Race, Faces, and False Fronts: Shakespearean Signifying in the Colored American Magazine

By Benjamin, Shanna Greene | African American Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Race, Faces, and False Fronts: Shakespearean Signifying in the Colored American Magazine


Benjamin, Shanna Greene, African American Review


    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
   It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
   This debt we pay to human guile;
   With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
   And mouth with myriad subtleties.--Paul Laurence Dunbar, "We
Wear the
   Mask" (1896)
   False face must hide what the false heart doth know.--William
   Shakespeare, Macbeth
 (c.1603-1607) 

In 1843, as African American writers engaged in a fiery quest to banish the mask of servility and reveal the humanity beneath, activist Henry Highland Garnet encouraged both free and enslaved blacks to build their solidarity with the rallying cry "RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE! RESISTANCE!" (96). Twelve years earlier, Maria Stewart, America's first black female political writer and lecturer, asked: "How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?" (38). These sentiments, articulated in antebellum America, were echoed later in the century in the literary and professional projects of several writers who would see their work published in the Colored American Magazine (CAM). As described on its frontispiece, CAM was an "Illustrated Monthly, devoted to Literature, Science, Music, Art, Religion, Facts, Fiction, and Traditions of the Negro Race" that stood at the vanguard of African American social and intellectual achievement at the turn of the century.

Contemporary scholars have recognized the importance of CAM, particularly the literary achievements of its first editor, Pauline Hopkins. (1) Within CAM's pages, writers dedicated to the production of a "high class monthly" (Carter 143) sought to "create a literary and political climate for a black renaissance" that anticipated the efforts of the now-celebrated Harlem Renaissance (Carby xxxi). Extolling the virtue and character of America's black citizens, CAM demanded that blacks have a chance to prove their right to citizenship through excellence in the arts, politics, and education. Its mission, which focused on "replac[ing] the politics of compromise with political demands for changes in social relations," recognized the social, educational, and economic limitations that had been imposed on many newly freed blacks (Carby xxxii), and sought to teach the growing body of free, educated blacks the modes of speech, writing, and behavior that might grant them access to the American Dream. This proved especially tricky, however, given the white backlash against black social and economic advancements during the "nadir." The violence that ran rampant at this time necessitated a political and literary stance that was direct, yet nonconfrontational, inclusive, yet highbrow. Consequently, Shakespeare emerged as a symbol large enough to satisfy the philosophical goals and social limits of this progressive black periodical at the turn of the twentieth century.

Several CAM writers alluded to and signified on Shakespearean texts in their articles, essays, and stories to help substantiate the right of African Americans to assume their place as rightful heirs to American democracy. (2) For example, in 1900 CAM published M. E Hunter's "For Freedman's Rights," an essay that includes a poem recasting Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy through the lens of black disenfranchisement. Likewise, Bob Cole's "The Negro and the Stage," published in 1902, alludes to Shakespeare as a symbol of artistic excellence and references Shakespearean passages that support Cole's quest for nonstereotypical roles for blacks in a theatrical sphere dominated by whites. That same year Pauline Hopkins's novel Hagar's Daughter, serialized in CAM under Hopkins's pseudonym Sarah A. Allen, signified on Macbeth's theme of "false face[s]" to denounce de facto and de jure segregation. (3) This essay will show how these writers engaged issues of black aesthetics and politics in order to lay claim to full citizenship through their distinctive repetitions and revisions of Shakespeare. …

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