Recently, I completed a major milestone in my academic career: I published for the first time in an scholarly journal. My article, co-authored with my dear friend Nick Hoffman, is entitled “The Afterward: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson in the Medieval Imaginary” and you can download it, for free.
All academic articles are curious beasts, this one especially so. My collaborator Nick is a medievalist and our article aims to intervene in that field through a discussion of the lives of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson.
Medieval studies are in the midst of a struggle. White supremacists have a keen interest in the medieval, drawing on medievalism as a metaphorical resource for their hatred. We write in our article:
The “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, featured a violent conglomeration of “alt-right” political detachments. Dozens were injured and activist Heather Hayer killed when James Alex Fields, Jr. drove into a group of counterprotesters. The rallies provided a stark example of how white supremacists and white nationalists have utilized medieval symbols. An increasingly vocal contingent of KKK members and Neo-Nazis, along with other bigots and supremacists, plastered news media with images of semi-automatic weapons and swastikas sitting comfortably beside medieval iconography emblazoned on shields, helmets, and flags. This appropriation of the medieval past in white nationalist and racist discourses is not a new phenomenon. Rather it has a long and firmly established history of its own that has shown no sign of abating.
Organized white supremacy has impacted the field of Medieval Studies. Professors of color have been targeted by online mobs and harassed in person at academic conferences. White supremacist fascination with all things medieval also raises questions about how to teach at this moment in history. What are professors to do when their courses risk attracting the interest of students with dubious motivations?
These problems prompted our article. We propose that teaching about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson as medievalists is one way to re-center people of color in Medieval Studies. We write, “The medievalisms of resistance exhibited by Rivera and Johnson offer a valuable counterbalance to both scholarly and classroom discussions of medievalism that center white-supremacist, cisgender heteropatriarchal ableist ideology and fantasy.”
But what do Rivera and Johnson have to do with medievalism anyway? Well, as readers of this blog, you are probably better positioned to make a guess than most people. Our article discusses Rivera and Johnson’s spiritual practices, including their STAR House liturgy, which modified Santeria practices to meet their community’s needs. We quote Sylvia Rivera:
We’d all get together to pray to our saints before we’d go out hustling. A majority of the queens were Latin and we believe in an emotional, spiritualistic religion. We have our own saints: Saint Barbara, the patron saint of homosexuality; St. Michael, the Archangel; La Calidad de Cobre, the Madonna of gold; and Saint Martha, the saint of transformation. St. Martha had once transformed herself into a snake, so to her we’d pray: “Please don’t let them see through the mask. Let us pass as women and save us from harm.
This engagement with sainthood cults is a form of medievalism, and helps to illustrate how expansive medievalism can be when it is freed from white supremacist assumptions.
We also discuss the sainthood cult that centered around Marsha P. Johnson and Johnson’s own personal spiritual practices:
A neighbor came in and told me that at 6 in the morning they had gone to the Catholic church across the street and Marsha was prostrate on the floor in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary.” Another friend reported that he would “find her in the strangest churches. She’d be dressed in velvet and she’d be throwing glitter. And she would never face the altar. When she was praying, she’d lay prostrate facing the door because she thought, you don’t look at the altar.” Other friends said that Johnson would pray at the Greek Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Baptist church, a Jewish synagogue, to “cover all angles.”. . .By her own account, Marsha was married to Jesus. Speaking back to the many people who described her in ableist, anti-black and transmisogynistic terms like “crazy,” she remarked, “He [Jesus] takes me seriously.” As the above accounts demonstrate, the narratives surrounding Marsha P. Johnson’s life are infused with the medieval rhetoric of sainthood as well as experimental devotion. These narratives relating her experience as an activist and trans woman of color, alongside her philanthropic work, have imbued her with a political as well as a spiritual importance.
I think this article provides an excellent discussion not only of medievalism, but also of how ableism, transmisogyny and anti-Blackness impacted Johnson’s life.
I’m really excited to share my work with you. Please download this article and share the link with anyone you think might be interested in this scholarship. And thank you for everything you do to encourage and sustain me.