University of New Mexico professor of English Nahir Otaño Gracia was presented with the 2022 Medieval Academy of America Article Prize in Critical Race Studies for her article “Towards a decentered Global North Atlantic: Blackness in Saga af Tristram ok Ísodd” on March 12 during the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America at the University of Virginia.
Having initially been ostracized for her choice to study medievalism, Otaño Gracia was excited, albeit somewhat surprised, to receive the award.
“When I started doing this work I was often told it wasn’t a real thing … or I wasn’t taken seriously … I was told, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be here; maybe you shouldn’t be doing this work.’” Otaño Gracia said. “What’s been really special is how many people who have come to tell me congratulations or that (the award) is well-deserved.”
Despite all of the negativity, Otaño Gracia is content in her work and grateful to have been able to make her family proud.
“I got to send (the award letter) to my family in Puerto Rico … I’m making my family proud,” Otaño Gracia said.
Associate professor and fellow medievalist in the UNM English department Jonathan Davis-Secord, has spent the last six years working alongside Otaño Gracia, pulling inspiration from her hard work and positive attitude.
“She is one of the hardest working professors I’ve seen in a while. (She’s) inspirational and makes me want to work harder,” Davis-Secord said. “It is a refreshing and invigorating working relationship.”
Otaño Gracia’s intense work has been guided by a sense of activism and a deep interest in the Arthurian roots of racial hierarchies.
“I wanted to do a project that took seriously areas that we don’t usually (take seriously) … how we construct whiteness and whiteness as a system of power, how we humanize and … who gets to be kind of stereotyped and dehumanized so the violence against them can be rationalized,” Otaño Gracia said.
It is Otaño Gracia’s ability to approach complex ideas that have been contemplated for centuries with a new perspective that sets her apart, in addition to her exceptionally positive attitude, according to Davis-Secord.
“(It) really feels like she’s opening new questions without abandoning old, useful methods,” Davis-Secord said. “(Otaño Gracia) is always able to see the positive side of things in the department.”
Otaño Gracia, who has always “been an activist in one way or another,” utilizes her linguistic abilities to navigate a mass of old writing, uniquely exploring connective ideas. Otaño Gracia is fluent in English, Spanish and French, and can read Old Norse, Old English, Middle English, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Castilian, Old French, Catalan, Portuguese and Italian.
“My capacity to read medieval languages, it’s one of my strengths,” Otaño Gracia said. “To be able to balance and navigate a lot of knowledge coming from different areas and put it in conversation.”
Davis-Secord is proud to work alongside Otaño Gracia and is impressed by her knowledge and good standing in the field of medievalism.
“She’s just a wonderful person to work with,” Davis-Secord said. “(The award) is another extraordinary piece of evidence as to how excellent she is as a scholar.”
Otaño Gracia is currently revising the manuscript for a book that she has been working on for over a decade, “The Other Faces of Arthur: Chivalric Whiteness and the Global North Atlantic.”
“I’m trying to finish this book … get these ideas out in publication,” Otano Gracia said. “The process to publish an academic book is very long.”
Natalie Jude is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @natalaroni