Every time I read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, I am struck anew by its desta­bi­lizing effects. Cer­vantes inces­santly names, mocks, and renders visible the artifice and con­struct­edness of systems of power and control. Titles of nobility and social status, cen­sorship licenses, nota­rization, posi­tions of gov­er­nance, and the very authority of the written word—nothing is exempt from radical ques­tioning. In the process, I, the reader, begin to rad­i­cally question myself. What is real around me, and what is per­for­mance and con­struct? What is reality anyway? How do I shape the world as I move through space, and how do those spaces shape me?

Don Quixote, like no other text I have read, lays bare the fabrics and failings of early modern Iberian society.

I used that same phrasing on June 8, 2020—“lays bare the fabrics and failings of our society”—to char­ac­terize the COVID-19 out­break and racist killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery. I was writing an intro­ductory email to adult learners in Don Quixote: Into the World of the Book, a course I teach for The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I had taught this class twice before, but this third iter­ation would be online, amidst entwined pan­demics and righteous racial uprisings that will surely define this year, this decade, and this generation.

As I prepped my Quixote class for adult learners, I struggled to artic­ulate the con­nec­tions that vibrated in my mind and nervous system between Cervantes’s sys­temic unveilings and the sys­temic unveilings around me.[1] Then, some­thing unex­pected hap­pened. On June­teenth, pro­testors in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park spray-painted “bastard” on a mon­ument to Miguel de Cer­vantes, fig­u­ra­tively gouged his eyes red and marked targets on Don Quixote and Sancho’s backs.

The activists in Golden Gate Park did not spray-paint Cer­vantes alone. They toppled a statue of Fray Junípero Serra, whose Cal­i­fornia mis­sions sub­jected Native Amer­icans to physical abuse, forced labor, and infec­tious disease. They felled sculp­tures of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant. They painted a bright red “Adiós America” on Grant’s mon­ument.[2]

The anonymous pro­testors, like so many pro­pelling the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, were asking ques­tions fun­da­men­tally Cervantine:

What would happen if the whole world stopped playing along with the trap­pings of the current order, gave things new names, new land­scapes to inhabit, and used dif­ferent vocab­u­laries and def­i­n­i­tions to reshape, re-signify, and con­cep­tu­alize our lived reality?

In the words of adrienne maree brown: “We are in an imag­i­nation battle.”[3]

Instead of police reform—abolition. Instead of van­dalism or defacement—creative protest.[4] Instead of denying and ignoring white supremacy as the complex social system in which we live, naming it. Exam­ining it. Owning it. Vis­i­bi­lizing that brutal, unjust pasts are not past: they still live in our bodies and spaces. And it will take work—lifelong, gen­er­a­tional work—to retool our imag­i­na­tions to bring a just world into being.

BLM activist dis­course and actions, which draw on and feed into and out of critical race, Black fem­inist, and queer the­ories, have deep inter­rogatory power no less valid than the Spanish philo­logical methods that con­stitute the bedrock of our field. In response to the Cer­vantes pintada, the reigning reaction of scholars of early modern Iberia was: ‘Why Cer­vantes? The pro­testors must not have known who Cer­vantes was and what he stood for. They must be con­fused! And ignorant!’ But in fact, the pro­testors read and inter­preted that mon­ument to sym­bolize exactly what it was erected to convey. As Miguel Martínez has high­lighted, the statue’s financier inau­gu­rated it with words of “fer­viente amor a Cer­vantes, y reca­bando para la vieja España toda la gloria a que tiene derecho por el des­cubrim­iento, con­quista y col­o­nización de América.”[5] The monument’s cre­ators sig­nified Cer­vantes as a symbol of Spanish colo­nialism and (white) European supremacy, whether or not we would do so today. That original sig­ni­fi­cation still pal­pi­tates in the space.

Impe­ri­alist white-supremacist cap­i­talist patri­archy,” to use bell hooks’s term, also courses through our field.[6] It showed up in racist and nation­alist reac­tions to the Cer­vantes pintada, rooted in an aca­demic culture of white Spanish male supe­ri­ority.[7] It shows up in patri­archal and white-dominant per­for­mances of eru­dition as a means of exerting power over others. It shows up in the exclusion and belit­tling of knowledge and ideas of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and women in con­fer­ences and other forums. It shows up in the ways that scholars in our field con­sider our par­ticular forms of education—which grew out of the soci­eties that brought colo­nialism and slavery to the Americas—as superior to others. It shows up in the policing, mockery, and belit­tling of Spanish not sanc­tioned by the Real Academia Española. It shows up in affirming com­mit­ments to decolonial and antiracist approaches to research and teaching without fighting for the rights of BIPOC workers across our uni­ver­sities, from the support staff who hold it all together to faculty on the tenure-track.[8]  

In this essential time of laying bare, what can we imagine tearing down? Just as impor­tantly: what can dream of building up?

It may seem odd to use imag­i­native, dreamy lan­guage and ques­tions in a field, pro­fession, and country so steeped in impe­ri­alist white-supremacist cap­i­talist patri­archy. That culture keeps us con­stantly on guard, fending for indi­vid­u­al­istic rewards and recog­nition (jobs, tenure, pro­mo­tions). Our insti­tu­tions com­modify and co-opt decolo­niality and antiracism, because our cap­i­tal­istic society com­mod­ifies every­thing, and we exist inside it.[9] Which makes it dif­ficult to ascertain each other’s inten­tions when claiming or striving to do decolonial and antiracist work. The current order breeds sus­picion. And there is anger, pain, and anxiety among us about all of this.

But there is also joy and love in the col­lective enter­prise of studying and unearthing the cul­tural arti­facts we hold dear. There is com­munity in our con­fer­ences and class­rooms, in the special col­lec­tions, archives, reading rooms, and libraries that pre­serve our objects of study. There are scholars in our field—like those I am lucky to speak with in this seminar—who are pushing against the status quo, building on those who came before them.

