Wednesday, August 7, 2013


It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!--
It is the cause.

- "Othello," Act V, Scene II

When the great Paul Robeson played Othello in a London production in 1930, he famously called the play "a tragedy of racial conflict." For Robeson, Othello's tragic flaw was not jealousy, as everyone has always supposed, but racial prejudice.

Robeson's argument is well taken, but surely racial prejudice is Iago's problem, not Othello's? In the first scene of the first act, we know well what Iago thinks of his master Othello, as he rouses Brabantio from his sleep to tell him how "an old black ram/is topping [his] white ewe." The white ewe is Brabantio's daughter, and he goes to some lengths in the first act to obstruct Othello's access to her. The Moor, though regarded highly for his military exploits on the side of his Venetian lords, is also viewed with suspicion by them.

Robeson's argument is rather like saying that Shylock's tragic flaw in "The Merchant of Venice" was anti-Semitism. Much has been done to save the character of Shylock from the stereotype that Shakespeare manipulated in his play. But Shakespeare certainly intended us to hate Shylock, regardless of his attempts to "flesh him out" into a fully-realized human being.

And doesn't Robeson's reading of Othello lower Shakespeare's tragedy from a universal to a parochial level? Jealousy, while being an intensely personal agony, is something with which everyone can identify. Racial prejudice is a neurosis, affecting many people in racially mixed societies, but negligible in racially homogenous societies like Denmark or Japan.

But the fact that Robeson was unable to see through the veil of his own experience - as powerful and as undeniable as that experience must have been - shows the effects of racism on the minds of African-Americans. Whereas many white Americans fail to perceive racial prejudice in the society that surrounds them, simply because it is almost never directed at them, black Americans encounter it everywhere. President Obama spoke eloquently last month about his own experience of it - the white women clutching their handbags when he enters an elevator, and their exhaling in relief when he gets off, the car doors locking as he crosses a busy street. Making white people notice these things is only a first step.

It's almost as if we need another Gentlemen's Agreement - a movie in which a jounalist investigates the prevalence of anti-Semitism in America by masquerading as a Jew. (Alas, the unintentional moral of the movie, once the journalist comes out from under his Jewish alias, was "thank God I'm a goy.")

Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain dramatizes the life of Coleman Brutus Silk, a successful Jewish classics professor whose lifelong secret, divulged to Roth's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is that he is a black man whose light skin gave him a pass into the white world. Silk's revelation is provoked by his being forced into retirement after he uses a supposed racial slur toward two of his black students.

As Silk's mother tells him, "There was always something about our family, and I don't mean color--there was something about us that impeded you. You think like a prisoner. You do, Coleman Brutus. You're white as snow and you think like a slave." Silk's mother knew that, even if he managed to free himself from the constraints imposed on him by a white world, Silk was as much enslaved by them as his blackest brother.

As Paul Robeson's life and testimony prove, racial prejudice may not be a universal affliction, but it is certainly what gives African-American experience its tragic dimension.

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