Tag Archives: history

Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

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“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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