Seeing Race Before Race

Friday, Sep 8 – Dec 30, 2023

60 W. Walton
Chicago, IL 60610

Newberry Library introduces Seeing Race Before Race, an exhibition that explores race-making in medieval and early modern Europe 

CHICAGO - The Newberry Library’s newest exhibition examines the roots of race in the premodern world. Seeing Race Before Race, presented by the Newberry’s Center for Renaissance Studies, probes how race developed as a social construct from the Middle Ages to 1800. The exhibition features maps, manuscripts, paintings, printed books, paintings, automata, and woodcuts dating from 1250 to 1800, the majority of which are part of the Newberry’s vast collections.  

Long before the term “race” came into use, people categorized each other through distinctions like language, dress, class, geography, and religion—in addition to traits like skin color or facial features. While the exhibition includes loan items from as far away as India and South America, it focuses primarily on “Western” perspectives because the system of race that we experience today largely developed through the decisions, ideas, and actions of premodern Europeans.  

"Traditional scholarship in Europe and North America has often overlooked race as a social construct prior to the trans-Atlantic trafficking in enslaved Africans,” said Lia Markey, Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library. “Seeing Race Before Race looks at the medieval and Renaissance periods and centers the expertise, perspectives, and sociopolitical interests of BIPOC scholars. The Newberry is uniquely positioned to spark dialog and bring this work to life in the form of an exhibition.”  

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a 1477 edition of Parsival, an Arthurian romance from the twelfth century featuring a biracial character, that reveals medieval ideas about the relationship between physical features and certain behaviors. Tarih-i Yeni Dünya, el-musemma be hadis-i nev is a luxury manuscript (ca. 1600) from Ottoman Turkey that features an image of light- and dark-skinned individuals standing back-to-back at the Potosí silver mine in what is now Bolivia. A sixteenth-century book by Nicholas de Nicolay examines clothing as an aspect of racial identity. A Letter from a Merchant at Jamaica to a Member of Parliament in London (1709) is among the items that shows how Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans resisted the violent tactics of colonizers. Despite advocating for the reform—not abolition—of slavery, the printed pamphlet includes an enslaved African’s eulogy for a murdered “Fellow-Negro,” which argues poetically for Black rights. 

Seeing Race Before Race draws on the pathbreaking work of the Newberry’s partners in the RaceB4Race research collective. The exhibition’s curators are:  

  • Noémie Ndiaye, Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago  
  • Lia Markey, Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library  
  • Christopher Fletcher, Assistant Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies  
  • Rebecca L. Fall, Program Manager of the Center for Renaissance Studies  
  • Yasmine Hachimi, Public Humanities Fellow at the Newberry Library  

Seeing Race Before Race, presented in English and Spanish, opens Friday, September 8, and runs through Saturday, December 30 in the Newberry’s Trienens Galleries. The library is located at 60 West Walton Street; hours are 10am to 7pm Tuesday through Thursday and 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday. Entrance is free of charge. 


Related offerings include:   

Sept. 12, 6pm - Understanding Race: Past and Present, renowned scholars Olivette Otele and Noémie Ndiaye will discuss the state of race-making through a transnational perspective. In-person and online, free.  

Oct. 17, 6pm - Il Moro/The Moor: A Story of Alessandro de’ Medici,  delve into the life of Alessandro de’ Medici with Daphne Di Cinto, the writer, director, and producer of the Oscar-qualifying short film "Il Moro/The Moor." In-person, free.  

Oct. 21-Nov. 1, 1pm - Seeing Race Before Race Adult Education Series, explore the premodern (ca. 1100-1800) foundations of today’s “racial system” alongside the Newberry’s exhibition in this three-class series. In-person, $195.  

 Nov. 7, 6pm - Performing Race: Past and Present, explore how race was understood and performed on the early modern stage through a series of dynamic performances by actors from Congo Square Theatre. In-person and online, free.  

 Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World, a companion publication that features items from the Seeing Race Before Race exhibition. Available via the Newberry Bookshop, in-person and online, $49.95.   

About the Newberry  

The Newberry Library is an independent research library located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood that has been free and open to all since 1887. The Newberry fosters a deeper understanding of our world by inspiring research and learning in the humanities and encouraging conversations about ideas that matter to diverse audiences. Our mission is rooted in a growing and accessible collection of rare and historical materials that spans more than six centuries of human experience. To learn more, visit