What you need to know:
- Over the last four centuries, white people have been watching ‘Othello’ and have as a result accepted and internalised the idea of a larger-than-life black hero.
- Kenyans must join in the celebrations marking the death of a playwright who made black people stand tall, as they say in America, after the elevation of Obama to the most powerful position on planet earth.
- In Kenya, when we want to explain away our difficulties with English, we say jokingly that the language came by ship. On that ship, an estimated 2000 words were Shakespeare’s inventions. When we characterise certain murders as “assassinations”, we should thank the dramatist for coining the word.
When Barack Obama spoke to us at Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, he described himself as “the first Kenyan American to become the president of America”. His sister Auma had earlier introduced him as “our son, our brother and most importantly, the President of the United States of America”.
As I listened to those words, my mind went to an amazing book I had just read called, How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche. In this study, published in 2011, Marche makes a startling claim: that if William Shakespeare had not written Othello, the world would probably not be talking of a black man named Barack Obama as the president of America. Marche’s argument goes as follows: that over the last four centuries, white people have been watching Othello and have as a result accepted and internalised the idea of a larger-than-life black hero. This would explain why most whites with college degrees voted for a black “Kenyan American” in 2008.
Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616; and as such the world is celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the greatest writer in the English language. If Marche’s contention has any truth in it, then Kenyans must join in the celebrations marking the death of a playwright who made black people stand tall, as they say in America, after the elevation of Obama to the most powerful position on planet earth.
Let’s do a quick review of what Shakespeare meant to Kenyans before the ascendency of Barack Obama.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare gives Shylock’s daughter the name Jessica. Jessica disobeys her father, converts to Christianity, and elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian. Many Kenyan women, including my lovely sister-in-law, are called Jessica. This name is not in the Bible, and it did not exist in the English language before Shakespeare. This beautiful name, which our Kenyan women are so fond of, was dreamt up by this English playwright.
In Kenya, when we want to explain away our difficulties with English, we say jokingly that the language came by ship. On that ship, an estimated 2000 words were Shakespeare’s inventions. When we say we don’t like people who “gossip”, we’re using Shakespeare’s word. When we characterise certain murders as “assassinations”, we should thank the dramatist for coining the word.
When judges refer to certain people as the “accused”; when counsellors talk of addiction to drugs; when writers refer to practices that are “traditional”; when hotels offer “accommodation”; and when my good friend Ezekiel Mutua and his team describe certain movies as “obscene” – they should, with humility, acknowledge the inventive genius of the English writer, for all these, and many more, are his words.
My own Shakespearean journey began in 1964, the same year the world was celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the writer. That was the year I joined Friends School Kamusinga, and I was placed in Form 1G. The “G” stood for our class teacher, whose surname was Gurevitch. Mr Gurevitch, a brilliant maths teacher, was a British Jew from a town called Hull. Although he left at the end of the year, the “G” stuck with us up to Form 4G.
What struck me as odd was that, in that year, we were studying The Merchant of Venice. Our English teacher, Ian Smith, loved the play which depicts a nasty Jew demanding his pound of flesh from a fellow human being called Antonio. I used to wonder whether our sweet-natured class teacher had a hand in the choice of the play. Mr Gurevitch would come into the classroom and find us with the copies of the play; and it didn’t seem to bother him. Indeed, he would proudly remind us he was Jewish.
The anniversary came and went, but for the rest of my six years at Kamusinga, Shakespeare remained a permanent item on our literature menu. Even in the then Cambridge School Certificate and the Cambridge Higher School Certificate, the choice was Shakespeare and any other writers.
As luck would have it, the University of Nairobi’s Department of Literature that I joined in 1970 was headed by a Shakespearean called Prof Andrew Gurr. Gurr had done his PhD on Shakespeare and had published a book called The Shakespearean Stage.
In our final year, the professor taught a course on Shakespeare, which was compulsory for those of us who were single majors. And maybe because of his academic bias, Andrew Gurr invited his fellow Shakespearean as our external examiner. This was a professor from Sierra Leone called Eldred Jones, a black African who had written a book called Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama.
