Causing Good and Necessary Trouble with Race in Milton’s Comus

Reginald A. Wilburn

[print edition page number: 109]
The following essay aims to raise greater pedagogical awareness about the redemptive role English professors can play by “causing good and necessary trouble” with race in a seventeenth-century text like John Milton’s Comus. Comus tells the story of a Lady’s heroic resolve to remain virginally chaste while lost in the woods and separated from her two brothers. She remains chaste despite her encounter with the bestial demigod, Comus, a monstrous antagonist, who, according to Barbara Lewalski, “embodies … the seductive power of false rhetoric and the threat of rape” among other things.[1] After encountering Comus and resisting his lecherous seductions, the unnamed Lady and protagonist of the masque falls prey to his supernatural spell. Sabrina, a woodland nymph, rescues the Lady from Comus at masque’s end. Her intervention allows the story to end on a favorable and positive note. Lewalski, commenting on the 1645 “reformed Masque,” notes this revised version of the poem particularly explores “the nature of temptation, the problem of deception and illusion in the fallen world, and the danger of taking false pleasures for true ones.”[2] Milton’s masque explores more than these moral vices. In addition to telling a story of women’s heroic chastity, it narrates fictions that ideologically negate blackness in the seventeenth century.

Causing good and necessary trouble with race and Comus in our contemporary moment provides rich opportunities for continually illuminating “how Milton plays a crucial role in popular culture, and, in turn, how popular culture adapts and transforms Milton.”[3] It is this “pop Milton” that Knoppers and Semenza expressly identify as having a more than relevant [110] “place in scholarship and the classroom.”[4] When English professors committed to antiracist pedagogical approaches develop close-reading strategies focused on interrogating and explicating Milton’s tropological influence on antiblack rhetoric in the mid- to late-seventeenth century, they position their students and scholar-citizens to cultivate a stronger appreciation of the canonical author’s enduring literary value.

Additionally, adopting this pedagogical approach contributes to maximizing the kinds of student learning outcomes that hold power for enriching the transhistorical value of one of the most preeminent of poets in English tradition. Critic Angelica Duran comments on Milton’s instructional significance in this regard when she recognizes, “paradoxically, the feminism, multiculturalism, and globalism that have contributed to the growth in the canon that has squeezed out Milton from some survey courses also have increased the benefits of his inclusion.”[5] Further recalling her attraction to “Milton’s works as a first-generation United States citizen,” Duran theorizes “a large number of college-bound high schoolers, college students, and autodidacts turn to what used to be unabashedly called great English literature to understand academic culture, learn professional discourse, and define anglophone culture against and within their heritage culture.”[6] Milton, from this vantage point of cultural re-mastery, becomes known in a very special way by reading communities whose positionality often locates them as situated at the margins of academia and elsewhere in society.

Assignments and discussions that invite critical inquiry of what will later be discussed as Milton’s British Africanisms, create democratic spaces for the care of marginalized students in the early modern classroom. These pedagogical practices also school and educate a broader population of students to re-evaluate the formal English they speak, read, [111] and study. Ultimately, this critical re-evaluation of language in literature empowers scholar-citizens to comprehend and apprehend a greater understanding of the ways a ruling language inflected with racist ideologies can undermine the most noble forms of patriotism and civic duty. It is in this respect that early modern English professors specializing in seventeenth-century literature hold promise for redeeming America by daring to “cause good and necessary trouble” with the word work of race in a minor yet major poem like Milton’s Comus.

The late US Representative John Lewis (1940–2020) famously exhorted publics to acclimate themselves to causing what he repeatedly deemed “good and necessary trouble” as a most patriotic of civic duties. The iconic Civil Rights statesman was known for oratorically stirring up this civic trouble at various university commencement exercises. In a testament to his life of integrity and service, Lewis pre-arranged the issuing of his final patriotic mandate to a wide public audience. On July 30, 2020, the day he was funeralized, Lewis’ Op-Ed piece for The New York Times commended Black Lives Matter protestors for the unrelenting social activism they displayed throughout the previous months. Their protests, in the aftermath of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders, he writes, “filled [him] with hope about the next chapter of the great American story.”[7] Inasmuch as Lewis’ Op-Ed piece holds unique relevance for the widest of global audiences, it likewise enlarges the investigative terrain whereby early modern English professors specializing in seventeenth-century literature and committed to upholding the enduring value of the humanities in higher education can rewrite bold possibilities for the future of languages, literatures, and diverse global cultures.

Milton, as research scholars of English know, remains an icon in the literary tradition. He enjoys this stature of preeminence in no small part due to his success in dignifying the English language through his signature poem in the epic tradition, Paradise Lost (1667). This literary achievement crowned his native language with honor and global prestige both in and beyond his lifetime. Milton’s dignifying of English culture and language [112] also occurred at a time when his country’s engagement in the trading of African slaves began to flourish. These dynamics of synchronic intertextuality merit scholarly examination on the basis of a poetic self-authorship that announces itself through Milton’s tropological use of antiblack rhetoric. In Comus, this rhetoric of antiblack bias reverberates and accumulates as a result of the then-young poet’s myriad British Africanisms.

Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination interrogates the literary phenomenon she regards as “American Africanism.” This trope reflects “the ways in which a nonwhite Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States” to include the wide and varied “imaginative uses this fabricated presence served.”[8] Playing in the Dark focuses exclusively on American Africanisms, highlighting the numerous ways race and antiblackness resurface throughout prized canonical texts in American literature. Even when Black characters do not physically appear or are not represented in these works, Morrison contends, Africanist presence yet exists. Africanist people, she contends, exist as (in)visible through tropological objects like rice, cotton, sugar. Because enslaved black labor was required to sow, till, and harvest these staples of US commerce and wealth, Africanist presence, as Morrison theorizes, must be acknowledged as a shaping presence of race in these literary works. Playing in the Dark examines these “American Africanisms” while acknowledging the existence of a European counterpart that proves equally pernicious on the literary pages of white-authored texts. Teaching students the art of close reading literary texts, race and the cultural forces of synchronic intertextuality associated with England’s enslavement of Africans throughout the seventeenth century with a nuanced acknowledgement of the growing prestige of the English language make scholarly interrogations of whiteness and Milton’s British Africanisms a novel experience of literary study.

Such a study likewise attests to the enduring instructional value of the humanities as a disciplinary platform of exemplary citizenship and leadership. This is because, as Morrison additionally acknowledges, “there [113] also exists, of course, a European Africanism with a counterpart in colonial literature.”[9] These seemingly innocuous racialized snubs reverberate, demean, and denigrate blackness throughout numerous early modern texts in English. As a result, it is not difficult to imagine the myriad ways these British Africanisms are apt to trigger and offend BIPOC student-readers in early modern English classrooms when any of these canonical texts are assigned and discussed. BIPOC students need not be present in early modern English classroom for Milton’s British Africanisms to work to deleterious ends. All students are educationally disenfranchised when culturally responsive teaching focused on noting the word work of race that British Africanisms reverberating throughout the texts of a canonical author like Milton is overlooked, neglected, abandoned, or forsaken.

