You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper “I can’t breathe.”
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty’s you’ve been robbed of your empathy
~ Run the Jewels, “Walking in the Snow”
♦ ♦ ♦
*** Content Warning for My Non-Black Colleagues ***
This essay contains use of the “N-word.”
♦ ♦ ♦
***Content Warning for My Black Folx***
This essay contains descriptions of black (anti)life and the continuum of anti-black violence that coincides with the lack of consideration granted to black lives in civil society. Niggas die on these pages, just as a nigga died a little writing it.
♦ ♦ ♦
“Hey,” she said, leaning sheepishly into the doorway of my office, “can we talk about the apparatus?”
Ah, yes, the apparatus.
“Sure,” I said, “what’s up?”
She crossed the threshold from the main hallway of the theatre building at Central Washington University and into my unseasonably hot, sticky office. The theatre department occupied one of the oldest buildings on a campus originally founded in 1891. Ellensburg, in the central high desert of Washington State, was made the home of a state university as a consolation prize for missing out on being the state capital after a fire destroyed the downtown in the late 1880s.
“Should I close the door?” I asked. I asked everyone who entered my office this question. I never knew what information a student would share when they approached: oftentimes, they would ask about course work or readings; other times, they would vent about microaggressions and slights they had received from faculty and students. On rare occasions, they would tell me personal secrets of sexual violence or other crimes that universities have an incentive to ignore.
This student’s tone led me to believe that this would be closer to the latter than the former.
“I am concerned the apparatus might be transphobic,” she said.
The apparatus in question was a ten-inch purple strap-on dildo that was being used as a prop in the production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I was directing for the Central Theatre Ensemble, which is the department’s name either for the group involved in the production of department plays or for the plays themselves — I was never quite sure. The costume designer, fearful that the students would treat the sex toy as a toy and not as a serious prop, demanded that the entire creative team never refer to the object by any of the colloquial names with which we were familiar, but rather by the sterile, professional term of “the apparatus.” As anyone who has ever known a late-adolescent human could probably tell you, this phraseology did not have the desired effect, and instead “apparatus” just became a new slang term for genitalia within the cast.
While I am derisive of and utterly disdain the capital C “Concept” that often covers productions of Shakespeare’s texts in layer after layer of aesthetic distractions that assuage the director’s ego but do little to enhance or even communicate the text at hand, I do believe that productions of Shakespeare’s works, like any production of any play, must have a clear story to tell beyond the narrative contained in Shakespeare’s words. In this case, using the various couplings and un-couplings and re-couplings that occur between the lovers — indeed even between species — as foundation and evidence, I wanted the production to question not only the stability, but also the very purpose, of cis-normative, monogamous hegemony in Western culture. To do so, I was very cautious to avoid demeaning or discouraging any specific attractions between beings — whether polyamorous, interracial, or interspecies — and instead presented the varied sexual explorations of the play as a normal part of life, as experiences to embrace rather than to condemn or abstain from.
To further this goal of normalizing varying sexualities, the roles of all of the Mechanicals, that roving troupe of theatrical performers, were filled by women. As such, the “heroic” Bottom’s transformation from man to ass became a transformation from woman to ass. Offstage, Bottom would add the donkey head and the apparatus, and reappear with both.
“I’m worried,” said the student, “that the audience will think that the Mechanicals are afraid of a person who underwent a gender swap and not only the donkey stuff.” My student was concerned that Quince’s cry of “O Monstrous! O Strange!” at the sight of the newly transformed Bottom would contain double meanings for the audience: first, the audience would read terror at the sight of a woman turned half-donkey; second, they would read the addition of the apparatus as an anatomical transformation, making the Mechanicals flee in terror at the sight of a woman turned man.
This fear had never occurred to me.
“I never thought of that,” I told the student, “but you’re right. How do we fix it?”
“Would it be possible,” she asked hesitantly, “to maybe have Bottom come back on stage after the transformation with just the ass-head first, and then maybe have him put on the apparatus while onstage?”
It was such an elegant solution to a problem I didn’t even recognize, and the solution strengthened the story as a whole, removing the audience’s ability to read the apparatus as the source of the Mechanicals’ fear and making the moment transphobic. The apparatus would now be given to the ass-headed Bottom as a gift from Titania, thus making the apparatus part and parcel of her desire for Bottom.
It would have been easy in the moment to brush off this student’s concerns and continue with the staging we had already blocked; but in truth, I was quite proud. I was not only proud that she saw an issue, presented an argument for why it was an issue, and offered a constructive solution, but I was also proud that my assistant directors, stage managers, and myself had created a rehearsal atmosphere wherein students were comfortable bringing these issues to me.
Which made that night’s rehearsal all the more flummoxing.
“Away, you Ethiop!” bellowed Lysander across the stage.
