Two households, both alike in dignity/ In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,/ From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,/ Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean./ From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/ A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life
---Romeo and Juliet, Prologue
Does the world need a Black and white Romeo and Juliet?
If I’d been asked this question a few weeks ago, before I had read three-time Newberry Honor author Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly, my answer might have been no.
Don’t we have enough Romeo and Juliet interpretations, I might have asked. Isn’t a racialized Romeo and Juliet a bit of a cliché, I might have added. I mean, Montagues and Capulets as African Americans and whites, really?
But all it takes is a good story to change anyone’s mind. Including mine.
If You Come Softly is hardly a literal retelling of Shakespeare’s work. But the Bard’s shadow certainly falls across its pages. Ellie, Woodson’s Jewish American Juliet, may look out her window, and not her balcony, on to Central Park West, Miah, Woodson’s African American Romeo, may hold a basketball rather than a sword, and the distance between their worlds may be the subway ride between the Upper West Side and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, but they are certainly world’s apart.
Instead of familial feuds, high schooler Ellie and Miah’s worlds are torn asunder by forces from casual racism to racial profiling and police brutality. Real forces impacting young people in our real world today. But like Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers, Ellie and Miah choose connection over ignorance, love over hate.
But unlike Romeo and Juliet, Woodson raises no question of her characters ‘denying their fathers or refusing their names’ (well, at one point, Miah, the son of a famous film director, does hide his last name from Ellie). By this I mean, Woodson does not offer any facile, “post-racial” solutions to racism – suggesting that Ellie and Miah can somehow forget their ethnicities and backgrounds and run off into the sunset together because ‘love is colorblind.’
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