In the summer of 2018, the International Congress of Medieval Studies rejected a set of proposals for sessions on race and antiracism by Medievalists of Color. We responded by creating an alternative space — RaceB4Race, which is an ongoing conference series and professional network community by and for scholars of color working on issues of race in premodern literature, history, and culture. RaceB4Race centers the expertise, perspectives, and sociopolitical interests of BIPOC scholars, whose work seeks to expand critical race theory. Although we imagined that the first gathering would be a small affair (thirty or so participants), three hundred participants registered — undergraduate students, faculty, university staff, graduate students, community college students, high school teachers, administrators, artists, allies, and members of the community. By creating a space to engage with premodern critical race studies, RaceB4Race fulfilled a long unmet need. RaceB4Race proved that premodern critical race studies is not a niche field!
Recognizing that there was a large interest in the papers, and recognizing that we had to support the early career researchers involved, the organizers of RaceB4Race always had an eye on publication. After all, our careers as researchers are often assessed by publication venues, and scholars of color can find it more difficult to navigate the strange networks in publishing than our white colleagues. RaceB4Race would solve this problem by 1) producing some of the most cutting-edge research in premodern studies and 2) creating a community of scholars that has much greater access to and knowledge of the networks in the publishing world.
Feeling confident in the quality, importance, and desirability of the essays, we aimed to publish them in a Theories and Methodologies cluster in PMLA, the flagship journal in literary studies. We inquired if the editor would be interested and received a warm invitation to submit the cluster. Nonetheless, here is the rejection we eventually received:
We were disappointed and confused by this rejection, especially by the suggestion that the range of contributors was “constrained,” given that our contributors’ expertise ranges from the history of medieval studies to slavery in early modern England to 17th-century French court ballets. In what sense could our range possibly read as “constrained”? Perhaps “constrained” in that we did not include some older, more established white men to validate our calls for antiracist methodologies and pedagogies? But even more troubling was the suggestion that the editors were expecting and imagining “opposing perspectives” to an antiracist collection. What kind of “opposing perspectives” were imagined exactly? The cluster’s intervention pointed towards an entirely new direction for premodern studies, and its push for a radical transformation of the field was dismissed with a one-liner that hinged on ellipses and illogic. This second rejection felt eerily similar to the first by the International Congress of Medieval Studies.
We were even more surprised, then, when the MLA released its statement deploring systemic racism a mere two weeks after our gatekeeping rejection:
While this call recognizes that access, inclusion, and the right to be heard are disproportionately distributed, and while it recognizes that there are structures of white supremacy in place that silence and oppress black people and voices, the organization’s flagship journal had just dismissed a cluster on antiracist methodologies written by POC scholars. In the light of our cluster’s rejection by the MLA’s own publishing arm, this call for inclusion sounded painfully hollow at best, disingenuous at worst. There is a lot of interest in the rhetoric of inclusion, but is there stamina for actual and actionable change?
Because the collective that is RaceB4Race is privileged in many ways, we can make the exchange with this journal public. Our essays will be published in another venue. We write this piece, not to speak for our own collection, but for those scholars of color whose pieces should have shaped our field but have never been given the chance to be heard. We are revealing our exchange with PMLA not to single them out, but to showcase a pattern of academic gatekeeping. This is not a problem of the PMLA alone. The problem is systemic.
All academic journals and presses need to think about what structures are limiting access and hindering the full participation of scholars of color. After all, how academic journals structure their practices reflects their values. Here are a few outdated structures and systems that deserve to be interrogated:
- Editorial boards: How diverse is the journal/press’s editorial board? How inclusive is the journal/press’s editorial structure? How are board members selected? Are the qualifications for serving on the board made public? Can people apply to serve on the board? Can people be nominated to serve on the board? Are board members used equally (i.e., do they all review the same amount of submissions)? Who determines when they are used, and what is the criteria for that decision? In other words, how can the journal/press ward against tokenistic practices?
- Double-blind review: Who or what is the journal/press protecting in the process of review? Why are the reviewers’ identities concealed? Who does this benefit? Why? What might be gained if reviewers had to reveal their identities? Can reviewers see each other’s reviews? Are reviewers notified of the final outcome of the review? In other words, how can the journal/press create a more ethical and informed review process?
- Evaluative criteria: How does the journal/press articulate for its reviewers the qualities of “strong” scholarship for emerging fields? What assumptions underlie the definitions in that respect? And what politics inform those assumptions? In other words, how can the journal/press actively promote paradigm shifts?
We know that an overwhelming majority enthusiastically supports the development of premodern critical race studies. We know first-hand that our colleagues want to engage with more resources, more insights, and more cutting-edge scholarship from our field in their own research and teaching. But the current editorial practices of most academic journals hinder the production of the intellectual resources that are needed now more than ever: the publishing gatekeeping is hurting us all.
No matter how much academic journals aspire to support our work, they will continue to fail us all until we face these systemic issues head-on. Let us be clear, this is not an isolated problem at one journal. Our data analysis indicates that this is a systemic issue. For instance, in one flagship journal in our field, there have been no essays published on premodern critical race studies in the past five years aside from a special edition on the topic in 2016 (one and done?). In another, there has not even been a special edition on race in this century; you’d have to go back to 1998 for that. And in still another one — a flagship journal for historians this time — interest in tearing down disciplinary barriers collapsed upon reception of our cluster.
With the systemic problem in mind, the executive board of RaceB4Race hereby calls for a public forum on academic editorial practices for our moment. We call on all our colleagues — scholars, educators, editors, publishers, administrators — to start a conversation about the systemic flaws of academic publishing, which disproportionately affect fields like critical race studies and BIPOC scholars. Let us think together, and then, let us make real changes.
This is not just a call-out, this is a call for. And we hope you will join us.
In true solidarity,
The Executive Board of RaceB4Race
RaceB4Race is a collective of premodern BIPOC scholars. To read more about the symposia, partner organizations, and executive board, visit the ACMRS website here.