So I put it to you all: What kind of field of the future could we col­lab­o­ra­tively ideate?[10]

I am dreaming of a col­lec­tivist, rather than public, human­ities,[11] which would:


  • pay as much care and attention to those working and living alongside us as to our his­torical sub­jects and objects of study.
  • not bemoan pre­sentism. Own the legacies we embody, the long his­tories and ancestry that got us to where we are today. The problem is not applying a present lens to the past; it is the failure to inter­rogate the ways we are still living and enacting the impe­ri­alist, colo­nialist, white-supremacist past.
  • create space to build trust to work with emotion and vul­ner­a­bility among us; eschew dehu­man­izing modes of cri­tique and judgment of each other’s work
  • for my fellow white people, espe­cially: pri­or­itize doing the deep, hard, con­sistent work to dis­mantle racism, fol­lowing prin­ciples like those laid out by The People’s Institute for Sur­vival and Beyond.[12]
  • for my fellow white people, espe­cially: open our­selves up to feedback from BIPOC col­leagues and to those who have been doing this work for much longer to keep us accountable, growing, and evolving. Build on existing efforts rather than trying to spearhead some­thing new.
  • organize and unionize without main­taining the silos of the aca­demic hier­archy. Find sol­i­darity with all aca­demic workers and workers in the com­mu­nities in which we live.
  • con­sis­tently inter­rogate whether we are using “decol­o­nization” and “antiracism” as metaphors and per­for­mance. Use critical tools from cul­tural studies to inter­rogate what kinds of powers, both trans­for­mative and insidious, those metaphors and per­for­mances have.[13]
  • commit to and advocate for open-access pub­lishing so that as many audi­ences as pos­sible can read our work. Col­lec­tively fight against the prestige and impact factors of tenure require­ments that are holding the current system of pay-walled knowledge in place.
  • let in forms of wisdom, knowledge, and culture from outside the tra­di­tional bounds of our field. “Get exper­i­mental.”[14]

I am just one voice—the voice of a white, Jewish, cis, hetero woman who decided not to pursue the tenure track; nerds out on his­tories of early modern Iberian monarchy and the book; became a librarian; is a mother; is new to activism; is trying to join with grat­itude and humility. Thank you for taking the time to read this; I look forward to your thoughts, input, and ideations.


  1. I have been becoming more aware of my nervous system and the somatics of racism and white supremacy culture by lis­tening to Resmaa Menakem and reading his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. Menakem prefers the term “white-body supremacy.”[]
  2. Ruben­stein and Swan, “His­torical Statues Toppled.”[]
  3. Brown, Emergent Strategy, 18: “We are in an imag­i­nation battle. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imag­i­nation, they were dan­gerous. And that imag­i­nation is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, racialized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable. Imag­i­nation has people thinking they can go from being poor to a mil­lionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imag­i­nation gives us borders, gives us supe­ri­ority, gives us race as an indi­cator of capa­bility.”[]
  4. I draw on the lan­guage of “cre­ative protest” from Take ‘Em Down Nola’s social media posts. Take ‘Em Down Nola is an activist orga­ni­zation fighting to take down all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans.[]
  5. See Vélez-Sainz, org. “El legado,” for Martínez’s inter­vention, in which he cites “Don Quixote en Cal­i­fornia,” 75.[]
  6. Cited in Lomuto, “Public Medievalism,” orig­i­nally from Hooks, Writing Beyond Race, 4.[]
  7. Rather than fully rehash the debates that tran­spired in the wake of the Cer­vantes pintada, I direct readers to Jones and Leahy, “Cer­vantes y la matera de las vidas negras.” and the ensuing round­table, Vélez-Sainz, org., “El legado de Cer­vantes.”[]
  8. Leung and López-McKnight, “Dreaming Rev­o­lu­tionary Futures,” and Fer­retti, “Building a Critical Culture,” make these argu­ments about critical infor­mation lit­eracy and aca­demic library work; they are applicable in this case as well.[]
  9. Lomuto, “Public Medievalism,” argues: “we must not confuse the insti­tu­tion­al­ization of diversity work with anti-racist or decol­o­nizing work. The former pro­tects the insti­tution… whereas the latter would tear it down.”[]
  10. Brown, Emergent Strategy, 19, speaks of col­lab­o­rative ideation: “We must imagine new worlds that tran­sition ide­ologies and norms, so that no one sees Black people as mur­derers, or Brown people as ter­rorists and aliens, but all of us as potential cul­tural and eco­nomic inno­vators. This is a time-travel exercise for the heart. This is col­lab­o­rative ideation—what are the ideas that will lib­erate all of us? The more people that col­lab­orate on the ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world(s).”[]
  11. Late in com­posing this paper, I found that Toby Miller briefly uses the term “col­lec­tivist human­ities” in the con­clusion to Blow up the Human­ities, 123.[]
  12. See The People’s Institute (PISAB), “Prin­ciples.” PISAB is “a national and inter­na­tional col­lective of anti-racist, mul­ti­cul­tural com­munity orga­nizers and edu­cators ded­i­cated to building an effective movement for social trans­for­mation,” founded in 1980 and based in New Orleans, where I live. I want to express pro­found grat­itude to European Dissent New Orleans and the White Anti-Racist Learning Com­munity (WALC) at Tulane.[]
  13. See Tuck and Young, “Decol­o­nization is Not a Metaphor.”[]
  14. brown, Emergent Strategy, 18: “It is so important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get exper­i­mental. How do we create and pro­lif­erate a com­pelling vision of economies and ecologies that center humans and the natural world over the accu­mu­lation of material?”[]