Critical Race Conversations at the Folger Shakespeare Library

In July of 2020 the Folger Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library began hosting a series of public conversations on topics within the field of early modern critical race studies with scholars across different academic disciplines and career stages. In addition to centering anti-racist work from academics early in their careers and scholars of color, the ongoing Critical Race Conversations series has also raised important questions concerning the responsibilities of private research institutions engaged in public-facing work.

Andie Barrow (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke with Dr. Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director of the Folger Institute, about the events that motivated the creation of the Critical Race Conversations series, its relationship to the Folger Institute’s mission of setting agendas and standards for research in the humanities, and the challenges involved in addressing both public and academic audiences.

Andie Barrow: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. To begin, I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about your work with the Critical Race Conversations series, as well as the Folger Shakespeare Library’s public programming in general?

Kathleen Lynch: Critical Race Conversations came up for us very much as a direct response to the building crises of about a year ago, starting with a pandemic, including the economic crash, and then brought to an absolute head with George Floyd's murder on May 25, 2020, and the worldwide protests that followed that event. This led to a realization that we at the Folger Institute must stop and pay attention, and we must think about what our opportunities and responsibilities are: to help redress and reset the terms of our democracy and our sense of community and belonging, and really pay attention to those who have continually been denied full participation in a democracy, which some of us are privileged to take for granted.

Those crises focused our attention, but there were also two events unusual and specific to the Folger Institute in the last year. These included an anniversary for the Folger Institute, and the fact that the Folger Library had already just closed for a major multi-year renovation project. The closure created space for us, and an additional incentive to really think with the anniversary.

As these crises surfaced, it was immediately clear to me that the best thing we could do for the anniversary would be to recommit and rethink what our mission is, what our values are, and what we stand for. Especially since the Folger Library is located on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC. We are here representing the humanities, so we wanted to think about how we are doing that.

Andie Barrow: How did that guiding question and ethos affect your choice of which topics to present in the Critical Race Conversations series?

Kathleen Lynch: We decided to focus on the under-explored history of persistent racism, and the deep and complex roots of that racism, in order to bring together urgent social challenges with the deeper history of racism in the United States. This deeper history of race is very important to us because it allows us to be honest about the Folger Library’s history, the terms of exclusion that feature within that history, and the intensifying effect of race when added to other terms of difference.

To that end, we also decided to dig deeply into all of the fields of early modern studies that the Folger Shakespeare Library has been associated with over time. This includes, most prominently, Shakespeare Studies, but also the histories of medicine and political thought. We have also looked at the history of food studies in our multi-year project called “Before Farm to Table: Early Modern Food, Waste, and Cultures,” part of which involves asking where racist elements are surfacing in the early modern history of culinary context zones. We have also been finding out where these conversations about race are right now, in each of the different areas we have touched on. In Shakespeare Studies, for example, there is a relatively small, but absolutely dedicated cohort of scholars of color–including Brandi K. Adams, David Sterling Brown, Farah Karim-Cooper, Miles Grier, and Ian Smith–who have been doing this work, and not been heard well enough for some time.

We also wanted to present teaching-oriented conversations, because we recognized that there are a lot of teachers out there who haven't done the reading on critical race theory and its applications in the classroom. Many teachers haven't looked at their syllabi, and they haven't thought about how to talk about racism when they're not talking about Black history. There is also a lot to be dealt with in terms of the assumption that whiteness is not a racial identity. We were prepared to give those conversations a broader airing, which is what we did and continue to do in this monthly series going through this year.

Andie Barrow: How did you go about choosing the topics that you would be covering over the course of the series? Was that something that came from the scholars? Or did you start with particular topics you knew you wanted to cover?

Kathleen Lynch: It was a little bit of both. It's often a little bit of both, when we're putting together any kind of program. In this case we issued invitations.

I think one thing that we are being pushed on (and appropriately so!) is our processes of decision making. We often consult with others, but we're not typically as administrators of the Folger Institute saying “okay, this is what we're going to do" without external consultation. However, we did that this time. Thankfully, the Mellon Foundation agreed that this series fit into the collaborative research they have funded for us.

As I've already indicated, we were looking around at different fields. We were very familiar with a number of the scholars working on race in the Shakespeare Studies community. We also understood several of them were ready to talk about teaching, which is something we don't typically do in the Institute.

We knew the Shakespeare Studies scholars well enough that we were aware there were a couple of people who would be ready to go right away in those first few sessions.

But then, as we began looking into these other fields, it was often a little bit of “I know somebody who's done really good work here,” or, “what might the conversation be about, say, religion and race?” And what kinds of perspectives have not yet been represented as you build a slate of programs?

