The “Sonic Color Line”: Shakespeare and the Canonization of Sexual Violence Against Black Men

ACMRS Arizona
Aug 16, 2019 · 8 min read

by David Sterling Brown

Photo courtesy of Danny Owens

How do Black males scream for centuries about their physical, psychological and emotional pain induced by sexual violence — yet remain unheard? How do Black boys and men simultaneously hold their collective breath — buried alive for centuries — yet not die?

The answer, in part, lies in what Jennifer Stoever (Sounding Out! Editor-in-Chief) theorizes as the “sonic color line”: a phenomenon that builds on W.E.B. Du Bois’ articulations in his 1903 treatise The Souls of Black Folk and suggests race is a fundamentally important ocular and aural signifier that dictates how all racialized bodies are presented, perceived, processed and even policed.

As an unnecessary reminder, the color line has defined what it can mean to: drive, walk, sleep, party, BBQ, play rap music, sell water, use a coupon, cut grass, canvas (as a state representative), wear a police uniform, eat lunch, attempt to have a business meeting at Starbucks, fly, check out of an Airbnb, vote, wait for a friend, perform routine work inspections, golf, workout, move into an apartment, hire and fire help, worship God and more — while Black. But what does it mean to be heard while Black or, conversely, to listen while white? More specifically, what does it mean to disclose or experience sexual violence as a Black male?

As a Black Shakespearean, I often turn to Shakespeare’s dramatic oeuvre when contemplating contemporary issues. And so, I want to propose that Shakespearean drama, as well as the reception and criticism of it, reveals what is at stake when the “listening ear,” as Stoever terms it, is of the dominant hue. I will touch on this matter mainly through allusions to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice by exploring an underdiscussed, understudied issue — sexual violence against Black males.

In Shakespearean drama, and in the real world, sexual violence occurs in a variety ways. It can be psychological and emotional, for example: In Titus Andronicus, the newly crowned Roman empress Tamora finds her illicit Black lover, Aaron, in the forest and asks: “Wherefore look’st thou sad, / When everything doth make a gleeful boast?” before suggesting in the same breath that they have sex (2.3.10–11). Aaron does not share in Tamora’s “glee” at this moment, for his self-proclaimed “silence, [and his] cloudy melancholy” “are no venereal signs,” as he assures her (2.3.33–36). Moreover, Aaron’s sad emotional state — what we might read in modern terms as an indicator of his mental health — is inconsequential to Tamora.

Rather, she wants to use his Black body, which Shakespeare depicts in the play as stereotypically savage and hypersexual, and then immediately enter “a golden slumber” following their orgasmic climax…or maybe just her orgasmic climax (2.3.26). It’s hard to tell if Aaron’s sexual relief matters here. Regardless, Aaron experiences a dual assault coming from within and outside of the play: Tamora does not truly hear this Black man’s sadness despite affirming she sees it.

Furthermore, critics have largely ignored Aaron’s sadness in terms of reading it as an earlier dramatic moment that reveals his humanization, a moment preceding his often-discussed paternal sensitivity displayed in act 4, scene 2, which I have written about in Arden’s Titus Andronicus: The State of Play volume, as have other critics.

Harry Lennix (Aaron) and Jessica Lang (Tamora) in Julie Taymor’s 1999 Titus Andronicus film adaptation.

As Titus and contemporary matters show, dehumanization and imbalanced power dynamics are at the heart of sexual violence. In The Merchant of Venice, heterosexual interracial desire is, for the Black man, a game to lose because the “casket test” outcome is rigged, if not by Portia then by Shakespeare himself, and because white Portia declares, in response to the Black Prince of Morocco’s casket selection failure: “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.79). In other words, let no Black man be successful in this game. Portia wants only Bassanio: a fair-skinned man who borrows money from his sugar-daddy-like friend, Antonio, and who, on paper, pales in comparison to the Prince.

Morocco is set up to desire and sexualize unattainable whiteness as his pursuit is ridiculed by Portia and mocked by the white external audience. In the end, he is punished for aspiring to be close to whiteness. The consequence for his failure is a kind of sterilization or symbolic castration: Unable to marry anyone, he cannot produce a legitimate heir. This punishment is problematic because of the physical constraints placed on his procreative Black body. It goes without saying that his departure in the play is, quite frankly, sad; yet, his “too griev’d a heart” is the least of Portia’s concerns (2.7.76).

David Harewood (Prince of Morocco) in Michael Radford’s 2004 The Merchant of Venice film adaptation.

Why is it that Tamora’s and Portia’s respective treatment of Aaron and the Prince of Morocco has not generated much critical conversation about Black male victimization? Why is it that critics have not focused on this matter, and its relationship to sexual violence, with the same energy and rigor they have used to define Aaron as a villain and Morocco as pompous? According Tommy J. Curry and Ebony A. Utley, “It is often difficult to conceptualize male bodies as being victims of sexual violence, and even more so when the perpetrator of that sexual violence is female.”

