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Pearls in Beauteous Ladies' Eyes: Shakespeare, Race, and Riots in the American Metropolis

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 41, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 378-400 | 10.1353/jnt.2011.0102

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I. Introduction: Conscripting Shakespeare

In a November 1967 column for the popular men's magazine Esquire, American journalist George Frazier opens a piece written in praise of the contemporary black man's "inimitable sense of style" in an unexpected fashion. "If there's one thing I'm an authority on," he writes, "it is the American Negro at his best and worst" (Frazier 1967: 71). Frazier, an Irish-American, derives his putative authority from the host of untoward behaviors he claims to have witnessed within the African American community. He disapprovingly recounts what he has observed: "[I]n Fort Wayne, Indiana, I have seen colored whores undulate up to cars at stoplights and, at someone's refusal to purchase their pleasures, scream obscenities and rake long, silvered nails across his cheek" (71). "I have listened to the bitter breviaries of the Black Muslims," he writes, concluding finally that, "[t]here isn't a thing you can tell me about those people" (71). While it is arguable whether the implicit racism that underpins these claims is mitigated by Frazier's subsequent assertion that he has just as often "seen and heard and been infuriated by the affronts and indecencies of other races," his introduction nevertheless serves as an unanticipated rhetorical gambit in an argument that is ostensibly being waged in praise of the intrinsic elegance and grace of the contemporary American black man (71).

What is perhaps less unexpected is Frazier's subsequent marshaling of Shakespearean dialogue to bolster his essentialist claims. "All I'm concerned with here," he writes, "is the Negro's immense style, a style so seductive that it's little wonder that black men are, as Shakespeare put it in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 'pearls in beauteous ladies' eyes" (73). While the use of a relatively obscure selection of the poet's dialogue in service of an argument on race and representation in the late 1960s may at first glance seem strange, those attentive to Shakespeare's cultural ubiquity in twentieth-century American popular and political culture can hardly be surprised. Perhaps more unforeseen in light of the apparent banality of Frazier's glancing reference to Shakespeare's early romantic comedy is the fact that his allusion is approvingly echoed just one year later in an essay by literary critic and Black Arts proponent Hoyt W. Fuller. Outlining the existence of an explicitly black mode of literature in his germinal essay, "Towards a Black Aesthetic," Fuller calls for a body of literature based on the lives and experiences of black Americans along with an explicitly black school of literary criticism. Fuller then quotes favorably Frazier's aforementioned use of Shakespeare's dialogic contention from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, noting:

George Frazier, a white writer who is not in the least sympathetic with the likes of [Black Arts founder] LeRoi Jones, nevertheless did a commendable job of identifying elements of the black mystique. Discussing "the Negro's immense style, a style so seductive that it's little wonder that black men are, as Shakespeare put it in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 'pearls in beauteous ladies' eyes,'" Mr. Frazier singled out the following examples . . .

Fuller then quotes approvingly and at length from Frazier's explication of contemporary black style and speech.

Thus we see a single Shakespearean sound bite mined by two authors to make similar arguments about race and the politics of representation in late-1960s America. Yet while Fuller and Frazier are both able to draw upon the myth of Shakespeare's universal transcendence, they do so for widely divergent political ends; Frazier employs the phrase to condemn contemporaneous manifestations of black anger, while Fuller uses it to articulate and argue for a culturally distinct mode of black aesthetics and criticism. Significantly, the aforementioned Shakespearean entanglements are not the only time that The Two Gentlemen of Verona gets utilized by those intervening in debates surrounding racial politics within the period. Indeed, just a few years following Fuller and Frazier's passing evocations of Shakespeare, we witness the premier and subsequent critical success of 1971's Two Gentlemen of Verona, a musical revision of Shakespeare's comedy commissioned by Joseph Papp for...

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