Although Bottom’s transformation from man to ass is perhaps one of the most well-known stage moments in Shakespeare’s canon, so much so that it is memorialized in woodcuts and statues, it is not the only transformation to occur within the play. Amid lovers switching lovers and a fairy loving a monster, Hermia, at least in the eyes of her love Lysander, undergoes a racial transformation: from fair beloved to Ethiop — from non-black to black.
After the earlier discussion concerning the potential transphobia of the staging, I expected this line to cause some consternation among my multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast. In both instances, the character’s transformation causes immediate disgust and revulsion among their cohorts onstage. Yet, in the case of Bottom, he immediately finds new companionship with Titania. Hermia, once transformed, is subject to insults and hate not only from Lysander, who marks her as black, but also from the uncharmed Helena. It is not until the end of the scene, when Puck removes the potion and thus the transformation, that Hermia finds companionship again. The monstrous, half-man, half-animal Bottom receives consideration as an object of desire. The blackened Hermia does not.
Hermia’s transformation to black, and the resulting exile by her love, never triggered any remarks from the cast. Instead, “Away, you Ethiop!” echoed throughout the space, crashed off the ceiling, and cascaded down the walls. The slur never resonated with the minds and flesh occupying the space. In the moment, I was perplexed, but the confusion only rose to a vague, “hmmm?” in the furrowing of my brow and not a question in my mouth. I shook it off as best I could and continued rehearsal uninterrupted. Yet the inarticulable question would not cease bouncing around my preconscious. “These are bright, socially engaged students,” I thought. “Why didn’t anyone ask about this line? What should they ask about this line?”
“It can’t be a lack of awareness,” I thought. The department was currently embroiled in a controversy over racial representation in the season’s previous show, in which Chinese characters were played by white students. The willingness of one student of black and Japanese descent to speak about issues of racial representation led to protests of the production, and this student was currently cast as Oberon.
Was it an issue of power? Was this student, this black student, so used to being unheard, marginalized, and terrorized by the university apparatus (yes, I use the term here intentionally) that he decided it was too much of a risk to raise the ire of the university again, as he had done mere weeks earlier?
“It can’t be power,” I thought, “or, at least, not just power.” I am familiar with student/faculty power dynamics, and I do my best to defuse them by openly stating that grades are coercive in nature, an apparatus (again, that word) designed to subdue any radical thoughts the students may have and dismiss any opinions or ideas that are not to the professor’s liking. Too often in my own experience, grades were used this way: as a threat, as a marker not of education and learning, but of conformity. As a cudgel to beat a square peg into a round hole.
But regardless of my larger thoughts on academia, just earlier that day a student was comfortable enough to express her concerns with the play’s representation of gender and sexuality. Yet, as I stood there hearing the student repeat the line over and over as we worked and re-worked the scene, no one questioned the line’s anti-black sentiments. The entire cast seemed completely unaffected (indeed, un-affect-ed) by it.
The differences between these two moments resonated in the publicity for the production. Each poster and program was accompanied by a content warning for sexual content.
No content warning was given for racial violence.
We are so conditioned as human beings to read blackness as undesiring and undeserving of love that the intersection of blackness and desire is unimaginable. The libidinal economy from which desires arise is already coded with anti-black violence to the extent that we are precluded from empathizing with those who are victims of it. As such, civil society’s visual and linguistic methods of communication are so dependent on anti-black violence that it goes unheard — even when spoken. The bar for black suffering is so high that unless a nigga is hanging from a tree, we don’t think violence is occurring.
This essay ruminates on that moment, using this singular absence of questioning to raise questions about the capacity of black flesh, even imagined black flesh, to resonate with human affect, and to ponder the limits of human imagination in relation to desire, violence, and blackness. Using affect theory and Afro-pessimism as the framework of this interrogation, I offer a reading of this text and this moment that positions A Midsummer Night’s Dream within a continuum of anti-black imagery that establishes blackness as beyond the bounds of affective resonance with civil society.
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Scholarship on race in early modern England has become a flourishing field. Although studies into the topic date back to the mid-twentieth century, the field began to claim its place in the current zeitgeist in the 1990s with Kim F. Hall’s Things of Darkness and Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker’s edited collection Women, “Race” and Writing in the Early Modern Period, among others. Over the following decades, scholars such as Ayanna Thompson, Arthur L. Little Jr., Ian Smith, and Joyce Green MacDonald each made substantial contributions not only to studies of race in the English Renaissance, but also to the discipline of Renaissance Studies. Even so, as the field of scholarship highlights the importance of race in early modern literature, it is important to build on these insights to reach theatre practice and further interrogate the trigger points for theatre practitioners.
