Nick Jones '01

Assistant Professor of Spanish and Africana Studies, Bucknell University

When Nick Jones ’01 welcomes a new group of students to his Spanish literature and culture courses at Bucknell University, he often warns them, “You’re going to get your hands dirty.”

Nick specializes in literature between 1400 and 1700, roughly from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. His research focuses on race, gender, and sexuality in Spain and Portugal and their colonial kingdoms. The prevailing stereotype about blacks in those early modern periods is that they were downtrodden and oppressed. Nick’s work shakes up that assumption.

“A common argument held by scholars is that all representations of blacks in early modern Spain are negative, pejorative, and racist,” says Nick. “The groundbreaking work I do is to reveal there is this other history going on, when we center and highlight agency and resistance of slaves in Spain.”

Disrupting stereotypes

For example, historical records of the Spanish Inquisition show evidence of black slaves navigating and negotiating the Spanish Inquisition “in a savvy way,” according to Nick. In particular, there were black women using their intelligence and diplomatic skills to acquire power. There were also black mariners sailing from Portugal to Brazil who were earning more than many white captains.

“You have all these instances when you see black agency and resistance. In my writing and my classroom, I like
to put it out there that the representation of blackness in literature is always complex and paradoxical,” explains Nick.

Nick holds a Ph.D. in Iberian Literature and Cultural Studies from New York University. Prior to his graduate study, he received a B.A. with departmental honors from Haverford College. Now, in addition to his role at Bucknell, he is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, where he teaches a graduate seminar in Spanish called “The Early Modern Hispanic Black Atlantic.”

“My students are always blown away and shocked to learn that in art and visual culture, blacks are there and visible. I break down and deconstruct issues of race and sexuality and show them how these categories intersect and reflect on one another.”

Forging new thinking

Nick’s first monograph, titled Staging Habla de negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain, was published by Penn State University Press in May 2019. In the study, Nick analyzes white appropriations of black African voices in Spanish theater from the 1500s through the 1700s—a period when the performance of Africanized Castilian, commonly referred to as habla de negros (Black Talk), was in vogue.

On the modern-day front, Nick is a current blogger for Black Perspectives, the online journal of the African American Intellectual Historical Society (AAIHS). In addition, he is forging new thinking as co-editor of Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology, which was published in October 2018 with Palgrave Macmillan.

“Usually, Early Modern studies and Black Studies are pitted against each other as if they are diametrically opposed,” testifies Nick. “We illustrate that Early Modern and Black Studies have a lot to say to each other.”

Biting back

Nick believes that connecting past and present in Spain is important to understand the early modern period. To illustrate, he turns to popular culture in present-day Spain.

“Spanish cinema and television productions have explored the country’s imperial relationship to sub-Saharan African slavery and slave trading,” says Nick, pointing to the current TV series La peste [The Plague]. He points out that the paradoxical nature and status of black Africans in La peste—portrayed as both enslaved and free persons—can be seen today in Spain’s current handling of African and Latin American immigration in major cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia.

Says Nick: “The timelessness of it all is really empowering and fascinating because it shows the cyclical nature of history as well as the ways in which the formerly colonized return to Europe to bite it back.”

This profile originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of The Northwest School Magazine.