“Houston, we have a problem:” Erasing Black Scholars in Old English Literature

by Mary Rambaran-Olm

Gordon David Houston, “Basic English Grammar,” 1936

Medievalists have been interrogating the history of the field, how it is structured, and, in recent years, querying the field’s survival in academia. Like most other disciplines, medieval studies is infected with racism, sexism, bigotry, and exclusion which corrupts the field and hinders scholars and scholarly output. I have written about how my own subfield of early English studies is grappling with racism and gatekeeping; and, in separate pieces I queried the use, relevance (co-authored by Prof. Matthew Gabriele), and accuracy of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’

As scholars, we know terminology is important, and it is becoming increasingly clear that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ not only inadequately describes the people and period in early medieval England, the term’s misuse by today’s white supremacists corresponds with its historically racist use. Other scholars have written similar pieces about misappropriation of medieval symbols and events (see Kim, 2019; Gabriele, 2017; Lomuto, 2019; Hsy, 2018; Lomuto, 2016; and Perry, 2019), in addition to scholars of color who have written about being marginalized (Kim, 2014) in notoriously racist fields (Peralta, 2019).

In a talk I gave in 2019 at RaceB4Race, I highlighted how gatekeeping in early English studies continues to stunt the field’s growth and prevents fresh and/or innovative scholarship from developing. My field is heavily weighted to favor literary and linguistic scholars, although the discipline is privileged to include material culture historians, archaeologists, paleographers, and the like. The attention that literary scholars receive in early English studies is problematic in itself, as we (myself included) limit our understanding of the past by not collaborating with scholars from different subfields.

We might enrich our knowledge of history by drawing on evidence other than what can be garnered from literary texts. What makes our discipline even more restrictive and prevents us from shedding more light on the past is that studying Old English literature has traditionally been very conservative. That is, applying theoretical approaches to Old English literature lags behind other literary disciplines. Another problem in early English studies is that each and every separate subfield has historically been comprised of white people with a few exceptions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a field comprised of mostly white people per se, but the core issue is that the field of early English (or early medieval studies in general) is still considered a discipline for white people.

The truth is that the field has historically been taught to reflect a white supremacist narrative, and racist gatekeeping has either prevented those of us who are seen as ‘others’ from entering the field or rampant racism has forced other marginalized scholars to pivot. Scores of students and scholars of color have left my field. Some have left because they never felt welcome in a field of predominantly white scholars who silently signal that this field and its content are indeed for white people.

At RaceB4Race, I highlighted one particular account of a black grad student switching gears after one of his white professors at Oxford discouraged him from looking at history with a more theoretical lens than was traditionally deemed historically precise. My point was that my field of early English studies stagnates intellectual growth, while it loses out on intellectual richness offered by a varied scholarly community. The aforementioned Oxford grad student was cultural theorist and political activist Professor Stuart Hall and his South African professor who dismissed his theoretical approach in a “pained tone” was J.R.R. Tolkien. Our loss in medieval studies was the greater intellectual community’s gain, but our restrictiveness as a field lost us an intellectual giant. How many more have we lost over the years?

White-washing English literature and its history has made it difficult for students of color to connect with medieval studies for a long time. Until recently, I never realized just how long academics of color had advocated for teaching English literature without a Eurocentric slant. Last year marked the centennial anniversary of English professor Gordon David Houston’s time as English professor and Chair of the English department from 1912–1919 at Howard University.*

What I discovered a short time ago was that Professor Houston, an African-American, was not only an activist scholar who petitioned to teach black students a different syllabus of English literature that would help them to connect with the texts, Houston was also proficient in Old and Middle English and included examples in his book Basic English Grammar published in 1936. This marks Houston as, arguably, one of the earliest black professors in the US that we can identify as teaching Old English poetry, and publishing professionally on both Old and Middle English languages in his grammar book (see pp. 144–47).

Houston’s “Basic English Grammar”

When discussing the development of English in a grammar book, inclusions of Old/Middle English seem necessary and, perhaps, mundane. However, what is exciting is that Houston’s book and Old English syllabus at Howard shed light on black scholars in the US who were teaching Old English poetry and History of the English Language (HEL) courses. Old English lends itself to a lot of linguistic analysis by its very nature, especially given its foundation for many present-day English words. Philological analysis is still one of the primary features of teaching Old English or HEL, and Houston is an important figure in the history of early English studies for this reason alone.