In their noteworthy collection, Re-Membering Milton (1989), literary critics Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson argued for a body of scholarship that would dignify England’s premier Christian and epic poet of liberty in ways unprecedented prior to the 1990s. Specifically, they sought to “foster the conditions needed for a more engaged as well as more theoretically and historically informed, critical literature” on his expansive body of religious, political, and literary writing.[10] In their introduction, Nyquist and Ferguson consider Milton “the most impressive and notorious of self-authored authors,” further asserting he participated in modes of “political and religious radicalism [that] revealed features of an emerging bourgeois class-consciousness in ways that have yet to be fully explored.”[11] Carolivia Herron’s landmark contribution to the collection offered the first essay of Milton criticism to survey and address “complex critical questions about cross-cultural influence” relative to the epic writer’s “enabling and inhibiting” influence on African American authors.[12] Published examinations of race and Black lives in Milton Studies have [114] increased to a minimal degree since Herron’s article. Given the paucity of this scholarship, one has to wonder: to what extent do discussions of race and Black lives take place in early modern English classrooms? Moreover, how do professors respond when BIPOC students in early modern English courses dare to raise their hands and voice their opinions and queries about the British Africanisms they might see operating and reverberating in these canonically privileged, white-authored texts?

If discussions of race and blackness in these classes seldom happen if at all, the failure to introduce them as points of scholarly consideration and examination constitute missed pedagogical opportunities that prove most unfortunate. The missed opportunity proves especially unfortunate given the abundance of British Africanisms Milton rhetorically deploys in Comus and other of his works. Whenever this pedagogical oversight or neglect occurs, it disenfranchises twenty-first-century students from entrepreneurially explicating the forces of synchronic intertextuality that denigrate racial blackness in the early modern period at a time when English language, literature, and culture were being dignified by preeminent white authors of literary tradition. Of particular note, this was a period in literary history when England’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade showed no signs of waning and in fact increased from the second half of the century onwards. This dynamic has theoretical implications for assessing the extent to which Milton’s dignifying of the English language benefits from increased poetic negations of blackness, particularly throughout the seventeenth century. To teach these and other racially inflected dynamics of synchronic intertextuality is to “cause good and necessary trouble with race.” Commensurate with John Lewis’ patriotic mandate, instigating pedagogical trouble with Milton’s Comus holds radical potential for “redeeming the soul of the nation” through a culturally responsive remastery of English and its literary traditions.

Teaching the word work of race and anti-blackness in Comus rather than the great epic poem, Paradise Lost, makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, it is a shorter work, and, arguably, more accessible to student readers. Thus, English professors have greater pedagogical luxury to mine the text for its rhetorical stock of British Africanisms without having to ensure students understand the largeness of Milton’s ideas, the numerous conventions germane to epic, and the density of poetic form, philosophy, [115] and political allegory that makes this poem so great if not foreboding to beginning scholars. Second, the concentration of British Africanisms reverberating throughout Comus makes the discussion of antiblackness rich with scholarly possibilities for students invested in mining the limitations of the English language that is our inheritance in global culture. Third, and of particular relevance, Milton composes and publishes Comus in a period where England’s trading in black flesh was on the rise. If forces of synchronic intertextuality help to shape the meaning of language and culture in any material way, then the word work of race in Comus throughout the 1630s and 1640s provides a critical contextual lens useful for understanding the trouble with language and racializing discourse as penned by a young writer who was well on the way to becoming the literary icon long revered across the centuries of time.

Milton’s British Africanisms and the literary microaggressions they may provoke, then, serve as an exclusive educational training ground for cultivating ennobled global citizenship. Early modern English professors can satisfy this high pedagogical calling by teaching forms of radical re-reading of race in white-authored literature that cross-culturally echoes the “active rewritings” of Milton modeled by various authors in African American tradition.[13] Employing these popular culture approaches to teaching Comus and other pieces of Milton’s writings clarify the anachronistic importance of critical race pedagogy as a pedagogical method for making him matter in the aftermath of George Floyd’s, Breonna Taylor’s, and Ahmaud Arbery’s tragic murders.

The phrase and contemporary political movement known as “Black Lives Matter” registers so palpably in contemporary consciousness as to cast new racial meaning on the rhetorical, lexical, and semantic “things of darkness” Kim Hall, a leading scholar of race in the English Renaissance, examines. Concerning the literary scripts of antiblackness in these texts, Hall’s groundbreaking work argues, “the trope of blackness had a broad arsenal of effects in the early modern period.”[14] However this racial trope may have been used, Hall maintains it “still draws its power from England’s [116] ongoing negotiations of African difference and from the implied color comparison therein.”[15] Her theory holds particular relevance for critical race readings of Comus, a 1,023-lined poem containing more than 103 unique words and figures of darkness and negated blackness. Milton frequently used words like “night,” “dark,” and “shade” throughout the poem for a total of nineteen, twelve, and eight times respectively. Phrases like “in thick shelter of black shades embowered,” “of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,” “Dark-veiled Cotyotto,” “sable cloud,” “Dim darkness and this leavy labyrinth,” and “in double night of darkness and of shades,” reflect several of the multiple clusters Milton assembles to negate blackness either directly or figuratively (Comus 61; 129; 221; 278; 335). A range of other words like “drear,” “shady,” “smoke,” “smoky,” “nocturnal,” and “tawny” contribute to negating blackness in the poem. Milton even has one of his characters castigate “all the monstrous forms / ‘Twixt Africa and Ind[ia]” who are believed to accompany Comus’ riotous behavior (605–606).

Composed in 1634 and performed at Ludlow Castle, Milton’s experimental masque is a dramatic work that generically hearkens back to medieval times. By the early modern period, court masques were “modified” and transformed “by characteristics borrowed from civic pageants, chivalric customs, sword-dances, and the religious drama.”[16] Court masques like these typically functioned at the entertainment level of elaborate spectacle. Performed at Ludlow Castle before John and Frances Egerton, the Earl and countess of Bridgewater respectively, Comus was written with the couple’s “only unmarried daughter,” the fifteen-year-old Lady Alice Egerton in mind.[17] Given these contexts, it is not likely that the average reader would expect Milton’s masque to have little or anything material to do with race or themes of antiblackness. [117]

Nor does Comus contain physiognomically black characters. However, its first 240 lines tells a kind of racial story that paves pedagogical paths for teaching blackness as a dehumanizing intertext of race throughout the remainder of this “great minor poem” from Milton’s canon.[18] For instance, the opening setting introduces readers to a geographical landscape enshrouded in figures of darkness connotatively conveying racial undertones of antiblack bias. Because Comus has as its theme a focus on women’s heroic chastity, Milton’s British Africanisms reveal subtexts of race and whiteness too hyper-visible across the poem’s 1,023 lines not to be interrogated or deconstructed. As a critical close reading of Comus will evidence, Milton’s tropological engagements with the word work of race in an advancing language destined for global prestige reveals his style of playing poetically in the darkness of his whitened imagination.

Milton’s British Africanisms throughout Comus thus prove central to the racialized workings of seventeenth-century synchronic intertextuality. Specifically, their concentrated presence throughout the work showcases the young and ambitious laureate poet’s commitment to putting figures of poetic blackness into greater racial formation at a critical period of the seventeenth century. By the time Milton composed and revised Comus, England’s ongoing and escalating participation in the trading of African slaves had been operating for nearly a century. For instance, Winthrop Jordan, the American historian, identifies the “Protestant Reformation in England” as launching a “complex development” in the sixteenth century that involved a partnership between the “taut Puritan and the bawdy Elizabethan.”[19] The age, which, according to him, “we usually think of in terms of great literature — [and] Milton and Shakespeare” more specifically, was also “driven by the twin spirit of adventure and control,” one where “adventurous Elizabethans embarked upon voyages of discovery overseas” and interpreted the Africans they encountered as savages, beasts, and [118] sexually lecherous.[20] Historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., also comment on England’s growing interest in slavery. Their narrative account of African American history highlights the extent to which England, as a growing empire, enjoyed its territorial hold on the Caribbean at key moments in the seventeenth century. Franklin and Moss further explain “the English secured control of St. Christopher in 1623, Barbados in 1625, and Nevis, Antigua, and Montserrat in the 1630s” before winning “one of the great prizes” in 1655 “by driving the Spaniards out of Jamaica.”[21] English language and culture advanced, prospered, and flourished amid these hegemonic encounters with blackness.

