image credit: Shakespeare’s Globe
Over the past 10 days I have been thinking about how privileged I am to be able to do the work I do: to read and teach Shakespeare, to critically think and write about how the artistic and cultural legacies of the past ripple through time to affect our present. While this work is a privilege, it is not a luxury. In fact, sometimes, it’s a tax. As I attended the many events around the Globe’s conference on Shakespeare and Race, it became clear to me just how pervasive and systemic the cost of this labor was on the people engaged in it. What made the work simultaneously meaningful and taxing is the seemingly herculean task of undoing the centuries of erasure of black and brown bodies, of non-European geographies, and the processes and ramifications of imperial projects. In other words, the monumental task of exposing the whitewashing project in which our discipline along with others, like history, philosophy, sociology, etc. have been engaged falls to those people who usually occupy culturally marginalized identities. The stakes are therefore doubled, as is the skepticism that sometimes greets our work.
The Globe’s excellent programming, helmed by Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education Research, facilitated conversations that crossed disciplinary boundaries and yoked performance to theory, bringing together theater professionals and academics to promote an intellectually robust conversation about why attending to race in Shakespeare remains important and marginalized in our respective areas of inquiry. From the workshop on Staging Race and Diversity, the performance of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, to the Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture by Professor Kim F. Hall, and conversations between practitioners in panels such as “Women and Theatre in Britain,” and “Playing Othello,” the Globe took very seriously how scholarly and theatrical work obscures the presence of Black and other POC. They also took up and interrogated the logic of color blindness and color blind casting which preserve whiteness because the premise undergirding the notion that “I don’t see color,” is that I, as a white person, occupy the privileged color-less position from which I can make that determination about other people who do inhabit “colored” bodies. Part of that historical whitewashing project has then been, in the 20th and 21st centuries, to erase race, to make Black and other POC complicit in the process of white racial impersonation. What I heard from all of the speakers and participants was an emphatic rejection of that mandate and a call to embody and celebrate our own subjectivities and histories in Shakespeare.
The two-day scholarly symposium “Shakespeare and Race Across Borders,” offered a chance for scholars of early modern race studies (EMRS) to present our work before interlocutors who took our field as important, legitimate, and rigorous. Every speaker started from the position that we didn’t have to perform the usual disclaimers about race in period. No more quotation marks around race, suggesting that it was not real; no more divorcing race from bodies marked as suitable and appropriate for racing; and no more elision of empire or nation, which has a material and vested interest in racial formations. Starting off our conversation were legal and Critical Race Theory scholars: Luke Harris, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Devon Carbado, all of whom offered us a lens through which to critique institutional practices that are designed to preserve the status quo, specifically the power and domain of whiteness. Luke Harris pointed out that the logic of color blindness, that we are all colorless, offers security to the white majority because then society does not have to talk about racial remediation. Moreover, to enact equitable racial remediation is not to favor one group but it is to challenge the over-representation of whiteness in all institutional and cultural hierarchies. Therefore, the power of color blindness is insidious because it makes white the unmarked norm, and enhances the power of whiteness. Similarly, Kimberlé Crenshaw exposed how color blindness or other similar epistemologies that do not interrogate the collusion of dominant structures/systems/institutions with racial thinking disclose a familiar punitive trope when it comes to Black and other POC, that they are “almost” educated, qualified, sufficient. This punitive trope is a disciplinary constant: it’s the use of racialized power to discipline and delegitimize critiques of racialized power as well as the people performing those critiques. Devon Carbado signaled where the rubber hits the proverbial road, when it comes to the specific processes that CRT has identified as the local and everyday operations of race, such as implicit bias. Carbado asked if there were any specific sites of bias in Shakespeare studies or performance, such as who is seen as a scholar of Shakespeare, what your scholarship is, the delegitimization of race scholarship, and in casting, directing, stage-craft, and audience. How does implicit bias work in all of these arenas? An important point that Carbado stressed was that it’s easy to think of implicit bias as individual, and we must resist that to see it as systemic, as a kind of training that makes it very easy to locate negative traits and characteristics in Black people, and so even as institutions have embraced implicit bias as a way to handle race-based problems, it must be put in the context of all forms of racial power.
The framing of Shakespeare and Race scholarship in the context of CRT allowed for, I think, the very clear interventions that all of the speakers that followed were making in the field to be made visible. These interventions were both vital and urgent but also seemed a long time coming, given how our work has been marginally positioned in the broader context of Shakespeare studies. All of the speakers from our fearless senior-scholar leaders to those just beginning their careers examined how thinking through race, positioning race as a theoretical methodology and material reality through which to interrogate our field, offered a better more complete understanding of Shakespeare and the early modern period. Moreover, what we come to understand by doing so, even in a small way, is that race is everywhere; it is commonplace; and to ignore it is a deliberate act of erasure, which must also be thoroughly interrogated. As I write this, I’m reminded of the black boy in the oven, who Kim Hall mentioned in her talk. How easily he became an object of curiosity, and how easily his history, the history of his racialized body, and the history of the British Empire’s reliance on racialized bodies all get ignored and erased in our examinations of Shakespeare’s work and historical period. Race work is being done with much critical attention and care by scholars of color, but other people need to get on board. If they are on board, then they need to acknowledge the work that has already been done, the scholarly archive that already exists, and move that work forward. EMRS doesn’t need Columbuses: it needs critical recognition and material validation from the gatekeepers of our field. The Shakespeare and Race symposium at the Globe was an excellent start.