After I graduated from college way back in the 1980s, I decided to return to my old high school to substitute teach for a while. Soon after beginning to sub, I asked the school’s theater director if at some point I’d be able to direct a play.
At college I had been quite active in the theater department, and had performed credibly in a number of roles throughout my four undergraduate years. Acting had its challenges, but it had always seemed to me that directing was where theater people really earn their spurs. I viewed the creative responsibility a director held with terror, so naturally I wasn’t going to rest until I had given it a try.
I had not performed in any of the plays or musicals the high school produced during the time I was there, so consequently I wasn’t very well acquainted with the director, despite his being nearly a legend in that small town. But his generosity to me was truly boundless. Not only did he allow me a slot for the spring show, I had the freedom to choose the play, cast it, design the set — the works. I doubt that I ever fully realized until now how generous those allowances were.
Not having any choreographical skills worth inflicting on the public, I eschewed the musical form and chose tragedy instead — Greek tragedy, naturally. But, wanting to make things a bit more interesting, I chose Jean Anouilh’s version of Antigone, a rendering that dissolves the moral absolutes found in Sophocles. It is written so as to make Antigone’s choice to flout her uncle and bury her brother against his orders less easily justified, and Creon’s resulting decision to execute Antigone more challenging to argue. I found the moral morass created by those long debates between Creon and Antigone, which those young students pulled off marvelously, simply more provocative than the original.
What was not intended to be “provocative” was my casting of a young black high school student in the major role, opposite a white Creon and white Haemon. Race qua race was never interesting to me in itself, and certainly not as interesting as provoking an audience to weigh the merits of two opposing arguments over a subject that on the surface should have elicited a quick and sure conclusion. I simply cast that young woman because she was the best candidate for the role, period. And because it was the ‘80s, and because we were in a small, mostly white town, that casting proved a non-issue. It was almost as if we were living in an apolitical bubble.
But, despite the lack of controversy (or even comment), I would never make that casting choice now, and that reversal has nothing to do with my disdain for “woke” signaling. There is something more urgent at stake.
A couple of years ago I began to notice posts on social media expressing dissatisfaction with many British television shows and movies, specifically due to the casting of black actors and actresses in roles that were historically played by white actors, either because the historic personage was in fact a Caucasian or because the fictional character had been written as a Caucasian. These social-media posts expressed genuine anger over this new imaging, as well as insistence that these choices were yet another facet of the ongoing Great Replacement.
At first, I was puzzled by the outrage. I thought, why take something so obviously untrue as, say, a black Ann Boleyn, or a black King Arthur, and so on so seriously, when everyone knows this isn’t historical or textual truth?
Of course, at that time I was still considering those choices in terms similar to the one I made so many decades ago. No one in their right mind would have wondered if, upon seeing my Antigone, Sophocles might actually have intended her and her family to be African. I further concluded, with a mental shrug of the shoulders, that as long as we actually teach history and literature, the race of the actor in one production is irrelevant.
But it isn’t one production, is it? It’s an avalanche. And we’re not actually teaching history and literature, are we? Thus each generation is functionally a tabula rasa, to be written over with a brand-new story, and a brand-new history, if the cultural zeitgeist so directs.
It was only after the Black Panther absurdity that I remembered something that Nigerian author Chinua Achebe had written in the essay “Spelling Our Proper Name”:
. . . it is not necessary for black people to invent a great fictitious past in order to justify their human existence and dignity today. What they must do is recover what belongs to them — their story — and tell it themselves.
I applaud that suggestion and the inherent respect for the totality of a people that it implies. And that is certainly what Achebe did himself, in his own work. But black people, here in America and in Britain, are not telling their own story, and they’re not telling it themselves. Aside from a few grandiose attempts at myth-making, they’re telling our story, the story of white Europeans, and inserting themselves into it — albeit, with the assistance of self-abnegating whites.
But that then begs the question: Since they are most certainly pawns in the much larger story being written for all of us, do black people have any culpability for their roles in this monumental act of revision?
I find that answering this question is difficult, especially in light of the extent to which whites have enabled this juggernaut to get rolling in the first place. Further, I think the most important thing is not to identify the culprit of our historical vandalism, but to get aggressive about preserving our heritage in all of its forms.
White people in both Europe and America have to reject this revisionary endeavor — denounce it, in fact, with vigor. We do not have a responsibility to retroactively insert every race and ethnicity into our historical timeline, nor in our centuries of creative work. White people need to wake up to the importance of race qua race and begin to treat the vast output of their people with as much care as we treat UNESCO sites, for if we can be motivated to preserve individual architectural and sculptural wonders, why not the immense output of an entire culture?
Recall what James Baldwin said of the Swiss peasant in “Stranger in the Village,”
The most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances came Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in full glory — but I am in Africa watching the conquerors arrive.
I’m sympathetic with the anguish in that statement. But I also don’t want to see, in a perverse reversal of events, the whites of Europe watching the conquerors arrive, and doing nothing to prevent the unraveling of all that their forebears wrought.
* * *
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