Matthew ‘Kupakwashe’ Murrell writes about the third week of his Emerging Directors Residency, a collaboration between Fresh Milk and the National Cultural Foundation (NCF). Having extended his time at Fresh Milk to continue his research and exploration around the play ‘Shakespeare’s Nigga’, Matthew had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Sean Benson, a professor at University of Dubuque, USA who specializes in Shakespeare and is currently on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados. Read more about their thought provoking discussion below:
Dr. Sean Benson in conversation with Matthew ‘Kupakwashe’ Murrell
This week was a short week, but this post won’t be short; though short, it was still relatively impactful.
On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Dr. Sean Benson, a US professor specializing in Shakespeare. We had quite an extensive and enlightening conversation. I had my questions ready to discover some truths about Shakespeare, but the conversation didn’t go as I’d imagined. We’ve both discovered Shakespeare’s impact on the US is not necessarily as deep and as complex as it is in the West Indies. Within my research, I wanted to uncover Shakespeare’s invasive legacy onto the Caribbean space as a tool of socio-political, race related, educational and literary oppression. Many of these things Sean didn’t know, but totally understood how it could be so, being as we both agreed that after the Bible, the next series of literary oppression to the enslaved Africans and free Africans would be the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare in the US, is not Shakespeare in the West Indies. As Sean stated, Shakespeare isn’t putting anyone on the back burner in America, as America has been more diverse in its literary scene. Many American and non-American writers dominate their spaces, with Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes and even Samuel Beckett having their dedicated audiences, and even festivals in their names. Whereas on this island, every year in Holder’s Season, Shakespeare is met with bourgeoisie audiences, expensive tickets and a class privilege one must hold; let’s not forget Gale Theatre as well and their Shakesperian contribution.
In our society, for many years, to know and understand Shakespeare, his ‘classics’, sonnets and the iambic pentameter, showed your level of intelligence and social status, or potential for these things. Sean also mentioned that his UWI students (who he believes are being overworked!) come into the classroom knowing more about Shakespeare, almost twice as much as his American students! Yet, though he himself says he’s a fan of Derek Walcott, can’t say the same for his Caribbean students. I introduced my new buddy to the works of some of my favourite Caribbean playwrights and poets, Kamau Brathwaite, Denis Scott and Earl John, to have a feel for some awesome Caribbean classics.
Sean and I also delved into the Moor characters, Aaron and Othello, and this is where I learned a lot and discovered some greatness to employ in Shakespeare’s Nigga. Sean gave me a basic timeline for Aaron, from Titus Andronicus being the first mention of a Moor in Shakespeare’s earliest works. Though the writing of the play and staging of it were two different times, it was staged before slavery ever started. Interestingly enough, Aaron is a slave that carries out deadly deeds in the name of the crown and persecuted for it. My question was, how would Shakespeare have met with Moors at that time? Apparently, Mr. Shakespeare would’ve befriended a Moor living in the UK and, as writers do, felt compelled to understand his friend’s culture and write about it, as a challenge to himself. Sean also believes that Othello is an evolved character based on Aaron, basically a Moor going from slavery to being a free man, with Othello being written much later in Shakespeare’s life. I found it interesting that Shakespeare in his time would’ve been seen as a very progressive writer, who wrote for the unspoken for, defied the traditional way of writing and gave not only a black man a voice, but women a more powerful voice at the time. It’s interesting to see how a meager living playwright could centuries later be considered the ‘pinnacle’ of literary greatness. (Something to aspire to! Hmmm). Also funny, when same said meager playwright, whose profession was seen as lower than low, centuries later is heralded by the bourgeoisie. When Othello was staged, Sean informed me, that it was the most hated of Shakespeare’s plays for many reasons.
- At the time, the Aristole way of playmaking was to write about Kings and Queens, and though army generals might seem noble, it’s not noble enough! (Noble Othello! – or not so much)
- How dare you, Shakespeare, write a play about a black man! Especially when at the time you wrote that play, Europe was about to embark on the biggest economic plan the world has ever seen! SLAVERY!!!
- And then you had the audacity, the unmitigated gall to give that…that…Moor the title of the play…Othello!
- And he’s married to a white woman??? And you expect this play to be released under the queen’s patronage? A black man with a white wife??? You are inciting interracial coupling, do you know what that means!? God what next? Gay marriage!?
Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day’ (2001), directed by Antoine Fuqua
I had no idea Shakespeare could’ve been seen as progressive; kinda made me respect that man just a little. Maybe it’s his followers who irk me a bit (sounding a lot like John Lennon here). To think that Shakespeare wrote a play like this of such political magnitude at a time where he could’ve easily lost what little he had, was quite brave. What fascinated me more, was the progression of Aaron to Othello. Aaron, an angry and enslaved Moor, was desperate for freedom and basically would do anything at any cost for this freedom. Aaron would’ve faced blatant racism to its highest degree, physical and mental, causing his actions to seem evil though understandable – he’s treated like an animal and will lash out like one. Now with Othello, a successful and progressive Moor, he speaks the language, walks in their spine and adheres to their rules, yet he is not an equal. He too faces the racism and jealousy of white men who feel that, because of their skin colour, they deserve more than Othello. Othello, I think, has a deep internal struggle which I see a lot of black men today face, where to prove success is to embody the oppressor while still being oppressed. This type of black man is caught between the field of Aarons, questioning his blackness or his contribution to the struggle, versus fighting the system from within, almost assimilating to become part of it, and although having proven himself worthy of all praise, is never good enough due to the ‘curse of skin pigmentation ’.
