Kim F. Hall. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. xiii+312 pp. Cloth ISBN 0-8014-3117-4; paper ISBN 0-8014-8249-6.
Bernadette Andrea
West Virginia University

Andrea, Bernadette. "Review of Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 9.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_and1.html>.

  1. Kim Hall's study of race and gender in the early modern period fulfills its promise of reconceptualizing the "black presence" in Renaissance England (primarily around the turn of the seventeenth century) as key to the development of a nation state and empire. In positivistic terms, Blacks, whom Hall situates as people of African descent dispersed by the transatlantic slave trade, constituted a minuscule population in early modern England; however, using poststructuralist paradigms, Hall demonstrates that blackness, yoked in a violent binary with whiteness, was absolutely constitutive for the formation of English identity on the cusp of its age of expansion. Surveying an impressively broad range of familiar and marginal literary and cultural texts -- travel narratives describing Africa; lyric poetry in the Petrarchan tradition (including paeans to literal dark ladies); Jacobean public and private theater; early seventeenth-century English women's writing; and visual artifacts featuring black people (royal cameos and servant portraits) -- Hall posits a "semiotics of race" that is both rhetorical and referential (5). Her central thesis emphasizes this symbolic/economic dialectic: "Tropes of blackness were discovered by white English writers (both male and female) to be infinitely malleable ways of establishing a sense of the proper organization of Western European male and female in the Renaissance: notions of proper gender relations shape the terms for describing proper colonial organization" (4).

  2. As Hall points out, "the emerging racialized language of beauty" throws the dark side of English identity formation into relief: from the end of the sixteenth century, "fair" beauty relied on black "unsightliness" to define its features (182). This is a cultural dynamic utterly shaped by aristocratic and patriarchal investments: powerful white males used the "arbitrary distinctions in color" established by Petrarchan beauty standards "to lump all 'others' (male and female) into another, less valued, group" (182). Hall's most innovative claim follows from this observation: "the discourse of blackness is a gendered one" (130). More specifically, "racial difference is worked out in the competition between white female and black bodies in the language of 'fairness,' which similarly encompasses ideals of aesthetic value, economics, and class and gender hierarchies" (53). The aristocratic "exchange of women," for instance, enabled powerful men to pit women against each other as "black" or "white," with the black(ened) woman coded as unsuitable for perpetuating stainless aristocratic bloodlines. However, the normative white male subject was shaped by the same imperialist and patriarchal hierarchies that structured black people and women as subordinates. Though gendered tropes of blackness allowed male poets like Spenser to play with dark personas without staining their reputation (contrast the scandalized response to Queen Anne and her ladies' performance in The Masque of Blackness), the "white mask" of English patriarchal culture was undermined from the beginning by its simultaneous dependence on and disavowal of blackness (211).

  3. Hall's critical and political dilemma in this study consists of whether or not black feminist criticism -- and she identifies herself as a "black feminist/Renaissance critic" -- should concern itself with dead white men (254). Charting new critical ground at the crossroads of black feminist and Renaissance studies, Hall launches her study by deconstructing critical approaches to the "black presence" in English Renaissance literary culture that separate questions of aesthetics from those of racialized difference. Telling moments in this scholarship include the conventional assessment of Lysander's slurs against Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Away, you Ethiop!" and "Out, tawny Tartar") as an aesthetic preference for "blondes" over "brunettes;" the standard evaluation of Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets as allegorical rather than referential; and the usual dismissal of Queen Anne's Masque of Blackness as an imitation within a long-standing dramatic tradition rather than a startling innovation with racialized import. Such critical moments, Hall argues, efface "the elements of race, sexual politics, imperialism, and slavery, which form a prominent set of 'subtexts'" to literary and cultural productions in the period (1).

  4. Though she offers an innovative critical paradigm for reading the intersection of race and gender in early modern England, Hall may be faulted for drawing too strict a line between representations of and representations by black people of the era; we sorely need a method for reading the cultural agency of Blacks in early modern Britain (especially England and Scotland, though also Ireland and Wales) that does not mire itself in a positivist requirement for an authorial signature. She may also be charged with a susceptibility to the Manichaean Fallacy, a non sequitur which assumes that a black/white binary in the symbolic system of a culture necessarily translates into a societal division between "black" and "white" people premised on white supremacism (St. Clair Drake explicates this fallacy in Black Folk Here and There [1987]). Though Hall suggests a model whereby the traditional Christian binarism of black and white "becomes increasingly infused with concerns over skin color, economics, and gender politics" (2), she nevertheless tends to stress the blanket negativity of blackness in Western culture and to ignore positive evaluations, such as the high esteem in which Ethiopians were held by classical Greek and Roman cultures or the similar praise of black saints and black madonnas in medieval Christendom. Recognizing these distinctions allows us to specify the early modern period as a watershed in race relations grounded in the European innovation of a specifically racial slavery. An anti-racist politics requires this historical precision.

  5. These objections detract little from the overall brilliance of Hall's work, which reveals an impressive breadth of scholarship and political commitment. Her precise delineation of the economies of race and gender during England's early involvement with global imperialism and racial slavery, enables us, still heirs to the early modern period's legacy of racial ascription and institutional racism, to work towards her ultimate goal: justice.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 19, 1996)