To Teach Shakespeare for Survival: Talking with David Sterling Brown and Arthur L. Little Jr.

This is the second installment of Antiracist Praxis, a three-part series exploring the relationship between antiracism and humanistic inquiry. Presented in partnership with the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies, this series explores our collective responsibility to create a just community. Read series editor Tita Chico’s introduction here.
“Nostalgia is not what Shakespeare represents for me; I don’t want to make Shakespeare great again. He doesn’t need that, and neither do we.”

In 2020, the tragic state-sanctioned murders of Black people continued at an alarming rate; from the January killing of Tyree Davis to the March murder of Breonna Taylor and beyond, bullets rained down. With that persistent, untamed anti-Black violence, with the continued need to protest in the streets and #SayHerName and #SayHisName, came renewed hyperawareness of human fragility and vulnerability for many Black people, regardless of class, gender, age, sexuality, and other personal identity markers. The trauma was, and is, collective.

In the personal-critical-experiential conversation that follows, two Black men, two Black Shakespeareans—Dr. David Sterling Brown (Binghamton University, SUNY) and Dr. Arthur L. Little Jr. (UCLA)—reflect on the importance of putting the streets and their teaching/research in conversation, as they discuss navigating Shakespeare, anti-Blackness, and the academy.

David Sterling Brown (DSB): What does it mean for us as Black academics to exist inside these academies and work on Shakespeare right now, especially as we witness the state-sanctioned murders of Black men and women, and even children? It is impossible, in this specific moment, to separate the real violence in the streets from the institutional, or more covert, violence we get hit with professionally inside Shakespeare studies.


Arthur L. Little Jr. (AL): It’s all very real. And it exposes a brutal truth that doesn’t square well with either white people’s nostalgia for an America that never was, or an American or universal Shakespeare that traps us inside this same nostalgia. It’s the reason so many Black Shakespeareans have experienced a barrage of questions: What is it that you want to do here? Why are you here? Why are you interloping into Shakespeare studies? Why aren’t you doing Black studies?

It’s all rather cringeworthy. Such questions make it difficult (but not impossible) to do one’s research and teaching—particularly in an environment and climate where we’re policed for how we think and talk about Shakespeare.


DSB: There is this nostalgia for a particular kind of Shakespeare, for a particular way of receiving his plays that allows his whiteness, and racialized whiteness in general, to get exalted in a critically unchecked way that is dangerous for you, for me, and for all who inhabit Black bodies. The rendering of whiteness as invisible, that’s something I have grappled with as a Shakespeare and premodern critical race studies scholar over the years. And that’s because my Shakespeare isn’t nostalgic, isn’t part of that peculiar particularity.

That particularity is what sometimes bothers people who say they love Shakespeare. Because when I take his literature and examine it in the context of how it perpetuates ideas about sexual violence against Black men, for instance, my thinking becomes a problem for some. Yet, it’s all right there. The emerging racial stereotypes, the biases, the xenophobia is all right there, artistically displayed in the literature.

We cannot escape the pervasiveness of (anti-Black) racism in Shakespeare, which reveals itself overtly when Black Othello gets hypersexualized and referred to as “thick-lips.” It reveals itself covertly in the Black/white imagery of many plays, including Romeo and Juliet, which often positions black as “so base a hue” in comparison to white—I couldn’t resist an allusion to Shakespeare’s Aaron in act 4, scene 2 of Titus Andronicus there.

To me, putting it succinctly, the nostalgia is a lie. That’s something teachers, scholars, readers, and theater practitioners need to confront as we all continue thinking about Shakespeare, race, and racism. Whiteness being linked to property is something you have introduced Shakespeareans to through your scholarship, Arthur. And it’s so clear that the nostalgia for a specific kind of Shakespeare is linked both to white people’s desired ownership over this dramatist, over his work, over the history, and to their pathological need to own Black bodies and minds. This is even true for some nonwhite people who have internalized whiteness and white supremacy.

For instance, Desdemona and Hamlet are often pedestalized, and I can’t help but wonder if that connects to nostalgia, because Desdemona gives us a certain type of virtuous white womanhood. And Hamlet offers a certain type of white manhood, linked to introspectiveness and intellectualism, that gets revered, all while we consider nostalgia as an activating force within the academy that enables certain people to belong automatically.

