IT SEEMS we have no choice. ‘Colour-blind casting’ in the theatre looks set to stay, even though many punters choose not to buy tickets for performances which defy all rules of empirical experience. Why should I ‘suspend disbelief’ because the latest shibboleth says I have to? At home I can read the uncut plays by Shakespeare afresh, imagine settings, and be enthralled by the infinite variety within character, language and nuance, without witnessing ego trips by dictatorial directors.
Yes, the words on the page retain undiminished power. But if colour-blind casting is here to stay in the theatre, TV and film, why is colour-conscious ideology holding such sway in university departments? Race now stalks shelves bearing the glories of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, Eliot (both) and all the other greats. ‘Dead white men’ and ‘pale, male and stale’ are two detestable phrases which add sexism to the racism they signal.
‘Decolonisation’ is the latest pandemic of ignorance, hysteria and rank prejudice within British universities. In the latest push to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, the University of East Anglia has decided to change the existing Literature In History II module, which included works from William Shakespeare and East Anglia alumnus and Nobel Prize laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. The course will be superseded by ‘Writing Across Borders’ – fixating on ‘the way English operated as a language of the coloniser’.
This rot (literal and figurative) is spreading. In many places just a handful of vociferous Left-wing students and postgrads of colour are ruling the roost and daring traditionalists to squeak up. I have two friends who teach in different university English departments and are currently holding their brilliant heads in their hands at the politicisation of English studies. But like many of their colleagues, they remain schtum. To raise a dissenting voice against ideological totalitarianism would make their lives miserable as surely as if they lived in Communist Russia. Freedom of speech in our universities is seen as an intolerable infringement of minority rights.
To be honest, students aren’t that keen on reading long, difficult books anyway. So begone, poor old Beowulf – even though the great epic punishes the hero for slaughtering the ‘Other’ (x2) and offers a closing message that is surely anti-capitalist.
Can one be a ‘colour blind’ reader? For some years a poem called Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden (1913-1980) has been one of my favourites – copied into my commonplace book because it moved me deeply, even before my father’s death earlier this year lent it new power. The short poem is about a taciturn and angry manual-worker father who gets up very early even on bitter Sundays to light the fires in the house and polish shoes. Such actions are ‘love’s austere and lonely offices’ – for which he is never thanked. The poem evokes a universal feeling of guilt about parents and simultaneously offers a terrible, pitiful cri de coeur on their behalf, locked into their fearsome, hardworking silence.
When did I first weep reading this poem? Years ago. When did I discover that Robert Hayden is black? This week. Does it have any bearing whatsoever on reading and understanding? Not at all.
A friend gave me a second-hand copy of America’s Favourite Poems, edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Deitz. The anthology grew out of a project based on the personal favourites of thousands of Americans. Naturally I looked for my own and saw three poems by Sylvia Plath. One of them, Lady Lazarus, is especially famous: terse, bitter, terrifying – and heralding her suicide with a relentless, threatening drum-beat of words.
‘This is the first poem that made me feel what poetry can do,’ explained Seph Rodney, 27, a proof-reader/photographer from the Bronx. He continued, ‘There I was, a seventeen-year-old boy from Jamaica opening a book written by a white woman so far away from me, and yet she spoke my own life. I love that she did that for me.’
The notion that Eng-lit students require ‘relevance’ began as long ago as the seventies. What does it actually mean? That you wish to view life and literature only through the rather smeary prism of your own experience. That you choose to remain imprisoned within the tiny tenement of your own psyche. That you clip the wings of those who wish to exercise empathy and imagination and be challenged by what is difficult and ‘Other’. That, in effect, you instruct the multifariously thronged bookshelves, ‘I only want to read texts that reflect me, me, me.’
The jargon-weighed language of academe has become as stale and wearisome as the rhetoric of students. Both close off minds – which is a tragedy. The current neurosis about ‘decolonisation’ believes itself founded upon a demand to open doors – and yet in the insistence that skin-colour matters more than (say) genius, it closes off precious realms of experience. That is why I mention Robert Hayden and Sylvia Plath. Perish the appalling thought that one of them should be ‘relevant’ only to black readers and the other to white.
I will never forget first reading Middlemarch when I was 17. What did a small-minded provincial town in the first half of the nineteenth century have to do with a twentieth century teenager longing to get to London? George Eliot spoke to me of the vast dignity and potential of what seems to be ‘ordinary’, and of the imaginative sympathy with all living things which is part of the redemptive function of art. Its sweep was equal to that of Doctor Zhivago, even without the framework of great political and historical events.
I read with awe Eliot’s account of how the vainglorious Mrs Bulstrode finds humility and love in forgiving her husband the disgrace he has brought upon them: ‘ . . . now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible for her in any sense to forsake him’. Such a work (and let me mention, without comparisons, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, and so many others) holds a glass up to your own soul, in its infinite possibility of greatness. And let us never forget that the soul has no skin colour.
The English language is a sublime vehicle for compassion, pity, anger and ecstasy, and literature has no ‘colonies’. No, it should stretch us all upwards and outwards, offering a vision of humanity Martin Luther King would recognise. A novelist I admire greatly is Ernest Gaines. Can you tell me the colour of his skin? It doesn’t matter, for as he wrote, ‘We all have much more in common than we have difference. I would say that about people all over the world. They don’t know how much in common they have.’
Yes, university courses will change and develop, but ‘cancelling’ works by great writers because they were/are white is wrong. ‘Decolonisation’ is a closing down of minds disguised as an opening up. The great Robert Hayden could never embrace Black separatism and argued for colour-blind universalism. Thus the title poem of Words in the Mourning Time ends in a stirring plea for the unity of all humanity:
Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop or kike
permitted to be man.