Imtiaz Habib and ‘Lucy Negro, Redux’

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Hannah Crawforth

Hannah Crawforth is a Reader in Early Modern Literature in the English Department at King’s College London. She has published extensively on poetry both modern and early modern.

Black Lives in the English Archives seeks to make visible those whose presence in early modern England has been overlooked. It does so using a methodology that Imtiaz Habib also believes has been overlooked as a result of what he calls “the triumph of theory in a poststructuralist age”.[1]  His painstaking excavation of “obscure, truncated and largely inaccessible documentary records” and magisterial synthesis of these archival findings into a compelling narrative, is an incontrovertible argument for the importance of the archive, as well as a field-changing account of the Black lives we encounter there.[2] “Scattered across the four quadrants of London” and beyond, drawn from fragments of “legal, taxation, medical and civic archives is the varied impress of black working lives,” Habib writes in his introduction. The stories that emerge from the archive are the hard facts that counteract the lingering falsehood that “there were no actual people of color in early modern England; references to them in popular media of the time are metaphoric; and the period is race-innocent.”[3] But I call them stories because I am interested here in the ways in which Habib draws upon his extensive archival research to narrativize the lives of the Black working classes that his work uncovers. Habib’s book is powerful not just in the extraordinary body of evidence he amasses, but also in the way he marshals these archival discoveries, carefully assembling the fragments into narratives that leap off the page, bringing the lives they recount to life.

It is this idea of reanimating the archive, and the Black lives Habib locates within it, that inspires the work of the poet Caroline Randall Williams, which I have been teaching and writing about. Williams’ Lucy Negro, Redux, published in 2019 with the subtitle: The Bard, a Book, and a Ballet, tells the story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets from the point of view of a figure from the archives who has been called “Lucy Negro”, and whom some have seen as a possible model for the so-called “Dark Lady” to whom the later part of the sequence seems to be addressed. “In August of 2012, I got it into my head that Shakespeare had a black lover,” Williams writes, “and that this woman was the subject of sonnets 127 to 154.”[4] Lucy Negro, Redux intersperses Williams’ poems about Lucy with a prose account telling the story of her meeting with English professor Duncan Salkeld and, consequently, with the figure of “Black Luce” in the archives of Bridewell prison. Interweaving archival narrative with original poems Williams recovers and reclaims an overlooked Black life from the English archive in ways that resonate with Habib’s own critical and creative project.[5]

From Volume IV of the Bridewell Prison Records.


This exiat sayeth that
William Shaxberd sent into this house by virtue
aforesaid saieth that he was at Gilbert Eastes
house in Turnmill street a grete while and had
there much wyne and good cheese and had
thuse of a blackamoore bawde Easte kepte
there also called Rose
This exiat sayeth that
Black Luce alias Lucy Negro is by one richard
Burbage accused of taking monies for divers services
then not rendered to which the accused
Negro taketh much exception and saieth
further that burbage and numerous other
confederates of The Theatre playhouse without
Shorditch have been manye times in her
companye without paying

[…]                                                       (26)

Williams’ skilful use of line breaks makes poetry of the archive: “thuse”, emphasised by its position at the start of the line, and echo of the preceding line’s opening “there”, is a stark reminder of the facts of rape (as we can only call the account of prostitution without payment or consent that we find in this poem). Likewise, the momentary pause after “in her”, before “companye” follows on the next line, makes plain the facts of what is being described here, facts that have for so long lain overlooked in the archive.

Before she came to life in the pages of Williams’ poetry collection (and the accompanying ballet devised and performed by the Nashville Ballet), Lucy had already danced fleetingly through the pages of Imtiaz Habib’s book. In a disturbing passage describing prostitution as “one of three destinies of English black people at that time” (according to Peter Fryer), and noting the pernicious myth that sex with a Black woman could cure venereal disease (a pretext for untold sexual exploitation and abuse), Habib cites a letter “from Dennis Edwards to Thomas Lankford, the Earl of Hartford’s secretary, on 28 May 1599, asking him to ‘Pray enquire and secure my negress; she is certainly at the Swan, at the Dane’s beershop, Turnbull Street, Clerkenwell (Item 235).” Habib continues, “If the ‘negress’ is not the infamous prostitute Lucy Negro that I have elsewhere proposed she is, she is certainly one of her colleagues, and Dennis Edwards’s propriety addressing of her illuminates the sexual bondage into which she is cast.”[6]

Williams’ poems work in exactly this space, illuminating Lucy’s suffering at the hands of her abusers (Shakespeare amongst them) that is clearly present in the archival record, but which is overlooked because that record has been assembled by those who are complicit in her exploitation. Habib continues: “Her sexual exploitation as a prostitute is the most vicious form of the performance of a negative pathology for black people, particularly young black women, in which the only use that destitute enslaved black females can have is as casual sexual conveniences for the male public at large.” As Habib goes onto suggest, “Muted by her linguistic and cultural alienation, and incarcerated within economic and physical bonds, her compliance in her use as a sexual consumable is the ultimate cancellation of her black humanity and her final exclusion from the normative life of the English socius.”[7] It is telling that one of the index entries under “Black women” in Habib’s book reads simply: “see also, sexual exploitation”.

But if Habib uncovers Lucy’s story, Williams gives her a voice, confronting directly the way she has been “Muted” by the fragmentation of the archive and, even more, a literary critical tradition unwilling to look at what that archive holds and to be held to account for its overlooking. Lucy Negro, Redux, ends with a powerful affirmation, told in the first-person voice, of all that she is, of her Black life in the archive:

Lucy’s Exiat Sayeth That

This exiat sayeth that
I am wild, and that I live by it, and that I like it; like the money, and the
witness, and the grotesque, and the yes, yes.
This exiat sayeth that
I am not a partridge, or a ruby. I am a potato, a beetroot. Not a precious
bird, or jewel, but a dirt-dug tube. Rustle me, rub me all over, and I will
muddle your interiors with flecks of brown earth. You will sigh at your
soiled hands and then you will put them in your pockets to pay for it.
This exiat sayeth that
You will come again to scour my body with your worthy, emollient palm
creases because I am that round, strange, colored victual, and further,
this examinate sayeth that you will dirt grit your nails to gather me up
and by God we will both be sustained. By God if you warm and eat me,
I will nourish and fatten you.

Click here to see all the posts in this series.

[1] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008; repr. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 9. Citations refer to the Routledge edition.

[2] Habib, Black Lives, 1.

[3] Habib, Black Lives, 3.

[4] Caroline Randall Williams, Lucy Negro, Redux: The Bard, A Book, and A Ballet (Nashville, TN: Third Man Books, 2019), 8.

[5] Williams’ method might be compared to that of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), a retelling of the life of Phillis Wheatley, which similarly draws upon extensive archival research.

[6] Habib, Black Lives, 107. Habib here references arguments identifying this figure with “Lucy Negro” which he first makes in Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), 13, 15, 30, 78.

[7] Habib, Black Lives, 107.

1 thought on “Imtiaz Habib and ‘Lucy Negro, Redux’

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium | the many-headed monster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s