“Teaching The Conflicts and Learning To Curse”—
Notes Toward A Pedagogy For An Intro. To Lit. Course
1. “Teaching The Conflicts”
Have you ever wondered why we live in America, still the most militarily powerful imperialist nation in the world, yet still we call our language, and department, English? After all, American English is different from British English, and even more different from Shakespearean English. This is partly due to our colonial history, but also to white people’s fear of the influence of Black English & Spanglish on the language (even as many whites still use words that originated in African-American or Latino communities).
As English Departments notoriously lag behind the perpetual flux of an American language in transition, this dated designation may take some time to change on an official level. In the meantime, we will be a country divided, between so-called “high” English and low English. To be successful in this backdrop, we must become culturally amphibious, ambidextrous; we must know how to code-switch, to translate between specialized vocabularies and the audiences they imply. Double-consciousness can be made a positive if seen as a form of cultural bilinguality that allows you to pass without losing the right to your own identity in the process.
Such thoughts have lead me to teach William Shakespeare alongside of Amiri Baraka in courses that introduce students to the study of literature. It’s a way to “teach the conflict” inherent in our language and culture. Let’s start with Shakespeare for his work remains the best example of the standards of white European-centric literary excellence, and his works have profoundly influenced—for better or worse—contemporary drama, novels, poetry and essays, as well as the more popular—if not necessarily more populist—arts of Hollywood films and pop songs. Even today, Shakespeare is most invoked as common ground among those who can’t agree on much else about a shared canon that doesn’t reduce itself to the tepid “moderation” of the lowest common denominator. That doesn’t mean Shakespeare has to be a sacred cow, especially if you can learn more about your self from watching and reading him than you can from any self-help app. Unfortunately, many teach it as a sacred cow, with little knowledge that by doing that, they lose their effectiveness as teachers.
Like many others, I had “stuffy” teachers in college who turned me off to Shakespeare, as to Beowulf, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope and Pound among other writers I was supposed to read. In the meantime, I found other work, like Amiri Baraka’s, that spoke more to me, but these were rarely taught on the fringes of proper academia. I knew this wasn’t because of the literary merits of the work, the lack of intelligence, passion, relevance and the virtues of complexity and difficulty, but rather because of politics, habit, or “the tradition” (if anything they might have been excluded precisely because of their acute contemporary relevance).
As a result of this, I resisted Shakespeare initially, yet after receiving my M.A. (which I had managed to do without knowing Shakespeare, to the chagrin of some traditionalists), I had become comfortable enough with an alternative tradition that I was able to read and watch Shakespeare in a different light, not as the “stuffy” guy my teachers presented his works as. I’d read it on my own and enjoyed the weird poetry which, to its credit, could seem like a freestylin’ Coltrane solo not necessarily tied down to the burden of making sense (meaning). Sure, I didn’t know what exactly was being said, and how it contributed to the story I was supposed to care about, but that didn’t matter the first time I read these plays.
Then, I took another Shakespeare class, and learned what I call the “soap opera side” of Shakespeare, the more popular story side, and I realized how part of the fun, and even the political importance and moral imperative, of reading Shakespeare was getting to engage in the debates over how to read, interpret and act him (or it). There were so many interpretations, so many different ways of being acted, so many different critical approaches that I found many wrote entire 300 page books on just one play. In reading Shakespeare, I found I could bring the burning ethical, moral, and socio-political issues of our time with me in a way a lot of 20th century canonical writing didn’t make room for. I could put my self, and put the soul, into Shakespeare as I could non-verbally do with punk/funk dance music. Not only that, I could be legitimized for it.
I couldn’t find a way to make an honest buck as a dancer, but I could get gigs teaching Shakespeare and, through that, other literature. In this sense, Shakespeare is like the New York of the song: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” It may demand more attention (more like “livin’ for the city” than “workin’ for the weekend”), but it offers a pedigree and skills you can take with you to the provinces of your daily struggles. So, I found myself having both intrinsic and extrinsic, both personal and professional, incentives to pursue immersion in Shakespeare while there were no professional incentives to pursue, say, Amiri Baraka. While in the short term, this may be a kind of ‘moral sell-out,’ in the long term it may be the same kind of compromise that learning how to communicate verbally in English involved as a toddler.
Coming through the back door, as it were, to study Shakespeare this way proved in the long term more efficient, a way to artfully dodge much of the dross that too often comes with the study of literature. The labor-saving device it provided is something I wish to pass on to my students. In some ways, learning to “master” Shakespeare enough to publish a book about him was analogous to the art of “passing.”
2. “Learning To Curse” (with apologies to Stephen Greenblatt)
It is for these reasons that some of the Shakespearean lines I find myself most quoting are from a late play, The Tempest. This play (not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, for reasons I won’t get into here) can be read as a colonialist fantasy, especially if understood historically as written concurrently with King James I’s policy to step up the transatlantic slave trade (which Spain and Portugal were further along with) and become a colonial empire.
The Tempest’s most memorable character, Caliban, is a native of this colonized island. From the colonizer’s point of view, he is a hostile presence, a threat, a savage---at best a necessary evil whose labor must be “tamed” or harnessed to the rich exiled Duke (Prospero)’s will. Shakespearean traditionalists will tell you that the emotional structure of the play is designed to make both viewer and reader sympathize with the colonizer, and against the colonized. But a play, lacking a reliable, omniscient narrator to tell us what to think, almost demands to be read in more than one way. And many have also interpreted Caliban as the more sympathetic character (ignoring Miranda and the so-called ‘love plot’ for the time being).
Some critics of the play have even gone so far as to rewrite the play—in order to make their argument clearer. For instance, Negritude poet Aime Cesaire’s play A Tempest, written during the height of the mid-20th century internationalist Black liberation movement, should always be taught next to Shakespeare’s play if you ever find yourself forced to teach or read The Tempest.
