Reimagining Racial Justice: Shakespeare, Douglass, and the Visibility of the Imago Dei

The student’s frantic phone message read “Dr. McCampbell, there is a group of men standing out on 25th street underneath a large sign that says, ‘Make America White Again!’” When I finally arrived at the rally, I found a diverse group of students from our Christian university bravely and graciously confronting a local white supremacist politician. The next day, another group of students and professors made their way back to the same spot to sing hymns and hold up signs that told the truth about God’s love for all image-bearers. I stood on the side of the road between two Black students as someone drove by and yelled racist slurs. Minutes later, a large truck circled the block while a young man in its cargo bed waved an enormous Confederate flag. We kept on singing and holding our signs.

This incident was a foreshadowing of what was to come in the summer of 2020 when a nineteen-year-old biracial university student started a petition to ask that the Confederate statue in the middle of our town be moved to a museum. She did not want to see it torn down, merely moved and contextualized. Within hours, she received the first death threat. 

This led to weeks of protests in the center of our small Tennessee town. Those of us standing for the dignity of Black lives gathered silently on our university’s front lawn and sidewalk. We kneeled. We prayed. Across the street, those standing for the Confederate statue and all it stood for gathered around it. They yelled insults and waved flags: US flags, Confederate flags, “blue lives matter” flags, and Trump flags. On occasion, they came over to our side to try to create conflict. 

This is the contentious context within which I teach large groups of students about the sin of racism, its devastating intergenerational impact, and our need to confront it, repent for it, and seek change. 

Like most private Christian universities in the United States, our student demographic is predominantly white. Every fall, I teach two large humanities survey classes in which I relate issues of racial injustice, implicit bias, and profiling to my students’ reading of William Shakespeare’s Othello. And every spring, I explore similar topics of race and justice when I teach Frederick Douglass’s Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. At the beginning of the semester, some white students flinch with teeth-gritting resistance when I put up slides of Black Lives Matter protests and tell the stories of the many unarmed Black Americans unjustly executed by the police. But by the end of the semester, the miraculous happens—and it happens every semester—as many, if not all, of the white students in my classes begin to understand that the theological reality of the sanctity of every human life, the presence of the imago Dei in all human beings, has been largely neglected in our national conversations about race, especially within the white American evangelical church.

This collective lack of acknowledging God’s sacred image in all human beings is what led author and speaker Jemar Tisby to advocate for a second Reformation. In a series of Reformation Day lectures at Covenant College, he argued that just as “faith alone” was the doctrine of the original Protestant Reformation, “the image of God needs to be the core doctrine of a Racial Reformation.” Only by embracing this core theological truth can white Americans begin to reimagine the way to love our Black brothers and sisters, seeking to learn their stories of struggle and responding with empathetic lament and the hope for liberation. For this reason, I begin each semester by telling students that we must actively acknowledge and honor the imago Dei in one another as we enter into conversation. I also challenge them to practice acknowledging and honoring the imago Dei when reading the words of the authors in classroom texts, whether they died three hundred years ago or are still living and writing today. These thinkers were and are image-bearers, and their human dignity is affirmed in the many ways that their writing reflects this: creativity, intelligence, compassion, conviction. 

As we enter conversations with great minds from the past, I tell my students that we must not become consumers but listeners. And while listening, we must discern that which leads to life and truth and that which leads to death and falsehood. This is perhaps the most difficult intellectual step a college student must take. It’s a leap of faith away from authoritative lists prescribing which books, films, and ideas are considered right and wrong; it is the hard process of developing wisdom through hospitable yet discerning engagement. 

In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann argues that the jarring, life-giving impact of prophetic ministry should lead to both lament and hope. Shakespeare’s Othello and Douglass’s Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass both prophetically critique a manifestation of what Brueggemann calls the “mythic claims of the empire.” The empire’s most powerful tool is its invisibility to those who benefit from it, and these pieces of literature help to make the invisible become visible for discerning readers. Reading (witnessing) and discussing (processing) both texts helps students gain ears to hear and eyes to see the devastating ramifications of our Western ideological inheritance of colonization and chattel slavery. Indeed, before they can be “energized,” as Brueggemann says, by recognizing the hope uncovered in a shared Christian doxology, it is important to practice what Esau McCaulley calls a “theology of mourning.” This shared grieving is an honest human response to the “economic, social, and political oppression” that is “the physical manifestation of the spiritual sickness at the heart of the empire.” These manifestations must be named, and we must see the ways in which they attempt to mar, maim, and even destroy the image of God.

