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‘Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in Shakespeare’ guide earns support from academia

A Chicago-based director is leading an effort to dismantle “anti-black language” in the plays of William Shakespeare, a worthwhile effort, several college professors told The College Fix.  

“I kept seeing people bump up against words … and not know what to do,” Lavina Jadhwani told The College Fix in a telephone interview.

Jadhwani, the South-Asian director leading the effort, has created a guide that lists a number of “problematic words” in Shakespeare’s plays.

She states in the document she is not calling for Shakespeare to be canceled, writing his works “contain poetry and truths and stories that I believe are still worth telling,” but that the guide offers suggestions and options on how to avoid using offensive words.

The guide contains words such as “black,” “master,” “slave,” “minstrel” and “Ethiope.”

Called the “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in Shakespeare: A Field Guide,” it notes that: “Black lives matter. And words matter. Words can do harm. It is time we stop harming Black people with our words.”

Jadhwani told The Fix one example in her guide is “the word that starts with an ‘N’ but means miserly.”

The word she is referring to is “niggardly,” which can describe one who is cheap or ungenerous, such as Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

Jadhwani said many object to the use of this word because it sounds like the n-word.

“I’m not a person who believes in absolutes,” Jadhwani said. She clarified that, while she would not want to say the word, if a black actor believed that there was “some power in using it,” she would not discourage that person.

The guide also includes the words “black” and “white” when they are used in contexts that would assign positive or negative connotations to them.

“I am writing this document to take the emotional labor of [black people] having to explain to that nonblack director who doesn’t understand why these words carry a different charge,” Jadhwani said.

To critics who would object to her efforts, Jadhwani offers two main rebuttals.

“Thing number one is that we don’t have definitive versions of these texts,” she said.

MORE: Students inject transgenderism into Shakespeare

Jadhwani referred to the possibility that centuries-old works are often subject to many revisions, which range from texts being lost to scriveners’ errors, so today’s versions now may differ from the originals.

“Thing number two that I would say is: Listen, I understand that sometimes there is pushback about changing these words because like, ‘Oh, we can’t write better than Shakespeare,’” she said. “I don’t think we can write better than Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s audiences. I do not think that we are Shakespeare’s audiences.”

“The language that may be accessible to you isn’t necessarily accessible to everybody else, and … your community isn’t the one that might be harmed by it.”

When asked to define what “doing harm” or “causing harm” means, she used “the word that means miserly” as an example.

“I know that, as a non-black person, I avoid using the n-word and the word that sounds like it because I know that word has a history of traumatizing people, and I don’t want to do that,” she said.

One academic who has publicized Jadhwani’s document is Holly Derr, a professor of theatre at the University of Memphis. Derr conducted an interview with Jadhwani for Howlround Theatre Commons.

In the interview, Derr said that “Shakespeare’s plays both reflect a colonial worldview and have historically been used as instruments of colonization by educators.”

Derr told The College Fix in an email that it “was common for White settlers in America to use Shakespeare to teach Indigenous people English values.”

Derr explained that The Tempest “reflects the Jacobean fascination with the New World as an exotic and wild place in need of taming.”

“To a greater or lesser extent,” Derr said, “theater companies still practice a kind of colonization to this day when they take their touring Shakespeare productions into impoverished neighborhoods, assuming that what people who can’t get fresh produce really need is Shakespeare.”

Derr also spoke about her own experience with changing words in Shakespeare.

“When I first started directing Shakespeare in 1994, I was much more precious about maintaining the language, and was only willing to change pronouns in order to gender flip characters. But the more I’ve learned about Shakespeare, the less important I think it is to say the exact words as written,” she said.

She said she does not take issue with any of Jadhwani’s changes partially because many of the words Shakespeare uses are now pronounced differently from how they were in his time. Derr said that, because of this phenomenon, some rhymes and metrical lines are already “precorrupted.”

Derr said she does not blame Shakespeare for using words that modern audiences find problematic.

“I’m not faulting Shakespeare for using the word niggardly. It meant miserly then, and there was no danger of it being misunderstood for an offensive word. In terms of him depicting colonialism, racism, and sexism, he was portraying the values of his time, just like all playwrights do,” she said.

Another professor who has given plaudits to Jadhwani’s document is Furman University Professor of Education Paul Thomas. Thomas runs the blog “Radical Eyes for Equity,” and he recently wrote a post describing how he discourages his students “from seeing language use as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect.’”

In an email to The Fix, he wrote that asa former high school English teacher and a career-long scholar of race and racism, I find the complex framing here very useful for the classroom.”

Thomas said that “teachers can help students navigate important aspects of a canonical text both in terms of its historical relevance in Shakespeare’s time and the challenges those works pose to contemporary readers.”

He added many writers in the Elizabethan era assigned positive or negative meanings to certain colors and that Jadhwani’s document can help to shed light on them.

“[T]his approach to interrogating Shakespeare isn’t concerned with choosing between then and now, but provides a way to investigate how all texts have multiple lives, notably a life when it was written and then another life decades or centuries later when readers do not share that original context,” Thomas said.

But the guide has also found a critic within academic circles.

Micah Mattix, associate professor of English at Regent University, has criticized the guide.

“Dark times for Willy Shakes. Can I say that? Listen, I’m all for getting more people to read or see a performance of Shakespeare, but this isn’t the way to do it,” he wrote.

MORE: University to hire professor who can teach Shakespeare through social justice lens

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About the Author
Charles Hilu is a sophomore studying political science at the University of Michigan. In addition to reporting for The College Fix, Charles also writes for his on-campus publication, The Michigan Review, and serves as secretary of Michigan's Young Americans for Freedom chapter. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he plans to study law.

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