(Early) modern literature: crossing the color-line.

Author:Brown, David Sterling


I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.

--W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

When the structure of an academic course poses an intellectual problem, students are bound to a curriculum that requires them to resolve critical issues because it is not simply the literature but the very foundation of the course itself that makes students think. Thus, I conceived of (Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the Color-Line largely by reflecting on a profound undergraduate experience in a Shakespeare class that made me feel both curious and uncomfortable: an instance when Trinity College professor, Milla Cozart Riggio, referred to a scene in Titus Andronicus as a "moment of black power." As the lone African-American student in the room, it felt as though the professor sat Shakespeare directly next to me. In 2013, when I returned as a visiting scholar to Trinity, a small liberal arts college with a predominantly white faculty and student body, I wanted to recreate that experience on a class-wide scale for my students, nearly half of whom were people of color. Therefore, I designed a curriculum that aimed to shift the demographics of a traditional Shakespeare course by placing historically disparate texts and black and white authors in conversation with one another.

On the level of racial representation and inclusivity, the color-line is always crossed in my early modern classroom, even when Shakespeare and his contemporaries are the sole authorial voices, because the authors always enter the room through me. My personal and professional identities, my being African-American and an early modern scholar, are inextricably linked for students who become educated about the English Renaissance through my black voice, from my black body. When I teach, no longer sitting as the sole student of color in an undergraduate early modern classroom, I stand with Shakespeare and he winces not. Crossing the Color-Line altered my pedagogical and personal relationship with Shakespeare. And it was through this course that my students' perspectives on Shakespeare, and his relation to the world around them, also changed.

In Crossing the Color-Line, students re-read early modern texts by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe--primarily through a racial lens--after first studying theories and concepts such as the "color-line," "veil," "mask," and "double-consciousness" articulated by Frederick Douglass in "The Color Line" and W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. (1) Students also used the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature to look forward and consider the African-American experience as depicted in works by James Baldwin, Harriet Jacobs, Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, and Suzan-Lori Parks. As anticipated, synergy developed among the different texts because my students arrived at each class keen on understanding key questions that arose as they read. By the end of the Fall 2013 term, my students devised answers to their questions, answers that were documented weekly in 500-750 word essays called the "inroad" assignment. (2) This writing exercise, from which I will include excerpts, required students to enter into a text with the specific goal of assessing its value within the context of Crossing the Color-Line and in relation to the critical concepts used by Douglass and Du Bois.

Crossing the Color-Line was not simply a foundational course theme that established dialogue between the professional and personal, social and political, past and present, and black and white; "crossing" also defined the actions students took to generate new intellectual ideas and bring more of themselves into the classroom. As I argue, a radical course such as Crossing the Color-Line showcases, through literature and other media, how instructors can transcend identity politics to construct a methodology and pedagogy that intricately connects the academic to the personal and experiential. Because Shakespeare was not the sole authorial voice in the room, or the only early modern author in our syllabus, Crossing the Color-Line actively rejected the homogeneity one can often find in an early modern classroom. For one thing, by not being Shakespeare-centric, the course valued the female perspective and resisted an androcentric authorial focus. For another, by positioning "the problem of the color-line" as relevant in the early modern period, the combined study of African-American and early modern English texts challenged critical race studies to include pre-nineteenth-century literature (Du Bois 9).

W.E.B. Du Bois: Sitting with a "Racist"?

In one of our initial class discussions, at least one of my students was not persuaded by Du Bois' assertion (and this essay's epigraph): "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not" (67). (3) During our examination of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in week two, a student declared that "Shakespeare was a racist," a claim primarily based on the dramatist's portrayal of cultural others, such as Aaron the Moor, as inferior and barbaric in comparison to the play's Roman characters such as Titus--someone who kills two of his own children. This student boldly called out what seemed to be an obvious double-standard. However, the controversial "racist Shakespeare" formulation briefly silenced the class; my students' facial expressions revealed that not everyone agreed. Ultimately, "Shakespeare was a racist" offered a key, and memorable, point of inquiry in a course that concentrated on the historical and cultural context of race, prejudice, and racism, as well as other social issues. If, in fact, Shakespeare was a racist--if modern notions of race are actually applicable in the period, another question students considered-then why doesn't Shakespeare "wince," as Du Bois notes, when sitting next to a black man? After the uncomfortable moment of silence, my students began to challenge respectfully the "racist Shakespeare" notion by dissecting the African-American author's language.


On the most basic level, class members reasoned that, by sitting with Shakespeare, Du Bois metaphorically crossed the Postbellum color-line. He advertised his personal agency by clarifying whose choice it was to sit next to whom. His color-line assertion, which expands on Douglass' previously mentioned work in "The Color Line," bridged the disparate texts in the course by rhetorically uniting the black and white authors. And Du Bois' allusions-not only to Shakespeare but to other great non-American, white rhetoricians and philosophers such as Balzac and Dumas, Aristotle and Aurelius-emerged as contradictions for my students (67). If Du Bois, serving as a synecdochic representation of black people, could "sit with," "move arm and arm with," and even "summon," as he proclaims, the previously named white people, then why couldn't black people also coexist with white people in America (67)? In the context of Souls of Black Folk, my students reasoned that Shakespeare was not racist. They concluded that Du Bois exploits the "cultural capital" and brand recognition represented by Shakespeare, transforming the early playwright into a politically charged rhetorical weapon black people can use to fight prejudice, racism, and socio-political inequity (Guillory vii-xiv).

One of the things that made Du Bois' Shakespeare allusion so fascinating for my students was how it implies that education shaped Du Bois' reality. Similar to his white American counterparts, Du Bois "consumed Shakespeare and ... his name" (Sturgess 15); afterwards, Du Bois deployed his knowledge of England's esteemed dramatist for his own literary audience by invoking Shakespeare's name and echoing his poetic style through blank verse. Commenting on an African-American character in Du Bois' text, one student noted in an inroad assignment, "John left home because he wanted to better his community and himself by getting an education. He sought to cross the color-line." (4) John, much like Du Bois himself, defies America's Jim Crow laws by metaphorically sitting with the white man. In Souls, Du Bois suggests Shakespeare can teach black and white America, and the world, about tolerance and race as we...

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