Someday, many of these students will be in positions of power. They need to understand and consider the perspectives of those who may be less privileged than themselves.

Nick Jones

Professor Nick Jones, Spanish, warns his students right away that they are going to "get their hands dirty" in his courses.

"I tell them we're going to confront difficult issues head on," he says. "Someday, many of these students will be in positions of power. They need to understand and consider the perspectives of those who may be less privileged than themselves."

Jones' research focuses on gender, sexuality and race in early modern Spain and Portugal and their colonial kingdoms. "Issues of black African identity in these colonies are of special interest to me. And when you look closely at the literature and art of that time, the portrayals of black Africans are often paradoxical," he says.

Although many scholars maintain that blacks of the Luso-Hispanic imperial world were portrayed in a stereotypical manner as down and out, the truth is not that simplistic, according to Jones.

"There were black African Conquistadors fighting alongside Cortés in the New World. There were black mariners sailing from Portugal to Brazil who were earning more than many white captains. There were black women using their intelligence and diplomatic skills to acquire power during the Inquisition. There were black female slave owners in Peru," he says. "The literature of the time contests and destabilizes what it means to be African, what it means to be a slave, and most importantly, what it means to be human.

"For his course in Spanish literature and culture, Jones assigns classic texts such as Don Quixote by Cervantes and La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas alongside lesser-known works such as Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World by Catalina De Erauso. "Catalina De Erauso's story is fascinating," says Jones. "She was accepted as a man, even had open relationships with other women, and the Church had no issue with any of it as long as her virginity remained intact."

Another book he assigns is Juan Francisco Manzano's Autobiography of a Slave, which is believed to be the first slave narrative published in Spanish America. In it, the titular slave is repeatedly stripped of his dignity by a mistress who dresses him according to her mood. "It's a revealing look at race, power and gender issues in colonial Cuba," says Jones, who notes that class discussions sparked by this and other assigned texts are often quite lively. "I warned them they'd be getting their hands dirty."

Posted Oct. 7, 2015

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