England’s enslavement and trading of Africans, when coupled with the proliferation of antiblack racial signs reverberating throughout a work like Comus, invites transformational learning opportunities for twenty-first-century students. The dynamic specifically positions students to examine racial processes of synchronic intertextuality in mid-seventeenth-century writings and by a premier white canonical author like Milton. Cultivating these skills in language use and meaning production ultimately prepares students to approach literary works with the pedagogical goal of helping them to remaster words, phrases, and ideological ideas with the kind of linguistic excellence Milton demands of strong readers. Strong readers place a “premium on individual acts of attention and composition” in the course of balancing a “difficult mix of authority and humility” when approaching densely resistant texts in particular.[22] Early modern English professors who effectively teach students to read race closely and critically help to strengthen students’ humanistic proficiencies through the exercising of right, sound, and judicious reasoning. This pedagogical approach also exhibits culturally responsive care for the educational souls of BiPOC students who may find Milton’s literary microaggressions of antiblack bias throughout Comus triggering. [119]

(Literary) Microaggressions, Pedagogy, and Troubling Milton’s Canonical Authority

Charles Pierce, a noted professor of education and psychiatry, coined the term “microaggressions.” The concept denotatively refers to the “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges,” which, generally are considered as “put downs” by racialized individuals who bear the brunt of these social infractions.[23] Derald Wing Sue, a professor of counseling psychology, has elaborated upon the term’s definition, emphasizing the phenomenon as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.”[24] Raced individuals likely experience microaggressions daily in their various social interactions with whites. The “subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and tones” they are apt to experience in predominantly white settings often are “so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions” as to be dismissed by those who may feel disempowered by these (perceived) affronts to one’s humanity.[25] At other times, such microaggressions may register to the recipient of these acts as being “innocent or innocuous” in intent or effect.[26] These slights may seem minimal in the moment. Yet, microaggressions often prove “detrimental to persons of color because they impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of [addressees] and by creating inequities” in the process.[27]

Literature classrooms sometimes play geographical host to the circulation of microaggressions of antiblack bias that routinely surface in literary texts by canonical white authors in English. Literary microaggressions tend to surface in peculiar ways throughout early modern seventeenth-century [120] literature, where figures of darkness indicative of antiblack bias operate as “economies of race” according to Hall. As Hall explains further, such economies “set the stage for the longer process by which preexisting literary tropes of blackness” throughout the early modern period “profoundly interacted with the fast changing economic relations of White Europeans and their darker ‘others.’”[28] Thus, intensive study of Milton’s British Africanisms merit ongoing investigative study for millennial English majors, who, for the sake of an ennobled citizenship modeled by Representative Lewis, should never be allowed to forget the linguistic role that race plays in strengthening the forces of seventeenth-century synchronic intertextuality.

Seventeenth-century English literature highlights the increased flourishing of a language and culture that little more than a century prior was deemed globally inferior to those of ancient Greek and Latin civilizations. As mentioned above, the seventeenth century is also a period where England’s growing participation in the slave trade increased and flourished. These hostile encounters, then, have dire synchronic consequences for contemporary readings of English culture, its literary productions, and the diasporic descendants of enslaved blacks who speak, read, and study a colonialist language rhetorically loaded with no short supply of poetic Africanisms constitutive of antiblack bias. Gregory Machacek is useful here in terms of exploring the benefits associated with investigating Milton’s poetic language and its meaning-making properties relative to an intertextual project grounded in a study of synchronic semiotics. In Milton and Homer: ‘Written to Aftertimes, Machacek traces a trail of substituted allusions for the phrase “Heavenly Muse” in line 6 from Book 1 of Paradise Lost. The phrase resurfaces in substituted form as “the Spirit of Oreb or Sinai,” and later, as “the Christian Holy Spirit.”[29] This allusive trail of substituted terms within a literary work provides a template for conceptualizing a cognitive field for playing with race and blackness [121] within the realm of Milton’s white imagination and audience members who, throughout time, fail to see race operating on these grounds of linguistic contention.

A similar phenomenon along interpretive axes of race and antiblackness occurs on implied and inferential levels of meaning throughout Comus. Instructing students in the art and science of investigating these intertextual allusions for negated blackness exposes the word work of race and antiblackness Milton operationalizes so frequently throughout the masque. Astute readers of Comus may see and recognize a similar operation resurfacing throughout the poem relative to a semiotics of racial Otherness. Not unlike Milton’s repeated substitutions for his “Heavenly Muse” phrase, a semiotics of racial Otherness reverberates “so flagrantly” throughout Comus as to “call attention to” various signs of antiblackness that likewise “cast [these signifying tropes] into relief” to the point of “utterly exhausting them.”[30] In our post-George Floyd moment, how might our pedagogical approaches to teaching English literature involve the word work of race that is necessary for troubling the language of its barbarous errors of black negation?

An email to me from Hamilton Griffin, a second-year West Point cadet, clarifies what is at stake should early modern English professors forsake the sacred trust of schooling today and tomorrow’s scholar-citizens in race through the liberal arts, humanities, and literary studies. Cadet Griffin served as president of the Black Culture and Arts Forum at his military institution in the 2020–2021 academic year. During the fall semester, he invited me to address members of the undergraduate student organization. His communication to me noted he and his peers read my article, “‘Getting Uppity with Milton; or Because My Mom Politely Asked was Milton Racist?,’” finding its arguments both provocative and timely.[31] Cadet Griffin especially noted the article “raises a host of questions dealing with how [Black-identified students] should regard not just microaggressions in literature, but the overall dehumanization of black people.” His statement [122] reveals the kind of psychic educational negotiations Black students, in particular, may feel compelled to deal with, navigate, and overcome when confronting any number of literary microaggressions encountered in certain English literature classrooms. When it comes to reading, studying, and openly discussing the works of some of the most revered canon-makers in English tradition, the dynamic of literary microaggressions can prove stultifying to the point of causing the “emotional devastation” that bell hooks elsewhere identifies as “soul murder.”[32]

Traditions of literary history make canonical white authors like Milton nearly unavoidable in discipline-specific curricula. The “things of darkness” reverberating throughout these authors’ texts may sometime go unchecked by professors or students. As a result, those bearing the brunt of these canonized literary microaggressions may simply have to “deal with” the alienating effects of an inhibiting language system “just to get by” and academically succeed for and within the educational moment. In light of these psychosomatic negotiations students like Cadet Griffin encounter, one wonders in the name of providing students a premium educational experience the extent to which white canonical authors’ (in)visible intertexts of negated blackness potentially hit too close to home for BIPOC scholars and their peers’ existential or ontological good? This pedagogical conundrum might empower English professors committed to antiracist pedagogies to “cause good and necessary trouble” with race in white-authored canonical texts of privileged literary periods. Milton is one seventeenth-century author whose writings may be taught through this pedagogical context. His stock of British Africanisms affords students unique opportunities to identify, explore, and explicate the numerous literary microaggressions and poetic emphases that thematically negate blackness throughout the early modern period.