While the field has continued to grow over the last twenty-plus years, it is only just beginning to break away from longstanding assumptions of what exactly constitutes race and to whom. Most scholarship on race in early modern England functions under two assumptive logics: first, that race is primarily phenotypical differences between types of humans; and second, that whites compose a normative, non-racialized subject. These assumptive logics help us to understand why, despite the countless advances made in studies of race in English drama, the majority of works that look at race in drama focus on Shakespeare’s “race plays”: Othello and Titus Andronicus. Recently, however, scholars such as Little and Noémie Ndiaye have offered new and expanded lenses for analyzing race in the period that extends beyond the obvious and outdated notion of “racialized others” and de-centers English whiteness as the normative subject in favor of more networked analyses.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not untouched by the growth of critical race approaches to Shakespeare. Most notably, Patricia Akhimie focuses on the rude Mechanicals as a site of intersection of class and race in the English project of cultivation. However, most studies that engage with the play’s treatment of race center on the little Indian boy, a character who never appears on stage. This “little changeling boy” whose “mother was a vot’ress of [Titania’s] order” has been discussed in relation to colonialist desire, the nuclear family, and other topics. But precisely because the little Indian boy is unseen, his racialization resides in the audience’s imagination.
But there is another imagined racialized other in the play, one whose presence is the target of immediate disgust and abjection. When Lysander awakens under the spell of Robin Goodfellow, his love for fair Hermia is transformed, and, in turn, transforms her into a detested Ethiope — an insult that has no other referents within the context of the play, arriving without warning and passing without comment.
What accounts for the distinction between these two racialized others? Why is an imagined Indian boy an object of desire while the imagined Ethiope the abject of desire? Why does the love between a Faerie and an ass receive textual consideration and exploration, while the disgust of black flesh requires neither?
These questions signal the role of affect in the Early Modern English’s attempts to articulate and test the bounds not only of human subjectivity, but of human imagination in regards to blackness. With affect theory and Afro-pessimism providing the vocabularies for analysis, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes part of a centuries-long continuum of anti-black violence that distorts the affective resonance between blackness and humanity.
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On 25 May 2020, Officer Derek Chauvin, a state-sponsored and tax-payer funded terrorist, kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, causing death by strangulation asphyxiation. Three of his terrorist compatriots stood as bystanders while the murder occurred.
I saw the video. Not by choice, necessarily, but when I awoke on the morning of the 26th and logged in to Facebook, I saw the video shared countless times — mostly as autoplay videos that assault the viewer when they click the link for a news article, but occasionally a friend would share the video by itself.
I like my friends. They are generally intelligent, conscientious people. The vast majority believe in social justice and content warnings and burning down police stations. Which made the sharing of the video all the more disturbing. Not that they shared it — I would expect these friends, so involved in racial, social, and gender justice issues, to share this news as a condemnation of police violence and to ask, “How much is enough?” But I was shocked that not once did I see the video shared with a content warning. In clicking “post” or “share,” these friends decided that the unbridled sadism and violence of this officer toward this black man needed to be seen, needed to be shared. They did not, however, consider the effect that this video would have on the black lives who were forced to relive this violence on their screens and who live this violence every day. In their zeal to present spectacular violence against black bodies to the world as a call for social justice, these friends committed their own acts of anti-black violence.
Unfortunately, the cycle of black death is the way of our world. George Floyd’s death and the visual reminders of black inhumanity are so interwoven in the fabric of our society that it would be easy to assume that the Run the Jewels rhymes serving as the epigraph for this essay are about George Floyd. RTJ4, however, was completed before the death of George Floyd. Killer Mike (Michael Render) is in fact rapping about the murder of Eric Garner, another black man whose crime was technically tax-evasion related to selling loose cigarettes without paying taxes, but whose crime was historically and ontologically related to having the gall to assert his humanity as a black man to the slavecatchers.
These murders are just two small dots, two data points in an infinite continuum of anti-black violence that structures black life. This continuum is so inextricable from the American consciousness that Jim Crow and Emmitt Till and MLK and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor — individual people in unique situations — collapse into one and the same. Black death is so much a part of our consciousness that the names and dates and causes of the dead are erased, replacing their individuality with the redundant and tiresome tropes of “unarmed black man,” “unarmed black woman,” and “unarmed black child.”
The role of black suffering and its incapacity to produce affect is so much a part of our thought that it exists beyond thought, influencing our actions before they occur. The content warnings that begin this essay exist solely to throw into relief how stories and images of black death, black exile, black suffering, and anti-black violence — a combination of phenomena that construct black social death in civil society — are rarely accompanied on news outlets and social media with content warnings.