Perhaps it is a bit surprising that Othello, a play that has led so many of my students into a deeper empathetic identification with the Black community, was written by the most esteemed member of a mostly white, male literary canon. Shakespeare so often represents the establishment in the popular literary imagination. Yet this play subverts Elizabethan ideological claims about both race and gender by positioning the two most unlikely characters, an African man, Othello, and a lady-in-waiting, Emilia, as, arguably, the most honorable figures in the story. The play centers on an interracial marriage between Othello, who serves as a general in the Venetian army, and Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman. This relationship would have been a cultural taboo just fifty years ago, so its inclusion in a British text written in 1604 is particularly shocking. During the time of Othello’s writing, the British collective imagination contained a strict dichotomy for the understanding of race, what can be seen as protoconstructs for the categories of race we have inherited and advanced in the United States. In this false paradigm, the white European male is ruled by reason, good sense, and self-control, whereas the Black African male is seen as irrational, dangerously hypersexual, and driven by passion and engagement in the dark arts. The play’s central villain, Iago, references these false distinctions when he tells his dullard sidekick, Roderigo, “For we work by wit not by witchcraft.”

Iago, a white man, is, ironically, the character most ruled by passion as he plots to destroy Othello, a Black man who trusts him and believes the two to be best friends. Iago is angry because Othello overlooks him for a coveted promotion. He also tells us that it is rumored that Othello slept with his wife. Although he says he does not believe the rumor, he nevertheless chooses to act as if it were true in order to fuel a hate that cannot be entirely explained by resentment. Indeed, the most dehumanizing, racist language in the play is used by Iago, suggesting that Othello’s skin color is the primary reason for Iago’s hate. For instance, when Iago tells Desdemona’s father about the elopement of his daughter and Othello, he uses sexually explicit, animal imagery, thus reenforcing the contemporary Elizabethan stereotypes of Blackness: “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse / you’ll have your nephews neigh to you.” Iago’s incendiary language gives visibility to the deepest fears of white supremacist Europe, the mixing of blood lines that would supposedly lead to a less-evolved, tainted, and more animalistic type of human being, a human that is subhuman. In reading Shakespeare, we are reminded that long before Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, the seeds of social Darwinism had already been planted.

When I point these things out to my diverse classroom, the white students tend to be shocked. The Black students are not. They know the history of this ideology and its inheritance in their lived experience. And they are also not shocked when the play ends with the honorable man, Othello, falling prey to the very stereotypes that have been used to abuse him. Othello commits a monstrous act in killing his wife, yet Shakespeare gives him a voice at the end, allowing him to explain and show that he, himself, is not monstrous. 

I couple this story with various examples from contemporary American culture, disclosing the enduring presence of these dangerous, inhuman stereotypes. We watch a clip from the first film shown in the White House, The Birth of a Nation. Although technically and aesthetically innovative, D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film is white supremacist propaganda that centers members of the Klu Klux Klan as heroes who rescue a white woman from the lascivious arms of a Black man—a Black man who is really a white actor in blackface. This fear of Black sexuality is initially not so obvious when looking at the censoring of Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley, whose moves were deemed suggestive. But the underlying fear becomes more evident in clips of Presley’s critics who claim he is exposing white youth to the evil beats and moves of the Black man.

These unwarranted fears that led to systemic and cultural criminalization of the Black male resonate even more with students as we talk about the recent killings of unarmed Black men, including Terence Crutcher. When Crutcher was apprehended, another officer watched the scene from a helicopter, saying, “That looks like a bad dude.” Moments later, Crutcher was fatally shot by an officer on the receiving end of that message. In considering these examples and listening to the powerful songs “Coulda Been Me” by Trip Lee or “Make it Home” by Tobe Nwigwe, students recognize that the deadly, fear-based ideologies from Shakespeare’s day are still in operation. As Tisby states in The Color of Compromise, “History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.” And as students develop empathy for Othello, an initially innocent man who is subject to suspicion, accusations, and manipulation, they begin to appreciate how this has affected the lives of their Black peers. When I ask them to write responses to what they are hearing and seeing, many of their reflections are confessions of a racism that they hadn’t previously had eyes to see in themselves, their home communities, and their country. The invisible begins to gain visibility. These testimonies are powerful testaments to the way that the arts can help us grow in our capacity for empathy and seeing the image of God more vibrantly. Here’s an example:

Growing up . . . I was used to the idea that it was not appropriate for me to marry outside of my race. Also, it was okay to use the n word in my family. . . . The story of Othello broke my heart in a sense that he was being torn apart because of his skin color.

Reading and discussing these texts also provides an opportunity for Black students to publicly bear witness to their own experiences of racism. Although I believe it is important to never ask a Black student to publicly share their story (or to label a student as a representative for their race), many of my Black students have voluntarily shared painful episodes. These are some of the most holy, life-altering experiences I have had as a professor. Teaching Othello not only highlights overt racism but also initiates conversations about the covert microaggressions that Black students endure on a daily basis. When Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, finds out that his daughter has married a Black man, his former friend becomes an enemy. He repeatedly accuses Othello of using witchcraft to seduce his daughter because he cannot imagine why she would run to the “sooty bosom” of “such a thing as thou—to fear, not delight!” He brings the case before the Duke, hoping for some legal say in the matter. But the Duke is on the couple’s side and approves of their marriage, and he expresses this in a famous couplet: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” When analyzing these lines, most students begin to recognize the nice racism of the Duke, who is telling Brabantio that although Othello is frightening to look at, he is white on the inside. Black students have at times shared their painful incidents of nice racism, too, including being told, “You’re not like other Black people” or “You are pretty for a Black girl.” 

