Make Toni Morrison, James Baldwin required reading for the next generation
Even with a writer like Shakespeare’s immense impact on the world, should it still be required?
Like many college students, I dread studying Shakespeare.
As a young Black man learning what it means to be Black in America, it has been incredibly frustrating that I have been required to study white authors such as Shakespeare with racist texts, but have had to go out of my way to read authors such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison that write extensively about white supremacy and racism.
My professors justify Shakespeare by referencing his impact on the English language. How we quote him without even realizing when we say things like “tongue-twisted” or “in a pickle” or about how the themes his plays explore, like love and greed, are relevant today.
After 2020’s racial reckoning, colleges should develop required courses focused on Black authors that write about racial inequality, such as Morrison and Baldwin. By studying Black literature, students will have a better understanding of the racial inequalities in America, opening a dialogue to move closer to equality.
English 467: Shakespeare remains a requirement for English majors at my school, Springfield College. African American literature is available but it isn’t required.
This is a time when America is in a near-daily struggle around systemic racism. Protests have filled the streets from Washington to Washington state. Monuments to Confederate leaders have been torn down. Schools and sports teams have changed names to move away from racist connections. As we begin a new year, it’s the perfect time to implement required courses in Baldwin, Morrison and other Black authors who write extensively about the Black experience in America.
For instance, the racism embedded in Shakespeare’s plays, such as that in Othello and many others, has negatively impacted how Black people can appreciate his much-celebrated work. While eliminating or editing racist lines, like some directors do, makes Black audiences more comfortable with the work, other texts are much more relevant to the lived experiences of young Black people and people of color today.
In his plays, Shakespeare often compares Black characters to animals. In Othello, Iago says to Brabantio about Othello, “Even now, very now, an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe.” In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio swears he’ll marry whomever Leonato asks him as the punishment for his treatment of Hero. He says, “I’ll hold my mind was she an Ethiope.” In other words, Claudio is saying he wouldn’t change his mind even if Leonato’s choice were a Black woman.
Othello, a nobleman who fought many wars, is treated with little respect. He’s often called “The Moor” instead of his actual name. Othello’s experience is an example today that no matter how successful Black people are, they will always be crippled by their skin color. While many scholars have argued that Shakespeare depicts racism in his plays to condemn it, not to promote it, the fact remains that the racist lines make it challenging for Black audiences to appreciate these plays in the same way that white audiences and performers can.
Despite resisting the role for years, Hugh Quarshie, a British-Ghanaian actor, played Othello in 2015. Quarshie discussed his hesitance to take the part in a debate hosted by the Royal Shakespeare Company titled, Is Othello a Racist Play?
“The conventions and the traditions, both literary and theatrical, reinforced the notion that Shakespeare and Cinthio were suggesting that Black people behave as they do because of their ethnicity,” he said. “Whenever a moor appeared, that usually signaled something menacing or a threat to the social moral and sexual order of society.”
Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” As Black people and people of color continue to be lynched on camera and discriminated against across America, we must use the tool of education to move closer to equality and living this country’s ideals.
It’s time for education to shift tradition and make required courses more inclusive of the Black experience.
For Black people, authors such as Morrison and Baldwin have much more relevance in understanding America’s racial dynamics and how to navigate the world as a Black person.
For white readers, these writers’ works would give them insight into the Black experience in America, and how they could use their privilege to help change the racial divide.
The Bluest Eye by Morrison is a fictional story about Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl mocked for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes. She wishes for blond hair and blue eyes that are seemingly beautiful. This story challenges readers to confront how white supremacy affects our view of beauty and how that impacts Black women.
Notes of a Native Son by Baldwin is a collection of essays that describe the Black experience during the 1950s. In the first essay titled, The Discovery of What it Means to be an American, he writes, “I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. [Sometimes I still do.] I wanted to prevent myself from being merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.”
Baldwin’s quote emphasizes how, in America, Black people are viewed by their color before being viewed as people. His essays, as well as Morrison’s texts, articulate the Black American experience while also showing how class, sexuality and gender play a role in Black people’s oppression.
Even with a writer like Shakespeare’s immense impact on the world, there is no need to perpetuate the racism in his texts by requiring students to study his work.
Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Educators won’t end racism, of course, but colleges could require students to read Black writers that force them to confront racial inequality in America if there is a hope to make any change.