New English majors may not know, understand, or respect the revered Milton who yet ranks as an icon in English tradition. For this reason, introducing him prior to assigning a work like Comus may be in order, especially in the post-George Floyd moment where pronouncements of “Black lives matter” may foster an even greater consciousness about the value [123] of Africanist people in society than prior to 2014. At this historical juncture of Black consciousness, do new English majors know Milton ranks alongside Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare as a member of a rather elite triumvirate in English literature? Are they cognizant of the snippets of criticism spanning the seventeenth and twentieth centuries that extols him as sublime and his epic equally so? As a case in point, critic Stephen Dobranski, writing about Milton’s relevance “today” notes in his introduction to a special issue of Milton Studies that the seventeenth-century writer remains “without equal,” further asserting a work like Paradise Lost survives as “the greatest single poem written in English.”[33]

A second thing millennial students should know about Milton prior to studying what I call the “word work” of race in Comus is that his later long epic poem, Paradise Lost, constitutes the canonical achievement in belles-lettres that dignified English on a scale unrivaled by previous literary texts. Milton’s epic globally dignified English by demonstrating the capaciousness and grandness of a language that poetically could live up to the high demands of culture and express a nation’s glory in the most exalted form of poetry. Moreover, Milton achieved this heroic literary accomplishment while nearly blind. It is also worth considering that today’s twenty-first-century students may not realize that English, prior to the 1600s, was deemed a paganistic and culturally inferior language. Appropriated from “classical rhetoric and grammar,” notions of linguistic barbarism, according to Ian Smith, typically denoted “linguistic vices [and] errors in language that were specifically associated with foreigners or cultural outsiders.”[34] The English language was coming more into vogue by the second decade of the seventeenth century. Herein lies what Smith astutely recognizes as the “‘Renaissance’ racial matrix: [a] dynamic circulation of a static paradigm as the articulation of English mastery” that emerges not long after the language itself was deemed inferior and barbarous in comparison to Greek and Latin.[35] Spoken primarily [124] by so-called uneducated classes, English gained and began to enjoy high cultural status throughout the seventeenth century and beyond. One recognizes the traces of this linguistic anxiety in Milton’s prefatory “Verse” to Paradise Lost. Of particular note, his defense for composing the epic in unrhymed blank verse leads him to justify this aesthetic choice of “neglect” as culturally synonymous with the works of Homer and Virgil. Like them, Milton eschews rhyme in his great epic poem, believing the poetic element reflects “the inventions of a barbarous age.”[36]

Milton, who possessed a privileged and formidable education, would have been well acquainted with the greatest writers from antiquity down to his present age. He absorbed some of the best these precursors and near contemporaries offered. Undoubtedly, he was “used by” those who influenced him and transformed those influences “into something altogether [his] own.”[37] The epic Paradise Lost, like other literary genres Milton explored, shows him excelling at this mastery of “literary strangeness,” a “mode of originality” mastered by “only a few figures” who across the annals of history have been regarded as capable of “fight[ing] relatively free of the anxiety of influence.”[38] New English majors may not know the cultural weight and significance of a work like Paradise Lost. Nor might they understand it is through this signature work that Milton is understood largely as dignifying the English language by heroic turns and at a time when the culture had only recently begun to come in vogue.

Inasmuch as he is worthy to be praised, Milton merits critique as well. He is worthy to be critiqued on account of his injurious British Africanisms like those reverberating throughout Comus. These abuses of language contribute to why select African American authors throughout literary history respond to Milton as though he were an “inhibiting” canonical influence in tradition. For instance, when Herron recognizes Milton as having an “inhibiting” influence on certain African American writers, she, [125] no doubt, refers to the intertexts and metalanguage of race contemporary students are apt to recognize when reading him.[39] Adopting and refining this pedagogical approach exposes Milton’s literary microaggressions of antiblack bias for what they are: triggering mechanisms of poetic speech that survive as a reproach to the young canonical poet and the nation he so proudly dignified through words and numerous figures of negated darkness.

Teaching and Decolonizing Milton’s British Africanisms in Comus

Forces of synchronic intertextuality make it rather difficult to imagine a moralizing work on virginal chastity like Comus could in any way consider Black women of the period as virtuous. Synchronic intertextuality, according to Gregory Machacek, involves textual interrelations governing “the semiotic practices in effect in a particular culture at a particular historical moment.”[40] When we consider England’s growing participation in the slave trade throughout the 1630s and 1640s, it becomes unpardonable to overlook the extent and degree to which discourses of race and antiblackness may have contributed to the heinous acts of Africanist subjugation that a developing English language helped to sanction as ideologically licit. One suspects the capture, enslavement, and rape of African women during this period necessarily complicated the possibility of performing favorable moralistic readings of Black female subjects in particular. As Winthrop D. Jordan explains, “the case with English confrontation with Negroes” concerns a colonialist society mired “in a state of rapid flux, undergoing important changes in religious values, and comprised of men who were energetically on the make and acutely and often uncomfortably self-conscious of being so.”[41] Particularly from the time of the English [126] Reformation to the Elizabethan period and beyond in the seventeenth century, English culture’s confrontation with a people they considered “less technologically advanced [and] markedly different in appearance and culture” led them to conceive those they encountered and enslaved with “radically contrasting qualities of color, religion, and style of life, as well as animality and a peculiarly potent sexuality.”[42] These racial formations in language and synchronic intertextuality occur within a dynamic of proliferating signs, rhetorical figures, and flawed semiotic readings of and about Africanist blackness throughout the early modern period.

Critical raced readings of darkness throughout Comus reveal Milton’s tropological operations of marginalizing Black women and their filial issue. This marginalizing sign system marks a supernatural character like Circe as a dark child of the sun and a mother too figuratively racialized as Black to be considered chaste, virtuous, or reflecting ideal standards typically ascribed to patriarchal perceptions and conceptions of white femininity in early modern England. A signature motif in “the classic story of slavery,” according to Saidiya Hartman, involves “wayward lines of descent” sired by white men in power whose sexual vices often proved “phantasmal.”[43] Interestingly, “sexual connotations embodied in the terms bestial and beastly were considerably stronger in Elizabethan English than” Jordan associated with US culture at the close of the 1960s.[44] Against the cultural backdrop of these seventeenth-century racial contexts, millennial student-scholars are primed to perform critical interrogations of whiteness as distorted projections of the blackness Milton negates in Comus through his exhaustive supply of British Africanisms.

Before darkening Circe’s maternal character, Milton first grounds his masque in a series of poetic British Africanisms. As early as the fifth line, Comus is bound to resonate with a racial tenor of antiblackness. An attendant spirit descends from “the starry threshold of Jove’s court,” lighting upon this “dim spot / Which men call earth” (1; 5). She descends from [127] Jove’s starry celestial regions to fulfill an “errand” for which she would not otherwise “soil these pure ambrosial weeds / With the rank vapours of [earth’s] sin-worn mould” (15; 16–17). Her reading of the earthly sphere grounds this descriptive setting in an atmospheric climate of antiblack bias where a developing trope of negated darkness serves as a figure of scenic debauchery. These opening lines also present earth as a dichotomous setting, one starkly contrasted from Heaven’s celestially luminescent regions. Playing with figures of geographical darkness and light, Milton characterizes Earth as a moral climate mired in sin.

