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Shavauna Munster, History Graduate Student, publishes Conference Spotlight in Medieval Academy of America Newsletter

Shavauna Munster is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Utah. She studies the history of the body and the impact of physical punishment in the medieval world.

Conference Spotlight: Celebrating Belle da Costa Greene at Saint Louis University

By Shavauna Munster

In no uncertain terms, the Belle da Costa Greene conference changed my academic career. Let me preface this by saying that conferences should be on the radar of every graduate student, whether they plan to present or not. The chance to hear first hand from scholars in the field, attend panels and presentations, and network with other graduate students is an opportunity that should not be missed. The Belle da Costa Greene Conference was, for me, important for more than those reasons alone. Prior to the conference, I was unaware of the ongoing conversation surrounding medievalists of color, both in the academic field and in their own time. As a female medievalist of color, I knew I would occasionally meet resistance in an academic field that is not profoundly diverse. However, I was unaware to what extent my experiences had been, and would continue to be, impacted by that lack of diversity.

When I first became aware of the conference, I had never heard of Belle da Costa Greene. After a brief search, I learned that she was the first director of the Morgan Library in New York City, which holds a well-known collection of medieval works curated by Greene. With the first opening remarks, I found it both revealing and appalling that the story of Greene is not more widely known. She was not only the first Director of the Morgan Library but also the first woman of color to be appointed a Fellow by the Medieval Academy of America. Greene hid her black ancestry in order to be accepted into the elite classes of New York society. She was essential in acquiring the manuscript and artifact collection at the Morgan. It is important to recognize not only her legacy, but why her story was buried at all. It may never be known how or why the only inscription about Greene came to be placed in a corner near the restroom, or what bearing her black ancestry would have had on her career, but discussing what can be done currently to acknowledge hidden heroes such as Greene is crucial.

The leap in coursework from undergraduate to graduate student can be intimidating and overwhelming. In a field where minorities neither comprise a large majority of scholars nor are often represented in the subject matter, the sense of imposter syndrome can add to the stress and become debilitating. The Belle da Costa Greene Conference, and other conferences which seek to increase awareness of diversity within the field are important vehicles for quelling feelings of unbelonging. Discussions regarding scholars who have overcome adversity and have succeeded in making their voices heard, are indispensable to medievalists of color, like myself, who have occasionally felt their work was not pertinent to the field due to that lack of representation.

The depth of knowledge brought together for the Belle da Costa Greene Conference was insightful and astounding. Dorothy Kim reviewed book history, race, and their relationship to medieval studies. She highlighted Greene's categorization system at the Morgan Library and the handwriting she left on manuscripts. These writings, small marks on page corners, can be viewed simply as categorization notes or as a literal attempt by Greene to mark her place in a history that is largely Eurocentric. Greene is not searchable under African-American in the Morgan Library database and would still be considered a minority in her field by modern standards, where 86% of librarians are white. Monica Green discussed Constantine the African as well as intellectual genealogies. She highlighted the importance of recognizing Greene as the first black woman to be appointed a Fellow of the Medieval Academy but also acknowledged that a lack of diversity does not stop there. It is critical to recognize the second, and the third, and the fourth, and for there to continue to be diversity, rather than a stop to the push for change because one person had the ability to break through the glass ceiling. Listening to these empowering speakers reignited my love for a field with which I was becoming disillusioned. I encourage every graduate student to attend a conference which seeks to increase awareness and diversity in an academic field, whether or not they are considered a minority.

I am forever grateful to the organizers, speakers, panelists, and attendees of the Belle da Costa Greene Conference for sharing their intellect, research, discussions, and for continuing to increase awareness about diversity within the profession.

Last Updated: 4/1/21