These moments are empowering for the Black students in class, and as we bear witness to injustice and critique its ideology, my white students are also transformed. I receive many comments similar to this one:

Our discussions of race have called into question many of my beliefs. I have always tried not to be racist, but I know that I have behaved in ways that betray that I do have some racist perceptions. . . . Hearing from Black classmates has made a huge difference. I have really learned from hearing their stories.

These conversations create an opportunity to reimagine ways to see the imago Dei in all human beings, as we begin to recognize how our own imaginations have been constricted. 

The call for change is even more profound when we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I find that most of my students have received little education about the reality of American chattel slavery, and the reading of a firsthand experience of an enslaved person is both eye-opening and deeply convicting. They often feel betrayed by their past education as they begin to connect the dots between the past and present. As we discuss Douglass’s words, “to be accused was to be convicted,” once again we talk about street executions still suffered by Black Americans. Although the entire work is powerful and prophetic, the two focal points that affect my students the most are Douglass’s description of slavery as a system and ideology and the ways that this system was upheld by many self-described Christians.

We read Douglass immediately before reading Karl Marx’s critique of religion, and there are many interesting connections. Both men point out the ways that religion has been used as a weapon to indoctrinate the oppressed and to gain and retain power over them. In his autobiography, Douglass explains that when he is sold to a new master, he fears that this man is a Christian because the Christian slave masters tend to be the cruelest. These ruthless men use decontextualized Scripture to self-righteously justify their positions of power and their treatment of other image-bearers. Prohibiting the enslaved from learning to read is one more tool of disempowerment in the arsenal of the demonic institution of slavery. In Douglass’s story, he is surprised and delighted when a new master’s wife, Mrs. Auld, “a woman of kindest heart and finest feelings,” actually treats him like he is a human being. She recognizes his keen intelligence and is eager to teach him to read, but her husband soon feeds her the poison of white supremacist ideology, forbidding her to teach Douglass because he would then become “unmanageable.” Once Mrs. Auld begins to follow this command, Douglass witnesses the decay of her soul as she becomes even more cruel than her husband. He notes that, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me,” preceding Martin Luther King Jr.’s claim that racism “distorts the soul and damages the personality.”

Although Douglass prophetically critiques the religion of slave holders, he is careful to make a distinction between what he calls “the Christianity of this Land” and “the Christianity of Christ.” In the appendix to his narrative, he uses Matthew 23 as an anchor to denounce the cruel, irreligious of hypocrisy of these “whitewashed tombs:”

We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together.

Seeing Christ’s name used to justify such inhumane acts proves to be almost unbearable to my white students, most of whom have little knowledge of the American church’s long complicity with racism.

As harrowing as Douglass’s story is, it also highlights the dignity, humanity, and value of those who have been dehumanized. By reading this story, engaging with Douglass as an image-bearer, and connecting the spiritual corruption of white supremacy to current events, students can imaginatively identify with the Black community. It is also important that they see the “energizing” dimension of the Christian history of so many of enslaved believers. Even as their masters attempted to oppress them with the words of Scripture, the oppressed faithful read through the heretical omissions and misapplications to identify with a crucified Christ who liberates his people. The real-world theology of enslaved image-bearers is heard in their spirituals that reveal both “the highest joy and the deepest sadness.” They preach joy in the darkest of circumstances while bearing witness to the pain of those circumstances and holding hope for liberation. The “unknown Black bards” who composed these spirituals also constructed an oral theological tradition that was passed down, providing a space for both lament and joy. These works of art provide some of the most profound examples of Brueggemann’s two-fold aspect of prophetic ministry: critiquing and energizing.

Douglass’s testimony of oppression, along with his prophetic distinctions between the Christianity of the power-hungry empire and the humanizing, sacrificial Christianity of Christ, is both painful and life-giving. The truth of Douglass’s claims is historically and morally undeniable. In order to truly see, to reimagine the glory of another image-bearer, we must feed our imaginations with the testimonies of those who Howard Thurman calls the “disinherited,”who bear witness to their own suffering. The more we listen, the better we can imagine and empathize. Only then can we face the consequences of our complicity and repent before moving toward real interracial unity.

In this sense, teaching and reading narratives that expose racial injustice and rightfully critique its inhumanity are both acts of activism. Educating ourselves about the history, culture, and dignity of our Black brothers and sisters is as important as standing on the side of the road holding signs, perhaps even more so. As a tool of the Spirit’s intervention, these narratives of justice and truth can ultimately lead to changed hearts and minds.


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