Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Reviewed by Caroline Hong | March 24, 2003
Kim Hall’s Things of Darkness explores and interrogates images of blackness in sixteenth and seventeenth century England and how these images serve more than aesthetic purposes, to manifest early modern anxieties about race, gender, sexuality, commerce, economics, nationalism and imperialism. Her central argument posits that the construction and representation of blackness, in opposition to a desired whiteness, plays a key role in the development of England as nation and empire, as well as individual subjectivity, and that these notions of racial alterity through the rhetoric of blackness are inseparable from ideas of gender roles and difference: “Tropes of blackness were discovered by white English writers (both male and female) to be infinitely malleable ways of establishing a sense of the proper organization of Western European male and female in the Renaissance: notions of proper gender relations shape the terms for describing proper colonial organization” (4).
What is most impressive about Hall’s work is the broad scope and sheer volume of issues and texts she incorporates into this examination of blackness. She provides a useful historical introduction to the “black presence” in England and English interactions with Africa, and, in five readable and engrossing chapters, goes on to discuss various topics such as travel, slavery, cosmetics, sunburn, trade, class, painting, marriage, representations of Cleopatra, colonialism, politics, and Christian rhetoric. She treats an array of texts, canonical and marginal, by both male and female writers, from travel literature to lyric poetry, sonnet cycles to dramas. She concludes with an epilogue discussing the paradox of being a “black feminist/Renaissance critic” (254) and how her critical perspective leads her to examine more closely the discourse of blackness and racial difference that tends to get downplayed or effaced by early modern scholars. She also provides a helpful appendix of Renaissance poems on blackness not readily available, as well as an extensive bibliography.
This book is not only stimulating and informative on a range of subjects and texts, it is a joy to read. An invaluable resource for students and scholars, Things of Darkness succeeds in providing a broad and in-depth examination of issues of race, gender, and empire in early modern England.