White People Should Recognize Ourselves in Iago
I learned from teaching ‘Othello’ that I am part of a system that sets black men up to fail
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I learned about Othello from a professor who didn’t want to discuss Othello; he wanted to tell us about Othello. He was tall and pale, and his dark hair created a contrast to his long, white face. He had his delivery down pat — no observation about a character hadn’t been said before, no quiz was new. For me, his observations about Iago, however rehearsed, were profound, but not for the reasons they should have been.
My professor didn’t talk about how people like Iago exist in the real world and tear people down for their benefit — Dick Cheney, Steve Bannon, Rush Limbaugh, to name a few. Instead, he — and I — focused on the way that people with wit and charisma could be dangerous in matters of the heart. I’d fallen for a few charming men, and I was happy to disparage them — villains weren’t always brooding in the corner, but they were sometimes the life of the party.
As for the character of Othello, I don’t remember much. I certainly didn’t have sympathy for his pride and jealousy; I didn’t connect with him, his experience, or his pain. I didn’t need to.
When I started teaching Othello, I started to realize that the play was not just a warning about the dangers of love and jealousy, but a warning about complicity and coercion, specifically on the part of people in power. Iago does not become evil alone. People support him, believe in him, and trust him, even though he’s clearly a misogynist and a racist.
Iago does not become evil alone. People support him, believe in him, and trust him, even though he’s clearly a misogynist and a racist.
The school I taught at was a private school in Washington, D.C. It was majority white and majority well-off, and it was full of potential Iagos — students who, if not as evil or conniving, were just as susceptible to believing that they deserved what they had and would go to lengths to prove it. Fifteen percent of students were outside of the financial majority, and about 20 percent were students of color (these numbers have since increased to 20 and 31 percent). Most of their teachers were like me: white, with a background in private school education. People with enough money to afford teaching at a private school, where the pay wasn’t great but the community was worth it.
Though none of us considered ourselves Iagos — we believed in equity, in kindness, in honesty, and of course we would never hurt another person for our benefit — we also murmured among ourselves about some faculty members getting positions solely because they were people of color. We resented multicultural work, because we considered ourselves educated, and therefore above racism, misogyny, and micro- or macro-aggressions. We expressed confusion about why some of the students of color couldn’t just be a bit more grateful for what they had there, in the white mansion on the hill.
I say “we” because even though I sat on the diversity committee and considered myself an ally to both students and faculty of color, I had those thoughts, and I was in those conversations. I am, as we all are, a part of the system of racism, classism, and sexism that fuels this country — handed down, in part, from the countries in Shakespeare’s Othello.
I am, as we all are, a part of the system of racism, classism, and sexism that fuels this country — handed down, in part, from the countries in Shakespeare’s Othello.
In 2007 and 2008, I worked for Barack Obama. I was sent to the white suburbs of St. Louis after volunteering in St. Louis city, where I made connections with black community leaders. During my time in the city, I’d arrive to the house parties I falsely believed I had a hand in organizing, and awkwardly wait for my time to sign up volunteers and build my team. These house parties were my first experience at being the only white person in the room, and I was often embarrassed to tell my story. I joined the campaign because I wanted a change in my life, and I joined because I could.
During Obama’s inauguration weekend, I went to the staff party, where Arcade Fire and Jay-Z performed. Obama gave a speech about continuing the good work of the campaign, and continuing to push for the change we believed in. After his speech, I noted that it was strange that so much of his staff was white, and a friend said to me: “It’s a privilege to quit your job, move somewhere, and work for free.”
At the end of Shakespeare’s Othello, the protagonist realizes that he murdered his wife on false grounds. She hadn’t cheated on him after all — he was trapped in a web of Iago’s lies. She lies dead behind him, and he speaks to his white comrades, saying: “When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am…” Then, he stabs himself, falling onto his dead wife’s body.
At the conclusion of a modern movie adaptation of Othello, entitled simply O, the Othello character, Odin, walks through the hallways of an old New England dorm with a gun in his hand after smothering Desi (Desdemona) to death. The camera zooms in on the tears covering his face. When he gets to the porch, he yells at his classmates: “Somebody needs to tell the goddamn truth. My life is over…but while all y’all out here living yours, sitting around talking about the n****r that lost it back it high school, you make sure you tell them the truth…You tell them where I’m from didn’t make me do this.” Then he shoots himself, collapsing on a white wicker couch.
In the documentary O.J.: Made in America, the conversation between O.J. Simpson and LAPD detective John Lange plays as you watch one of the strangest and most televised car chases of all time. At that point, O.J. is the primary suspect in the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. As he is driven in a white Bronco by his friend Al Cowlings, he is holding a gun in his hand; he suggests more than a few times that he may use it to kill himself as Lange tries to keep him from doing so. He explains to Lange that he’s “sorry,” that “all he ever did was love Nicole,” and he says that he wants to be remembered for the person he feels he was, before all this.
What would have happened if, on that bright sunny day, as his friend drove him down the highway and away from his Brentwood home, he had shot himself instead? How would the story been different? Would the blame be placed on him, or the societal structures that never allowed him to find a sense of belonging in the first place? What the documentary makes clear that it isn’t just fame that caused his downfall, but a particular brand of it — for O.J. to become O.J., he had to base his identity around what white America required and wanted from him at that time. And regardless of whether there was a particular person plotting his downfall, there was, in a sense, a culture waiting to witness his demise.
