Since 1935, Ashland, Oregon, a scenic little city nestled in the foothills of the Siskyou and Cascade mountains, has been the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, showcasing the dramatic works of Shakespeare and other writers. For many years, Judi Honore, a friendly, slightly eccentric businesswoman, has owned and operated Shakespeare Books & Antiques on Ashland’s Main Street. Until recently, the store featured a window display of literary works whose only common element is the fact that every one of them, at some time and place, has been banned.
Last summer, the Festival produced the musical “The Wiz.” Some cast members stopped by the store and noted that the banned books display included not only The Wizard Oz, the basis for the musical, but also Little Black Sambo. The latter is a children’s story about a little boy who outwits a group of hungry tigers. Although the story takes place in India (hence, the presence of tigers), the boy is African, and illustrations depicted him as an offensive racial caricature.
After the cast members complained, Ms. Honore rearranged the display so that Sambo was not visible from the street. But she refused to remove it from her banned books display. She told an interviewer: “I have windows filled with banned books, everything from The Lorax to Harry Potter to Mein Kampf to Brave New World. I did it as an educational process…. People stand outside the window and ask why the books are banned.”
Festival staff deemed the inclusion of Sambo in the display “hurtful and offensive,” and asked Ms. Honore to take it down. She refused. Cynthia Rider, executive director of the Festival, criticized the store owner for her “distinct lack of empathy for the experiences of people of color.” The Festival publicly announced a boycott of the store, objecting not only to Little Black Sambo, but also to the inclusion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird in the banned books display.
The store closed on October 31. Declining sales were one reason, but not the only one. The public accusations of racial insensitivity had also taken an emotional toll on Ms. Honore. “I found myself totally stressed out, breaking out crying a lot, losing sleep, and no longer finding joy in what I used to find so joyful,” she wrote in an email.
There was a profound hypocrisy in a Shakespearean company boycotting a business for displaying offensive books. The works of Shakespeare are rife with passages far more offensive than anything found in Sambo.
Here is how the Duke of Venice justifies to Desdemona’s father her marrying a Moor:
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son in law is far more fair than black.
Othello, Act III, Scene 1.
And here is what the black protagonist declaims, while suspecting his white wife of infidelity:
Her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face.
Othello, Act III, Scene 3.
Yet a Shakespearean company boycotts others for racist language? Isn’t that the pot calling Othello black?
How about antisemitism? The witches in Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 4) include “liver of the blaspheming Jew” as an ingredient for their caldron. When Portia, the heroine of The Merchant of Venice, arrives at court to judge the commercial dispute between Antonio and Shylock, she asks:
Who is the merchant and who is the Jew?
Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.
A Christian may be identified by his profession, but a Jew – a cruel, usurious, flesh-slicing Jew — is first, last, and always a Jew, and must be identified as such.
Sexism? Is there any passage in Western literature more indulgent to male chauvinism than Shakespeare’s speech for Katherine?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Taming of the Shrew, Act V, Scene 2.
But something more unsettling than hypocrisy is at work here. The boycott of Shakespeare Books & Antiques by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was animated by the same PC pressures prevalent on college campuses.
There was the same faux victimization. Company members had to search hard to find a reason to feel offended in ultra-progressive Ashland. There was the same infantilization. The Festival director had to consider her actors fragile, brittle creatures to argue that a children’s book in a window display about censorship could injure their tender feelings. And there was that unmistakable air of superiority that emboldens social warriors everywhere to police the less enlightened.
“The wheel is come full circle,” Edmund says in King Lear (Act V, Scene 3). Roughly translated: what goes around, comes around. And so it seems to be with Shakespeare these days.
Last month, just a few weeks after Shakespeare Books & Antiques closed its doors, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a portrait of Shakespeare from its prominent location in Fisher-Bennett Hall, home of the English Department. The students replaced the portrait with a photograph of Audre Lorde. According to the Audre Lorde Project website, Ms. Lorde, who died in 1992, was a “Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother [and] warrior…. Both her activism and her published work speak to the importance of struggle for liberation among oppressed peoples and of organizing in coalition across differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age and ability.”
Despite the different settings and actors, no one should deem these actions unrelated. The Penn students were animated by the same PC sentiments that drove the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to suppress a small local business.
Victimization, infantilization, moral superiority. All were as evident at Penn as they were in Ashland. To replace Shakespeare, the students selected an obscure writer whose main claim to fame appears to be championing victims of every kind. The administration played its role in the infantilization process. Instead of disciplining the students for vandalism, Department Chair Jed Etsy patted them on their little heads, characterizing their actions “as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department.” One Penn student exuded that moral superiority of social warriors everywhere when he referred to the escapade as “a cool example of culture jamming.”
We do not need a Martin Niemöller to see where this is heading. First the PC police came for Sambo. Next, they will come for Shakespeare.
No, wait. They already have.