Still shot from ‘The Harder They Come’ (1973), directed by Perry Henzell
Not only in Shakespeare’s Nigga, but in many contemporary forms of Othello, we’ve seen this struggle of black masculinity challenged, and conversation has been generated around successful black men marrying white women as a way to boost to their social standing. I think we’ve had more stories understanding the Aarons of the world, the plight of the disadvantaged black man in an oppressive state (even I have my plays about them), but Othello is quite interesting to dissect. Often times, we praise the Aarons: we filled the seats for Roots in the 70s, Django Unchained had many people talking, Birth of a Nation is coming out soon, and most if not all Caribbean nations have a statue built of their emancipation hero. Then there are the unsung Aarons, ones not quite heroes, but tragic black heroes who in our contemporary adaptations face harsh penalties like Jimmy Cliff in The Harder they Come or even the portrayal of Easy E in Straight Outta Compton. We don’t always like these images, these harsh, broody and hateful images of black men. Men whose faces are hardened by the life they were systematically placed in. We feel these images are destructive, demonstrative of an already disenfranchised community. When the art is reflecting the images we see, we panic that it can and possibly encourage more Aarons without a cause, almost seemingly forgetting the point of the existence of that Aaron. We just see the gratuitous violence, the tattoos, misogyny, the drugs and the love of a deadly lifestyle; then we want to see more Othellos.
“…I am a fucking black man
Hole in my head
Brains in my belly…”
– Kamau Brathwaite
Sarah and Thomas DuBois from ‘The Boondocks’ (2005-2014)
What about the images we give the Othellos? First image that came to my mind was Thomas DuBois of the Boondocks. Middle class black man, highly educated and great job. These Othello images can’t seem to just get it together, with people often questioning their blackness (How real is you, Nigga!). He doesn’t want to be labelled as an Aaron of the world, but he understands the Aaron. He still has to do his job, even if that means placing Aarons in trouble. He could easily be very well hated and loved for the same reasons. He’s successful, he’s over diplomatic, he wants to please his people but he wants to keep his status and gain power. He can’t really balance both; if he wants to please his people, he could risk his status, putting him back in a position where he can’t do much as before. If he pleases his superiors, he’s a ‘sellout’ an ‘uncle tom’ and a ‘coon’, and essentially ‘forgot where he came from’.
We know these Othellos. They’re professors at our Universities, they govern our countries and become knighted, they eloquently speak for the misleading media houses, the doctors, lawyers, the academics. We praised them when they fought on our behalf, but somewhere down the line they became ‘sellouts’, they’ve lived long enough to see themselves become what they once hated. A friend of mine from South Africa, she shook me to core once when she told me she has no love for Nelson Mandela. I know many black people who are dissatisfied with Barack Obama not addressing gun laws (or even pardoning Marcus Garvey!). How many disparaging statements we’ve heard about Sir Hilary Beckles. Our preferred Othellos usually have tragic moments before we could see them evolve into characters we no longer recognise; basically they die in climax of their revolutionary stance. Those Othellos are like Walter Rodney, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some have slow deaths into obscurity due to whatever reason like Marcus Garvey, Clement Payne. These Othellos ultimately want peace, not justice. He might even say words like ‘assimilation’, ‘adapt’, his version of equality might not match yours. He wants Progression without Aggression, but sadly it can’t always happen, so they opt for the life better suited. They want their status, respect and a comfy home. Their partners may play the part of submissive wife, preferably in the categories of white, light skinned or racially ambiguous. Even if she’s black, she has to be highly educated but submissive, she doesn’t have to work either, and please, not the angry Angela Davis/Cole type! Why the change? He can’t take it anymore, he’s done enough for you ‘ungrateful negroes!’ If he can do it, you all can do it! He no longer believes there is a system because he’s cracked the system and become successful, so there is no racism!
“…my people? They don’t need me.
They got legs and arms of their own…”
– ‘Dutchman’ – Amiri Baraka
He’s worn, tired and frustrated with black people not working hard enough. He believes that after either affirmative action or 50 years of Independence, black people should know how to better themselves. He also feels disrespected by black people for not giving him the credit he deserves for his contributions. He’s done so much and received so little, all he gets is black people wanting more and more from him. He is now a miserable and cantankerous old man. Oftentimes, he’d write in the newspaper or be on the radio having an opinion no one cares about. He no longer cares to discuss race or race relations because it’s tiring. He’s more #AllLivesMatter than he is #BlackLivesMatter. Internally he still cares for black people, but he doesn’t think they care about him anymore. They’ve scrutinized every move he’s made. Disregarded his contributions. He’s self-loathing. He remembers so many times he’s wanted to be seen as more than just black, that he’s colour blind. Blind to the world, and blind to the struggle…blind to himself.
“…We Cannot All be Masters,
nor All Masters Cannot Truly be Followed…”
What a life to live.
Anyway, much more to learn and grow. I’d like to thank Dr. Sean Benson for a great conversation and learning experience. So much more to learn about the Aarons and Othellos of this world, and the rest of us Moors in between trying to find a balance and conquer these dated notions of black masculinity. Until next time…
This project is a collaborative initiative, funded by the NCF Barbados