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Why White Supremacy No Longer Provides Cover for White Academia
Roundtable on Racisms and Tolkien, Tolkien Studies Area, PCA/ACA 2023
Note: The text of this presentation has been lightly edited from the version I read on April 6. Minor errors have been corrected; a few sentences have been added (based on my memory of what I added while speaking!), and I created a Works Cited list (instead of giving fuller publishing information in the text of the talk).
In recent years, we have seen extensive media coverage of domestic terrorists branding themselves through medieval symbols and images to embody their idealized white Middle Ages during violent protests. Two of the most significant protests are the August 11, 2017 “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, during which Heather Heyer was murdered and thirty-five people wounded, and the January 6, 2020 insurrection in Washington, D.C. which resulted in five deaths on that day, four suicides afterwards, and hundreds of people injured including over 130 police officers. These events brought together neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-fascists, Men’s Rights activists, and militias.
As I discussed yesterday in the roundtable on adaptations of Tolkien, the backlash against Amazon’s Rings of Powers series is part of the ongoing “culture war” effort by contemporary fascists, many who love Tolkien’s work. They are creating "a new front . . . in a decades’-long, international, far-right, culture war. The people waging it aren’t just fighting to keep Tolkien’s imaginary world white and manly and straight. They’re fighting to restore that white-supremacist system in the real world, too” (Craig Franson, personal communication). Yesterday I focused on the question of what fandom, or more specifically, what progressive fans might do. Today, I focus on the question of what white academics can do.
The fact that some white supremacists/neo-Nazis/fascists/etc. are fans of Tolkien’s legendarium is not breaking news: Pascal Nicklas’ 2003 article, "The Paradox of Racism in Tolkien," explores the “contradictions between the author’s [Tolkien’s] anti-racist views and the racist implications of his work” (p. 222). Nicklas reports that a Google search resulted in over 6000 hits ranging from “neo-nazis hailing the advent of caucasian supremacy to terribly concerned p.c. worries [sic]” (p. 222).
Thirteen years later, Helen Young’s 2016 monograph, Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness, blends textual analysis with cultural and reception studies, to provide covering racisms in online fandoms and web spaces.
In an interview with David Perry, “How Can We Untangle White Supremacy From Medieval Studies?,” Young discusses the extent to which white supremacist ideas were part of the structure of 19th century academic fields of study (Anglo-Saxon studies, medieval studies), and a part of Tolkien’s legendarium, and have become a part of the contemporary genre of fantasy.
Young makes two points that sum up the majority of defensive scholarship about Tolkien’s legendarium which argues that Tolkien (the human being) is not a racist:
Tolkien is often quoted as having condemned "that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler" in a 1941 letter to his son Michael. But the reason he gives for that condemnation in the same letter is: "ruining, perverting, misapplying , and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to preserve in its true light." The very idea of a "noble northern spirit" is fundamentally a racist one because it's predicated on the idea that the people of northern Europe were inherently different and better than anyone else.
People think that one can't be racist except deliberately, consciously, intentionally. Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth are structurally racist, but because Tolkien doesn't appear to have been personally an extremist, that racism is denied, ignored, and dismissed (Perry) (my emphasis).
Since I published my bibliographic essay on race and Tolkien in 2017, there have been two major publications by scholars that, when put into dialogue with each other, reveal the state of Tolkien studies at this moment.
The first monograph on race and Tolkien was published in 2022. Robert Stuart, in Tolkien, Race, and Racism in Middle-earth, addresses a gap in the scholarship on racism in Tolkien’s legendarium in some chapters while simultaneously defending Tolkien the human being against “charges” of racism in other chapters. In body chapters, Stuart analyzes the multiple types of racialists, racist, and white supremacist ideologies that shaped Europe in the centuries preceding before Tolkien's lifetime and during it and provides evidence of those ideologies in Tolkien’s novel.
Stuart is a political historian, with a specialization in the history of French Marxism. As far as I can tell from my perspective outside that field, Stuart is well informed about the types of racisms he covers, citing specific definitions, theorists, and parameters of specific types of racisms: Manichean racism, Blood and Soil racism, and Aristocratic racism. He also includes a chapter on Orcs ("Race War in Middle-earth: The Orcs, Genocide, and Ethnic Cleansing") and another on Dwarves ("Tolkien and Anti-Semitism: The Jewish Question and the Question of the Dwarves").