In fact, it is quite the opposite. The distribution of images of black death have a long history of being thoughtlessly produced and consumed by white culture. When officers beat Rodney King as he cried for help and mercy in 1991, the videotape was broadcast nightly on the news, and the acquittal of his assailants sparked the LA Riots in 1992. School textbooks contain images of civil rights protestors attacked by dogs and suppressed with firehoses. David Marriott writes extensively on the distribution of lynching photography as a form of identity and cultural formation for white Americans. Uncle Tom’s whipping at the hands of Simon Legree in George L. Aiken’s 1852 stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is burdened with the pathos of the play. The assassination of Crispus Attucks that is memorialized in W. L. Champney’s famous 1856 print and woodcuts and drawings from even earlier, sparked the Boston Massacre. This list goes on and on — as long as there has been an America, Americans have produced, distributed, and memorialized images of black death and the destruction of black flesh.
The burgeoning field of Afro-pessimism posits that the paradigmatic structure of the world is predicated on an irreconcilable antagonism between blackness and humanity. As such, black flesh is not recognized as human. Instead, blackness serves as the ontological abject against and through which humanity is able to articulate its existence.
However, Afro-pessimists often focus on America in their analyses of blackness, a slippage that assumes abject blackness as a uniquely American problem — as Frank B. Wilderson III states, “Africans went into the ships and came out as black.” Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake solidifies this conceptualization, articulating black being in relation to four distinct elements of the Middle Passage: the Wake, the Ship, the Hold, and the Weather. Sharpe calls for theorists to engage in “wake work,” or work that engages with “the impossibility of [black belonging] by representing the paradoxes of blackness within and after the legacy of slavery’s denial of Black humanity.”
In this essay, I have both engaged with the paradoxes of black life in the afterlives of slavery, as well as signaled to the possibility of blackness exceeding and preceding the Wake that Sharpe argues structures black being. While the former certainly falls under Sharpe’s rubric of wake work, the latter is wake work of another kind — the kind that questions the afterlives of slavery by questioning whether black slavery had or has a pre-life. Can black slavery have an afterlife if black slavery never begins or ends, but rather exists in an absolute and atemporal is? Is there a time of the black human, or are all times of the black slave? What if the hold of the slave ship is a product of a wave of anti-black thought and psychic processes that structured humanity in the early modern period?
If so, then the time of black humanity was not cut short by the Ship. The black was not severed from the human in the Hold. The grotesque pastime of reveling in the destruction of black flesh is not exclusive to America; it predates the American experiment. Black social death did not enter into the paradigmatic structure of the world in the wake of the slave ship. Black inhumanity predates the transatlantic accumulation and displacement of black bodies, as evidenced by the maps and narratives and woodcuts and stories of the early modern English. The American culture of black death contains echoes of and echoes throughout our readings and thinking of a much larger geographical and temporal span. If we look in the art of Restoration England, we see Oroonoko dismembered and flayed both on the page and the stage. This dismemberment of black flesh for audience entertainment is one of the cultural practices that the English re-established after the Interregnum, with Elizabethan plays such as George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar containing the destruction of black flesh, as the only black moor, Muly Muhamet, is flayed for his fratricide. Prior to all of this, Queen Elizabeth bestowed John Hawkyns with a new family crest containing a bound black slave.
The constant and overt distribution of black death, of black suffering and destruction, should have worn down the hardest of hearts by now. According to psychologist Silvan S. Thompkins, who codified and described the nine human affects, thus establishing affect theory as a field of psychology, one of the key components of affect is affective resonance, or a person’s tendency to resonate and experience the same affect in response to viewing a display of that affect by another person. In other words, when humans view a human experiencing terror, the affect of the viewed (terror) should impact and cause the viewer to experience a similar affect (terror). This affective resonance is the emotional component of empathy.
The sheer volume of black death that appears in our art and clutters our media, and its representation of fear, humiliation, and terror, should have driven society to either fight for change or unravel into madness. Yet, the proliferation of video and the ease of social media has aided the trend’s increase — “I can’t breathe” at the click of a button. Black death is such a part of our culture that it is consistently woven into representation; for instance, in the trope of the black man being the first to die in a horror film. Black death is a latent and unacknowledged force, from the film genres of horror and action that allow audiences to take pleasure in the death of black people, to the erasure of black social media personalities and content creators whose talents and products gain popularity once stolen by white social media stars.
