weeks from ACMRS press. She is the guest editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly for Fall 2023, which marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s first folio. The issue focuses on his first folio and early modern critical race studies. She is the co-curator of the Newberry Library’s forthcoming exhibit on “Race Before Race,” which includes performance materials, maps, printed materials, and even a few paintings on loan.
On the book front, Ndiaye is working on her second monograph tentatively titled “Early Modernity in Black and Brown,” integrating theater, aesthetic representations, and historical relations between Black characters, Romani folks, Jews, Muslims, Asians, and Indigenous people to produce a deep time history of Black and Brown complex relations, occasional coalitions, and conjoined lives under the rising regime of early modern white supremacy.
“‘Early Modernity in Black and Brown,’ aims to address a clear and urgent need in premodern studies to think relationally about racial identity and to identify the representational strategies that have blocked the common cause of communities of color. No one traces the transnational circulations of racializing tropes like Noémie does, and the result is genuinely transformative,” MacKay said.