Professor Grier lectures on racial thinking across literature

How can we define racism today? Professor Miles Grier opened his lecture with this question and was met with a resounding silence. The lecture hall that moments before had felt so large and so sparsely populated became claustrophobic. For a conversation about Black agency and the written word, the room was notably lacking students of color. 

On Jan. 31, 2024, Professor Miles P. Grier of Queens College came to Vassar to give a lecture titled “Black Residue: Ink and Racial Thinking from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison.” Grier’s lecture was based on his research on the performance history of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He then combined this study with his research in Black agency and the written word, tying in work from revered literary figures Philis Wheatley and Toni Morrison. He encouraged us to re-evaluate our relationship to the written word and its function as a symbol of oppression.

The lecture’s overarching theme explored the authority of the written word and whether it should hold primacy in Westernized society. Grier explained that placing the most authority and value in written text strips people who do not have access to the written word of any agency. Failure to conform to the primacy of the written word denies many people accurate representation and, in turn, credibility. Grier’s research pinpointed the written word as a Eurocentric form of communication; when society emphasizes it as the most prominent form of truth, it ultimately devalues alternate forms of communication and archival knowledge. 

To begin, Grier introduced us to the Moor character archetype in Shakespeare’s work: a person that is covered or filled with ink, trapped in a liminal space between humanity and markings on a page. He focused on Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which follows a Moorish general in the Venetian army who grapples with the consequences of his racial identity in a predominantly white society. As Othello rises to power and marries Desdemona, his identity as a Moor becomes a focal point for the manipulation and deceit orchestrated by the villainous Iago. The play explores themes of racism, jealousy and the destructive impact of societal prejudices on an individual’s sense of identity and belonging. As one of the first prominent Black literary figures and characterized for his dark—or ink-like—skin tone, Othello becomes the epitome of illiteracy. As Grier deftly explained, Othello is a character that is meant to be read or is someone else’s text; he is never given the agency to become the reader himself. 

As literacy and the written word holds much authority in our society in what is characterized as the truth, one can see the lasting harm that casting this archetypal prison upon the Moor character causes, as Grier eloquently pointed out. When we search for the truth, Grier reminded the audience, it is written word that many turn to. If Black characters are stripped of their agency and literacy in written texts, it denies them the authority to determine what goes into the literary archive, taking away their credibility. To connect these concepts to more modern examples, Grier brought two of the most influential Black writers of all time, Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison, into the conversation. 

Known for both her poetry and novels, Wheatley was one of the first Black and enslaved people to publish a book in the United States. After converting to Christianity as a young woman, religion became a predominant theme in Wheatley’s work, intersecting with the Black, enslaved experience. Unlike the agency that Othello is denied, Grier’s work highlights Wheatley’s feeling of authority in her identities as a reader and a writer with the agency to control what and how she wrote as a result of her conversion to Christianity.

Toni Morrison published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” in 1970 and has since become one of the most prominent Black novelists in American history. As a lead-up to his discussion on Morrison, Grier presented us with the old Biblical adage: Speak the truth and it will set you free. Morrison, however, did not feel this sentiment to be applicable to the Black community because the written word does not provide them with the same access to credibility and representation. Christianity did not empower Morrison with the same sense of agency that it gave Wheatley; rather, the Bible opened Morrison’s eyes to greater systemic inequities. Grier used Morrison’s argument to bring forward the idea that text should be taken off a pedestal and that, as a society, we should devalue the authority text has over us and critically think about who has access to that text. 

Grier’s lecture ultimately left us with as many questions as it gave us answers. His command of the room and pulse on the trajectory of Black figures in literature was undeniable; however, we must admit that the talk became muddled at times, often losing the through line of how all of this incredible scholarship was supposed to weave together. An hour seemed insufficient time to truly explore the complex ties that Shakespeare, Wheatley and Morrison share in the canon of Black literature. 

Nonetheless, Grier’s critical engagement with the written word altered how we view our own relationship to writing. Coming full circle, Grier left us with a solution to the question of racism that he began with: Liberating oppressed forms of communication and reshaping our relationship to the written word has the power to free us all.

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