UMKC’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies program held the first of four lectures last week in a series that aims to help dismantle white supremacist rhetoric while making academia more accessible and diverse.
Each of the four lectures covers a different topic, but the underlying purpose remains the same. Dr. Sierra Lomuto, the first lecture’s speaker, focused on Belle da Costa Greene and her symbolic legacy as a medievalist and woman of color.
Lomuto, an English professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, is one of the founding members of the Medievalists of Color (MoC) organization.
MoC is “an international professional organization that advocates for the advancement of racial minority scholars working in Medieval Studies.”
Bella da Costa Greene, born Belle Marion Greener in 1883, spent her life passing as a white woman.
According to Lomuto, Greene’s parents separated when she was around 5 years old, and that was when her mother changed all her children’s surname to Greene in an effort to distance themselves from her estranged husband and the black community as a whole.
Greene, with her “white-sounding” surname and light skin, would explain away her olive-toned complexion by claiming to be of Portuguese descent.
“She implicitly claimed whiteness while letting speculation about her ancestry continue, and feeding, but never confirming, rumors about her background,” Lomuto said.
With an affinity for all things medieval and a raw talent for bargaining, Greene would play an integral part in helping J.P. Morgan assemble the library named after him and later go on to be its first director. She would also become the first woman of any race to be named a “Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America.”
Greene’s legacy and choice to pass as a white woman during a time when racial lines were strict and women’s rights were scarce illustrates Lomuto’s larger point—that Greene is viewed as a symbol for diversity and inclusivity in her field.
By examining Greene’s life of passing in a contemporary context, medievalists (and experts throughout all fields of academia) can begin to dismantle racism as it becomes visible.
“The figure of Belle da Costa Greene has emerged to make a powerful statement,” Lomuto said. “Medieval Studies is, and always has been, committed to diversity and inclusivity.”
But Lomuto wants to ensure that her field is not committed to simply exposing racism and oppressive structures, but to their total demise.
By identifying and exposing racism, its concealment is threatened, and that is where real change can happen. But often doing so can create unfavorable situations within institutions. Lomuto criticized diversity work that serves as more of a publicity stunt than a tool for dismantling racism.
“Too often, diversity work ironically serves to protect whiteness as the governing power structure of our institutions, precisely because this work prioritizes the institution’s reputation, rather than the targets of racism,” Lomuto said.
When racism is exposed, an institution may initiate diversity work or initiatives as a means of making the situation look better without actually acknowledging that a racist structure was in place to begin with.
“The extraordinary life of Belle da Costa Greene reminds us what it means to not see, to look past, to cover up, but so too does she show us how to reorient our view to see that which has receded,” said Lomuto.
Within the field of medieval studies, examining Greene’s choice to pass as a white woman allows individuals to acknowledge and dismantle racist barriers. By doing so, diversity work within academia can genuinely rewrite whole institutions.
“Passing helps us to see both the [constructs] of race and its very real consequences, something that Belle da Costa Greene’s central place in medieval studies today presses us to do,” said Lomuto. “The complexity of her racial identity serves as a strong invitation for us to further interrogate the racism of the past, as well as the present, and explore more deeply and seriously its impact today.”