Sam @CUSP Conference 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why Does Shakespeare Matter to Black Folks?

I haven't blogged in a while and I'm sorry. I've been traveling and it hasn't left me a lot of time to login. But I thought it was time and I wanted to share something that has been on my mind since I saw this crazy blog  post a few months ago (which you'll see the link for in my actual blog below) from a high school teacher who refuses to teach Shakespeare to her students. Also, I had a few questions from people who wondered why I produce The Bard. I hope the answer below addresses all of that. I feel very passionately about classical art forms and everyone having access to them. It is, in my opinion, unethical for it to be any other way. 

Thanks for reading!

Here’s the thing about humanity: Technology may change and society’s wardrobe may change. But the things that make us human do not. We all get cold. We all get hungry. We all want to be loved. We’ve all been betrayed. We all want our families to prosper. Some members of our families may get on our last nerve. We all want to be happy. We may have missed out on that great job opportunity because it was given to some younger, greener guy or gal, and we were pissed about it. Shakespeare wrote about all those things. What I am saying is that the experiences, feelings and our core needs don’t just change because time passes.

It always makes me cringe when people say that Shakespeare doesn’t matter anymore. So, needless to say, I cringed a lot when I read Valerie Strauss’ blog c/o The Washington Post where high school teacher Dana Dusbiber went on and on about Shakespeare no longer having a place in the classroom. As a Shakespeare advocate, fan and the founder of Shakespeare in Detroit, I completely and utterly disagree. As a black woman who grew up in a predominantly black city and attended predominately black schools, I vehemently disagree.

Shakespeare has been the gateway to make this girl from Seven Mile in Detroit’s (yes, the mile before Eminem’s Eight Mile) dreams comes true. We weren’t poor and I grew up with everything I needed as a child, but we certainly didn’t have enough money to travel overseas. In fact, we probably only took one vacation when I was a kid and that was to Disney World in Orlando, FL. No one had a passport in my family except for books. Reading changed my life and opened my mind and heart. It has taken me all over the world. I have been to Rome, Egypt, Venice, Scotland and other wonderful places across the globe because my mother insisted that I read Shakespeare. That exposure opened my mind to the possibilities and when it was time to start a Shakespeare company in Detroit, I never thought I couldn’t do it because maybe I wasn’t the color of most artistic directors at Shakespeare companies or because I didn’t have a fancy education. I knew I was just as well read as a lot of people and my imagination has no boundaries.  It is because I am a reader.

But my mother didn’t just insist I read Shakespeare. She insisted that I read everything. That’s what I loved and still love about reading. I love reading about experiences that are similar to my own and experiences that I may not otherwise have without the pages of a book. Why do black people only have to read about black experiences? I didn’t know there was a color assignment to reading or art for that matter.  My hope for black students – and other students of color – is that they realize that while society may try to make them feel different, they deserve the same access and exposure as everyone else. They need to know that the world is bigger than their block or city or state or country. When they have access to others’ experiences, they realize how much we are all the same. This puts them, mentally, on the same level and they will attack the world with a beautiful ferocity upon graduation no matter what happens in their exterior lives. Reading literature of all kinds will send their hearts, minds, imaginations and confidence to new heights. In the world we are living in today, when young people of color are under attack, they need these skills more than ever.

Sure, and of course, we need black literature or books that speak to our own experiences. We need to be able to relate to the stories we are reading. That’s why my mother also made insisted I read James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and the list goes on. One of my favorite contemporary poets, Jessica Care Moore, lives right here in Detroit and I read her work as well. But embracing modern literature doesn’t mean that the classics are invalid.

Teachers are my favorite humans. They are heroes, right after good mothers and fathers. There are many teachers out there who boldly provide a large landscape of literature for their students. They teach ‘oral tradition out of Africa, the translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.’ And right along with all of those beautiful, valid works, they teach Shakespeare.

I started Shakespeare in Detroit because I didn’t have any engagement with Shakespeare during my time in school. If it weren’t for my mother, I wouldn’t have had it at all. It’s my hope that students come to our free summer shows and engage with The Bard.  I hope the success of these shows inspires schools who do not currently teach Shakespeare to do so. It is my prayer that the tireless work my team and I have done to promote Shakespeare’s work in our urban landscape for the past two years inspires people to love art of all kinds – modern and classical, work from ethnically diverse writers and that ‘old white guy from 450 years ago.’ 

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