Guiding students in the explicating and deconstructing of these figures can lead to some rather surprising discoveries relative to Milton’s style of playing in the dark with negated blackness. For example, Milton symbolically underscores the dichotomous relationship between the opening light and dark atmospheric setting by racializing England as a nationalist landscape of optic whiteness. This “representation of literary and cultural whiteness” encourages an interrogative reading of England as stereotypically pure and distinct from a so-called dark continent populated by Africans.[45] The attendant spirit makes this reading evident by referring to Neptune’s “imperial rule of all the sea-girt isles” and boasting that England’s national landscape exists as “the greatest and the best of all the main” that the god of the sea “quarters to his blue-haired deities” (21; 28–29). Furthermore, her boastful pride in England’s “old and haughty nation” soon leads her to comment on the masque’s main characters, the “fair offspring” who have been “nursed in princely lore” and are headed to “attend their father’s state / And new-entrusted sceptre” (33; 34; and 35).

Fair, in this instance, highlights the characters’ pale skin tones within the very passage that racializes England as metonymically white. Milton scholars such as Barbara Lewalski’s comments on the masque’s nationalist undertones do not specifically address race yet underscore the word workings of race in the masque by noting as significant Milton’s dedicating Comus to Bridgewater. Dedicating Comus to Bridgewater contributes to constructing the masque’s story “as a representative of the ancient British [128] nation” in the process.[46] David Lowenstein concurs, arguing Comus reveals young Milton’s literary investments in “mythopoeic representations” at a moment “in the [poet’s] early career” where readers see him “rethinking in dramatic poetry, the ethics, politics, of English nationhood to a degree that has not been fully appreciated.”[47] Milton’s attitudes about his country would undergo several permutations in the decades beyond the 1630s, Loewenstein continues. Nevertheless, in Comus, contemporary audiences note a young poet of growing prominence “already devoting his imaginative energies to reconceiving the symbolism of familial and national representation.”[48] These linguistic codes spur a concretizing recognition of the racializing tropological schema reverberating in subsequent lines of Comus. Echoing the racial signs of the times, Milton’s contrasting figures of light and darkness work in tandem with idealized conceptions of white nationhood as a poetic mechanism for denigrating black geographies like the ‘shady’ darkness of the ominous woods where Comus dwells as a hellish outcast and exilic figure.[49]

Three lines following the passage on British nationhood, Milton’s attendant spirit introduces audiences to an ominous wooded setting. The Lady and her brothers are depicted as making their way “through the perplexed paths of this drear wood” and its “nodding horror of whose shady brows / Threats the forlorn and wand’ring passenger” (37; 38–39). Descriptions like “drear,” “horror,” and “shady brows” intensify the atmospheric gloom of the wooded setting, infusing the scene with a sense of ominous foreboding that the narrating spirit has poetically forecasted. If anything favorable could be expected of this darkened setting, Jove would have little to no reason for dispatching the attendant spirit to aid the siblings’ “defence and guard” (42). That her divine assistance is needed at all only underscores [129] the gloom and doom signified by these darkened woods. The ensuing forty-seven lines underscore the pedagogical importance of closely reading and examining Milton’s British Africanisms in Comus “for its hidden and overt racial meanings” of negated black difference.[50] In these lines, Milton’s attendant spirit racially profiles Comus as descending from a maternal genealogical line bewitched with supernatural vice.

The attendant spirit characterizes Comus by his bad filial association with Circe. First, Milton takes poetic license and racial liberties with Greek myth by imbuing his classical source material with inflections of supernatural deviance. This poetic decision further inflects Milton’s stock of British Africanisms with added resonances of black and negated difference. The spirit’s limited focus and characterization of Bacchus, Comus’ father, makes apparent that Circe is to be understood as largely responsible for her son’s deviant nature. Bacchus, audiences learn, was the first to extract “the sweet poison of misused wine” which he took from Circe’s “charmed cup” (45; 51). Like Adam in Paradise Lost, he succumbs to fallenness at the hands of an Eve-like temptress. Although the attendant spirit faults Bacchus for drinking Circe’s sin-inducing beverage, she devotes more space to emphasizing Circe’s fallen nature by darkening and maligning the maternal figure as a racially Othered care giver and nurturer.

The attendant spirit not only introduces Circe as a witch but darkens the maternal character by referring to her as a “daughter of the Sun” (51). Twinning the vice of supernatural evil with an imagistic portrayal of Circe as a child of the sun characterizes this bewitching mother figure with a physiognomic complexion distinctly darker than the phenotype ascribed to the Lady and her brothers. Moreover, if Circe is to be understood as a direct filial descendant of the sun, such characterization shades in the visual direction of a complexional blackness too darkened by the radiating light of an intensely warm sun. This designation also darkens Circe, potentially conjuring associations with the African continent and its torrid climate attributable to the central star of the solar system.

Homer’s Odyssey geographically situates Circe on Aeaea, an island located west of Italy in the Mediterranean yet just north of continental [130] Africa. In the seventeenth century and at the time Milton writes Comus, Africa already functioned as a tropological sign of negated blackness. Thus, by taking allusive poetic license with Circe and associating her with a torrid geographical climate like continental Africa, Milton, in a sense, displaces the maternal witch from the Mediterranean island named in the Homeric source. This allusive mode of characterization highlights Circe’s bewitching maternal nature as evil and wayward. Its poetic properties also solidify a tropological grammar of antiblack bias in Comus while portraying Circe as a maternal archetype tainted under a bad rhetorical sign of Africanist presence and racial otherness.

Negated as a type of supernatural seductress, Circe invites racialized readings of disfigured and maddened disability in the masque. The men she beguiles undergo bestial metamorphosis. According to the narrator, “whoever tasted” the beverage she offers “lost his upright shape, / And downward fell into a groveling swine” (lines 52–53). Already Africanized by her filial association with the sun and her supernatural vice, Circe racially sponsors the bestial disfigurement of the men she successfully seduces. This aspect of characterization further amplifies semiotic readings of a bewitching blackness that transforms the corporeal shape of her victims and drives them to maddened states of disability. Theorizing connections between blackness and madness, Theri Pickens advises readers of Black Madness::Mad Blackness to “learn to think madly, Blackly.”[51] For Pickens, “madness and blackness have a complex constellation of relationships,” one she theorizes as “constituted within the fissures, breaks, and gaps in critical and literary texts.”[52] A goal of her theoretical project aims to encourage scholars to “read Blackness and madness alongside each other,” particularly as conjoined properties where “race and disability [often] intersect.”[53] Pickens’ theory certainly applies to a close critico-race reading of Circe’s effect on the men she seduces. The theory applies to the monstrous child Circe births and nurtures as well. [131]

Circe seduces Bacchus, “gaze[s] upon his clust’ring locks,” and eventually bears “a son / Much like his father but his mother more / Whom therefore she brought up and Comus named” (54; 56–58). This backstory surrounding Comus’ birth suggests Circe, alone, bears the blame for the monstrous child’s disfigured appearance and defiled or debauched nature. Similarly, she may be understood as transmitting the vice symbolically associated with her racial Otherness and moral vice to her son. This mode of negatively characterizing Comus as a result of Circe’s symbolic nature anticipates the American “grammar” Hortense Spillers, in her influential article “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” theorizes as the post-natal condition of Black mothers’ relations to dynamics of US slavery. Spillers contends the children of Black women are “touched and handled” by their mothers. This “perceived matriarchal pattern” whereby enslaved mothers and their children often find themselves caught “in a state of social ‘pathology’” useful for subsequent “pornotroping” in global culture, emerges as the consequence of paternal particularities associated with the “peculiar institution.”[54] In a system where white slaveholding fathers typically withhold legal rights of heirship to the Black children they sire and Black fathers can be sold miles away, Black biological mothers or their surrogates, generally are left to raise one’s filial descendants. Comus anticipates this racial grammar in a seventeenth-century canonical work written, performed, and revised in an era where England’s ongoing participation in the slave trade was on the rise.

