Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Decolonizing Othello in Search of Black Feminist North American Identities: Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet and Toni Morrison’s Desdemona

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Decolonizing Othello in Search of Black Feminist North American Identities: Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet and Toni Morrison’s Desdemona

Article excerpt

"Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness"

(Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark)

"For African Canadians, African America signifies resistance, vitality, 'nation', community, grace, art, pride, clout, spirituality and soul. It is a cluster of attractive qualities we crave for ourselves"

(George Elliott Clarke, Odysseys home)


The two epigraphs above emphasize the deciding dilemmas African Americans and African Canadians have historically wrestled with, respectively, in their declaration of a national identity. If, as Toni Morrison concedes, "[a]s a metaphor for transacting the whole process of Americanization [...] [the] Africanist presence may be something the United States cannot do without" (1993: 47), the experience of African Canadians has often been intermeshed into a misconception that somehow has managed to blur black Canadian identity into a homogeneous American Otherness. In this light, African Canadian scholar and writer George Elliott Clarke has noticed that "[u]ntil the onset of major black immigration from the Caribbean basin in the mid-1950s, European Canadians imagined African Canadians as onceand-always Americans" (2002: 71). Despite Rinaldo Walcott's suggestion that "selfconscious diasporic affiliations offer a way out of the mess that modern nation-states represent for black peoples" (2003: 20), African Canadians' primordial experience is inextricably linked to the slave trade and its aftermath in North America and, therefore, to the history of African America. In this light, it is undeniable that "African American texts enter into and inform African Canadian texts with hegemonic regularity" (Clarke, 2002: 37).

Accordingly, and despite the perpetual white denial of Canada's own history of slavery, the process of literary identity-building for black people both in the US and Canada has definitely been rooted in the consequences of slavery and the African diaspora, that is to say, it has to be inevitably understood by looking back to the European sources of cultural hegemony that shaped the Africanist presence "under pressures of ideological and imperialistic rationales for subjugation" (Morrison, 1993: 8). However, the end of the 20th century, especially after the publication of Paul Gilroy's influential book The black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness (1993a), witnessed the reconfiguration and rethinking of the black self "engaged in various struggles towards emancipation, autonomy and citizenship" (Gilroy, 1993a: 16). This, together with the rise of postcolonial studies, spurred black writers to revise hegemonic writings and put them to the service of their quest for identity.1

Signifying upon European texts that could attest to a new definition of what it means to be black in North America also helped African Canadians to enhance a sort of black nationalism that, in Clarke's words, emerged "situated at the crossroads of a Pan-Africanism with strong roots in African America" (in Fraile-Marcos, 2014: 115). The representation of a black national character in Canada is upheld at the expense of the intersecting thrusts it shares with the conflicting history that African Americans have for so long fought to preserve. It is at this point when the two plays I am going to analyze cross paths in their search for a genuine identity that can recompose the idea of blackness both in the US and Canada. In this paper I would like to argue that Harlem duet (1997), by African Canadian playwright Djanet Sears, and Desdemona (2012), by Toni Morrison, revise Shakespeare's classic Othello with an eye to redefining black (female) identity within US and Canadian contexts. Both plays rely on the Africanist presence to openly insert blackness in the reconfiguration of a new social reality that can balance and apprehend the conjugation of transcultural black epistemologies both in the US and Canada. In spite of black Canadians' penchant of African American cultural representations, Sears' play proposes a specific reading of Canadiannes in dialogue with African America through a feminist vision of the black self that opens up a possibility for healing and inclusion. …

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