ASU professor championing scholars to examine the past through the lens of race
Through RaceB4Race, Ayanna Thompson is creating a space for society to engage with premodern critical race studies.
Ayanna Thompson was living the dream, or so she thought. As an investment banker on Wall Street in the early 1990s, free dinners and chauffeured car services became daily fixes. She made more money in a few months than her mother made in an entire year working as a teacher in the Baltimore city school district.
But she was confusing money for value, she realized.
“I called my mother and said, ‘I hope you’re sitting down,’” Thompson recalls. “I told her, ‘I’m gonna quit my job and go to graduate school.’ She started crying and said, ‘I’ve never been so proud of you in my life. I was waiting for you to understand that it’s not about money, that it’s about making a difference.’”
Thompson engaged in English literature studies to further her understanding of how the concept of race came to be.
“I was admitted to graduate school to do postcolonial work, but I was realizing, this isn’t where it started,” she says. “I was reading backwards in time on my own for fun and ended up reading travel narratives from the Renaissance and realizing some of those plays I read in college were dealing with some of these issues too.”
Today, Thompson is a renowned scholar of Shakespeare, race and performance, and has authored several books on the matter, advancing the study of race through the framework of classical texts.
She’s also an English professor and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University, where she created the RaceB4Race symposium, a biannual conference series that offers mentorship, workshops and networking opportunities for scholars of color in premodern studies.
Thanks in part to donor support, all events have been free and open to the public. Private support also enabled 15 scholars to travel to the first conference in 2019.
Thompson considers it “the most important and rewarding work that I’ve done in the field.”
“It feels like I’m actually changing the way the field thinks about itself and the way it operates,” she says. “We’re really trying to say, ‘You can do this. You can ask the weird, odd question about race in these texts and in this history, and it’s probably worth pursuing.’”
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