But the definition of affective resonance reveals the repeatedly seen but often unspoken scandal of civil society — that civil society does not view the destruction of black flesh, the accumulation of black deaths, empathetically. Black death does not resonate affectively with humanity — blackness distorts affect for humanity. Afro-pessimists have offered many possible interpretations of this affective distortion. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman dissects various primary source documents from the pre-bellum South, including personal letters, court cases, and slave narratives, to argue that the Master was incapable of feeling empathy for the Slave — that under the overwhelming gratuitous violence, the line between Slave terror and Slave enjoyment was obliterated. Jared Sexton goes one step further in Amalgamation Schemes, arguing that the relationship of pure domination between the Master and the Slave demands that affects — be they love, lust, fear, or terror — be analyzed in relation to scales of coercion, rendering all affects as violent affects. While Hartman argues for a lack of affective resonance and Sexton argues that black affects are always read as violence, Wilderson offers an articulation of the relation between non-black and black affect as one of mutation and distortion. In “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave,” he argues that the visual signifier that is the destruction of black flesh actually reads as pleasurable to civil society. This disconnect signals to the sadomasochistic underpinnings of a human psyche that gains coherence through the obliteration of non-human, black flesh.
Arising from black flesh, “I can’t breathe” and a cry for mama — the echoing melody of black suffering — is music to white ears.
♦ ♦ ♦
Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
Having once this juice,
I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she, waking looks upon
(Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape)
She shall pursue it with the soul of love.
“Away, you Ethiop!”
Another verse in the constant song of black death — a rounding chorus with no beginning or end.
While Oberon targets his faerie queen Titania with his charm, the magic also reaches, by way of Puck’s mistaking of identities, to the human realm and into the eyes of the mortal lovers, Lysander and Demetrius. Once awakened, Titania shows desire for the transformed Bottom, who now walks the stage as half-man, half-ass. When the mortal lovers awaken, both Demetrius and Lysander have fallen for the formerly detested Helena, leaving Hermia to receive the ire of her former love Lysander.
But from where does this ire arrive? The text states that the spell only makes someone fall in love with who they first see — the charm creates desire. As in the case of Bottom and Titania, when she falls for the man-made-ass. The charm does not disrupt Titania’s other relations — she still treats her faerie servants with, if not kindness, at least some modicum of recognition and respect.
The revulsion of blackness that occurs in the casting out of the imagined Ethiope, newly appearing in the visage of Hermia, arrives without warning and departs without comment. The affect does not arise from the charm, as it produces doting love from the viewer, regardless of the species of the viewed, be it bear, or wolf, or ape. Yet Lysander, without provocation other than pleas of love, produces hatred and violence towards Hermia. This hatred and violence are invoked by blackness. Blackness and revulsion appear together without textual motivation. They are one and the same — always present, always connected in the white psyche, even when blackness is absent in the physical world.
In the examples of Hartman, Sexton, and Wilderson above, the affective distortion between humans and blacks relies on the destruction of, or potential for the destruction of, black flesh. But in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, black flesh does not appear. The lack of black flesh allows us to re-think the relationship between blackness and affect. For Afro-pessimist scholars, the violence done towards black flesh, specifically the violence of the Middle Passage and chattel slavery, created a rift between blackness and humanity that is the origin of the affective distortion. But here, in this text written in 1595/96 and first performed in 1605 — some fifteen to twenty-five years before Jamestown — Shakespeare deploys blackness concurrently with a reversal of affect. The simultaneity of blackness’s appearance with Lysander’s loss of love for Hermia positions even the thought of blackness as congruent with disgust and revulsion. The charm that creates doting love for man and beast also produces absolute abjection for blackness. In other words, black flesh is not necessary for affective distortion to occur, but rather, the mere thought of blackness is enough to distort affect. The thought of blackness is inseparable from and is in itself always already a signifier of abjection, exile, and violence.
This affect, this disgust, the inconceivability and unimaginability of black coupling, nay, of even black presence within civil society, is in the text, but is not of the text. Many affects in the play are interwoven into the plot: Titania’s love across species has a textual basis and a comedic effect, and both her and Oberon’s desire for the non-black other, the Indian boy, serves as catalyst for their turmoil. These interracial relations — one occurring outside the boundaries of the human race and the other occurring between racialized humans — throw into stark relief the English psyche’s struggle to categorize blackness into epistemology. Shakespeare imagines affective resonance between woman and beast, or between man, woman, and Indian boy, and in doing so, explores the boundaries of human desire.
But the text positions blackness outside the boundaries of human desire. “Away, you Ethiop!” is understood, so much so that it needs no redress — black desire is unimaginable. This difference serves to articulate black positionality as in the world, but not of the world. A species divide between blacks and non-blacks, as Wilderson posits, is a possibility, but if it is so, it would be fruitful to interrogate the evolution of this divide. These dual transformations offer a glimpse into an English mind attempting to categorize the divide between man and animal simultaneous to the divide between human and black. The former is to be categorized and explored, tested along bounds of empathy and desire. Bottom and Titania exhibit affective resonance with one another, despite the spell’s governing of desire. Hermia, once imagined as black, bears no consideration. Lysander’s love is simply cast away. She is unworthy of recognition and discarded — in the world, but not of the world; just as the Ethiope is in the text, but not of the text. Hermia, once imagined black, produces affect that goes unresonated and, in fact, unrecognized. Lysander does not respond to her pleas with reason or understanding, but with insults, rage, and commands.
