Black History in the Present

  Wendy Lennon explores how Black History has been shaped through past to present…

5 minute read

Every Black History Month, two realities exist at once: the celebrations and sombre reflections upon our past, simultaneously, we acknowledge these legacies through the persistent barriers and miraculous breakthroughs in our present moment.  In England, October is an annual opportunity for us to hold space for the juxtapositions of the past and the present, successes and challenges.  However, for many of us, these are tensions and triumphs that exist on a daily basis.

Shakespeare was also acutely aware of these juxtapositions in his own time.  Often drawing upon legacies and stories from his own past to bring to the theatre audience in his present moment, Shakespeare’s work embodies the tensions and triumphs experienced by the black community.  Exploiting the characters, plot, and framework of Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinthio’s 1565 play Gli Hecatommithi, Shakespeare created Othello.  A play in which the audience is forced to witness the impact of hostility and racist slurs upon the eponymous African character.  Watching The Tempest, the audience reflects on the silence of Sycorax and the enslavement of Caliban, two further characters of African origin who are negatively portrayed by the European Duke of Milan, Prospero.  In Titus Andronicus the Nurse demonstrates hostility and disgust towards the morality and appearance of blackness when she declares: ‘a devil…joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue…as loathsome as a toad’ as she enters ‘with a blackamoor child’ (4.2.52).

Shakespeare’s work embodies the tensions and triumphs experienced by the black community.

Wendy Lennon

In stark contrast, Aaron offers a triumphant breakthrough on the early modern stage in his defence of blackness when he challenges perceptions in Titus Andronicus.  ‘[I]s black so base a hue?’ (4.2.71) he asks rhetorically, urging the Nurse and the audience to interrogate their own prejudices.  He goes on to assert that the child ‘shall not die’ (4.2.80), further still, Aaron takes pride in the strength of blackness proclaiming that ‘coal-black is better than another hue/In that it scorns to bear another hue/For all the water in the ocean/Can never turn the swan’s legs to white’ (4.2.98-102).  Here, Aaron is asserting the power of blackness which is too powerful to be hidden by another colour or washed away by the entire ocean.  The complexity of Aaron’s character also offers an insight into the two realities of pride in and prejudice towards his own blackness.

An actor looking into a mirror. The mirror is covered in water which distorts the reflection

Artwork for Othello (2023) playing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Re-presentations of these characters in our modern-day theatres, urges audiences to have empathy for Shakespearean characters and gives us an opportunity to consider their real-world counterparts.  Encouraging empathy in our learning and teaching environments is a vital strategy to build bridges from then to now, providing a route through Shakespeare’s plays across the 400-year chasm to our present moment.

A man wearing white undergarments stands dismayed with a wreath of branches on his head.

Our blog series Black Shakespeareans, focus on notable actors, including Joseph Marcell, pictured as King Lear in 2013. Photographer: Ellie Kurttz.

As a Shakespearean scholar, my own doctoral research From Shakespeare to the Windrush and education initiative Shakespeare, Race & Pedagogy, explores the interconnectedness of the real and theatrical worlds, then and now.  The interrelationship between the theatrical and real-world stories forms a significant part of my daily Black History reflections and celebrations.  The hostility faced by Othello reverberates across the centuries to the hostile environment experienced by the Windrush generation.  Whilst Aaron’s defence of blackness echoes movements such as Black Lives Matter which stands up for and defends our humanity.  Othello and Desdemona were denied the opportunity to bring their mixed-race child to fruition on the early modern stage, however, Aaron’s child reflects my ‘skin in the game’[1].

[1] Ambereen Dadabhoy, ‘Skin in the Game’, 2020

It is interesting to note that Aaron and the Nurse do not distinguish the specificities of the child’s shade of skin.  Although he is mixed-race, all characters racially categorise him as black.  A distinct difference from the interim crafting of the gradients of blackness which has taken hold to cause divisions and ambiguity amongst the black community.  My research interests of migration and the cross-cultural encounters that resulted in mixed-race children, acknowledges, and includes the vast scope of the community to broaden the legacy of Black History.

The 2023 Black History Month theme is ‘Saluting Our Sisters’.  Although many black women spring to mind, such as the actresses of colour Joyce Green MacDonald writes of, however, here, I would like to hold space for the black women who, like Sycorax, have been silenced.  The women who wanted to perform or study Shakespearean characters but were turned down or turned away.  The women who, like Sycorax, were forced to flee their countries.  The black and mixed-race women who were only labelled as ‘Elizabeth, a negro child, born white’[1] or ‘the mother a negro’[2] in the English archives.  Imtiaz Habib did much work to recover such women from historical records.  Habib’s research has given us the opportunity to salute these sisters and form connections with the black women who have been erased or silenced.  The legacy and audacity of our sisters who migrated to England and created lives for themselves, fills me with courage to continue to break barriers in the urgency of our present moment.

[1] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives 1500 – 1677, p. 313

[2] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives 1500 – 1677, p. 313



Be sure to register in advance – you will need to do this in order to receive the link.

You will receive an email the day before the webinar date with your link to access it.

You will also be able to access this link via the digital events page once you log in to your account.

You may need to refresh the link after the start time. You will also need to click the play button seen on the page.

You have the option to watch with English subtitles – use toggle at the bottom of the player.

Performance times are displayed in Greenwich Mean Time.

You will need a good, reliable internet connection.

Webinars are live and will be recorded don’t miss the start time.