After the results were approved, Prof Gurr sent for me.
“I’m organising a farewell party for our external examiner and I want you to come and meet him,” he said. “In which hall do you stay?”
“Hall 5, it’s also called Elgon Hall,” I answered.
“OK, I’ll pick you up at four.”
Well, I’m not too fond of parties, especially the big, noisy ones. Besides, it looked like I was going to be the only student. He hadn’t invited any of my classmates. So, when the time was approaching, I took a stroll on Mamlaka Road in the hope that the professor would come and go. But when I returned an hour later, I found him waiting; and, of course, I felt stupid.
Eldred Jones turned out to be a polished gentleman when Andrew Gurr introduced him to me at his house in Lavington. I didn’t ask Prof Jones any questions about Shakespeare because I didn’t want him to reveal what he thought of my answers in the exam. But I did ask him about a book he had written on Wole Soyinka, in particular, about The Interpreters.
Jones said something I’ll never forget. “When I first read The Interpreters, I found the beginning so difficult to follow, I started reading the novel from the middle.”
The year was 1973 and the professor was going back to Britain. But he hatched up a plan about my future without telling me in advance. For the next time he sent for me he said: “I want you to go to the UK for your postgraduate training. I’m leaving behind a department without any PhD holders. So, there isn’t anyone who can supervise you.”
I had a passion for literature, but I didn’t have a burning desire for a higher degree. It was this British Shakespearean who planted the seed in me. The next time I went to his office, he said to me: “I got application forms from the University of Glasgow, and since I didn’t know where to find you, I filled them in for you. I even forged your signature.”
The Glasgow arrangement didn’t work out, perhaps because the authorities there detected the forgery. I never got to know. But I ended up in the US for my postgraduate studies.
I have no idea what happened when I was gone, but when I returned in 1977, I found a department and a discipline that had been taken over by literary nationalists. The Shakespeare course had been scrapped. The playwright was now seen as an integral part of the British colonial enterprise. Shakespeare was demonised for having written a “racist” play called Othello.
The Shakespeare I had studied under Andrew Gurr and the Shakespeare that Eldred Jones had written about had changed the original story in which Othello was a villain and made him a hero of unparalleled nobility. The same Shakespeare had presented in Iago the worst villain in his entire drama. There was a fallacy here, it seemed to me, of confusing the words of characters with those of the playwright. Yes, Iago is a racist, but Iago is not Shakespeare.
Fast forward to the 1980s. The British Foreign Secretary comes to Kenya and he is told Shakespeare is no longer studied in our schools. He mentions it to President Daniel arap Moi. The President talks about it publicly and decrees that the British playwright be brought back into our curriculum.
At the then Kenya Institute of Education, where I represent the University of Nairobi, we propose Julius Caesar. But somebody in the Ministry of Education shoots down our proposal, thinking that in this play Shakespeare advocates violent revolutions. A correct reading of the play would have told this official that, in fact, the English playwright poses the eternal question: Are violent revolutions justified? Anyway, we then propose Romeo and Juliet as a set book, this being a play that deals with the emotional turbulence in teenagers. Luckily, this time our recommendation is accepted; and this marks the return of the giant of English literature.
In 1989, the officer in charge of English at the British Council, a Mr Williams, called me. “Henry, would you like to travel to the UK and attend the Cambridge Summer Conference on Contemporary British Writing?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
The highlight of this British Council project was a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We saw the big house he bought, we saw his wife’s cottage, we watched a production of Cymbeline on a revolving stage, and most importantly we saw his grave in Trinity Church. We saw a town that thrives on the name of Shakespeare.
When President Obama spoke to the British parliamentarians in 2009, he told them he was “the grandson of Kenyan cook in the British Army in World War II.” The politicians might not have made the connection between this and their famous writer. As for Kenyans, even if we don’t see the link between Othello and Obama, we can still appreciate that his rise the pinnacle of global power was an event of Shakespearean profundity and import. And we should be in the forefront celebrating four centuries of the death of the foremost writer in English.