BART HARVEY ’16
On Thursday, April 17, 2014 David Sterling Brown ’06 delivered the Annual Ann Plato Lecture in the Reese Room of the Smith House. His lecture entitled (Early) Modern Literature: Crossing the Color-Line Then and Now, focused on how he came to intertwine his love for two different genres of literature: early modern literature and African-American literature.
To preface his lecture, he recognized a number of role models that had led him in the direction he is currently taking. He recalled that, in many ways, his sister was his first teacher, as she stood by his side throughout his childhood. His passion for African American history started with his paternal grandmother who shared stories of her days sharecropping in “Jim Crow” Mississippi.
He decided to break up his lecture into five different segments, as to mimic a five-act play. The first segment of his lecture focused on articulating what modern literature is and what it means.
He talked about his love for early modern literature and black history and literature and how instead of talking about them as separate genres, they should be united and discussed together.
He moved onto the second part of his lecture in which he focused on the different themes that arose from the mixture of African-American literature and early modern literature. By looking at Shakespeare with a critical eye towards how he portrayed black characters, one is able to see that Shakespeare contributed to the stereotypes of the African American race. When Mr. Brown’s class attended Shakespeare’s Macbeth in New York City, they were able to notice that many of the black characters were aggressive and violent in their manner.
In the third segment of his lecture, he discussed how his course creation became a demonstration of his scholarly self. “Like many students who enter early modern classrooms all across the country I, David Sterling Brown, never encountered an instructor of color who taught and got excited about early modern literature until I became that person,” he said. “And even when that transformation occurred and I joined the club, I learned that within early modern studies there are only a handful of scholars of color.”
He provided an anecdote that helped to contribute to finding his true calling. The first he found in his second semester of freshman year. He had decided to take a 20th century African-American literature class. However, upon attending the class he was shocked to discover that the teacher was white.
Nonetheless, this helped Mr. Brown understand the mistake he had made in misjudging her, he was able to recognize the incorrectness of his bias. This helped him destroy any color or race barriers that he had previously held, eventually leading him to take on Shakespeare after realizing that, “no color or race barriers should block us from our passions.”
In the fourth part of his lecture, he discussed the effort to include and diversify the scholarly ranks of modern literature in order to help increase student interest in early modern studies.
He used the following quote from Professor Ayanna Thompson to help get the message across, “If the [early modern] field were to support the inclusion of race studies more systematically and consistently, then our ranks may diversify more rapidly and thoroughly. I find it incredibly depressing that I can name most of the Shakespeareans of color despite the fact that our professional organizations are relatively large. On the most simplistic level, this means that we need to encourage our undergraduates and graduates who are interested in both Shakespeare studies and race studies to pursue a career in academia.”
Mr. Brown finds that by intertwining early modern literature with African-American literature, one is able to find many parallels between the two and discuss the texts simultaneously. The topics that arise from these discussions include misogyny, power, class, gender, race, homosexuality and death.
In the final portion of his lecture, Mr. Brown discussed his dissertation entitled, “ Placing Parents on the Early Modern Stage” in which he focuses on parental authority in early modern plays. He finds that in many plays he is able to see the various sources of parental authority and see how that authority affects children. For example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet showed how parental debt can affect a child.
Mr. Brown finished his lecture by stating that his course needs further exploration. By combining Shakespeare with African-American literature, it allows for discussions to be productive but also innovative.
Mr. Brown is the first ever alumnus to become the Ann Plato Fellow after he graduated in 2006 with a B.A. in English Literature. He is currently working towards his PhD. at NYU.