Racism in Othello and An Echo in the Bone Essay
Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself. MARX, Zur Judenfrage (1844) It has often been mistaken that racism only exists between those who are black and white. This of course, has largely been influenced by colonialism and slavery in the New World.
Carlos Hoyt Jr in his article, ‘The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse,’ states that although several key concepts in the study of diversity, social bias, and social justice are somewhat nebulous and overlapping, for example, culture, race and ethnicity, there is perhaps no term that provokes the level of confusions, consternation and conflict that the term racism does.
This he says is due to the dispute that has destabilized the use of the term for much of its short history and boils down to a sharp disagreement among both professionals and laypeople about whether the original definition of racism should be revised to exclusively and strictly mean the use of power to preserve and perpetuate the advantages of the dominant social identity group – that is, white people in American society.
However a working definition is provided by Wikipedia, in which racism is defined as actions, practices or beliefs, or social or political systems that are based in views that see the human species to be divided into races with shared traits, abilities, or qualities, such as personality, intellect, morality, or other cultural behavioral characteristics, and especially the belief that races can be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to others, or that members of different races should be treated differently.
Racism may exist between those of Indian descent and African descent like Trinidad, between Caucasians and Latinos in South America, between Chinese and Japanese, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and likewise between Jews and Christians and so on. It is not uncommon for writers whether contemporary or traditional to write about racism in their work.
In the article, ‘Literature as a Means of Fighting against Racism and Discrimination,’ the author, Koutsi, states that as nations struggle to cope with their internal conflicts literature becomes the vehicle which helps us to open up to different perspectives and reconsider certain facts about the history of a nation. She explains that readers have the opportunity to revisit and question historical facts and question their own reality.
Arguing in support of this perspective is John Thieme in his article, ‘Repossessing the Slave Past: Caribbean Histography And Dennis Scott’s An Echo In The Bone,’ he quotes Scott, who had received awards at the Jamaica festival literary competitions in the 1960s, expressing the view that when an ex-slave society “imposes discipline on itself from within, it begins to wipe out a tradition of submission.
It is the beginning of a freedom to choose” and the specific choice that he made in An Echo in The Bone was to renegotiate the terms of Jamaican historiography, by restaging episodes from the past within the context of Afro- Caribbean rite of the Nine Night. Like wakes in many other cultures, the Nine Night is a form that transcends the mourning aspects of funeral customs to celebrate and release the dead person’s spirit.
The issue of race is a central theme in An Echo in the Bone and it explores the animosity shared between both blacks and whites generating from the latter exercising dominance in the form of chattel slavery over the other. This animosity is best portrayed in the confrontation between Crew and Mr. Charles and their deaths. This confrontation, illustrates the height and depth of racism within the new world, more specifically in Jamaica at that time.
The play is based on the postcolonial era in Jamaica where ones status is ascribed based on colour. The class system held the whites at the top of the hierarchy with the mullatoes, a form of hybrid resulting from the intimate relations held by black and white descendants, then lastly the Africans. Racism hummed within the veins of the oppressed and the oppressors alike and blanketed the atmosphere within that era and in the play as well.
Through the nine night ritual and a series of possession and flashback techniques, Scott further illustrates the atrocities of slavery and racism and the traumatic effects it has on the oppressed even after emancipation. This causes one to question the real meaning of emancipation. Even after fifty two years of independence Jamaica and the Caribbean society has yet to liberate themselves from slavery and racism. Though we are not shackled and bound by chains, evidence of this trauma is still rooted deep within our minds.
From skin bleaching to the notion that foreign is better and the ‘crab inna barrel attitude’ displayed by the majority of Jamaicans it is obvious that the freedom fought by our fore fathers to gain was in vain. Like Marcus Garvey who pleaded with us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, Bob Marley who sang songs of redemption, King who had dreams of a better tomorrow, Malcom X who fought for equality and Mandela who endured humiliation behind bars fighting against the apartheid system in Africa, Scott in his play seeks to give a voice to the disenfranchised.
By incorporating the nine night ritual the playwright places emphasis on possession, this he demonstrates through the flashback scenes and the spiritual possession of the characters by the deceased. According to Thieme, as in the work of Caribbean writers such as Kamau Brathwaite and Earna Brodber, his emphasis on “possession” involves more than one meaning of the word. To be possessed is to be taken over by the creolized African elements in Caribbean culture and to claim ownership of one’s history, land and language and most importantly one’s “birthright that say I am not a slave anymore”.
Thus as a vehicle of repossession Scott uses the drum as a portal to the past; the chain found on set is the link through which the characters are able to climb through history and it also represents the influence the past has on the present and how it will impact the future. Drama as a medium allows the past to be imaginatively reenacted, so that scenes from the culturally encoded discourse of colonial historiography are given a completely different inflection. (Thieme,nd) This is best portrayed where Scott allows Sonson to reenact his father’s confrontation with Mr. Charles.
Possessed by the spirit of his father, Sonson goes up the chain that has been suspended over the set throughout the play, as it were climbing back through slave history, and hovers above the stage in a limbo like predicament. Jacko in convincing Sonson/Crew that his talk of having murdered Mr. Charles is “stupidness” “(Echo 134) and that the blood on his shirt is that of a hog, allows for a different outcome and the beginning of repossession by the oppressed and silenced.