The violence done to blackness, from Shakespeare’s audiences in the 1590s to my own in the 21st century, needs no contextualization, no warning. In fact, it is comedy. For Shakespeare’s audience — just like for the audiences of the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner and the recipients of lynching photos — the connection between Blackness and abjection, the reaction of disdain and disgust, and the failure to bear witness to the suffering of blackness needs no origin and no explanation. Black suffering, even thoughts of blackness, do not resonate with empathy, but with pleasure, to feed the sadomasochistic psyche of an anti-black civil society. Now, in the age of social media and neoliberal capitalism, black death has become currency for civil society — the sadomasochistic pleasure of affirmations given by white colleagues for virtue signaling Black Lives Matter on the internet while allowing the racism in their jobs, schools, and lives to fester.
Black death is always present, always echoing throughout our thoughts, actions, and reactions. Shakespeare shouts “Away, you Ethiop!” and his words kill. This black death echoes across four-hundred years and four-thousand productions and forty million black deaths and rings in my ears in the present. But my soul and my mind have been desensitized and calloused to the redundant, constant, inescapable suffering and dying of black bodies, of blackness. So much so that I shout it again, my voice ringing through past, history, and present, catching the sound and perpetrating, representing, re-performing black death over and over. There is no beginning; is there no end? When these echoes emanate from Shakespeare’s text and find their ways to modern ears, they are rarely accompanied by content warnings. Have you ever seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a content warning for racial violence? Have you ever given one to your students when teaching it in your classes?
Do you even interpret those three words as violence?
I hope you have.
I hope you do.
I, regrettably, have not.
♦ ♦ ♦
“Away, you Ethiop!” (echoes … I can’t breathe.)
“Out, tawny Tartar, out!” (echoes … Momma, I love you.)
Two lines. Seven words. Three seconds of air within two hours of performance.
They pass without comment or consequence in the text, and often, they pass without comment in modern productions.
But not without consequence.
With those three seconds of air, A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes its place within a continuum that positions blackness as beyond the bounds of affective resonance and portrays blackness as absolute abjection — deserving of our disgust while never receiving our empathy. Allowing those words to pass without comment alienates the non-white members of our audience and the non-white students in our classrooms. As I think back on the moment now, I feel shame. Shame that I did not consider the feelings of my black and brown brothers and sisters in the audience. Shame that I allowed these moments to occur uncritically, unapologetically. Shame that in all the production’s consideration and nuanced representations of gender I still ran roughshod over the topic of race. Shame that I missed a teachable moment for my students.
Shame that in failing to grant affective consideration to blackness, I created another data point on the continuum of anti-black violence and the denial of black suffering.
The sexual content — the explorations of same-sex courtship, bestiality, and polygamy — registered for my university as problematic and controversial enough to warrant content warnings. (I can’t breathe) But the casting out of my history, the history of all of my brothers and sisters — the utter and unexplained disdain for my presence, my existence, my life (do black lives matter?) — those words, those lines, those seconds did not generate a content warning for our production.
I have never seen them generate a content warning.
“Away, you Ethiop!” (echoes … )
“Out, tawny Tartar, out!” (echoes … )
With those two lines. With those seven words. With those three seconds, I told a narrative that continues a history built upon a simple but undeniable doctrine — black lives do not matter. They cannot matter. Black death does.