One of Caliban’s (and I’d add Shakespeare’s) most memorable lines occurs when he’s responding to the colonizer who (in the form of the “good cop” sheep’s clothes of his beautiful daughter) brags about his ‘kindness’ and ‘mercy’ in ‘civilizing’ him by teaching him proper English. Caliban replies that the best thing this “education” (or indoctrination) has afforded him is the ability to curse in the language, to speak the language of the oppressor, to use the master’s tools to help destroy the master’s house, as Audre Lorde would put it: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse (Tempest: Act I, Scene ii, 368-69).
Caliban, in this play, is not successful in doing destroying the master’s house, and, for centuries, enough people in high places have read his attempt to do so as unjustified, as proof of his savagery, as “Caliban” has become a highly racialized cuss-word lodged deeply—even if unspoken and unacknowledged—in the white supremacist psyche of our culture. Today, it’s easy to see how corporate media outlets like MSNBC and CNN are pushing an updated version of the Caliban myth in the stereotype of the too loud, black beast. Yet Caliban’s voice speaks, and bleeds, beyond the confines of the play’s “dramatic closure” and can be heard, among many other places, in J.Cole’s 2014 song, “Be Free” or in recent books by Danez Smith or Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I also hear this voice in the young bright students who would only consider being an English major if there’s a chance they might be able to succeed in changing it from within. As a teacher, I simply can not sit idly by and enforce these academic standards without considering that they are in need of reform at the very least. So I welcome, and even demand, your skepticism. The master’s tools may not be able to destroy the master’s house, but at least you can use these tools to help reform it, and reform efforts can be the incubator for revolutionary consciousness and action. Shakespeare reveals some of the tools the master uses, and knowing them may help you understand better exactly what you’re up against as a writer, and as a person.
All of this is to say that the debate that occurs in The Tempest is still relevant to the most pressing contemporary issue of our day, even if the apologists for Prospero (who they see as a stand-in for Shakespeare himself) are clearly on the wrong side of history. Yet as long as Shakespearean studies stands as a shared point of agreement among the vast majority of Literary-Academic gatekeepers, you will be afforded a greater respect for knowing how to speak this language, even if you’re trying to curse ‘mo better in it. If you’re not free to curse in literature, it is hard to be free to transcend cursing by grounding it more proudly and clearly in a greater love (as Baraka’s oeuvre shows). If you’re not free to talk back to the voices of officialdom that run this society (Google, Geico, Bank Of America, for instance), and be heard and taken seriously, your right to free speech means nothing. This is part of how many learn to censor themselves.
Instead, I strongly encourage you to curse in this course, and I will do my best to provide you some of the master’s tools to do it with (some new toys, like perfectly legal deflated footballs, corked bats, or performance enhancing substances).
At the same time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also show you an increasingly legitimate alternative to the master’s tools, an opposing candidate, a movement or at least the writing of a man who devoted his entire life to learning how to dig himself—and others—out of the trap made by the master’s tools that had banned many people’s “oom boom ba boom.” Amiri Baraka accomplished much in this regard, even if his task inevitably remained unfinished at his death. And, we may learn from his failures and successes without sacrificing any of the literary pleasures that draw folks to Shakespeare. A lengthy essay could be written on the many points of similarity between these two writers.
Yet, if one were to say, “Baraka is our Shakespeare,” he’d likely be criticized from at least two different fronts (or angles): 1) those who consider that statement a preposterous elevation of Baraka to the level of Shakespeare who is clearly superior: no contest. And 2): Champions of Baraka who feel the comparison reduces his achievement by (merely) aestheticizing it; why do we even need to legitimize Amiri Baraka by roping him into the confining standards of an imperialist retro-canon? That, in itself, is what Baraka and The Black Arts movement was fighting against. Yet, even if Baraka hated the uses to which Shakespeare has been put by today’s culture industry, he clearly admired and defended this writing, if understood historically. So, if the snobby Shakespeareans press me, I could back up the “Baraka is our Shakespeare” claim. In the meantime, I will teach the two of them side-by-side, to further your culture bilinguality, as some teach classes that compare the Biblical accounts of creation with the Darwinian more scientific view.
I am not arguing that all legitimate literature can be contained by, or falls between, these two polar opposites. After all, they’re both male and we need to hear women’s voices and writing just as loudly (including feminist critiques of Shakespeare alongside of Audre Lorde). But devoting more time to these two approaches in an “Introduction to College Writing on Literature” course can help prepare you for the more advanced requirements of a 4 year college’s English requirement. It certainly can provide you a much broader perspective than other implied literary dualisms: for instance, the history of English Literature has often been taught by starting with the difference between the lyric poem/song “Caedmon’s Hymn,” on the one hand, and the narrative epic perspective of Beowulf (which can be seen as the precursor to both contemporary screenplays and novels), on the other. We find a analogous split in the broader European literary history starting with the Ancient Greeks in the much-hyped distinction between Sappho and Homer. We also find it in the history of American poetry, often seen as truly beginning with Dickinson and Whitman.
These various binaries are not nearly as capacious a form for understanding and mapping the breadth of contemporary literature, art and entertainment, as the difference between Shakespeare and Baraka.
As far as I know, few—if any—other College English teachers consider such a paradigm when introducing the study of English Lit. to students. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must let you know that this approach may seem off the beaten track if you’re intending to pursue English as a possible major. But I stand by my claim that thinking about literature this way—focusing more deeply on less texts and writers—is ultimately more efficient because it emphazises your confrontation with what kind of work writing about reading can do. It can provide you with an edge in this highly competitive field over those who have a more superficial knowledge of a greater quantity of texts. We shall test—and probably refine-- this hypothesis this semester.