Setting up Selma: Othello, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Evolution of Black Manhood

By Katie Mackin

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Image Credit: Antonio Muñoz Degraín,"Othello and Desdemona."1880. Public domain

What does it mean to "be a man?" Both Othello and Martin Luther King Jr. (as the protagonist in Ava DuVernay's Selma) wrestle with their sense of manhood as they are thrust into heroic roles, left to exemplify what manhood means for their supporters. Shakespeare's titular character in Othello was a peculiar choice for a tragic hero in the early seventeenth century. Of Moorish descent and dark-toned complexion, Othello faced the struggles of an early form of racism throughout his experiences and later downfall as the captain of a sixteenth century Venetian fleet. In opposition, Martin Luther King Jr. was the perfect hero for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. King and his fellow protestors in Selma were heirs to centuries of abuse, mistreatment, and prejudice against the black race; they were defined by racism and were prepared to fight it. Othello only wanted to assimilate into the established culture; King fought against the establishment to create a new culture. Yet, both felt the weight of minority status. Constantly influenced not to trust themselves or their race, Othello and King struggle to thoughtfully interact with the world around them. Martin Luther King Jr. and Othello share the common burden of being made into a symbol for their race, while trying to reconcile their own black manhood for themselves.

From the time of Othello to the year of Selma, the idea of "manhood" has carried implications of what a good man should be, while the image of a black man has been encumbered with stereotypes. In Venice, military power, land, and titles are respected; Iago laments Cassio's degree of respect because "he, sir, had th' election" in the military (I.1.26). Authority figures are respected. In Selma, Governor Wallace and the troopers are respected by White America because of their political appointments. Likewise, the 1960s ideal man was the leader and provider for his family and was in control of all his affairs. The "valiant" Othello is praised by his peers, and King is a model of authority and calm control (I.3.47). Yet, both are held back by their race; the black cultural stigma is too large to overcome for even great men. Brabantio is told, "Your son-in-law is more fair than black" (I.3.290). Othello is not admirable for simply being a great man, but is lessened to being "great" for a man with dark skin. In the next line, he is relegated to the "brave Moor;" an ethnicity used to summarize his entire worth (I.3.291). According to this language Othello is not brave because of his own actions and merit, but because he has not totally collapsed into the Moorish, Islamic, beastly stereotype. King, like Othello, is more acceptable to white authority because he is educated, not living up to the "modern myth" of young black killers waiting to prey on helpless white victims (Jones 3). Despite living up to more checkpoints of an ideal man than racial stereotypes, Othello and Martin Luther King Jr. are relegated to an "old black ram" (I.1.87), "Barbary horse" (I.1.110), and "lascivious Moor" (I.1.124) or "nigger," respectively. Simply, the ideal man is white, something neither can ever be.

Interactions with others, especially white men, show the stereotypical image of a black man, while Othello and King try to provide an alternative to this stereotype by their own actions. Martin Luther King Jr. and Othello are both more trusting of the white man than an outside audience would expect. For King, this trust was about respect. In a speech, King stated, "I want to be the white man's brother, not his brother-in-law" (King). This idea of brotherhood is seen in Selma when King stays in a segregated white hotel and still shakes the hand of a man in the lobby. Conversely, Othello has every reason to trust the Venetian men; it seems as though he has been accepted by all. Othello, too, values respect for his fellow man. The Duke seems to return this by entrusting Othello with his fleet and reminding all of his "virtue" of "quality and respect" before he departs (I.1.289). However, Iago perverts this trust to take advantage of Othello who sees Iago as "this [fellow]of exceeding honesty" (III.3.258). Similarly, King's trust was violated as he was punched when trying to reach out at the hotel. Respect fails to be reciprocated. When reaching out, Othello and Martin Luther King Jr. are taken advantage of with irrational rage. Iago gives no reason for the "jealousy so strong/That judgment cannot cure" other than a pure sense of hatred and evil towards Othello (II.1.298-299). By the 1960s where Selma takes place, hatred towards the African-American race had become even more engrained. Blacks were irrationally kept from voting and killed in their own churches; the whites who did help the Civil Rights cause, such as James Reeb, were killed in the streets of Selma for "betraying their own kind" (Selma). Through the lens of the American Civil Rights movement, Selma shows how King's nonviolence reverses racial binaries. The supposedly less cultured African-Americans are non-violent, while the white men act brutally, shedding light on how the "honest" Venetian Iago takes on Turkish stereotypes, like duplicity, in Othello.

