Why should ethnic minority students care about Shakespeare?

US academics consider how the Bard can be taught to students who may feel he has nothing to offer them

August 24, 2018
A jester

“What is the role of institutions like ours when white supremacy is resurgent?”

That was the question posed by Mike Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, at a conference on “Shakespeare and Race” held at Shakespeare’s Globe in London earlier this month. He was addressing an audience of critical race theorists, early modern historians, Shakespeare scholars and theatre practitioners.

A paper by Margo Hendricks, professor emerita of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, recalled a visit to South Africa in 1996 when a student asked a question that stimulated much of her subsequent scholarly writing: “Given the uses to which Shakespearean texts have functioned as an imperialist/colonialist weapon, why would (or should) black people engage with Shakespeare?”

Professor Hendricks greatly welcomed the work of a small group of black scholars whose “insistence on the study of ‘blackness’, race and the non-European body (especially those of African origins) [had] redefined the reading practices of undergraduates, graduate students and even some faculty colleagues”.

Other academics explored the implications for the classroom.

Tripthi Pillai, associate professor of English at Coastal Carolina University, described a student – “a queer black woman, a native of rural South Carolina and a first-generation college-goer” – who had said to her: “Maybe it’s because I’m black, but I feel Shakespeare’s just not for me.” To address such concerns, she had adopted a number of strategies. One was to “insist that student-scholars engage at length with the work of at least two female and two non-white scholars” in their research essays. Another was to ask them to address not only the question “How am I to feel about X or Y play?” but also “What and how does the play feel about me?”

Patricia Akhimie, associate professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, recalled a project where her students created a glossary of terms relating to early modern writing and race, “tracing [the use of a word] in two or more primary sources and its explications in two or more secondary sources”. This enabled them to “feel the power” of expertise and also to learn a crucial lesson about race: “There is confusion at the start of the semester when they believe that race is a real thing, and not a social construct we are creating all the time.” 

It was left to Ruben Espinosa, associate professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso, to consider “how Latinx students and, more specifically, Chicanx [Mexican-American] students…engage Shakespeare”. He described “non-traditional performances of Shakespeare through mediums such as YouTube, but also appropriations that derive from the peripheral space of the US-Mexico borderlands”. These included “an appropriation of Macbeth” produced by his own students “at the tail end of the worst period of [drug] cartel violence in Juárez, Mexico”, in which they referenced “an actual incident where 16 people – mostly teenagers – were gunned down at a house party in Juárez as the framing device”.

Such initiatives, suggested Dr Espinosa, could “open up an array of possibilities in bridging the Shakespeare-Latinx divide”. It was time to “discover another Shakespeare” – who anyway, if the celebrated Chandos portrait is a true likeness, “kinda looks like a Chicano”.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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