Blackness and Classical Literature
I am currently teaching a 10th grade English class along with my three 11th grade English classes, and I have noticed some elements in classic literature that I naively overlooked in my youth. I remember reading “The Scarlet Letter” and “Othello” during my high school years, and I never really paid much attention to racial issues in the reading because I was never forced to do so. Now, in teaching on Hawthorne and Shakespeare’s famous works, I make it a point to allow my students to recognize the amount of privilege that was present far before the relatively new introduction of the term “white privilege”.
In “The Scarlet Letter”, we read about a woman who is separated from Puritan society due to her sin of adultery. There are many references in the story to the “savage” Native Americans who seem to be a bit less dignified, refined, and respected than the white Puritans. As an introduction to Hawthorne’s dark romanticism, we started with a brief study of American colonialism. I had my students read some Native American creation stories, followed by letters from the likes of John Smith and Christopher Columbus. These men wrote home to their kings and queens discussing their encounters with the native “savages” of this new land, and although they recognized their cultural differences, we have all heard of the exploitation of the native people. I encouraged my students to remember these references while reading “The Scarlet Letter”. So many thoughtful reflective writing assignments were completed with this realization of cultural exploitation and the image that the Puritans had of the native people whose land they were settling.
And now, in Othello, as we finish Act 1, Scene 3, there have already been three references to Othello’s race. Used in Shakespeare’s famous pun fashion, he analogizes Othello to an animal, refers to a region in Africa, and uses the antithesis of black and white to describe his relation to the (white) daughter of Brabantio, Desdemona, with whom Othello has eloped. And though at first glance, my 10th graders saw the issue as a rebellious young lady running off with a strong soldier, unbeknownst to her powerful father, once we dissected a bit more of the reading, it was clear that there was also another underlying issue. Why would Shakespeare choose to include anything about Othello’s race in the dialogue? Once it was mentioned, it seemed to insight even more confusion and anger in Desdemona’s father- the thought that his daughter could be with a man like him. Surely, she must have been poisoned or under some kind of (black) magic- in the spirit of Shakespeare, this pun is intended- to fall in love with Othello over any other suitor.
As Iago tried to hint to Brabantio as to who his daughter was with in Act 1, Scene 1, he said “Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping our white ewe.” Hmm… a little bit of a hint there. The students saw this as a way of Iago using personification to show Brabantio that someone bad was with his innocent daughter. But what would make an old black ram bad? Why not call him a “wolf” which would be an obvious danger when associated with a lamb? Then, not even a full page later, Iago says once again “…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse…” Barbary is a region in Africa- a direct reference to Othello’s homeland. Why was race so important in his persuasion? Oh, and just for kicks, let me include when in Act 1, Scene 3, right after Othello has stated his case and Desdemona supports his story, the Duke then says ” If virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” Shakespeare was a master of puns, and had quite a way with words, but his talent does not evade the question of race and its importance/relevance to the story.
I don’t recall any of my English teachers calling any major attention to the fact that Othello was black (besides stating the fact), and I think that this was a great disservice to me as a student. Yes, it is not the most important element of the story, but it is of significance, otherwise Shakespeare would not have included it. I plan on showing the film adaptation, “O”, to the class following the completion of this play. I think that Mekhi Phifer was an excellent “Othello”, Julia Stiles a great “Desdemona”, and Josh Hartnett an amazing “Iago”. The fact that it is set in a boarding prep school setting is also great for my sophomores. I am not afraid to highlight the issues of race and race relations in literature- something that I think is often overlooked in efforts (intentional or otherwise) to avoid the tense discussion that can follow. But since my class is discussion-based, and especially since it is my duty to educate my students, I encourage the discussion. Race, class, culture, and many other elements comprise our dearly beloved classical literature, so if that means discussing the difference between the way white characters and those of color are described in global and American literature, I fully encourage engaging discourse.
When I received the previous year’s curricula, I purposely changed some of the texts my students would be reading. My sophomores will be introduced to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”- the ONLY black author included in this “Global Studies and The Danger of a Single Story”- themed year. My juniors will be introduced to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”- also the ONLY black author included in our “Exploration of American Literature”. There are holes here- holes that I plan to fill with truly global literature, for my sophomores. Authors from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas should be celebrated, and not only those with the most recognized works. I would love to see them read something from a South American or Caribbean author, and I am working on finding literature that would be age-appropriate to expand that horizon. And as far as American Literature, I have included a unit on post-modern African American poetry- a unit that really should have an entire course dedicated to its purpose.
But I have to start somewhere. For now, it is recognizing that Othello is indeed a man who has earned his rank, and not actually an old black ram, running off with Brabantio’s precious white ewe.