This of course is the beginning of liberation, and self-discovery. The characters are no longer bound by hatred, their complexion and ethnic background but jubilantly look towards a brighter tomorrow as they move from being victims to victors. The racial undertone in Shakespeare’s Othello is quite obvious especially in the first Act. Othello is first introduced through references to his skin color, anatomical features, and his inferiority to the other Europeans.
Shakespeare differentiates Othello from the white Europeans by calling him a “black ram” and “thicklips” and “the Moor, ” all of which separate him from higher society, which was caucasian. However, unlike Scott’s An Echo in The Bone, the issue of race in Othello as a central theme is debatable. Othello is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1603. The play tells the story of a powerful general of the Venetian army, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a conniving, deceitful, and envious soldier, Iago.
Othello is possibly the most famous literary exploration of the warping powers of jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, it’s among the earliest literary works dealing with race and racism. Othello, undeniably heroic even if ultimately flawed, is the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature. Othello faces constant racism from other characters, especially when he marries Desdemona, a privileged white woman whose father disapproves of the union.
The play’s performance history has been marked by racism. To see a real black man and a white woman kiss onstage was seen as so unacceptable to many viewers that even in early twentieth century America, Othello had to be played by a white man in blackface. When Paul Robeson, a black American and the son of a slave, played Othello on Broadway in the 1940s, the performances electrified a still segregated nation. Othello’s treatment of race and sexuality makes its one of Shakespeare’s most relevant and controversial plays.
For some, the play’s portrayal of a black man who marries and then brutally murders a white woman in a fit of rage and jealousy makes Othello a racist play. For these critics, Shakespeare seems to endorse a xenophobic (anti-foreigner) attitude that was pretty common throughout England and other parts of Europe. After all, they say, the play is full of characters that express a blatant hatred of black men and foreigners, and these characters often refer to Othello as “thick-lips,” the “devil,” and the “old black ram” who supposedly contaminates his white wife with his hyper-sexuality.
Not only that, but Othello enacts a racist stereotype (that says black men are “savage”) when he strangles his wife on her bed. Yet, for other critics, neither the action in the play nor the characters’ racist attitudes makes the play (or Shakespeare) racist. For some, Othello is a play that portrays racism in a way that provokes the audience into rethinking its ideas and attitudes about race. Many critics argue that Shakespeare’s play asks one to consider the tragedy of how Othello absorbs and internalizes the dominant racist attitudes that surround him.
One argues in favour of this perspective as well. The idea is that Othello is a study of what happens when a society tells a man over and over and over again that he is violent, savage, contaminating, and to be feared. In the case of Othello, the character begins to believe its all true and acts out a racist stereotype – that of a “savage” killer. Early17th-century English attitudes toward non-Europeans were largely shaped by the government’s diplomatic policies and, to a lesser extent, by exotic stories brought back by travelers overseas.
The term “moor” was derived from the name of the country Mauritania but was used to refer to North Africans, West Africans or, even more loosely, for non-whites or Muslims of any origin. North and West Africans living in Elizabethan England were frequently singled out for their unusual dress, behavior and customs and were commonly referred to as “devils” or “villains. ” Moors were commonly stereotyped as sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and generally wicked, hence, Shakespeare’s use of derogatory names to refer to Othello in Act 1.
The public associated “blackness” with moral corruption, citing examples from Christian theology to support the view that whiteness was the sign of purity, just as blackness indicated sin. This is best portrayed where Brabantio implies that Othello bewitched his daughter. It was again depicted where the Duke of Venice tells Brabantio that his daughter is safe if Othello is her husband. The duke says: “ and, noble signior, ? If virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black”. Some would argue that this is evidence of racism however this too is quite debatable.
It could also be argued that the duke spoke in reference to Othello’s character and not his complexion seeing that in the Elizabethan society, those considered to be “black” described even those whose complexion was slightly different from those of a lighter skin tone. Unlike An Echo in the Bone, Blacks were not typically associated with slavery at that time, since the slave trade would not be fully established until the late 17th century. Furthermore another difference between Scott’s work and Shakespeare’s drama is that the animosity between the characters as one will discover is far from skin deep.
In fact, Iago’s hatred towards Othello is largely influenced by jealousy. After serving alongside Othello for so long Iago thought that instead of promoting Cassio, Othello would have considered him worthy of being his lieutenant. However this was not so, Iago discloses to Roderigo that: “I follow him to serve my time upon him” (Othello, 2) Unbeknown to Othello, Iago intends to turn his love ones against him or worse, as one will discover, he intends to turn Othello into the savage barbarian he was unjustly referred to in the opening scenes.
Finally, while racism is indeed demonstrated in Othello, this does not make it a racist play as it has nothing to do with the tragic outcomes in the production. On the contrary, Shakespeare has displayed Othello as a good black man who was driven to do horrible things by a white man. In the Elizabethan times, it was believed that the errors in the character were reflected in the outer appearance however Shakespeare’s point contradicts this ideology instead he substantiates that appearance is not an indicator of the person beneath the skin.
Like they say, “don’t judge the book by its colour”. In conclusion, both plays, An Echo in the Bone and Othello show evidence of racism. However while racism is a central theme in Scott’s work, the racism displayed in Othello does not influence the outcome of the play. In addition while both authors include black characters manipulated by a white society, only one allows the characters to overcome the trauma caused by slavery and racism while the other ends in tragedy.