Andie Barrow: How do you feel that these conversations relate to the Folger’s history and mission as a research library?

Kathleen Lynch: The Folger is a really interesting institution because we're an independent research library. We're talking a lot right now about Henry Clay Folger’s conception of the library as a gift to the American people, and we're taking that quite seriously. We absolutely think about ourselves as a public-facing institution.

We are spending a lot of time right now asking how we can better achieve that sense of public welcome. At the same time, internally, there have traditionally been very strong distinctions made between the kinds of things we do for different kinds of audiences. The work that we facilitate at the Folger Institute is easily perceived as work for an elite. It is an exclusive opportunity, because you have to have certain credentials to get into our library and libraries like ours (at least traditionally). I would say it has already been the work of several decades to counteract that, and to move in various new directions and to expand access. But it's definitely a work in progress. Definitely.

Andie Barrow: During the recent “Race and the Archive” event with Urvashi Chakravarty and Brandi K. Adams, there was a discussion of the Folger Institute’s ongoing commitment to simultaneously making these topics accessible to a wider, non-academic audience while also promoting inclusivity within the academy. What is the Folger Institute doing to achieve both of these goals?

Kathleen Lynch: If we're talking mostly about our work with scholars, there's a couple of different fronts on which we can advance issues of inclusivity. They involve, first of all, what are the topics that we're addressing in our seminars? What are the topics that we are funding for fellowships? They also include which people we are turning to in order to make decisions: who are we consulting with in the program planning for the seminars, and in the application review for the fellowships? So that's about individual inclusivity.

Then there is the question of who is actually getting funded. What can we say we are showing the world when we put together a slate of seminars? Who is directing all of those seminars? When we put together a slate of fellows who have been funded for the year, who is in that slate? You can think about it at those various levels, including the topics as well as the individuals.

One of the things that we are quite deliberately doing with the Critical Race Conversations series is providing opportunities for earlier career scholars than we typically do. Typically, this kind of an invitation would go to a senior scholar. However, we are trying to foster the work at earlier stages so that it can flourish now, and go on and have influence, be rewarded elsewhere, and inspire graduate students and undergrads to get into these fields.

Andie Barrow: What sort of specific steps have you been taking to promote accessibility for people outside of the academy, and people who are new to the academy?

Kathleen Lynch: It has actually been completely inadvertent that the Critical Race Conversations series has been watched and enjoyed so widely. We were thinking the most important thing we could do was throw the doors wide open for scholars to participate, because typically our seminars are available by application. Normally, we have review and selection processes for everything we do. It is rare for us to have something that is just readily available to the general public. In fact, there was no registration process for these events. That means we are not tracking who is coming, and in a way we are losing some information about who we are meeting.

But again, our thinking at first was strictly about scholars. Our first bridge that we built was to our colleagues in Folger Education, who deal with high school teachers. Those people are on the front lines concerning the teaching of Shakespeare, where there's renewed and important controversies about whether or not anybody should even teach Othello, for example, or whether Othello should be performed right now. Our advancement team and the membership team started promoting the series, and all of a sudden we realized there were lots of people hungry to hear from experts and thought leaders in these areas. That was a lesson we didn't expect, but we were enormously grateful for it.

We have to keep thinking through what we do in the future, especially in terms of programs that are thought of as programs for general audiences from the beginning. We did not do a lot of prep for our scholars to ask them not to use jargon, or to thinking of talking to your neighbor or aunt. But we did say we really want these to be conversations, and I think that simple act of listening to a serious scholarly conversation turns out to be a rare opportunity.

Andie Barrow: Has the ongoing pandemic affected the way you have been thinking about this kind of public programming, and its role in mediating public life?

Kathleen Lynch: The Folger as an institution, at all of our levels, has always been a destination. People come to the Folger Shakespeare Library and do something in-person, whether that be research o two attend a play; they come to enjoy the aura. The reading room has that aura, the theater has that aura. The theater is one of the first spaces built in the United States, with a kind of early modern, indoor playhouse feel to it, and the great hall replicates that feel of an enormously long country house gallery space. These are quite unique places to come to, and we are all good at creating very enticing activities and events to bring people to these spaces. So it’s a challenge to our sense of self as an institution when we can't bring people to our place. That is what we are here to do: welcome people into our building.