Both Othello and Martin Luther King Jr. see themselves reflected in white men; likewise, they derive a sense of their own manhood through interactions with their female partners. Coretta Scott King and Desdemona are two drastically different individuals. On the most basic level, Coretta is a black woman who understands the prejudices towards her husband, while Desdemona is a young, fair, rich maiden at the start of Othello. For his sense of masculine self-worth, Othello needs a wife according to the standards of Venice; for King, pride comes from providing for his wife and already established family. Yet, both men are equally affected and labeled by their interactions with their wives. Othello's color is highlighted by his "tupping your white ewe" (I.1.88). Desdemona's "fairness" heightens Othello's ethnicity by its contrast and, furthermore, gives basis to Othello's fear that he is not good enough for her. Martin Luther King Jr. also has questions of his own worthiness during his time in the city of Selma. He questions why he is deserving of such a loyal wife and family when he is so often on the road married to the cause for Civil Rights. He fears he is not the symbolic man people believe him to be -- that he cannot be good enough to have both activism and family. In the home scene during Selma, Coretta Scott King accuses her husband of infidelity during his travels throughout the South. Recognizing that King's opponents are trying to infiltrate his family, she tells him, "People out there actually say they're gonna kill our children, they're trying to get into your head," but Coretta does not want King himself to be the man to tear his family apart (Selma). After a long absence from his protest, Coretta returns to support her husband in the courtroom where he is granted the right to march. For the moment, Martin Luther King Jr. succeeds in reconciling his public persona with his personal sense of manhood. Facing similar problems with Desdemona, Othello fails. By Act IV Othello has created such frenzy in his own mind that he calls Desdemona a "whore" and an "impudent strumpet" breaking their bond of trust (IV.2.72, 81). Desdemona, like Coretta, shows her love to husband by standing by his side despite his faults, yet Othello is determined to "put out the light" (V.2.7). Othello loses his sense of manhood in marriage through blind jealousy and rage, effectively taking his own life by killing Desdemona.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s struggles with Coretta and Othello's tragedy with Desdemona are only examples of both men's problems with absolutism. Because of both society in general and the men's hyperawareness of race, they each have a tendency to, literally and metaphorically, see only in terms of black and white. Othello is not the only character in Othello who speaks and thinks in absolutes, but he is the most extreme and, therefore, the most extremely affected. From Act I's argument for Desdemona, Othello shows (seemingly harmless) extremist speech tendencies: "I do hold of you/ Not only take away, but let your sentence/ Even fall upon my life" (I.3.118-120). Then, Othello is easily persuaded by Iago that Desdemona has made him a "cuckhold" by sleeping with Cassio, as proven by a handkerchief (IV.1.196). By the finale of Othello, Othello becomes so entrenched in his absolutism that he believes the only way to save himself and Desdemona is to sacrifice her, repeating "it is the cause" throughout Act V, Scene 2. King is also exceptionally caught up in "the cause." King's absolutist words are used for propaganda to support and fuel his constituents. "We must march," ""this means jail," "no more," "we are demanding," and "Selma it is" represent the definitiveness needed in protest through definitiveness in speech. By the reading of Othello in comparison with Selma, it becomes clear that sometimes King's absolutist words go too far into the realm of action--for instance, the orders to march over the bridge. Though Othello goes beyond the point of absolute speech into absolute action and King falls short of the totally extreme actions, like those of activist Malcolm X, both become examples of why absolutism can make a man too intense of a symbol of manhood.

Through their interactions with others and struggle with absolutism in themselves, Othello and King develop an internal desire to and fear of leaving their "blackness", or black identity, behind. Othello does everything he can to assimilate into Venetian society; he speaks properly, dresses properly, and acts properly for a Venetian man. Of Moorish Northern African descent, Othello has completely strayed from the culture of his ancestors. In fact, Othello is the man who leads the armies against the "general enemy Ottoman" (I.3.47). Despite his Moorish, Islamic background, Othello believes that conversion, rank, and marriage can turn him into the symbol for the ideal man in all of Venice. On the contrary, Martin Luther King Jr. deals with similar problems of losing black identity in a different way. In the opening scene of Selma, King and his wife are dressing for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. King is fiddling with his "ascot" when Coretta tells him to stop messing with it. King responds that he is unused to the attire and, more tellingly, says "wait til the brothers back home see me like this… They'll have a good laugh" (Selma). King fears losing his black identity, even in something as simple as clothes. He has seen culture and pride stripped away from his people time and time again and does not want this to happen to himself as he enters the world stage. King wants to be a symbol for the black man, but learns he must deal with becoming a symbol for the ideal man in the process. In the end, Othello discovers that he cannot ever become like the white man; Martin Luther King Jr. discovers that he never could be taken for one.

Othello and Martin Luther King Jr., as portrayed in Selma, are examples of reckoning idealism with black manhood; one man can never stand for the entirety of a people or an ideal. Black manhood needs a new reputation that is not overshadowed by or excluded from the picture of the "perfect man." From the need to be the exemplary man of Venice, Othello cannot reconcile himself with his race and loses everything. By the time of Selma, it seems that the black man has lost everything. King tries to avoid the pitfalls of Othello in his interactions with other men, with his family, and in his speech, and he rises to become the hero of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Yet, as depicted in Selma, King faces trials with the white man, is temporarily overcome by his absolutist speeches, and loses sight of the necessity of family, which separates him from his role as a symbol for the black man. In the evolution of the black man from Othello to Martin Luther King Jr., it is clear that neither the symbolic black man nor the ideal everyman are realistic for contemporary black manhood. Selma's anthem, "Glory," reminds viewers, "Selma's now for every man, woman, and child:" Othello and Selma prove a new inclusive, reflective reputation must be created to revolutionize black manhood (Legend and Common, Glory).