African Americans and the Classics: An Introduction

Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) depicting an African serving boy, late Classical, ca. 360–350 B.C., Rogers Fund, 1950, Accession no. 50.11.4. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water) depicting an African serving boy, late Classical, ca. 360–350 B.C., Rogers Fund, 1950, Accession no. 50.11.4. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The history of African American engagement with Classical history, literature, and philosophy has been fraught with controversy and complexity. Much of the complexity in the relationship between Classics and African American thought stems from the historical place of the Classics as one aspect of the construction of whiteness and racial hierarchy. As Nell Irvin Painter points out in The History of White People, white claims of inheritance and knowledge of Classical culture were a prominent feature in the development of a racial hierarchy that shoved people of color to the bottom. Even today, white supremacist groups and individuals use the Classics to bolster their cause by touting Greco-Roman culture as a facet of “white identity.” One such group recently placed flyers in public spaces and on college campuses featuring images of Classical art overlaid with slogans endorsing white supremacy.

The long history of African American engagement with Classics remained largely unexplored by historians until recently. At the extremes of this engagement have been those for whom the pursuit of Classical knowledge filled a desire to prove the intellectual equality of people of African descent to people of European descent and those who championed outright rejection of Classics. Research into historical and contemporary African American engagement with the field, including both influences of Classics and responses to Classics, is a new and thriving field of inquiry that has been the subject of a number of notable works of scholarship in the last decade.

The strength of the identification of the Classics with white superiority is such that many anti-abolitionists believed people of African descent were unable to learn the Classical languages of Latin and Greek. Such was the popularity of this notion in Antebellum America that the “master” of the poet Phillis Wheatley found it necessary to write a preface to her first published collection of poems indicating his and others’ “great Astonishment” at her ability to learn difficult subjects, including, of course, Latin. Similarly, John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and, later, senator from South Carolina, claimed in the first half of the nineteenth century that he would not “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man” until he “could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax.”

Bronze statuette of an African (known as Ethiopian) youth, 3rd-2nd century B.C., Greek. Rogers Fund, 1918, Accession no. 18.145.10. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bronze statuette of an African (known as Ethiopian) youth, 3rd-2nd century B.C., Greek. Rogers Fund, 1918, Accession no. 18.145.10. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It did not take long for a number of African Americans to rise to Calhoun’s infamous challenge. Some, like William Sanders Scarborough, dedicated themselves to studying Classical languages and literature, thereby disproving Calhoun’s claim. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1852, Scarborough committed himself to his education from a young age and eventually became the first African American Classics scholar. He obtained a position in the Classics department at Wilberforce University in 1877, later becoming president of Wilberforce in 1908, and he was the first African American member of the American Philological Association, the professional organization of academic Classicists.

In addition to taking up the challenge in the present, there were also African American thinkers and allies who looked to historical ties between Greco-Roman culture and Africa as evidence of racial equality. Some pointed to accounts of the wisdom and wealth of Egypt and Ethiopia by Greek authors like Plato and Herodotus as evidence of the African origins of Classical civilization. This claim and the controversy it produced resurfaced near the end of the twentieth century after the 1987 publication of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Like the nineteenth-century claims that in many ways anticipated his ideas, Bernal’s claim of African and Semitic origins for Western Civilization and an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century academic cover-up of these origins generated a great deal of criticism, led by Mary Lefkowitz. The controversy culminated in a 1996 debate between Lefkowitz and Bernal, which proved an enduring embarrassment to both sides. Though there were later attempts to revive the controversy, it has largely been laid to rest with the consensus that while some of Bernal’s scholarship was of dubious quality, Lefkowitz’s response was ham-fisted at best.

Less extreme, but in a similar vein, were claims that Antiquity could be seen as a time before the development of racism. As Frank M. Snowden Jr., one famous proponent of this thesis, put it in the title of his 1983 book, the period of Classical civilization could be seen as a time Before Color Prejudice. As such, Classical culture could be claimed by any and all and looked to as an aspiration for racial harmony. Though more recent scholarship has demonstrated that the Greeks and Romans were not without ethnic prejudice, this perception of Greco-Roman thought proved popular and influential. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, demonstrated some enthusiasm for Snowden’s research.

Chlorite pendant in the form of the head of an African (known as Ethiopian), Iron Age, 9th-8th century B.C., Cypriot. The Cesnola Collection, Accession no. 74.51.5010. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chlorite pendant in the form of the head of an African (known as Ethiopian), Iron Age, 9th-8th century B.C., Cypriot. The Cesnola Collection, Accession no. 74.51.5010. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some have rejected such engagement altogether, citing the use of the Classics as a tool of white power and oppression. Certainly, Black Power activists such as Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver found solace and substance in reading Plato. However, some activists, like Stokely Carmichael, included Plato—and, by implication, Classics in general—in his list of the tools of white imperialist education in the same 1966 speech in which he began to articulate his idea of Black Power: “If we talk about education we have to educate ourselves, not with Hegel or Plato or the missionaries who came to Africa with the Bible and we had the land and when they left we had the Bible and they had the land.”

More recent scholarship on African American engagement with Classics has tended to depart from the polemics and controversies of the past in favor of encouraging a more well-rounded understanding of the relationship between African American thought and Classical literature. Contemporary scholars have also sought to establish a healthier view of this relationship by seeing the Classics as a fruitful source of stories and ideas for all people, rather than as a body of knowledge that constitutes the definitive heritage of a single group or as the means by which to prove one’s intellectual prowess. This recent movement in scholarship began in the late 1990s with scholars like Michele Valerie Ronnick, who coined the term “Classica Africana” to describe a panel she organized on African American receptions of Classics at the annual convention of the American Philological Association (now the Society for Classical Studies) in 1996. It has only gathered great momentum, however, in the past decade.

Ronnick’s 2005 publication of The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship in large part initiated the new wave of scholarship by calling attention away from Black Athena and toward a rich history of African American engagement with Classics. These new works include Patrice Rankine’s Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature, Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson’s Crossroads in the Black Aegean: Oedipus, Antigone, and Dramas of the African Diaspora, and Tracy L. Walters’s African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. Collectively, these works explore how African American writers and intellectuals have engaged the themes and ideas of Classical literature in their works.

This new turn in Classical Studies deserves wider attention as a corrective to past and present misuse of the Classics. As is evidenced by the recent responses to an article by Sarah Bond on the original colors of Greek statues and the historical link between white marble and white standards of beauty, what is old news among scholars may not always be well-known or well-received among the general public. The turn away from debates about the origins of Western Civilization, then, is one aspect of a reappraisal of the value of Classical studies among Classics scholars, and a reappraisal of the field’s value to the world outside academia. This reappraisal also provides a means by which to dismantle the claims of those who would usurp the Classics for their own white supremacist agendas. As these new studies show, Classics can and should be seen as a field with diverse origins and a rich history of contributions, interpretations, and reinterpretations by people of all races. It is not the heritage of one group of people to the exclusion of another, and it cannot be used to form the bedrock of a white supremacist ideology. Rather, this turn can foster an attitude toward both the study of Classics and the history of the field that holds great promise for research into the ways the Classics have been interpreted and reinterpreted in the past, as well as the potential for creative reinterpretations in the future.


David Withun

David Withun is a PhD student in Humanities at Faulkner University. He is also a high school literature teacher at Savannah Classical Academy in Savannah, Georgia. His research interests focus on the modern receptions of classical and medieval myths and ideas, especially in African American thought and literature. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWithun.

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