- Run the Jewels (RTJ), “Walking in the Snow,” MP3 audio, track 6 on RTJ4, Jewel Runners/BMG, 2020. ↵
- I use “civil society” in the Gramscian sense, as the private or non-state sphere of society that includes structures of filiation (family, home, etc.) as opposed to political society that includes structures of affiliation (police, government, etc.), although the two often overlap. To Antonio Gramsci, political society is the realm of force and civil society is the realm of consent: political society enforces rule; civil society consents to being ruled. For a brief explanation, see: Sassoon, Anne Showstack (1991b). "Civil Society". In Bottomore, Tom; Harris, Laurence; Kiernan, V.G; Miliband, Ralph (eds.). The Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Second ed.). Blackwell Publishers Ltd. pp. 83–85. ISBN 0-631-16481-2. For the origin of Gramsci’s thought, see: Gramsci, Antonio. Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. 3 Vol. Columbia University Press, 2011. ↵
- The point of the essay is that civil society grants recognition to the capacity for anti-black discourse such as nigger to cause damage and offense to non-black bodies, but disregards any notions of progress or pro-blackness or “wokeness” when it comes to actual actions that end black lives and broadcast, without concern, black death. ↵
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), 3.1.105, accessed 9 August 2020, https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/a-midsummer-nights-dream/. ↵
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.265. ↵
- The following insults are lobbed at Hermia by the rest of the party. Lysander: “Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! Vile thing, let loose” (3.2.270); “Out, loathèd med’cine! O, hated potion, hence!” (3.2.275); “And never did desire to see thee more. / Therefore be out of hope, of question, of doubt. / Be certain, nothing truer, ’tis no jest / That I do hate thee” (3.2.290–95). Helena: “Have you no modesty, no maiden shame, / No touch of bashfulness? What, will you tear / Impatient answers from my gentle tongue? / Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you” (3.2.300–303). ↵
- “Away, you Ethiop!” is not the only racial insult Lysander throws at Hermia. “Out, tawny Tartar, out!” follows a mere six lines later (3.2.274), and also contains racial intent. See Bernadette Andrea, “The Tartar Girl, The Persian Princess, and Early Modern English Women’s Authorship from Elizabeth I to Mary Wroth,” in Women Writing Back / Writing Women Back: Traditional Perspectives from the Late Middle Ages to the Dawn of the Modern Era, ed. Anke Gilleir, Alicia C. Montoya, and Suzan van Dijk (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 257–81. But these two insults do not operate on the same register. “Out, tawny Tartar, out!” engages with conflicts between racialized identities of whiteness and Asian and Muslim, such as colonization, religion, and empire, that, while important, operate under the assumption that both sides in the conflict are human. Hate against Asians is a real and important issue. Hate against Muslims is a real and important issue. This essay recognizes the importance of such tragedies and arguments; however, we must also recognize that the suffering of Asians and Muslims is not analogous with the suffering of blacks. While Asians and Muslims are subject to white supremacy, they also are both recognized as human and participate, although as junior partners, in the civil society that is built on anti-blackness. For discussion of the unique grammar of suffering that afflicts blackness, see: Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020); “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 225–40; “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal,” Social Justice 30, no. 2 (2003): 18–27; Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020). For how this grammar of suffering resonates with blackness in Early Modern English thought, see Matthieu Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama: The Other “Other” (London: Routledge, 2017); and “Red, White, and Black: Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Structuring of Racial Antagonisms in Early Modern England and the New World,” Theatre History Studies 39, no. 1 (2020): 7–23. Attempting to analogize Asian and Muslim suffering with that of blacks erases the differences between the human conflicts of broad racism and white supremacy under which Asians and Muslims suffer and the specifics of the irreconcilable antagonism between blacks and humanity that defines anti-blackness. ↵
- Examples of earlier texts on race in early modern England include (among others): Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana Press, 1987); Eldred D. Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: A Study of the African in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965); The Elizabethan Image of Africa (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971); Peter Fryer, Staying Power: A History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984). ↵
- Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds. Women, “Race” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London: Routledge, 1994). ↵
- Ayanna Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (London: Routledge, 2008); Arthur L. Little Jr., Shakespeare Jungle Fever: National-Imperial Re-Visions of Race, Rape, and Sacrifice, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000); Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009); Joyce Green Macdonald, Race, Ethnicity, and Power in the Renaissance (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997); Women and Race in Early Modern Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). ↵
- Although these two are not the only Shakespearean works to be discussed in relation to race and its varying intersections with nation, gender, and religion, they do bear the majority of the intellectual labor on the topic. ↵
- Arthur Little Jr. is the editor of White People in Shakespeare (London: The Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, forthcoming), a collection that analyzes whiteness as a category of race in early modern England. Noémie Ndiaye, Scripts of Blackness: Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming), offers a transnational approach to race that seeks uncover networks of difference that transcend nation-state analyses. ↵
- Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2018). ↵
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.123, 127. See Margo Hendricks, “‘Obscured by Dreams’: Race, Empire, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1996): 37–60; Thomas R. Frosch, “The Missing Child in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” American Imago 64, no. 4 (2007): 485–511; Maurice Hunt, “Individuation in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” South Central Review 3, no. 2 (1986): 1–13; Ania Loomba, “The Great Indian Vanishing Trick — Colonialism, Property, and the Family in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. Dympna Callaghan (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 181–206; Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Jack Shall Have Jill; / Nought Shall Go Ill,’” Women's Studies: An Inter-Disciplinary Journal 9, no. 1 (1981): 47–63. ↵
