Aapparently Shakespeare the last victim cultural wars, some fear that the Bards are about to be thrown out of classes across England in the name of decolonization. Woke up already took away a dead white man of American curricula, as we’ve been told, so of course it won’t be long until we follow suit. Really?
But the inconvenient truth – which is not so worthy of the title – is that decolonizing the curriculum is not about burning copies of Macbeth or throwing Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in the trash. It’s not even just about studying writers from the marginalized. As a mixed-race English teacher who firmly believes in the diversification of the English curriculum, for me it is a matter of rethinking the prism through which we view canonical texts, first and foremost – moving it to become more critical, more aware of systemic forces to play both inside and around the text. Decolonization it may seem radical, even to some scary, but it is something that already makes excellent teaching of English.
Shakespeare has so much about power: who holds it and who doesn’t and why. And this is a fundamental issue of our divided and troubled age. The study of sex is crucial to the study of Romeo and Juliet. The reflection of race is fundamental in Othello’s analysis. Fighting anti-Semitism in the images of Sheilak Shakespeare or Fagin Dickens is key. The decolonization of Shakespeare’s study is to take these questions one step further, remove them from the text and apply them to the world around them. Teach students through literature to challenge the status quo.
Some people argue that educating colored students about structural racism or students from the poor about systemic inequality is defeatist: it teaches children to accept their subordinate position. But we are doing a disservice to young people if we do not recognize that these structural flaws are already hitting them in the face as soon as they leave the school gates – and often earlier. Young black guys stopped by police in his school uniform; students whose families cannot afford food; children whose parents face anger a hostile environment. These young people do not need to be taught that injustice exists because they see the results of systemic prejudices around them – they are drowning in a policy of division and discrimination. By refusing to acknowledge this, we are neglecting the opportunity to give students the opportunity to explore the dynamics of power that dictate our world. To eventually make changes. Call me a biased English teacher, but literature is the perfect tool for that.
The combination of blackness and violence in Othello forms a platform for the study of systemic racism in the UK today – how white supremacy manifests itself and how it shapes students ’lives. How Macbeth usurps power may be a metaphor for how some groups in society control others – why not use this as an opportunity to challenge those in power and even explore our own positions?
Of course, part of the decolonization of the curriculum should be related to the introduction of texts written by alternative voices. Teaching students because our historical understanding of what a famous text should look like is imbued with politics and colonialism, and that, in fact, many great literary works have been written in marginalized voices, allows them to relate to literature in a new way. Those who are concerned that Shakespeare is about to replaced by Stormzy on GCSE papers are concerned that we underestimate students by teaching literature with which they may be relevant. But this is due to the fact that the books of multinational writers are inherently in short supply. Explore great classics such as A small island or Brick Lane would not only open up my students to literary excellence and compelling narratives, but would also improve their knowledge of British history by revealing perspectives that Shakespeare and Dickens lacked.
If you haven’t experienced this, it’s hard to put into words what it feels like to meet yourself in a book for the first time. The first time I was an A-level student I came across Othello, whose controversial “Moorish” origins were closest to my North African descent I have ever met on the page. And who did I meet? A man whose violence was compared to a wild beast and whose race made him wild is a danger to white women. A man who faced such racism that he internalized himself in his own self-perception. I wish I had met myself in literature before, but it made me firmly convinced that this is what my own students do. After all, white people see themselves in almost everything they read and watch.
There is no crowd fighting for copies of Hamlet and not fighting for the destruction of King Lear’s publications, just English teachers like me are doing their best to complement the tragically short-sighted program. Curriculum decolonization gives students a valuable chance not just to see themselves on a page, but to explore and question the historical structures that dictate their lives today.
Also, dead white people have a habit of staying around for centuries. Shakespeare will not go anywhere any time soon.