Moreover, it can enable them to claim space in ways that Black scholars cannot. What type of professor would Hamlet be? He certainly wouldn’t look like you or I! And his wit and intellectual depth likely would not be called “arrogance” in student evaluations—a charge leveled against us Black scholars, whose skin color is a target for the racism and prejudice that negatively influence perceptions and assessments of us.

And I say the nostalgia is a lie because it’s arbitrarily something people choose to believe and invest in. There are limits to that nostalgia, though. You, Dr. Little, can’t go to those nostalgic places because of who you are and what you look like—and neither can I. That nostalgia is not what Shakespeare represents for me; I don’t want to make Shakespeare great again. He doesn’t need that, and neither do we.

When I reflect on past conversations we’ve had, the term “fun” keeps rearing its head. Because I rarely get to have genuine fun when I do this intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally difficult work. My experience is very different compared to, say, the person who is nostalgic for Shakespeare because they just love how beautiful the language is.

That approach won’t save my life or yours. It won’t save the lives of Black girls, Black boys, and Black women. Given modern police brutality, street violence, and rhetorical violence—which are all part of our lived experience and Black people’s collective trauma—I must approach and teach Shakespeare in terms of survival, for it is impossible to separate the racialized violence of the text from the racialized violence of the street, or the street from the academy.


AL: And the violence is just our problem. Again and again, the push from a lot of white Shakespeare scholars is, “That’s about Black people.” It keeps coming back to this notion that, when you’re talking about race, you really are just talking about Black people, and that has nothing to do with us white folk.


DSB: Tired logic, exhausting. For me, we are doing something we love, whether that’s Shakespeare or race work or Shakespeare and race work together, but, at the same time, not all institutions support Black people having the freedom to operate how we might like.

You mentioned something about landmines in a separate conversation, and how we’re constantly having to navigate the field and the world, avoiding these landmines. That’s an apt visual for me, because sometimes it is impossible to avoid the landmines, institutionally or otherwise. One minute, I’m in deep thought about Shakespeare and Timon of Athens, or I’m preparing my teaching lessons; the next minute, a police officer draws their gun and shoots.

For me, the Shakespeare work comes to a halt. I break, to honor the dead, the murdered. I must break, to #SayHerName. To #SayHisName. I have to mourn and process the collective trauma. I have to remind folks, and even myself sometimes, that Black lives matter.

And then there are protests happening in the street and modern lynching videos being televised and circulated on social media, and it all makes me wonder: How separate is the street from the field? For you, how separate is the street from Shakespeare studies or the academy?


AL: It isn’t. Right? No, it isn’t.

One thing I keep coming back to is Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark discussing how white critics go so deliberatively about the business of lobotomizing white American literature, surgically cutting out its racial/racist sublimations. One of the things we start to appreciate as Black Shakespeare scholars, especially since the 1990s, has been this insistent and persistent history of the overdetermined lobotomizing of Shakespeare by dominant cultural criticism in the name of an institutional whiteness. What kind of aesthetic and epistemological work do Black bodies and Black body parts do in Shakespeare? For example, Juliet as “a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” (Romeo and Juliet) or the Black Egyptian woman’s “brow” in contradistinction to Helen’s beauty (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Again, I return to a text I love, Stephanie H. Jed’s 1989 book Chaste Thinking, on the birth of humanism in Renaissance Florence. That phrase of hers, “chaste thinking,” is one that really characterizes what I would call “the grand humanist gesture.” It is this notion of these compartments, this separating of our lives into these bits and pieces: “Here, I am the person,” or, “Here, I am the professor. Here, I’m teaching. Here, I’m the researcher.” And it is convenient for us when we need to compartmentalize and focus on a particular point, in the way I would imagine—to get way out of our area of expertise here—that in a science lab one would isolate a particular problem in order to pick away at it, before coming back to the larger story, or what have you.

What self-aggrandizing white humanists often don’t see is that all they’re doing in those instances is looking at the discipline, the heuristic, they’ve created and saying, “Oh, that’s it. That’s real.” They’re just holding a mirror up to the discipline and they’ve become determinedly ignorant of the fact that a discipline only allows us to create a working vocabulary to help us appreciate specificity, gather some clarity.

To do certain kinds of work, we have to return to the larger and denser and more complex project. So often, lobotomizing scholars can just carry on. They worship at the altar of the discipline itself. They look in that mirror and say, “Ah, the truth lies in my whiteness, in my reality, my objective perception of the world.” It’s that reality James Baldwin is talking about in The Fire Next Time, when he says, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” It’s white scholars working comfortably and nostalgically inside a hermetic white humanism.