When I taught Othello, I would start with an excerpt from Description of Africa, written by Leo Africanus, in 1550. The book was considered the most comprehensive written work on the subject of Africa until the 19th century, and we’d look at a section with the title, “The commendable actions and virtues of the Africans” and subtitle “What vices the foresaid Africans are subject unto” to get a better sense of the narratives and stereotypes Shakespeare was working with when he created Othello. We can’t know if Shakespeare read the text, but it seems likely that this idea from Africanus — “no nation in the world is so subject unto jealousy; for they will rather lease their lives, then put up any disgrace in the behalf of their women” — and this one — “yea they so behave themselves, as if they had continually lived in a forest among wild beasts” — made its way to him, and found homes in a text centered on a person from Africa who can’t control his jealousy.
Throughout O.J.: Made in America, it becomes clear that O.J.’s trial is not about whether he killed Nicole Brown or Ron Goldman but about whether or not a black man could ever be found innocent. In the documentary, we see that O.J. is as much a symbol as a person, as much a construction as a man. He knows this, too, and he plays into it, as do his team of lawyers and close friends. By the end, it seems as though a part of them comes to even believe it — they seem to think O.J.’s innocence could be a kind of revenge, not just for Rodney King, as the film suggests, but all the accused black men, subjected to generations of violence simply for the color of their skin.
I always asked my students if Othello could have been white. They’d debate it for a bit, going back and forth about how what he wrestles with is in part universal, and also connected to his gender. I’d wait for the moment when they’d bring in the Leo Africanus reference, and discuss how those stereotypes about jealousy wouldn’t resonate if Othello wasn’t African. Many of them say he was easier to prey on because of his race.
One year, one of my black students wondered what it would be like if Iago was black, and she said: “He wouldn’t have been as trusted as much as he was — I don’t think.” This was the same student who, after the Trump election, said to a room full of white students: “the fact that y’all are surprised is funny to me. I’m sorry, but…look around.”
O is not a great movie, and for that reason, we didn’t use it all that often when teaching Othello. Looking back, I wish I had. What O seems to get is what is ahead of its time about Othello, and it isn’t the fact that Othello was black. It is the message about the community that surrounds him, and how they allowed a person like Iago to flourish, exist, and believe in his power.
It is the message about the community that surrounds him, and how they allowed a person like Iago to flourish, exist, and believe in his power.
In O, the character of Iago (Hugo) is the son of the basketball coach. He is handsome, smart, and great at basketball. But O is better, and so at the start of the movie, O gets MVP instead of Hugo, kicking off Hugo’s plan to take O down. The decision to make the coach Hugo’s father gives Hugo’s revenge more heft, because we understand that Hugo has not just been slighted, but a societal code has been broken in the process. Usually, white people hand things to one another; it is familial, it is filial, it is in our blood.
Washington D.C. is 49% black, and no private school in the area reflects that number. In some ways, that is not a surprise, but even writing that sentence — even typing “it’s not a surprise” and then thinking, “it makes logical sense” — feels strange to me. There is no logic to systematic oppression that keeps money in certain pockets and not others based on skin color; and if there is, it is not a logic I want to feel comfortable with.
D.C. is 49% black, and Donald Trump, a white billionaire from New York, lives in its epicenter — a white house where, for eight years, Barack Obama lived. When Obama lived there, Donald Trump went on T.V. questioning where he came from, asking hackers to check his birthplace. Even when Obama showed the birth certificate, Trump continued to spread rumors because he could, and because people let him. We know what happened next.
During O.J.: Made in America, the documentarians chart how white and black people responded when he was not found guilty. I remember that my family, and everyone we knew, thought it was preposterous. They believed he did it, and they were shocked. In black communities, there was a sense of relief. A sense of justice. Even if they didn’t believe he was innocent, they knew that so many others had been, and it felt good to see a black man walk free.
In the past two years, numerous white police officers have been charged with murder, and they walk free. People on both sides are outraged, posts go up on Facebook, and then, quickly, we look away. Then it happens again. And again. And again.
And yet, O.J’s initial walk toward freedom will never be tolerated, particularly in the white community — it was a failure of the justice system as we know it, an outrage, and an insane breakdown of all we know to be right. I’m not arguing that Othello, O, or O.J., should be able to away with murder — I’m just saying that Michael Brelo, Daniel Pantaleo, and Darren Brown shouldn’t either.
I’m not arguing that Othello, O, or O.J., should be able to away with murder — I’m just saying that Michael Brelo, Daniel Pantaleo, and Darren Brown shouldn’t either.
At the end of the play, I’d ask my students if Othello deserves any compassion. Many of them would say yes: they would argue that it wasn’t his fault, that he was betrayed by his best friend, that he couldn’t have done anything to stop his actions. He was a victim. Others would say no: he didn’t have to believe Iago over his wife. He didn’t have to go so far as to kill her.
It’s certainly hard to argue that Othello had to kill Desdemona, even if she really had cheated. And yet, I was always happy that some of the students argued on his behalf, because I think those students understood something fundamental about the structures that caused Iago to get away with what were really his murders. In the end, it is Iago who deserves the blame. Yet he lives on, making the tragedy of Othello not just the tragedy of The Moor of Venice but the tragedy of a culture that believes in justice.