Interview with Atesede Makonnen

By Caroline Winter

Atesede Makonnen is the winner of the 2017 NASSR Graduate Student Paper Prize. She is starting her second year as an English PhD student at Johns Hopkins University (MA in Shakespeare Studies, King’s College London, BA, Dartmouth College). Her research examines performance and race. Her winning paper will be published in the conference issue of European Romantic Review.

Sede, you were awarded the Graduate Student Paper Prize at the NASSR 2017 conference in Ottawa. Congratulations! Could you tell me about your paper?
Thank you so much! The paper looks at a particular moment in the stage history of Othello when the titular character’s race had to be re-imagined due to the social climate. Racialized philosophy and science, British abolition, slave revolts, looming integration – during all of this, a black Othello became problematic, specifically because of his affective power.
What inspired you to write this? Where did the idea come from?Last year, I happened to take two classes in one semester that dovetailed perfectly – Professor Mary Favret’s “Romanticism and the Ends of Affect” and Professor Mark Christian Thompson’s “The Enlightenment, Aesthetics and Race.” I ended up thinking about towering philosophical figures like Kant, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke from two perspectives. Shakespeare is always in the back of my mind – during my MA, I wrote a paper on the editing of Othello which first introduced me to Coleridge’s thinking on race and Edmund Kean’s 1814 debut of a ‘tawny’ Moor. I became interested in how the aesthetics of race crossed over with affect around the figure of Othello and blackness as a whole in Romantic life.
What are some of your other research interests? How does this paper fit into your larger research project/thesis?
This paper is a starting point for me into a hopefully larger project continuing to think about race on the romantic stage and what it meant and continues to mean for theatrical history (and beyond). The next step is looking at illustrations of Edmund Kean and portraiture of Ira Aldridge. I’ve been thinking about race, specifically blackness, in the media quite a bit. I’m working on a paper about the Oscars and another on whitewashing.
How was your overall experience at the conference? Which was your favourite panel?
It was good and very informative! I met many excellent scholars and very kind people. My favorite panel was probably “The Politics of Life” – Deanna Koretsky’s paper “Impossible Life: Equiano’s Black Ecology” was great.
Did you find time to get away from the conference and explore the city during your stay in Ottawa?
I have to admit, pre-panel nerves meant I spent quite a while staring at my paper and powerpoint and less time exploring. However, it was my first trip to Canada and I did make sure to explore at least a little bit – I tried a beaver tail, walked past Parliament, and took lots of pictures!
Finally, do you have any tips for other grad students about writing successful conference papers?
Let go. I had the hardest time selecting what I would and wouldn’t include in this paper. I was really stubborn about accepting that it had to get cut down – in the end, I think it was really good for my thought process to streamline what was most important.
Congratulations again, Sede, and thank you for telling us about your research. I’m looking forward to reading your paper in ERR!