Thursday, February 26, 2015

Solving the "Moor" Problem

One of the stops on last weekend's trip to Cordoba and Granada with twenty-nine NYU undergraduates was the cathedral of Granada, which was originally intended to be a late period gothic building but ended up for a variety of interconnected historical and aesthetic reasons as an exemplar of full-on, whitewash and gold leaf, more blood and nails, Renaissance-Baroque splendor. "Splendor."

One of the challenges in that space was explaining to students the two traditional Spanish representations of Saint James, he of Compostela pilgrim path fame, one as pilgrim and the other, characteristically, as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-Slayer.

This is a representation from the cathedral of him in that second mode. It's not my photo — although I can't claim to be above taking pictures in places where it is officially prohibited, I was trying to model responsible behavior to the students this time around:

I often struggle, and mightily, to get students not to use the term moor in their work in my classes. I explain to them that it's not a historically specific-enough term to be useful and that its racialized and racist connotation makes using it a complicity with those ideologies. I have them read this essay (Paywall. Sorry. Happy to share a PDF.) And I still get reading reflections, research papers, and exams that talk about the Christians and the Moors.

It struck me, though, standing in the cathedral in Granada, right below this statue exalting Santiago in a warm golden glow at the moment his horse tramples a moro and explaining to the students that this is a part of the ideology that motivated the religious persecutions and expulsions of the period, that such a stark image, seen up close, probably drives the point home better than a thousand essays or classroom discussions could. Here is Santiago, killing a dark-skinned Muslim and receiving reward in the heretofore and plaudits in the mind of the nation; it may not be the case everywhere, but this is not an ideology, represented so starkly here, that any of my cosmopolitan, urbane, New York-based college students would choose subscribe to. It's not to say that I have never taught students with prejudices, but to a one they know what the problem is as it is represented here.

I'll wager I don't see any moros in my students' essays this term.

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