Comus grows and matures, having been schooled and well versed in his mother’s supernatural arts. According to the narrator, Comus roams “the Celtic and Iberian fields” before settling within “this ominous wood” and its “thick shelter of black shades embowered” (60; 61; and 62). As with the setting at the outset of the masque, this dark and shady bower extends the negative interpretive associations with bewitched blackness that Circe transmit to her son at birth. The poem evidences the extent to which Circe’s supernatural blackness touches her son when noting the [132] grown Comus “excels his mother at her mighty art” (63). That he practices a variation of his mother’s witchcraft and within an embowered geographical setting of ominous darkness intensifies the signifying power of Milton’s British Africanisms relative to Comus’ character and his figuratively marginalized identity along racial lines in the masque.

Like his mother, Comus beckons “weary travellers” to ruin and destruction by tempting them with “orient liquor” (64; 65). His victims likewise undergo bestial metamorphoses as a result of consuming a poisonous beverage that transforms their “human count’nance … / Into some brutish form of wolf, or bear, / Or ounce, or tiger, hog, or bearded goat” (68; 70–71). Interestingly, they are unable to “perceive their foul disfigurement” (74). Their inability to see their bestially transformed selves as they are in reality means these bewitched victims live within perpetual states of maddened blackness. This racialized madness manifests more palpably as a result of their tendency to “boast themselves more comely than before” (75). Physically disfigured and mentally disabled from seeing themselves as and for who they really are, Comus’ brutish rout evidence Milton’s poetic commingling of race and disability as blended signs of blackened debauchery. They also glory homoerotically in the appreciation of their fallen metamorphosed state. Of particular note, they “roll with pleasure in a sensual sty” of debased folly (77). Within this mixed constellation of racially coded signs, Comus’ rout of fallen and bestial and monstrously disfigured men magnify Milton’s British Africanisms with a greater clarity of antiblack bias.

Comus and his rout pose moral threats to wayfaring travelers “favoured of high Jove” (78). Given the religious and moral threats they pose to the allegorical British citizens in the masque, Comus dispatches the attendant spirit to Earth as a type of divine protectorate. The attendant spirit dutifully fulfills these earthly errands, assisting those who “pass through” the “advent’rous glade” of Milton’s ominous setting and providing them “safe convoy” through its woods lest they fall prey to Comus’ evil machinations (79). Having established the onset of conflict in the masque, the attendant spirit brings the poem’s introductory section to a close. Milton next turns to a poetic strategy of racializing the setting and characterization with percussive sounds of Africanist rhythm. [133]

Just prior to Comus’ entrance, the attendant spirit “hear[s] the tread / Of hateful steps” then hides to view the unfolding incidents (92). The stage directions and lines 93 through 144 reinforce codes of Africanist Otherness by characterizing Comus and his crew’s riotous tread through the woods as musically reflecting syncopated sounds of blackness. The group enters the grounds “like sundry sorts of wild beasts, but otherwise like men and women.” Their “riotous and unruly noise” peals the atmosphere with thunderous decibels that tropologically announce the alterity of Africanist presence. Milton inflects this antiblack reading of the wild and unruly crew by suddenly breaking from the stately meter of heroic blank verse.

Comus speaks in iambic tetrameter in stark contrast to the attendant spirit’s heroic blank verse. Occasionally, Comus deviates from iambic tetrameter. When he does, his lines extend beyond the metrical feet accorded to blank verse, often containing eleven or more syllables. The sudden shift from blank verse to iambic tetrameter calls tropological attention to itself since Milton’s figurative economies of racial characterization have worked successfully to frame the bestial demigod in an interpretive image of negated and deviant blackness. Editor of the Riverside Milton Roy Flannagan contends Comus’ use of iambic tetrameter corresponds to “conventions of the Elizabethan theater for supernatural beings.”[55] Another rhetorical difference Comus’ deviant rhythm makes throughout this passage concerns Milton’s rebellious altering of the masque’s oral and aural soundscapes. These rebellious lines create linguistic choppiness and infuse the masque with truncated syncopated rhythms of barbarous dissonance. Akin to the supernatural nature of his character, his alternative rhetorical style troubles the ominous setting as demonic grounds that relay verbal echoes of what Katherine McKittrick astutely theorizes as the racialized “sayability of geography.” These supernatural inflections of race and antiblackness in Comus cohere with racialized readings of the ominous woods and the monstrous rout simultaneously. [134]

Milton denigrates black percussive music elsewhere in his canon as well. Stanzas XXIII and XXIV in “On Christ’s Nativity” and line 394 from Book 1 of Paradise Lost provide two examples where Milton demonizes Black music for its percussive difference. Contemporary novelist, Ishmael Reed, critiques Milton on the very basis of this manner of British Africanisms in Mumbo Jumbo. As I reference in “Getting Uppity with Milton,” a character in Reed’s novel censures Milton for the antiblack references to Africanist music appearing in lines from the poem, “On Christ’s Nativity.” Interpreting lines from Milton’s poem as expressive of a disdain for the timbrelled, percussive, and syncopated music associated with ancient Egyptian civilization, Reed’s narrator “recognizes these sonic rhythms” as repulsive to the epic writer.[56] As a result, the narrator believes English professors revere this racist Milton as an “amulet” and “talisman” who proves useful for excluding Black people from their academic departments.[57] Interpretively deeming these instances of poetic language as racist, Reed performs an interrogative clapback in literary tradition that responds to Milton’s microaggressions of Africanist music and its percussive cultural stylings. BIPOC students might find and enjoy similar emancipatory joy when English professors create lesson plans that invite all of us to clap back at Milton on the literal, implied, and inferential levels of semiotic meaning throughout Comus and other works by the epic writer and his seventeenth-century contemporaries.

Comus further breaks from the established form of speech by resorting to rhyming couplets in this passage of deviant meter. This deviance by rhyming couplets especially differentiates him from the whiteness of Milton’s racially privileged characters. As per the introduction of this passage above, Milton’s apology for “The Verse” to Paradise Lost, breaks with poetic convention in English by dignifying his nation’s language and culture through a rejection of rhyme. Milton’s decision to consign Comus to speaking in rhyming couplets dehumanizes the demigod further as a barbarous racial Othered thing and maddened figure of symbolic blackness. This Africanist feature of musical blackness accords with Reed’s poetic [135] hateration of Milton in Mumbo Jumbo while advancing Ian’s cultural analyses of so-called barbarous language that synchronically impacts racial meaning in the early modern period. Milton’s prefatory “Verse” further denigrates a poetics of rhyme as useful for “set[ting] off wretched matter and lame meter.”[58] In other words, the epic writer associates rhyme as a figure of abject disability. According to this logic, Milton perceives rhyme and Comus’ use of it as a poetic sign of physical inferiority. Comus’ metrical “feet,” in this instance, symbolically connote the poet’s disenfranchising support of an ableist worldview that already are conjoined with signifiers of racial Otherness. Close readings of lines 93 through 144 alongside students provide pedagogical opportunities for students to read and hear these tropological resonances and echoes of antiblack bias. More specifically, Milton’s acoustic Africanisms in this section of the poem racially profile his dark-child characters through musical modes of percussive and syncopated blackness.

