Shakespeare in black and white

Can you imagine Derek Walcott denying himself books written by people who are racially different?
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The Independent Culture
SOMETIMES, WE Asians make life a lot harder for ourselves. A prominent Asian politician, writing in response to one of my columns, scolds me for being too "intellectual". Another man who keeps a watchful eye on these things says that Vikram Seth has sold out because his new book, An Equal Music, is all about Europeans: "He was so sound. Now he makes such a big mistake. What a pure book A Suitable Boy was. How proud it made me as an Indian."

At a meeting to discuss arts funding, black and Asian individuals denounce the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare in Love for promoting "Christian" culture. Blindfolded by prejudice, these people never experience the joy of seeing black RSC actors playing Romeo or Tybalt. They certainly don't know that Stratford had its first black actor, Edric Connor, in 1958. Some black and Asian intellectuals, as an act of political defiance, refuse to read books by white authors. (They still buy food from white supermarkets and get treated by white doctors.)

This deliberate narrowing of the imagination and cultural claustrophobia is frightening. Can you imagine any of our great world writers, like Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou or Arthur Miller, denying themselves access to books because they have been written by people who are racially different from them? There are even those who believe that to be considered authentic, black and Asian Britons should concentrate on rap and bhangra and leave "high art" alone.

The irony is that many first generation immigrants find these gestures risible. They made their long journeys because they had imbibed the best of British culture and wanted their children to get the real thing. And though many had to go through appalling experiences, they do not, even now, feel that Shakespeare or Dickens were to blame. What they are enraged about is that the "great" British education system did not deliver, not to their children nor to the white working classes.

The Empire was an inexcusable project propelled by greed, ambition and supremacist beliefs. But it did open up all our worlds. I was only 10 when two peerless teachers from Calcutta (a place where even today, bus drivers recite TS Eliot as they rock along) inspired a whole generation of us to love and perform Shakespeare at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda. Later, at university, I grew to love Russian, French and American as well as the post-colonial Caribbean and African writers with equal passion. Even after independence, no authors were dropped from the canon. None of us felt violated by this. When I came here in 1972, I saved money for months so I could go and see Janet Suzman playing Cleopatra at Stratford. The intensity of my feelings at the performance can never again be reproduced.

What our cultural warriors don't seem to realise is that their cultural xenophobia exactly replicates that of white people resisting diversity. They too would rather not see a black actor playing Mark Antony at the National. They too ignore theatre groups like Tara Arts because they dare to put on plays which are not easily "ethnic" but a reflection of our complex society.

And what better proof of this than the shameful new film Notting Hill, in which the filmmakers (all young, all trendy) seem to have whitened this wonderful multiracial area. Culture wars have been going on in America for at least a decade and big names like Saul Bellow, Henry Louis Gates Jnr and others have participated in the battles. There was a time when DWEMs (Dead White European Males) were in danger of artistic extinction on campuses, and in Black Genius, a new collection of essays by African Americans, the novelist Walter Moseley describes how, even now: "in colleges black students and professors strive to redefine history, the definition of art `to reopen doors to self-respect and self-knowledge'."

To avoid all this, perhaps it is time to open up a national conversation here. In the world we live in today, it is absurd to believe that white or black civilisations are the "best" and immutable. We need to expand the canon and include both what has stood the test of time and that which is always coming into being.

As times change we also need to find fresh approaches to venerated texts and other art forms. Would it not, for example, be fascinating to read a Muslim scholar responding to The Merchant of Venice? With this country now awash with mixed-race relationships, Othello has acquired new power, new resonance. These developments will be hated by cultural protectionists, white and black. We must oppose them ferociously, otherwise we too will produce the terrible ethnic fragmentations of the United States.