However, Stuart’s introductory and concluding chapters center on defending Tolkien as a person in exactly the way Young diagnoses:
[t]he point of this study, however, has been to demonstrate that Tolkien's racist moments, however prominent they are in his literary legacy and however challenging they may be to our battered sensibilities, in no way implicate the great author in the British fascism and imperialism of his time, and that they certainly do not indicate any affinity with today's Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists, no matter what those racists may think. Those revelling racists are making merry with misreadings. . . . ("Conclusion," p. 341).
Too many of the articles on race and Tolkien dismiss racist readers as atypical, as ignorant, as reading the Legendarium badly, and, by extension, dismiss the question of structural/systemic racisms in Tolkien’s legendarium as unimportant to the field of Tolkien scholarship.
Later in 2022, those of us working on racisms and Tolkien were amazed to discover a newly-published essay in The Southern Journal of Philosophy: Charles W. Mills’ “The Wretched of Middle-earth: An Orkish Manifesto.” I am grateful to Robert Tally who sent me the link to the essay and to the accompanying introduction by Chike Jeffers & David Miguel Gray. Jeffers is Mills’ literary executor. It turns out that this 2022 publication is over thirty years old: Mills wrote it at some point during the late 1980s and could not get it published. He then went on to teach, lecture, and write on Blackness, class, race, as an Afro-Jamaican philosopher born in the United Kingdom, raised in Jamaica, and a faculty member in the United States. A list of his works can be found at the memorial page set up in his honor,
But none of his later numerous, prize-winning, and popular books was about Tolkien. I agree with Jeffers’ and Gray’s point in their introductory essay about the extent to which Mills’:
critical exploration of a fictional racial hierarchy strikingly illuminates the ongoing influence of certain old racist ideas on our present day social realities (p. 2)
When I wrote my bibliographic essay on race and Tolkien, I placed the first academic publication on the topic as appearing in 2003, and that is technically correct. It was the first academic piece to appear in print (as far as I know). But it was not the first written; if Mills had been able to get his essay accepted and in print, his would have been the first published essay.
In his discussion of the history of the essay, Jeffers describes finding “a letter that Mills wrote to a cultural studies journal, in which he complained that it had been ten months since he had submitted ‘The Wretched of Middle-Earth’ and yet he still had not received a decision on its publication. The letter is dated April 12, 1990” (p. 2) Jeffers did not find a rejection letter which, if it existed, Mills may not have saved. And perhaps, as no doubt a number of us can attest, the editor may have never responded at all. Nobody can know. We can know that we are incredibly lucky that Mills saved his work, and that his literary executor found and has brought the work to publication.
What I can observe is that despite being written decades before the first publications on the topic, Mills’ essay not only anticipates but transcends the majority, if not the totality, of the published work on Tolkien and race which has been published since 2003! Mills uses Frederic Jameson's concept of the "'political unconscious' of the white bourgeois Western psyche" (p. 23), a theoretical concept that functions similar to the sociological concept of systemic racism and which may be as difficult for many white people to accept.
Much of what I thought was original in Stuart's Tolkien, Race, and Racism in Middle-earth (which I had read before Robert Tally sent me Mills’ essay) is present in shorter form and absent the defensiveness in Mills' essay! Not only is Mills’ essay well worth reading, so are his other publications, especially The Racial Contract. Jeffers and Gray make it clear that scholars in philosophy and related fields familiar with Mills' work will recognize how the early and unpublished essay's ideas about race were part of the development of his later work. I would add that Tolkien scholars who read Mills – and I think everybody who is writing or wishes to write about Tolkien’s work should read Mills – might well find that his later work will improve the scholarship we write on Tolkien.
Before closing, I’d like to draw attention to an interesting set of intersections that influenced my choice of titles for this piece. In her 2021 essay, “Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall,” Kathy Levezzo, one of a growing number of medievalists focusing on racisms, medieval, and medievalisms (meaning work published after the Middle Ages about the Middle Ages, such as Tolkien’s legendarium) describes how Stuart Hall, one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, an originating point for the theory/methodology/discipline known as cultural studies, originally intended to do graduate work at Oxford on medieval literature.
However, Hall reports that “’when I tried to apply contemporary literary criticism to [medieval] texts, my ascetic South African language professor told me in a pained tone that this was not the point of the exercise’ (Hall, 2017a, 156) (Lavezzo, 4). Lavezzo analyzes the context and implications of this incident, reported by Hall, as an example of what Sara Ahmed calls the “blockage” created by white people for people of color. Lavezzo also provides evidence that this unnamed professor could only be Tolkien.
