Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Racial Dissonance/Canonical Texts: Teaching Early Modern Literary Texts in the Late Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Racial Dissonance/Canonical Texts: Teaching Early Modern Literary Texts in the Late Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

In teaching Shakespeare's Othello and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) to American students in the late 1990s, one quickly notes the racial fault lines in the class and in the United States. Despite the prolific--almost feveris--muse of terms like "multiculturalism" and "multi-ethnic," most Americans recognize "race" as a catchall term for the relationship between African Americans and those of European descent--a relationship that is inseparable from the origins of American national identity in a period that spawned both the concept of democratic rights and the institution of slavery: Questions touching upon this complex history inevitably emerge in my fairly multiracial and urban classroom, as, for instance, when we discuss the following passage from Oroonoko:

(this passage deals with the female [European] narrator's description of Oroonoko, the "noble slave"):

This great and just character of Oroonoko gave me an extreme curiosity

to see him, especially when I knew he spoke French and English and

that I could talk with him.... He was pretty tall, but of a shape the

most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not

form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His

face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are,

but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most aweful that

could be seen and very piercing, the white of 'em being like snow, as

were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and

flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those

great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The

whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed

that "bating [excepting] his colour" there could be nothing in nature

more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. (11-12)

Whether I discuss Oroonoko in a course structured by the ideological underpinnings of colonial history or focus on the formal aspects of the novel in an introductory fiction/literature course (and I have done both), the students' racially coded responses to this passage are quite remarkable in their predictability. Not only do African American students respond more subjectively--and often with some anxiety and anger--to the narrator's implicit denigration of physical features "so natural" to "Negroes," but they also frequently interpose experiential narratives of their own interracial relations into Oroonoko's story. And if I do not keep the reins on the class discussion, it can stretch the limits of intellectual debate and elide ideological issues into students' personal concerns. Quickly recognizing that the criteria of beauty used by the narrator to extol Oroonoko's nobility are entirely European and Caucasian, black students reflect concerns and anxieties about their own appearance, skin color, and body types. Of course, the Europeans and other groups in the classroom also pick up the implicit racism of the passage and link it to the narrator's earlier matter-of-fact description of the enslavement of Africans in the West Indian plantation economy. However, when they frequently introduce their own narratives of race relations into the discussion, these are often different and even antagonistic to the African American accounts. And more importantly, students of European descent find it easier to relegate the early modern representations of "race" and racism to the past, marking easy historical divisions between "then" and "now." While cultural conflicts often remain unresolved in these discussions of texts such as Othello and Oroonoko, the students nonetheless learn that we inevitably interpret the past in terms of the present.

My aim here--in this glimpse into my classes--is not to essentialize the identities and responses of all students in terms of their race or to stress the experiential as the basis for theorizing the economic and political production of racial divisions; rather, I wish to address New Critics and others who complain that literary works have been reduced to "sociological documents" by those of us who teach literature in the context of history and ideology. …

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