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Friday, February 19, 2021

Shakespeare is the birthright of every human

 It seems that every week I read another story of another school removing Shakespeare or some other 'dead white' writer from the curriculum because.... they are irrelevant, boring, white, racist, misogynist, or have committed some other crime against today's groupthink.  And every week I think of Maya Angelou's connection with Shakespeare, and how her exposure to Shakespeare and other dead white poets, plus a host of black poets and writers, helped her recover from the horrible trauma of being raped as a very young child.  In the aftermath of her brutal experience, her uncles killed the man, and as victims all too often do, she blamed herself, and stopped speaking for several years, except to her beloved brother. It was a retired teacher in the community who put her in touch with Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, and others and this combination gave her back her voice.

Maya Angelou on Shakespeare : ' 'I found myself, and still find myself, whenever I like stepping back into Shakespeare. Whenever I like, I pull to me. He wrote it for me. "When in disgrace with fortune in [sic] men's eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state / and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries / and look upon myself and curse my fate / wishing me like to one more rich in hope / featured like him, like him with friends possessed / desiring this man's art and that man's scope / with what I most enjoy contented least. . . ." Of course he wrote it for me; that is a condition of the black woman. Of course, he was a black woman. I understand that. Nobody else understands it, but I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman.'' 

 And this: ""Angelou's message was that there is more in poetry—and, by extension, all art—that unites than divides us. Not only can a long-dead, uber-white male writer like Shakespeare voice an experience so universal that it speaks truth to power for a poor black girl living in the Jim Crow American South, but that same girl can reflect years later on how the poetry of her beloved Edgar Allen Poe reads "like it was written by LL Cool J." (And that same girl can get kicked out of a theater for heckling a famous actor when he reads "The Raven" more like a Shakespearean actor than a rapper.)"

You can also see what Kelly Miller,   has to say about Shakespeare and other dead white guys in his 1908 collection of essays, "Race adjustment; essays on the Negro in America".

Kelly Miller was a "mathematiciansociologistessayistnewspaper columnist, author, and an important figure in the intellectual life of black America for close to half a century. He was known as "the Bard of the Potomac"(Wikipedia)

"Genius has no age, no country, no race ; it belongs to mankind — who cares whether Sir Isaac Newton or Watts or Fulton was red, or white, or brown? Shakespeare means no more to you than he does to me, except in so far as you may have greater capacity of appreciation and enjoyment. Bacon and Darwin appeal to the world. Do you think that when the candle of genius has been lighted by fire from above it can be hid under a bushel of racial exclusiveness ? Nay; rather, it is set on a candle- stick and gives light unto all who grope in dark- ness. The Negro enters into the inheritance of all the ages on equal terms with the rest, and who can say that he will not contribute his quota of genius to enrich the blood of the world?"

He also references Chaucer, Dante, Milton, Plato, Homer, Virgil, and more modern poets. He is particularly fond of Walter Whitman. 
He notes that the literature of his time and that contemporary with American slavery does too often degrade and demean those of his race, and take their inferiority for granted and this is unacceptable. In that context he says: "The same spirit does not obtain in the Oriental and classical literatures. These never refer to the Negro except in terms of endearment and respect. The gods of Homer are not too fastidious to spend a holiday season of social intercourse and festive en- joyment among the 'blameless Ethiopians.'"

I recently read an early 20th century anthology of black poetry, and I was struck by how many of those poets referenced their reading of many of those dead white guys as influential in their own discovery of and development of their own poetry.

Every English speaking child should be exposed to the stories and poems of the Shakespeares, Miltons, Dantes, Homers, Dunbars, Langston Hughes, Angelou, and others.  
Removing Shakespeare is an impoverishment of the soul.  It's a crime against the mind.