I consider that what the unnamed editor (whose name was presumably on the carbon copy of the letter of inquiry Mills sent, but which I assume was redacted by Jeffers) did to Mills’ essay is also a “blockage,” an example of systemic racism enacted by an academic without any overt/physical violence.
But just as Stuart Hall left Oxford, and his unnamed South African professor, behind to create a radical new approach that has, if not totally supplanting, at least has come to co-exist with, the “pure” literary studies that tried to abstract texts from their socio-historical contexts, so too Mills went on to create a significant body of published works (books and essays), as well as serving as an inspiration and mentor to his students as a teacher, especially his Black students, as Tommie Shelby describes in the foreword to the 25th Anniversary edition of what is widely considered as Mills’ most significant work, The Racial Contract.
Mills was well aware of Stuart Hall’s work, writing a chapter, “Stuart Hall's Changing Representations of 'Race,’” for a 2007 anthology. Stuart Hall’s autobiographical essay which includes the incident with his South African professor was published in 2017: I have no way of knowing if Mills read it or not, or if he would have recognized that that professor in question was Tolkien if he did read it.
But I like to imagine that Mills did.
In any case, the majority of Tolkien scholars I have seen attending conferences and publishing their work have been, for decades, almost entirely white, all of us benefitting from the white privilege that enabled us, no matter how personally difficult it was at times, to attend the conferences and work on our scholarship. The question we have to consider going forward is whether or not we want to try to ignore the question of racisms and Tolkien, as did the unnamed editor of Mills’ essay, or start to engage in ways that will lead to us working to break down the blockages that exist. Thank you.
Franson, Craig. American Id. Podcast.
Jeffers, Chike, and David Miguel Gray. "Introduction to Charles Mills’s 'The Wretched Of Middle- Earth: An Orkish Manifesto.'" The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Sept. 7, 2022.
Lavezzo, Kathy. "Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall." Postmedieval 12, 29–51 (2021).
Mills, Charles W. "Stuart Hall's Changing Representations of 'Race,’” Stuart Hall, Culture, Politics, Race and the Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall, ed. Brian Meeks, Lawrence & Wishart, 2007.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Cornell UP, 1997, 2022.
Mills, Charles W. "The Wretched of Middle-Earth: An Orkish Manifesto." The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Sept. 8 2022.
Nicklas, Pascal. "The Paradox of Racism in Tolkien." Inklings: Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, 21, 2003, pp. 221-235.
Reid, Robin Anne. "Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay.” Tolkien and Alterity, eds. Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor. Palgrave, 2017, pp. 33-74.
Stuart, Robert. Tolkien, Race, and Racism in Middle-earth. Palgrave, 2022.
Perry, David M. “How Can We Untangle White Supremacy From Medieval Studies?: A Conversation with Australian Scholar Helen Young,” Pacific Standard, Oct. 9, 2017.
Young, Helen. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature. Routledge, 2016.
See my bibliography in progress on "Scholarship on Racisms and Tolkien,"
“Chastened, Hall abandoned his plan to work on Piers, leaving medievalists to opine what might have happened to Langland scholarship had the brilliant thinker been encouraged to pursue his graduate course of study. Hall shared the anecdote with his friend and amanuensis Bill Schwarz, who did not press for more information, but it is easy enough to identify Hall’s advisor as Tolkien (Schwarz, 2019, personal communication). Of the three early English professors at Merton during that period, only Tolkien hailed from South Africa (Lee and Reid, 2018, personal communication), having been born in Bloemfontein, capital of the Boer-controlled Orange Free State (Carpenter,1977, 7–15).
“With its unexpected yoking of the future critic Hall and the medievalist-cumfantasist Tolkien, this autobiographical anecdote provides a valuable hermeneutic for the role of race in Tolkien’s life and work. For one thing, the clash expands the scope of our analysis beyond Tolkien’s fiction to the white privilege he enjoyed as a result of his professional affiliations. Evincing the real-world stakes and systemic entanglements of institutional racism, Tolkien created for Hall a version of what Sara Ahmed describes, in her reading of Fanon, as the ‘blockages’ persons of color experience due to whiteness (Ahmed, 2007, 161)" (Lavezzo, p. 3).