Coloured Perspectives, by Abha Iyengar
Othello, the bold and noble Moor in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name ‘suffers’ his color and because of his color doubts his own standing in the white, lily-colored Venetian society of which he is a part. Not only that, he begins to doubt his wife, Desdemona’s, love for him since she is white and he is black. All it needs is the vile Iago’s barbed remarks to turn his doubts to certainty, leading to the tragedy that eventually unfolds. What would have happened if Shakespeare had made his protagonist a man as white as the Venetians? Would the tragedy have the same depth and impact? Shakespeare knew that color is a major factor in the life of us humans. The Moor was the hero, a man whose qualities were above the norm, he was respected and esteemed; Desdemona had fallen in love with him and married him. Yet, he was vulnerable because he was not the right color. He was black, and this personified all that was evil and decadent to Venetians, as also to the people of Elizabethan England before whom Shakespeare was presenting his play. Shakespeare chose to color his hero, because he knew that this would add greater color to his tragedy.
That was the 1600s, but when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her path breaking novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Margaret Mitchell wrote “Gone with the Wind” both portraying life in the antebellum South in North America in the 1850-60s, the world had supposedly progressed. These novels brought home to us the fact that little had changed with regard to color. In fact, slavery was the order of the day, and the slaves were of African blood, the darker race working for their white masters. The slaves were at the complete mercy of their masters, and were treated well or otherwise depending on their luck on the kind of master they got, benevolent or not. These slaves were considered to have no minds of their own, and their bodies anyways belonged to the masters, to be done with as the latter pleased. They were often a part of a family, working with them for years, but they had to know their place. They accepted it as such, and protested little, since any kind of revolt was quickly nipped in the bud by thrashings and other forms of punishment which would make even the staunchest souls succumb. Considered infinitely inferior, the whole reasoning behind the argument for this was their color. Color was associated with lack of knowledge, manners, religion, and everything else that the white world deemed fit.
Take the story as told by the young girl, Scout, in Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where she shows what a white man, in this case her father Atticus Finch, has to go through when he tries to fight for justice for a black person. Harper Lee’s book also shows the standing of the blacks in U.S.A. in those days, how they cannot get justice because of their color, and that the lies of ‘white trash’ carry more weight in a court of law than the truth of a black man.