DSB: Well, that objective perception, that “truth,” I must say, is akin to the nostalgia. It, too, is a lie—for white scholars and all who operate with internalized whiteness and anti-Blackness.


AL: I love how Shakespeare’s works, even in this lobotomizing context, expose some of the ways language can become dangerously reductive. Shakespeare pushes repeatedly to make us conscious of the fact that social and political agents deploy language to create us (any us) and also destroy us. We see a rather cynical demonstration of this in the “band of brothers” speech in Henry V, where the king renders the common soldiers as kinfolk, as elites, even as he, Circe-like, turns them into panting beasts.

And a lot of that reductive intellectual aggression comes out of the way language can become, almost by definition, a reductive force. And one of the things we see then, especially when it comes to considering racial constructions in and around Shakespeare, is a pushback against our work, an attempt to turn it into caricature: “Oh, are you saying that Shakespeare is a racist?” No. “Are you saying Shakespeare is an antiracist?” Hell no!

I recall one critic writing, for example, that Shakespearean critical race scholars want to take any mention of “black” and argue that it’s racial. And I recall another scholar saying to a Black scholar during a Q&A, following the latter’s presentation, that his seeing significance in Shylock’s description of Antonio’s “fair flesh” (The Merchant of Venice) only exposes the presenter as somehow racially delusional, not just about the play but about Shakespeare’s white racial innocence.

There’s an attempt to pull one into these reductive narratives because those reductive narratives, in the end, can only serve certain kinds of institutional power. Thus, that’s where some people want us as Black Shakespeareans: “Why are you here? What are you here to do?” As though we arrive “guilty-like,”1 surreptitiously readying ourselves to topple the statue of Shakespeare.


DSB: I do ask myself: What am I here to do? It’s a big question, one that makes me consider how I have branded my own work and thought about my own antiracist agenda.

So, when I see, for instance, the pushback we get in our classrooms and in our scholarship (whew!), I get very textual, because the multifaceted nature of Shakespeare’s work facilitates opportunities to articulate certain kinds of critiques.

I appreciate receiving that question about whether or not Shakespeare was racist. I know that’s not a question you or I are interested in answering definitively. Really, who is? I am interested, however, in exploring the workings of the (anti-Black) racism evident in Shakespeare’s texts. Othello, Titus Andronicus, and even Hamlet perpetuate racism or anti-Blackness. Absolutely, they do! But that’s not the question. The real question is: How can we use those anti-Black moments critically? How can we use them productively in the classroom? In research? In theater?

Such questions lead me to embed activism into my teaching and my scholarship by showing students that social justice is about more than words. In my classroom students must know that Black lives matter, yes. But they must also know it is not enough to say that or virtue signal by, for example, passively posting a black square as a profile picture on social media. Rather, the action, the activism—that’s a crucial part of antiracist work. What are you doing? That’s the angle folks need to come at this from. That’s why you and I are having this conversation: to enact, and instigate, the activism that needs to happen in the education sector at large and beyond.

AL: And we know that activism is used by a resistant or racist academy to reduce the Black Shakespeare scholar to bits of sound bites, so that one’s immense intellectual and disciplinary training gets rescripted in this minstrel-like, reductive way.

As Black scholars, we, along with other scholars of color, know so many of these academic institutions demand, often coercively, that we present ourselves as “nice.” It’s a thing. We know we’re being asked not to out the structures of white terror subtending the whole enterprise of white mythmaking.

One of the things that seems so horrifying at times is that, even with all the acrobatics we do to keep from completely upsetting the apple cart, there is still this tremendous pushback. And it is done in the name of humanistic objectivity—whereas, in fact, it is nothing short of a humanistic violence, which can’t be separated from white supremacist violence and nostalgia for a white past. We saw this in the streets of Charlottesville, VA, in 2017, and on the steps of the US Capitol in January 2021.


DSB: As a Black Shakespeare scholar, it’s difficult not to grapple with these facts. And my saying this in no way relieves white and non-Black scholars from assuming their ethical responsibility to do the same.


This article was commissioned by Tita Chico and Carolyn Dever. icon

  1. A reference to Othello’s act 3, scene 3, when Iago says of Cassio: “No, sure, I cannot think it, / That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing you coming.”
Featured image: Image of Paul Robeson used in the advertisement for the Columbia Masterworks Records release of Othello in Life magazine (1945). Wikimedia.