Comus’ choppy meter of blackened racial disability changes and reverts to heroic blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) only upon hearing the approaching tread of what he perceives may be a lost virginal maiden. “Break off, break off, I feel the different pace / Of some chaste footing hear about this ground” he exclaims (145–146). In this moment of rhetorical artifice, that is, Comus adopts the stately rhythms of heroic blank verse. His now affected English signals a duplicitous exercise of doubled vocal consciousness. In the seminal literary work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois coins the concept “double consciousness” to express African Americans’ “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”[59] Du Bois, writing within US sociological contexts, explains this condition of white supremacist culture causes racially discriminated individuals to “ever feel” the twoness of “souls,” “thoughts,” and “warring ideals in one dark body.”[60] These strivings [136] occur at the expense of ontologically laboring to enjoy being both Black and American.

An anachronistic pre-working of this racial dynamic occurs in Milton’s masque when Comus suddenly shifts to speaking elevated poetic English. It is as if he knows far too well that the soft tread of a perceived white and virginally chaste maiden demands or deserves an affected speech pattern suitable to the racial privilege she enjoys in early modern English culture. He sustains this stately rhythm of unrhymed speech for the next twenty-five lines as a preparatory method of rhetorical trickery. He intends to figuratively enslave the Lady by cheating her “eye with blear illusion” and the relaying of “false presentments” (155; 56).

The Lady also calls attention to the racial tenor of musical difference upon her arrival on the scene. “This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,” she states, adding, “Methought it was the sound / Of riot, and ill-managed merriment,” (170; 171–172). Adding to her assessment of the racialized soundscape, she equates the riotous crew’s musical merriment to “the jocund flute, or gamesome pipe,” which, she finds, “Stirs up among the loose unlettered hinds” (173–174). Such music provides incorrigible accompaniment for the “wanton” dancing she abhors (176). Music of this sort also leaves the Lady “loath / To meet the rudeness and swilled insolence / Of such late wassailers” (177–179). These discriminating sentiments about the racially Othered music she scoffs at work in concert with and supplement her rather natural style of speaking in the exalted metrical rhythms of heroic blank verse. Devoting pedagogical time for studying these various instances of coded rhetorical speech throughout the first 229 lines of Comus allows for detailed interrogations and analyses of whiteness that facilitate additional opportunities for deconstructing race a la Milton’s myriad British Africanisms. As literary microaggressions, these features of poetic language expose early modern English for its various rhetorical postures of pitting notions of white purity against presumptive interpretations that denigrate blackness as naturally hedonistic and immoral.

The remaining plot leaves more than enough room for English professors to cause continued trouble with Milton and race in Comus. Explications of the geographic setting, Circe and Comus’ respective characterizations and the masque’s denigrating critiques of Black musical [137] expressivity unmasks a “hidden curriculum” of racial meaning production throughout this short canonical work. This (in)visible yet hidden tropological system of racial signs requires rigorous activities of literary deconstruction, ultimately requiring students to read race critically in literary texts as scholarly artists. Anthony Abraham Jack defines a “hidden curriculum” as an instructional set of academic survival skills “full of unwritten rules, unexplained terms, and a whole host of things that insiders take for granted.”[61] This system of social negotiating principles often comes second nature to students from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. It not only tests students’ “intellectual chops but their ability to navigate the social world” of institutions “where the rewards of such mastery are often larger and more durable than those that come from acing an exam.”[62] Milton’s British Africanisms in Comus reveal a hidden curriculum of myriad poeticized racial meanings. Making these signifiers of darkened meaning more visible to readers’ critically astute eyes awakens Milton’s text beyond some students’ interpretive imaginations.

Prepping for academic discussions of this hidden curriculum in Comus easily lends itself to a two- or three-day teaching unit. After orienting students to Milton’s canonical stature in English literature, pedagogical exercises devoted to studying and discussing the masque’s first 229 lines offers fascinating opportunities for interrogating whiteness and racist projections of antiblack bias. Subsequent units might afford students opportunities for text-mining, interrogating, and deconstructing the more than 500 British Africanisms that may be (in)visibly hidden throughout the remainder of the poem. Text-mining, as Kenton Rambsy explains in his examination of select short fiction by Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, aids scholars to “analyze words, clusters of words, and word densities” in texts toward illuminating how literary artists “represent language.”[63] Lesson plans that introduce text-mining Comus for its [138] linguistic figures and related “things of darkness,” likewise assists students to explicate Milton’s masque for its technique of casting discriminatory and signifying “shade” on Black identity. Equally important, this pedagogical approach “makes … shifting language patterns” of race hypervisibly “apparent from the beginning of [Milton’s] story in relation to the end.”[64] This dynamic holds especially along multiple axes of interpretation where race, gender, sexuality, and disability tend to collide throughout Comus.

It should be noted that the pedagogical point of interrogating and deconstructing Milton’s British Africanisms in Comus and seventeenth-century literature should not serve the interest of banishing the canonical epic writer from the English curriculum. Rather, I see the benefit of adopting this recommended pedagogical goal as assisting transformative scholar-citizens like the students we teach to remaster the English language Milton dignified more than 350 years ago. Elsewhere I have defined this skill of remastering Milton as a sophisticated interpoetic intelligence performed by some of the most erudite authors and readers across the annals of African American literary history. My article on Josephine Brown’s biography of her father, William Wells Brown, explores the meaning and value that Milton’s Comus had for the former fugitive slave, antislavery orator, playwright, and novelist.[65] My future scholarship will add to this dearth in scholarship by examining Milton’s Comus as intertextually valuable to Frederick Douglass, and the unsung musical virtuoso, Roland Hayes. Both appropriate snippets of Comus, evidencing performances of Black intertextual remastery with Milton that reinterpret him in expressive forms of revisionary cultural excellence. By including the appropriate passages from Wells Brown’s Travel Narrative, Douglass’s speech, “The Nation’s Problem: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on 16 April 1889,” and Hayes’ musical rendition, “Comus: Preach Me Not your Musty Rules,” early modern English professors committed to antiracist pedagogy can cause a whole lot of good, necessary, and uppity trouble with Milton [139] in their syllabi and classrooms. Causing trouble with Milton in these entrepreneurial ways “enable[s] readers to enter into a transhistoric conversation that extends forward and backward” in a manner that Angelica Duran recognizes as “at once global and intensely personal.”[66]

Notwithstanding the triggering nature of Milton’s British Africanisms throughout Comus, Wells Brown, Douglass, and Hayes’ performances of Miltonic remastery make an added case for pedagogically causing good and necessary trouble with race in the epic writers’ seventeenth-century masque. Although poets of the English word throughout the seventeenth century contributed to the developing and flourishing of a major literature while negating blackness, processes of synchronic intertextuality could not deter a “misrepresented people” from dignifying the language anew.[67] Wells Brown, Douglass, and Hayes’ remastered appropriations of Comus can teach twenty-first-century students that a critical place and space exists for interrogating the whiteness of an English language system. Interrogating the privileged whiteness of our English language system can help all of us to re-member Milton as a pedagogical consequence of causing good and necessary trouble with the literary icon even if by anachronistic pedagogical methods. This is because Milton, “canonical writer par excellence, continues to thrive” in global circles of social activism.[68]

Ultimately, causing this good and uppity trouble with Milton’s Comus affords students the twenty-first-century skills necessary for undertaking roles of transformative global citizenship in the now and hereafter. In our present age, it is not uncommon for students, parents, university administrators, and members of society at large to minimize the worth and enduring value of English literary studies as a discipline. Additionally, it is too easy for those not in the know to summarily dismiss disciplines of languages, literatures, and cultures as little more than a recreational luxury. Certainly, in this post-George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery [140] moment, ours is a discipline deserving not of knee-jerking defense but of unequivocal respect for what expertise in language can do for global civilization when remastered in the hearts, minds, and wills of those who dedicate themselves to its rigorous study. In a 2014 commencement address at Emory University, Representative Lewis offered a precursory gospel of revolt and civil disobedience that predated the Op-Ed piece in The New York Times referenced earlier in this essay. In that address, Representative Lewis instructed graduating members of his audience to

use your education. You have wonderful teachers, wonderful professors, researchers. Use what you have. Use your learning. Use your tools to help make our country and make our world a better place, where no one will be left out or left behind.

