Civil Rights Shakespeares: Race, Nation, and Education in Postwar America Open Access

Drawing upon literary and rhetorical analysis, cultural studies, and critical race theory, "Civil Rights Shakespeares" investigates the poet's presence within American racial discourses during the civil rights/black power era, tracing the poet's protean signification within this contentious phase of American race relations. I contend in the first chapter that Shakespeare's frequent enlistment in debates surrounding racial politics in postwar America is anything but incidental. In an investigation of Julius Caesar's programmatic dissemination among tenth grade students within early-twentieth-century mass education, I explore the poet's role as an agent of European ethnic consolidation. First, I trace Shakespeare's use within schools of the 1920s and `30s as a homogenizing force thought capable of uniting a diverse constituency of distinct immigrant groups under the rubric of a nascent white American culture rooted in English values and aesthetics; I turn then to the poet's subsequent conscription in support of an emergent socio-political project in which racial conflict in America was concentrated along an increasingly dualistic black/white racial axis. Shakespeare's implication in the furtherance of this large-scale racial realignment, I argue, helps account for the poet's reflexive insertion into moments of black and white racial contest in the ensuing years. Building upon these associations in chapter two, I read numerous instances of Shakespearean citation within civil rights discourses as evidence of a wider, pedagogically determined inclination within the American consciousness to correlate Shakespeare with a specifically white form of political dominion. In an analysis of Shakespeare's functionality within the rhetoric of important civil rights and black power figures including Malcolm X, Dr. Marin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rapp Brown, as well as within the segregationist addresses of Bull Connor, George Wallace, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, I examine the often-contradictory work Shakespeare is made to perform for a wide and varied constellation of ideologically oppositional constituencies. The second half of my project concerns theatrical adaptations and appropriations that capitalize upon Shakespeare's racially charged signification within the civil rights era. The third chapter looks at a 1971 musical adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona produced for New York's Public Theatre as it is enlisted in contemporary debates regarding racial essentialism, black aesthetics, and the politics of accommodation. Chapter four considers Amiri Baraka's Slave and Dutchman (1964), two thematically interrelated plays that self-consciously enact a kind of appropriative violence upon Shakespeare's Othello. Reading Baraka's Black Nationalist poetics in light of early modern revenge narratives, I explore how these two classic works of experimental twentieth-century theatre function as retributive attacks upon one of western literature's foundational racial myths. In the conclusion, I respond to writer/director Rod Carley's late-twentieth-century adaptation, The Othello Project, which relocates Shakespeare's tragedy to the American South during the mid-1960s. Discussing the production's explicitly pedagogical aims, I turn finally to Shakespeare's continued dominance within mass education, examining several ways this power might be harnessed within the theatre in the service of a progressive racial politics.

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