lyric, masque, or narrative, Sujata Iyengar, in her book Shades of
Difference, suggests that early modern literaryaffiliations “entangle
with variable concepts of skin color and emergent racial distinctions” to
produce specifically early modern ways of figuring difference (1). Historical
and material contexts – bodily, gendered, religious, scientific, and social –
here collude with literary genres, constructing different languages and
traditions for negotiating human variation. Iyengar explores racializing
discourse as a “structure of feeling,” a term she borrows from Raymond Williams
and uses to point out the temporal complexity of ideological formations as well
as the overlap of political institutions and private beliefs in discursive construction.
Iyengar’s book is
divided into three parts. The first part, ‘Ethiopian Histories’, examines the
Renaissance transmission and interpretation of classical and Biblical texts on
blackness. She focuses on ambiguous heroines such as Chariclea of Heliodorus’Aethiopica
or the Bride of the Song of Songs, figures whose beauty, rank, and
ethnicity depended on, and changed according to, understanding of skin
colour. She then concludes her chapter with juxtaposed representations
of the Irish and the Ethiopians in Stuart court masques.
In part two,
‘Whiteness Visible’, Iyengar reads early modern poetry and drama for white skin
in its different variations, including blushing, pallor, and cosmetic colourings.
Contextualizing epyllia with moral treatises, and stage plays with anti-cosmetic
tracts, Iyengar shows that skin colour worked towards configuring not only
ethnic prejudice, but also sexual difference.
Narratives’, the third and final part of Shades of Difference, plays with the early modern double meaning of ‘travail’ as both
hard work and travel. Iyengar first examines different
constructions of gypsies whose skin colour, whether natural or artificial,
linked with mythologies of illicit labor and stage performance. The travel
section of the chapter examines English travelers’ ethnographic accounts of
Africa and African bodies, texts that can be seen as constructing an early
version of racialism that hinges on both skin colour and labour, especially
slavery. The book concludes by moving forward in time towards the Restoration
and the scientific revolution, where the escapism of prose romance may have
offered an alternative to the gradually stabilizing fictions of race.
consistently resists imposing “a straightforward historical trajectory ‘toward’
racialism or ‘toward’ color-prejudice” as an explanatory mechanism (1). Rather,
she interprets early modern negotiations of skin color as an open-ended
discussion, a dynamic history unbound by a necessary march towards race and racism.
She follows the diverse and often contradictory ways in which her texts
construct otherness, and demonstrates the complexity of the varying meanings of
skin colour while also reading for intertextual references, influences, and
paraphrases. For her, following the multiple literary networks in which skin
colour emerges can account for change better than can a history that views skin
colour through the later prism of race.
blushing and cosmetics in a book on skin colour is a deft move that works well
to destabilize our conceptions of what skin colour is all about: for the early
moderns, it was less about race, despite the embryonic imagery that later appears
racializing or racist. Iyengar’s choices suggest that skin color is really about
many kinds of difference – even changes in one’s personal appearance and
emotional stance that onlookers may interpret as a marker of moral quality.
Where her discussion on Ethiopians focuses on ambiguous blackness as difference
from the white English norm, her reading of the variants of whiteness reveals complex
understandings of what constitutes skin colour, how it
changes or remains permanent, how it can be manipulated and for what purpose.
Skin can blush, blanch or tan, both voluntarily and involuntarily; white and
red can be produced with face paints; and even dark skin can potentially be
artificially manufactured, as in the case of gypsies. These different kinds of
skin color may also point to the same “structures of feeling”, such as sexuality:
where black skin could denote uncontrolled sexuality, and the pallor of a green-sick
girl her lack of sexual activity, blushing too was related to conceptions of
shame and sexual purity. Common notions about the inability of black-skinned
people to blush worked together with early modern conceptions of visible
modesty, and Iyengar skillfully draws these connections.
My main reservation
with Iyengar’s book is that her commendable avoidance of the teleologies of
historical narrative and her shying away from overarching interpretations make
for a book so rich in detail that it is sometimes difficult to see at what
point the very multiplicity of skin colour becomes mythology. If she searches
for “structures of feeling”, whether residual or emergent, how do these various
constructions form a structure? Are we left only with the particularities of
literary genre and the idiosyncrasies of early modern writers? From a more
historical point of view, this also seems insufficient, even though it is easy
to applaud Iyengar’s wariness of simplification and over-generalization. Her
scheme works well when she points out the ambiguity and sheer multiplicity of
racializing discourses that are at play at any given time, and even within any
given text; it works less well in distinguishing the temporal aspects, the
rising and ebbing tides of emergence and residuality in her mythologies.
wish to stress how impressive a book this is. All the different configurations
of skin colour, various racial contexts, movement between permanent and
changing color, and the wealth of texts analyzed may make it a challenging
read. But they also make this a dizzyingly complex book that cleverly plays
with distinctions and differences, and inspires with its varied and
multi-layered readings from a wide range of genres.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.