I will add that it is even more difficult to see male bodies as being victims of sexual violence when those bodies are Black. Race adds another dimension to the issue since Black people and Black pain are often rendered invisible and unheard in society, American society in particular. For instance, studies have been conducted on the long history of discrimination within the medical profession, showcasing how treatment by medical professionals, and their responses to articulated pain, can vary across racial lines, with their being less sensitivity to expressions of pain by people of color, especially Black people.

Since society largely disallows Black males to be viewed as victims, it consequently disallows them opportunities to experience and understand their pain, so the language to construct oneself as a victim, to construct one’s life circumstances as a result of victimization, is limited if not non-existent. Historically and stereotypically, Black males have been cast as brutish, rapists, sexually aggressive, insensitive, un-nurturing, and more. The general socio-cultural narrative surrounding the Black male existence in the US, and beyond, is one that promotes myths designed to rationalize fears of Black masculinity and sexuality. These kinds of racialized myths about Black males, which also play out in Othello and The Tempest, have been cultivated over centuries and across geographical lines. These racist myths reify the fictionalization of Black pain.

According to race and ethnicity research done by the American Psychological Association, between 2005 and 2013 “the active psychology workforce was primarily White: Whites accounted for [a staggering] 83.6 percent of active psychologists. Racial/ethnic minority groups, including Asian (4.3 percent), Black/African American (5.3 percent), Hispanic (5.0 percent) and other racial/ethnic groups (1.7 percent), accounted for approximately 16.4 percent of active psychologists.” With the total number of the active workforce having been about 158,000 psychologists, this means approximately 8,400 were Black whereas approximately 132,000 were white. The mental health profession’s racial demographic disparity enforces and reinforces Black male silence on a large scale.

Unsurprisingly, Black males report sexual assault and seek professional help at much lower rates than their white counterparts. It goes without saying that, among other factors, inadequate human resources and insufficient cultural sensitivity in the mental health profession compound the silence around sexual abuse and sexual violence for Black men like Kirk Franklin, Terry Crews, Common and, dare I say it, R. Kelly. And the silent treatment, so to speak, can contribute to the victim-to-perpetrator cycle: victims themselves can become sexual violence perpetrators, projecting their pain onto others because their silence renders their own histories unknowable.

Without a proper outlet for their suffering, Black male victims of sexual abuse are left to fend for themselves as they confront the psychological, emotional and physical consequences of a bifurcated issue: the intersection of sexual assault and racism. The screams of these untreated victims are not heard within society and therefore their pain does not register. Despite their not being heard, there still are consequences, short- and long-term effects that accompany their suffering. These can include both general health and mental health issues such as OCD, PTSD, sex addiction, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, to name a few.

The ideals society has outlined regarding masculinity, especially Black masculinity, have a negative impact on how African-American male victims choose to respond to sexual violations, hence their silence and untreated issues. Males, especially Black males, are often taught from a young age to be strong, to be hard, to be independent, to cope however they can without compromising the tough masculine exterior, even if it is just a façade. Given the potential for ridicule and emasculation, it seems safest for Black males to remain silent, independently managing their humiliation, shame and self-hatred. This should not be the case, especially since in the United States, “one eighth of children are sexually, physically, or emotionally abused prior to the age of 18.”

That Black male victims have potential to be mocked by larger society, or even ostracized within their own communities, for their exposure to sexual violence introduces another way this matter functions like a game in that the experience with sexual violation is not treated seriously. The dangers of not hearing the screams of Black male sexual assault survivors, of requiring them to hold their breath for centuries, are many, especially because their behavior is often criminalized and, for children, adultified.

But what if people heard Black boys and men? Looked deep into their eyes and saw their emotional and psychological pain? Looked at their bodies — not to sexualize, objectify or fetishize them — but to observe the physical signs of trauma, the unhealed wounds and scars that are tattooed reminders of pasts that haunt them daily? The Aarons, Princes of Morocco, Othellos, and Calibans of the world deserve to breathe. Hear us and unbury us.

David Sterling Brown is an assistant professor of English at Binghamton University, SUNY. His research focuses on domesticity, race, Blackness, whiteness, and gender. He is currently working on a monograph that examines Black domestic matters in Shakespearean drama and has started drafting a second book project that aims to reframe how we think about racial “otherness” in Shakespearean drama. In addition to being a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a 2013–2014 Consortium for Faculty Diversity Scholar, and a 2016–2018 Duke University SITPA Scholar, David was the first Trinity College (CT) alumnus to hold the Ann Plato Fellowship.

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The Sundial (ACMRS)

Engaging premodern literature, history, culture, and art to speak to contemporary social issues. Engage the past, define the future.