Because of the closure for renovation, we already knew before the pandemic that we were going to have to do things differently. I think we had a bit of a head start, because we realized early we would have to do something different, that we have to stay present in the world, and that we have to continue to contribute to people's lives. Now, not enough of a head start that we didn't have to change up everything that we had spent six months to a year planning to do differently. But just the fact of understanding that we were going to have to do things differently for this whole two to three-year interim was an advantage. It is also an advantage that the scale of our activities is lower right now, and that means we have more time to really think about where we want to be and who we want to be when we do reopen.

Andie Barrow: What intellectual and scholarly challenges have you encountered while putting together the series?

Kathleen Lynch: The intellectual challenge has been, again, are we doing the best work we ought to be doing? That is a challenge we have all been happy to accept. I actually think that this kind of programming that we have been doing has been highly motivating for the Folger Institute team; we really do feel a sense of dedication and mission at a period when we might otherwise be very discouraged. The fact that we have got mission-driven work to do is highly motivating.

For scholarly challenges, it has been very concerning for many individuals that not only is a place like the Folger unavailable for several years [due to the renovation], but every library is unavailable in the meantime [due to the pandemic]. We work quite closely with graduate students and faculty in the humanities, and research in the humanities at a place like the Folger is collections-based. This circles back to the conversation that Urvashi and Brandi had about access to the archives, where as a scholar you can fetishize the notion that you must go personally to visit not just the Folger, but any number of libraries to find and document evidence for whatever claim you're making. To have all of that taken away from you during a period of time when the job market is also dire is a real threat to individuals. So is finding sources of resilience and support, as well as finding leadership from faculty and others on rethinking what a dissertation ought to look like or can reasonably look like at this point in time.

There is always the question of whether you can lay your hand on an item that gives you the evidence to tell the story that you want to tell. Again, with reference to Urvashi and Brandi’s conversation, it is as important to recognize that there are many kinds of histories that you can't lay your hands on because the documents don't exist, or they weren't collected in places like the Folger. The events in the Critical Race Conversations series are about telling a broader story, so that it is not always about whether or not a particular item is in this collection. These conversations are about situating the Folger’s resources and the investments and the interests that they serve and the ways they can be repurposed and refocused.

There are also the connections that have to be made to things outside of the collection, including oral history, or things and the world of objects. We want to discuss all kinds of traces of the past, and deal with the fact that so much of it is fragmentary. Whether or not it seems to be, ours is a partial view of the past, and always available to us to remake it.

Andie Barrow: Finally, do you have any closing thoughts about the Folger’s mission moving forward?

Kathleen Lynch: Well, I suppose with the Folger there’s always our middle name: the Folger Shakespeare Library. That idea is both a kind of an opening, but also potentially limiting. With our range of programs across fields of early modern studies, we often feel that we are in the role of helping people understand that it is Shakespeare and more.

Shakespeare is a figure with whom we are having a reckoning right now, and that is always appropriate. The long legacy of Shakespeare Studies, and the way Shakespeare has been created as an icon of the highest achievements of “Anglo-Saxon culture,” is something to be reckoned with. But the rich history of Shakespeare is filled with resistance to that ideology and adaptations and reclamations, as well. Also, Shakespeare Studies is not the only field, and its history is not the only history we attend to. As we look towards reopening, we also feel like the roots of American history, and the deeper roots before we were America, are things that we really want to find ways to work with, with a range of public programs.

The other area we think about is just the basic principles of democracy. Coming back to the fact that we're here on Capitol Hill, there are forms of civic engagement that humanities are instrumental in developing. We want to make it clear that we are not just here to represent opportunities for individual personal enrichment. We are here to help people understand what it means to be a fully functioning, robust democracy.

Andie Barrow: Excellent, thank you so much for your time.


Dr. Kathleen Lynch is the executive director of the Folger Institute. In addition to overseeing the fellowships, seminars, and other scholarly programs of the Institute, Kathleen has curated an exhibition and collaborated on programing with other divisions at the Folger. She has published extensively in the areas of early modern transcontinental knowledge networks, religious nonconformity, and the book trade. Her book, Protestant Autobiography in the Seventeenth-Century Anglophone World, is available from Oxford University Press. Readers may also be interested in Kathleen’s recent interview for the Shakespeare Association of America, where she discusses the challenges that adapting to the COVID-19 epidemic has posed for the Folger.

Andie Barrow is a PhD candidate in the Literary Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of English, and co-chair of UW-Madison’s Literatures of Early Modernity and the Renaissance group for graduate early modern studies. Their research focuses on representations of nation, state, and race in early modern English theatre and romance. They are currently in the beginning stages of a dissertation titled “Strange Returns: Queer Political Theology and Early Modern Natality.”

Special thanks to Dr. Owen Williams, associate direct for scholarly programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Emily Loney for their help in organizing this interview.