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Digital Humanities discusses race and Shakespeare

By Francisco Omar Fernandez Rodriguez

Asst. Arts & Features Editor

The Center for Digital Humanities held the latest installment in the Race + Digital Humanities Invited Lectures Series in the Heineman Ecumenical Center March 27. They hosted David Sterling Brown, who gave a presentation on the intersection of race and digital humanities in the study of Shakespeare. 

Brown wrote a book called “Shakespeare’s White Others.” He said it is an academic book, but it is also one that people without college education can read, such as his parents. He added he is a first generation college student, and the first in his family to earn a Ph.D. 

He said it was important to him that his parents can still be part of his audience because they represent people who could “come into Shakespeare through my book, or through this art gallery.”

Brown explained that the conclusion of his book, which includes a letter he wrote when he was 18 years old and being racially profiled by the police, has a connection to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.”

He said the connection was that “when people are not allowed to be in control of who they are - instead the world is telling you who you are or who the world perceives you to be - that’s very dangerous.”

Brown read to the audience a section of the conclusion about the fear that death could come at any time just because he’s Black. He said, “I grew up, and sometimes still live, wrapped tight in anxiety with the fear that the bullets will find me because of whatever I’m doing while Black.”

He paused in his reading to explain that he was finalizing the book during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He recognized how chaotic the world was at the time, but refused to let these ideas die with him, he said.

Afterward he continued his reading, getting into his experience of being racially profiled. He said he lived on a road that has never been a one-way street, yet officers kept stopping him and accusing him of going the wrong way. 

In the letter Brown wrote at the time, he said he wanted the situation to end “before the what-if’s become reality.” 

One time, he added, he shared the letter anonymously with his students. He found it “eye-opening” that his students focused less on the situation and more on the tone of the letter, critiquing the way the writer addressed the problem. This quickly changed when he revealed to them that he wrote it, Brown said.

He said the experience showed him how people respond differently to situations when they know someone and what they’ve been through versus when they don’t.

One goal of the book, Brown said, was to make people think about how he could have easily become another victim of police brutality. He emphasized that if that happened, the book alongside everything else he’s done since then would not exist.

He added, “There’s a lot of lost potential that happens in this world when we have to lose people to senseless acts of violence.”

Brown emphasized a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and “metaphorical Blackness.” He focused on “Macbeth,” explaining how several characters in the play, especially Macbeth himself, are a portrayal of Blackness in ways that “perpetuate the casualness of anti-Black racism and that sustained a centuries old myth of white superiority.”

He said Macbeth starts the play as a “respected member of the dominant culture” but over time becomes someone with “‘black and deep desires,’ and that’s a quote from the play.”

Brown presented the “David Sterling Brown Gallery,” a virtual reality art gallery created to complement the book in an immersive and interactive way. He said he teaches his students through it, as the gallery can hold up to 50 people at a time. 

His students seem to feel more comfortable talking about race in this format, Brown said. He added people are usually afraid to say the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings. In this format, he said, the students can be in whatever place they feel most at ease in real life, like a dorm room. They may even see him as one of the many available avatars, he added, if he had his camera off.

He welcomed everyone in the audience to join him in the gallery, if they wanted. All that’s needed is a computer and the website, From there, click on “VRV Exhibition” to enter the gallery. He said the best way to experience the gallery would be with virtual reality goggles, but it is not required.

In the gallery he turned on the music, an orchestra composition by composer Anthony Davis. Brown said the composition was inspired by a traffic stop Davis experienced. 

Brown explained that Davis is a Black man, and his wife had noticed that the officer had his gun drawn already. His wife stopped Davis from getting out of the car, Brown said, and the situation could’ve gotten significantly worse than it already was. 

In the composition, the rest of the orchestra instruments are interrogating the clarinet, Brown said. He added it represents the experience of a police stop. He said he felt the need to put it in the gallery because, as a scholar he mentioned in his book asserts, “We not only see race, but we also hear it.”

Brown said he did not write his book expecting to solve these problems, but he is working toward that goal. He said he wrote the book to highlight the problems, and “what people do with the highlighting is up to them.”

Brown started taking questions from the audience. One participant asked if the mentioning of the body throughout the presentation was related to Shakespeare. He said it was in one aspect, especially since Shakespeare focused on the body frequently in his plays.

He connected this question to another he has thought about before, “What does it mean to just say Black bodies versus Black people, right? What does it mean to name the Black person who was killed?” He answered this himself, saying it is dehumanizing because we’re more than just our bodies. 

Another participant asked if the virtual method of teaching he uses works better than just using the text. Brown answered it depends on the types of learners in the room and the type of course it is. If they are first-year students, he said, getting them grounded in the text is a helpful first step. 

Someone else asked if there was any educator who inspired him to educate others. He said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.” He explained how one of his teachers was a community activist who helped him get scholarships.

He added he used to work for a nonprofit that focused on providing education to low-income communities. He said in that job process he learned “how ZIP codes in this country determine people’s educational access.” 

From this experience, he said, he realized how much that teacher helped him get a good education. He said, “She significantly changed my life.”

Another participant commented on Brown’s students’ response to the letter, saying how in order to be listened to you have to word everything the right way. Brown added on to this, saying, “When you shapeshift for others, you are detracting from the authenticity of yourself.”

He added people learn how to navigate the world when they see the difficulties and figure out a way around them.



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