As this snippet makes clear, Representative Lewis regarded professors as indispensable educational resources for redeeming the soul of the nation. Each semester presents new opportunities for early modern English professors committed to antiracist pedagogies to perform this salvific work of educational patriotism. When early modern English professors dare to teach students to decode race through critical close readings of a work like Comus, we do something far more heroic than merely dignifying Milton and the language he crowned with global prestige. Rather, through a “reconstruction of instruction” we resurrect canons of literature anew, interrogating a stockpile of British Africanisms in the service of doing justice to all humanity by and through language with high critico-creative skill.

  1. Barbara Lewalski, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 2003), 63.
  2. Lewalski, The Life of John, 63.
  3. Laura Lunger Knoppers and Gregory Colon Semenza, “Introduction,” Milton in Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2006), 5.
  4. Knoppers and Semenza, “Introduction,” 4.
  5. Angelica Duran, “Milton and the Undergraduate British Literature Survey Course: Who, Where, When, How, and, by All Means, Why?” in Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Shorter Poetry and Prose, Ed. Peter C. Herman, (The Modern Language Association, 2007), 48.
  6. Duran, “Milton and the Undergraduate British Literature Survey Course,” 48–49.
  7. John Lewis, “John Lewis: Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” The New York Times, July 30, 2020.
  8. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (Vintage Books, 1992), 6.
  9. Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 38.
  10. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, “Preface,” in Re-Membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions. (Methuen, 1988), xvi.
  11. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, “Preface,” in Re-Membering Milton, xiii.
  12. Carolivia Herron, “Milton and Afro-American Literature,” in Re-Membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, Eds. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, (Methuen, 1988), 280.
  13. Herron, “Milton and Afro-American Literature,” 280.
  14. Hall, Things of Darkness, 6.
  15. Hall, Things of Darkness, 7.
  16. William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th Edition, (Prentice Hall, 2000), 308.
  17. Lynne A. Greenberg, “The ‘Unowned’ Lady: Teaching Comus and Gender,” in Approaches to Teaching Milton’s Shorter Poetry and Prose, edited by Peter C. Holman, (The Modern Language Association, 2007), 153.
  18. Christopher Kendrick, “Milton and Sexuality: A Symptomatic Reading of Comus” in Re-Membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, (Methuen, 1988), 46.
  19. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro: 1550–1812, (UNC Press, 1968), 40.
  20. Jordan, White Over Black, 40.
  21. John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, seventh edition. (McGraw Hill, 1994), 43.
  22. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, “Introduction,” in Ways of Reading (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 7; 9.
  23. Chester Pierce, Jean Carew, Diane Pierce-Gonzalez, and Deborah Wills, “An Experiment in Racism: TV Commercials,” in Television and Education, edited by Chester Pierce (Sage, 1978), 66.
  24. Derald Wing Sue, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice” American Psychology 62.4, 273.
  25. Sue, “Racial Microaggressions, 273.
  26. Sue, “Racial Microaggressions, 273.
  27. Hall, Things of Darkness.
  28. Kim F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, (Cornell University Press, 1995), 4.
  29. Gregory Machacek, Milton and Homer: “Written to Aftertimes” (Duquesne University Press, 2011), 24.
  30. Machacek, Milton and Homer, 24.
  31. See Reginald A. Wilburn, “Getting ‘Uppity’ with Milton; or Because My Mom Politely Asked: ‘Was Milton Racist?’” in Milton Studies 62.2 (2020): 266–279.
  32. bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, (Routledge, 2004), 15.
  33. Stephen Dobranski, “Milton Today, Part 1,” in Milton Studies v.
  34. Ian Smith, Race and Rhetoric in the Renaissance: Barbarian Errors, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 1.
  35. Smith, Race and Rhetoric, 3.
  36. John Milton, “the Verse.” Paradise Lost, Norton Critical Edition, Gordon Teskey, Ed. (Norton, 2000), 2.
  37. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (Riverhead Books NY, 1994), 170.
  38. Bloom, The Western Canon, 3; 9.
  39. Carolivia Herron, “Milton and Afro-American Literature” in Re-Membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Maragret W. Ferguson, (Methuen, 1988), 280.
  40. Gregory Machacek, Milton and Homer: ‘Written to Aftertimes’ (Duquesne University Press, 2011), 25.
  41. Jordan, White Over Black, 43.
  42. Jordan, White Over Black, 43.
  43. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, (Farar, Straus, and Giroux 2007), 76; 77.
  44. Jordan, White Over Black, 33.
  45. AnaLouise Keating, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ (De)constructing ‘Race’” in Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice (Routledge, 1998), 195–96.
  46. Keating, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ (De)constructing ‘Race,’” 77.
  47. David Loewenstein, “Milton’s Ludlow Maske and Remaking English Nationhood” in Making Milton: Print, Authorship, and Afterlives Eds. Emma Depledge, John S. Garrison, and Marissa Nicosia, (Oxford University Press, 2021), 78; 79.
  48. Loewenstein, “Milton’s Ludlow Maske,” 79.
  49. While, on the one hand, referring to the wooded area that provides the setting for Comus, I also use the term “shady” to denote “deceitful, underhanded, and/or evil practices” as is common in twentieth-century Black vernacular.
  50. Keating, “Interrogating ‘Whiteness,’ (De)constructing ‘Race,’” 189.
  51. Their Alyce Pickens, Black Madness::Mad Blackness, (Duke University Press, 2019), xi.
  52. Pickens, Black Madness, 3.
  53. Pickens, Black Madness, 13; 23.
  54. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 205; 206.
  55. Roy Flannagan, ed., The Riverside Milton (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 128.
  56. Wilburn, “Getting Uppity with Milton,” 272.
  57. Wilburn, “Getting Uppity with Milton,” 272.
  58. Milton, “The Verse,” 2.
  59. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Terri Hume Oliver (W. W. Norton, 1999), 11.
  60. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 11.
  61. Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, (Harvard University Press, 2019), 190.
  62. Jack, The Privileged Poor, 86.
  63. Kenton Rambsy, “Text-Mining Short Fiction by Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright Using Voyant Tools.” CLAJournal, 59(3), (2016): 251.
  64. Rambsy, “Text-Mining Short Fiction,” 255.
  65. See Reginald A. Wilburn, “The Return of William Wells Brown: A Heroic Black Miltonist in Elizabeth Josephine Brown’s Miltonic Biography of Her Father,” in Women (Re)Wrting Milton, edited by Mandy Green and Sharihan Al-Akhras (Routledge, 2021), 73–90.
  66. Duran, “Milton and the Undergraduate,” 48.
  67. Stevie Wonder, Bambooozled Sound Recording.
  68. Laura Lunger Knoppers and Gregory Colon Semenza, “Introduction,” in Milton in Popular Culture, 5.


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