- Although the Indian Boy not appearing onstage in the original text, many productions have staged him. I agree with Hendricks’s argument that, “Whether the Indian boy appears onstage at all is generally of little consequence, since he has no lines and would function as little more than a stage prop,” in regards to any individual staging (“‘Obscured by Dreams,’” 37). But, as Hendricks points out, the Indian Boy was staged at least as early as 1906 and has a long history of being staged, despite the fact that he does not appear in the text. By staging the Indian Boy and giving him presence as an object of desire, these productions place him within the paradigmatic position of the subaltern or the object, both positions that are defined by their relation to the subject. The Ethiope, the abject black, is defined by its incapacity for relations that are recognized by civil society. By staging the Indian Boy, directors throw the revulsion and abjection contained in “Ethiope” into further relief. ↵
- “Ethiope” has long history within the discourse and culture of early modern England as an abject being whose positionality and race are immutable. For discussions of the immutability of the Ethiope in processes of conversions, see Dennis Austin Britton, Becoming Christian: Race, Reformation, and Early Modern English Romance (New York: Fordham University Press 2014); Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama. For the deployment of Ethiope as an insult for comic effect, see Patricia Akhimie, “Racist Humor and Shakespearean Comedy” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, ed. Ayanna Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 47–61. ↵
- The history of police in America begins with the Slave Patrol of South Carolina in 1704, which was organized to apprehend escaped slaves and squash slave rebellions. These slave patrols expanded throughout the thirteen colonies and lasted until over a decade after the Civil War. ↵
- These phrases are all shockingly racist. Choosing to state “unarmed” reveals that we assume danger, violence, and criminality from black bodies. ↵
- Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), articulates social death as a state that defines the enslaved in various slave-owning societies consisting of three elements: 1. General dishonor; 2. Natal alienation; and 3. Subject to gratuitous violence prior to an act of transgression. ↵
- The dissemination of black death is not only visual, but textual. Mississippi was praised in 2011 for setting a new standard that all grades must include an in-depth analysis of the Civil Rights Movement in social studies classes. According to a 2017 article by Sierra Mannie, an analysis of textbooks used in the state of Mississippi for grades K–12 showed that all 148 districts in the state still used outdated texts for teaching about the Civil Rights Movement, the most egregious of which only included five pages of Civil Rights content while making sixty-nine mentions of one of the state’s former pro-lynching governors (“Mississippi Textbooks Gloss over Civil Rights Struggle,” Education Week, 4 October 2017, https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/10/04/why-students-are-ignorant-about-the-civil.html). ↵
- David Marriott, On Black Men (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). ↵
- George L. Aiken, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Samuel French, 1858). ↵
- W. L. Chapmney, The Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1856). ↵
- Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), distinguishes this essential antagonism in subjectivity from important conflicts between identities. See also Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama. ↵
- Wilderson, Red, White, and Black, 39. ↵
- Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 13. ↵
- See Aphra Behn, Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave (London: Printed for Will. Canning, at his Shop in the Temple-Cloysters, 1688) and Thomas Southerne’s 1695 stage adaptation, Oroonoko: A Tragedy. See also Thompson, Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage, esp. Chapter 3. ↵
- Chapman, Anti-Black Racism in Early Modern English Drama, 67–105. ↵
- Hall, Things of Darkness, 20. ↵
- For a complete articulation the theory, the nine affects, and affective resonance, see Silvan S. Thompkins, Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: Volume 1: The Positive Affects (London: Tavistock, 1962), as well as the 3 subsequent volumes. While affect theory has been interpreted and expounded on in various analyses in relation to critical theory, perhaps most notably by Gilles Delueze and Félix Guattari, in Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988. I intentionally use Thompkins to show how even at its inception, affect theory functions with a humanist assumptive logic that cannot account for the lack of relationality between blackness and humanity. ↵
- Ana Seara-Cardoso, Catherine L. Sebastian, Essi Viding, and Jonathan P. Roiser, “Affective Resonance in Response to Others’ Emotional Faces Varies with Affective Ratings and Psychopathic Traits in Amygdala and Anterior Insula,” Social Neuroscience 11, no. 2 (2016): 140–52. ↵
- Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, esp. Chapter 1. ↵
- Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiculturalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), esp. Chapter 2. ↵
- Frank B. Wilderson III, “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave,” Black Camera: An International Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2015): 134–49. ↵
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.175–80, 2.1.183–89. ↵
- This interspecies desire is explored in Bruce Boehrer, “Economies of Desire in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare Studies 32 (2004): 99–117; Gabriel Rieger, “‘I Woo’d Thee with My Sword, / and Won Thy Love Doing Thee Injuries’: The Erotic Economies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Upstart Crow 28 (2009): 70–81; Lorna Hutson, “The Shakespearean Unscene: Sexual Phantasies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Journal of the British Academy 4 (2016): 169–95. ↵
- In his pursuit of Hermia, Demetrius tells Helena how much he detests her by stating directly to her, “I am sick when I do look on thee” (2.1.219). ↵
- Hartman, Saidiya V., and Frank B. Wilderson. "The position of the unthought." Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183-201, 190. Wilderson first applies the notion of a species divide between blacks and humanity on page 190. ↵
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.265. ↵
- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.274. ↵