However, Houston’s expertise in Old English garnered enough interest from students that he was teaching Old English poetry courses at Howard. This means that black students more than a century ago were learning about Beowulf and other poetic texts in the corpus of Old English. However, according to the course description, the course focused on reading Old English poetry aloud and discussing its metrical features. If there is ever a way for students to lose interest in Old English, this is generally the way.

In the very same year that Tolkien was advocating for Beowulf to be appreciated as poetry, Houston’s philological analysis of the history of English from Old and Middle English onward was published.** One might think this is paradoxical, but Tolkien was not, in fact, ahead of the game in arguing for different approaches to analyze English literature. During Houston’s time at Howard he advocated for literature to be read and appreciated in ways that would help students connect with culturally distant materials. This remains our struggle today. As an advocate of rigorous instruction, Houston not only had high expectations of his pupils, he also saw areas within the curriculum that could be improved for the benefit of his students.

Thus, Houston argued for more engagement with texts and less focus on Eurocentric literature in lieu of texts that might appeal more directly to his students. The field of Old English literature is still very much adverse to theoretical analysis, yet Houston was advocating for pedagogical approaches that applied theory in his classroom more than one hundred years ago. In his 1919 article “Reconstruction in the Teaching of English” Houston argued that the “obvious leaning towards less theoretical and more practical education” (p.29) hindered student progress and reduced interest. He added:

The gravest mistake, perhaps, in teaching English is the attempt to teach literature as though it were a subject like history, or mathematics, or physics. Many instructors fail to realize that the interpretation of literature, like that of any other art, depends primarily upon the development of the critical faculty. Frequency in reading does not necessarily imply intelligence in reading. Instructors, therefore, must not conclude that because they have covered, in an artificial fashion, a number of literary masterpieces, that they have created within their students an appreciation of literature. A far more substantial training lies in a systematic drill in analysis and synthesis . . . (p.31)

Houston was advocating for close-readings and appreciation of texts some twenty years before Tolkien’s seminal piece on reading Beowulf as poetry was published. Our struggle today in Old English studies to accept theoretical approaches to enrich our understanding of texts was Houston’s battle a century ago.

Although Professor Houston’s specialization was not Old English per se, he was proficient enough as an expert to provide instruction and publish on the topic. He remains an important figure in the history of our field and how it was shaped. Perhaps if Beowulf was taught in translation as literature, as opposed to focusing on meter and reading Old English aloud, it may have had broader appeal among both white and black students during Houston’s career. Still, activist scholars of color have been advocating against teaching white-washed English literature (including premodern texts) in the US for more than a century.

As we look for ways to ensure the longevity of our fields within premodern studies, we need to examine how we teach, how we read and analyze premodern English texts or artifacts, and who we want as our audience. Just as Houston advocated for changes to the curriculum to attract and appeal to students of color, the survival of my field in particular depends on scholars’ abilities to adapt, make the literature and history relevant and applicable for students, and allow for more modern theoretical approaches to be applied to analyze premodern literature.

Neither academia nor early English studies should specifically be for white people, and figures like Houston offer us examples of how people of color were breaking the mold in fields dominated by white people. Houston offers insight into teaching English literature heavily centered on white Eurocentrism, and his activism to teach outside the Western Canon in order to appeal to his students of color could be seen as disheartening since so little seems to have changed in a century.*** Nevertheless, trailblazers like Houston have passed the torch to us. We can lean on his and his colleagues’ scholarly activism to inspire us to continue to #committochange, encourage underrepresented students from entering the field, and perhaps help ensure our field’s survival.

* While looking up English professors who may have taught Old English at Howard University simultaneously with Professor Dockray-Miller, she discovered Professor Houston’s syllabus of Old English here which sent us both on a hunt to discover more information about him. I am grateful for her prompting me to find out more information about Houston.

** See Tolkien’s The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays. Harper Collins, 1990, pp. 5–48.

*** Read more about Professor Houston and the significant role he plays in the history of early English studies in a forthcoming article of mine coming out in early 2021.

Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm is a specialist of Early Medieval England and Digital Humanities. She will be a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Fall of 2020 at the University of Toronto where she will be researching race in early medieval England. You can find her on Twitter @ISASaxonists and on Medium at M. Rambaran-Olm.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Sierra Lomuto and Dr. Erik Wade for their time and invaluable feedback on drafts of this piece.

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