Event—Adult Education

Seeing Race Before Race - Exhibition Series

When, where, and why did conceptions of race come into being?

Class Description

Race is a powerful and challenging concept, a social construction that affects our lives in ways both obvious and practically invisible. When, where, and why did conceptions of race come into being? How might learning about its history help us better understand the complex role that race plays in our lives today?

This class series explores the premodern (ca. 1100-1800) foundations of today’s “racial system” alongside the Newberry’s exhibition Seeing Race Before Race, which will run from September 8 through December 30.

This class is offered as a series of three sessions, or participants can sign up for each individual session as a stand-alone class.

Session 1: Making Race in Premodern Europe

Saturday, 10/21/2023. 1pm-3pm

Race is not an essential quality, but a system that emerged from decisions that artists, authorities, and ordinary people made—sometimes unknowingly—to define their identities and opportunities in relation to each other. This session offers an overview of how premodern people, primarily Europeans, combined ideas, images, and customs to create systems of hierarchy that would evolve into race as we understand it today.

Session 2: Figuring Race in Medieval and Renaissance Europe 

Saturday, 10/28/2023. 1pm-3pm

This class examines how premodern people “figured” race—that is, how they understood and visualized the concept of race through depictions of the human body in drawings, paintings, and poetry. We will explore representations that invite audiences to consider how race, gender, and religion intersect through examples that include Black, White, Ottoman, South Asian, Jewish, Roma, and Indigenous people. 

Session 3: Performing Race in Early Modern Europe and Pop Culture Today

Saturday, 11/4/2023. 1pm-3pm

How do ideas about race affect the way we act in the world? This session explores how early modern people, primarily Europeans, learned to “perform” racial identity both on stage and in everyday life. Because these legacies of racial performance carry on today, we will engage in cross-historical comparison with modern-day pop culture to consider how understandings of race have (or have not) shifted over time.

About the Instructors

Christopher D. Fletcher (PhD, University of Chicago) is Assistant Director of the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies. His research and teaching focus primarily on religion and public engagement before 1800. He is co-curator of the Seeing Race Before Race exhibition and often shares the Newberry’s pre-1800 collections with the public through in-person collection presentations, exhibitions, social media, and digital resources.

Rebecca L. Fall (PhD, Northwestern) is Program Manager for the Center for Renaissance Studies. Her scholarly work has appeared in SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 and Shakespeare Studies, as well as in collections from Palgrave, Edinburgh UP, and Arden. Rebecca is co-curator of the Newberry’s Seeing Race Before Race exhibition.

Yasmine Hachimi (PhD, University of California at Davis) is a Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow for the Center for Renaissance Studies. Yasmine is interested in how popular media and images of the premodern period challenge or affirm public understandings of the past, particularly with regards to sexuality and race. She is working on the exhibition alongside the CRS team, and is currently exploring the affordances and limitations of color-conscious casting in period dramas.

Materials List

No required materials or first reading.

Cost and Registration

Three sessions, $195 ($175.50 for Newberry members, seniors, and students). Learn about becoming a member.

You may also register for individual sessions. A single session is priced at $65 ($58.50 for Newberry members, seniors, and students).

To register multiple people for this class, please go through the course calendar in Learning Stream, our registration platform. When you select the course and register, you’ll be prompted to add another registrant.

Register for the Full Series

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Seeing Race Before Race

Sep 08–Dec 30, 2023

Explore the roots of race from the Middle Ages to 1800.

Learn More

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