“Her name, that was as fresh, As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black, As mine own face.”
This line is from The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, which is one of William Shakespeare’s eternal masterpieces. Some of the world’s best known and most respected actors, living and dead, have portrayed the eponymous character. Among them are Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Patrick Stewart.
What do these actors have in common? They’re all white men who portrayed a Black man. (Vaudevillian star Al Jolson became globally famous for doing so – in “blackface” – albeit in a different social context). Since “The Bard of Avon” created the play 400 years ago, white men have dominated the role of Othello in major productions. (To be sure, Black men have portrayed the character, with James Earl Jones being most prominent among them.)
I am not aware of any angst among Black folks regarding those casting decisions. This stands in sharp contrast to the outrage that many white folks have regarding the portrayal of traditionally white characters (or those who are assumed to be white) by Black actors and actresses. For example, many fans of beloved Disney characters have been traumatized by so-called “woke” casting. Consider the cries of woe that followed The Mouse House’s revealing of a Black “Little Mermaid”. (One of my favorite examples of opprobrium is a tweet from someone who listed “scientific” reasons why that animated character’s “race” should not have been changed.)
Of course, characters in other fictional stories have also faced the wrath of those who, sadly, have nothing better to do. It is painful to read the racial hatred that John Boyega (“Finn” from Star Wars) and Amandla Stenberg (“Rue” from The Hunger Games) endured. Notably, the race of Boyega’s character wasn’t even changed; the issue is that “stormtroopers” are supposed to be white in the minds of many. (Think about the psychological underpinnings of that hangup.)
Tragically, most Americans, including Black ones, are unaware of the extent of cultural appropriation, co-optation, and downright identity theft of Black artistic expressions on the stage and screen, as well as in literature, music, fashion, and other creative outlets. Further, in a twist that borders on being Kafkaesque, famed stage and screen actor Bert Williams was a light-skinned Black man who actually wore blackface in his act. In short, Williams was a real Black man who pretended to be a white man who wore blackface to imitate a stereotypical Black man.
To be clear, I generally do not favor limiting the ability of artists of any race to express themselves. This fact notwithstanding, it is important to recognize the impact of cultural appropriation, especially when it occurs without proper attribution. For example, Vanilla Ice appropriated Black culture (i.e., created a hip hop persona) without attribution to rap’s origins. Conversely, Elvis Presley was clear from the beginning that he was imitating Black artists whom he greatly admired.
Today, the Kardashian sisters are often accused of “Blackfishing” (i.e., taking on the appearance of Black women without having to endure the racism that Black women do). In the vernacular, “Everybody wanna be Black, but don’t nobody really wanna be Black.” (The fact that Robert Downey Jr’s hilarious character in Tropic Thunder is completely unaware of his narcissism and hypocrisy makes it one of my favorite comedies.)
For obvious reasons, white cultural standards are the default in America. (This is one of the reasons why I don’t countenance “whataboutism” when it comes to Blacks playing white characters.) Thus, cultural and political conservatives argue against, for example, the use of phrases like “African American”. They will assert that “We’re all just Americans!” Yet, these are the same people who view changing the race of fictional characters as an affront, perhaps even an existential threat to white hegemony. Cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy make a dangerous cocktail.
Of course, they can’t have it both ways. Either “we’re all just Americans” (so changing the race of said characters doesn’t matter), or America is merely a collection of races who are in a “forced marriage” – in which case we’re in an endless competition for cultural supremacy.
Cultural appropriation is just one of the issues that lie at the heart of the attacks that Ron DeSantis and his ilk are making on the teaching of American history in schools. If children don’t learn that history, they cannot appreciate it – or understand why our country is where it is today. Those of us who do know that history have a moral obligation to share it.
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.