Dr Farah Karim-Cooper reflects on International Women’s Day.
Dr Farah Karim-Cooper is the Head of Higher Education & Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. In this blog, on International Women’s Day, Farah reflects on her position as a woman of colour, and a Shakespeare scholar and how these facts play a part in her everyday life.
I’m a mother, a partner, a daughter, a Shakespeare scholar, a woman of colour and as it’s International Women’s Day, I am thinking hard about all of those labels and how I have to negotiate between them all the time. At the Globe this year we are examining what it means to be a woman; what our relationship to power might be; how women are perceived when they are in leadership positions; and what, if anything, did Shakespeare–that great paragon of white male excellence–have to say about these questions? Given our extraordinary experimental production of Richard II with a cast of women of colour and the West End production of Emilia, a play born here at the Globe, consisting also of mainly women of colour, the subject of this blog will focus on Shakespeare’s notions of women of colour and what it means to me to be one.
Please note: this blog contains offensive language.
Last year I curated a festival about Shakespeare and Race. Coming home from a planning meeting that I happened to bring my 15-year-old daughter to, I was feeling excited and enthused about the important work we were doing to draw attention to race and intersectionality at Shakespeare’s Globe. But while my daughter and I were waiting at the pedestrian crossing, a white man rode by on his bike and told us ‘fucking Pakis to go home’. It was deflating, of course, and I was deeply worried about what my daughter would think. How she might internalise that comment and see herself as something alien in the country where she had been born. She didn’t quite catch what he said–thank goodness–but I did. After living here 22 years, I fear the word ‘Paki’ and always will, I suppose. Would he get off his bike and hit me? Would my daughter be attacked? Questions like this zip into your head until you brush them away quickly. By the time I got home, I felt even more motivated to be proactive in discussions about race and gender at my institution and beyond. I am inspired by the many women of colour who have had to overcome the same horrible effects of our visibility as well as the deflating effects of the invisibility that also come with being a woman of colour. This invisibility, being overlooked, being one of the last on the list make up the daily acts of erasure that gall and hurt.
The scholar Kim F. Hall who was last year’s Sam Wanamaker Fellow wrote a game-changing book about the early modern intersections of race and gender and in so doing unearthed and made visible an entire network of texts, poems and images that comment on, satirise or celebrate women of colour. She reminds us about Shakespeare’s dark women: Hermia ( A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Rosalind (Love’s Labour’s Lost), the dark lady of the Sonnets, for example. While her book shows us how blackness served in early modern England to highlight the superiority of the white European; she tells us that black female beauty was a possibility back then. Many have tried to identify who the dark lady of the sonnets was–perhaps it was Emilia Bassano, perhaps it was nothing more than a fantasy of a woman of colour. Maybe Shakespeare was imagining an alternative to the much-repeated ideal in renaissance poetry of a ‘fair’ or white, wealthy, chaste lady with golden locks, rosy cheeks and glassy bright eyes. Shakespeare in fact, never really describes the perfect beauty the way many other Elizabethan poets did. With his dark lady sonnets, he describes instead the raw, visceral reality of a woman of colour who was the opposite of the conventional ideal, but who his narrator/speaker desired above all else. She is bold, assertive, sexually autonomous and real. I don’t know if Shakespeare knew such a woman, but we do know that Tudor-Stuart London was not a singularly white city. We know that people of colour populated Southwark in fact; that ‘blackamoor’ kitchen maids, servants, metal workers, musicians and more, lived and worked in the metropolis. This is a London we don’t know well enough, a result of centuries of archival research that shows bias towards crafting a purely white history. Women of colour occupied Shakespeare’s imagination and his city; and he offers a beautiful alternative to what he must have felt was the tedious, conventional ideal. Women of colour of Britain must always remember that we have always been here. We belong here too and we aren’t going anywhere.
Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England by Kim F. Hall
Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama by Dr Farah Karim-Cooper
Portrait of Farah Karim-Cooper by Bronwen Sharp
Richard II production photography by Ingrid Pollard