Defending the Classical Languages from the Charges of Racism
There are those who claim ownership of a language of which they know only one word: its name. This image springs to mind when considering the attempts to appropriate the Classics made by the American “alt-right” (Zuckerberg, 2016). At the opposite end of the spectrum, Greek and Latin face the charges, particularly in a US context, of being the languages of the European elite and therefore intrinsically racist. The charge of racism is not unique to the classical languages; in 2016 jazz students at Oberlin College’s prestigious conservatory (Ohio) objected to taking modules in classical music on the grounds that it is “rooted in whiteness” (Jaschik, 2016). This article could have just as easily been entitled “defending the classical languages from appropriation by white supremacists”. However, it is not clear that much is to be gained by examining the American “alt-right’s” claim to the Classics, concerning though it is, since they seem to understand little about the subject. Of far greater interest is the manner in which various student movements are also making a similar assertion to the “alt-right”: that the Classics are white. I do not contend that elements of the left have adopted this position in response to the “alt-right” (rather than having come to this view independently). However, it is certainly worrying that the same incorrect mantra is to be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Instead of disputing the American “alt-right’s” claim to ownership of the classical tradition, the fallacious argument is made that it is unworthy of, or inappropriate for, study.
The question is not merely a philosophical one, but given the significance of a solid grounding in the ancient languages for research in (many areas of) the history of philosophy, one that is also relevant to the training of future philosophers. The issue has come to the fore once again due to student protests at Reed College (Portland, Oregon) against the core humanities course there — Introduction to Humanities: Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean — as white and Eurocentric (Flaherty, 2018). The course at Reed will be replaced by a module focusing on Athens, Rome, Mexico City and Harlem. From the outside, it would seem that such a course runs the risk of being excessively atomized and if the aim is inclusion, what about South or East Asia (or any of the many other areas of the world that the course will not treat)?
The concern over racism in the field can take the form of anxiety over privileging a major in Classics (Classical Philology) rather than one in Classical Civilization (i.e. studying the literature in translation) since it can be constructed as reflecting a class divide, which can in turn be seen as replicating a racial gulf in American society (Chae, 2018). The initial reaction is to see this as simply another reflection of the difficulties those from a dominant language group have with learning other languages (and sometimes even in engaging with other cultures in general). Certainly, Classical Civilization programmes have done a wonderful job in extending access to the subject at university level, while ensuring that Classics departments can maintain student numbers at feasible levels. At the same time, developing courses for this major has led to the revitalization of the field with the adoption of modules treating issues such as gender or race in antiquity. The obvious difficulty is that accessing texts via translation can simply condemn one to repeat the mistake of the translator. Therefore, language training must — and should — always be at the centre of a classical education, since it frees us from the tyranny of the translator.
The real injustice is not that studying literature in the original language is treated as an intrinsically superior activity to studying it in translation, but that certain groups have less educational opportunity. Having lower education expectations for these groups will not help to alleviate this injustice (and indeed is nothing more than an insidious form of racism). Furthermore, the construct that Latin and Greek are white and Eurocentric is problematic. As is well known, Latin was employed in areas that we can scarcely describe as European (such as North Africa) and the same can be said for the use of Greek at Alexandria. Similarly, the claim that both languages are white involves projecting current (American) racial categories onto the past under the misguided assumption that they are relevant to every historical period. Of course, since race is not a biological or natural construct — however much the “alt-right” might like to claim that it is — but merely an artificial one, this is not the case.
The difficulty is that the claim that Latin and Greek are fundamentally racist and Eurocentric has become fused with two separate issues. The first involves the misuse and abuse of classical languages, and cultural capital in general; the second concerns the issue of broader-based access not only to the study of these languages, but to the profession (understood here as working as a professional classicist or as a trained classicist active in a cognate area). Admittedly, the second issue may well be more difficult to solve, but progress has already been made by means of programmes such as the Society for Classical Studies Minority Scholarship in Classics and Classical Archaeology. Clearly though, more work needs to be done in this regard. According to the Society for Classical Studies, the principal professional association for classicists in the United States, only two percent of full professors at American universities and liberal arts colleges are from minority backgrounds, which the Society defines as “members of historically underrepresented ethnic and racial minority groups in the United States and Canada”. One must encourage similar programmes, as well as Classics outreach activities, in order to achieve greater diversity in the profession (and not simply abandon the study of Classics altogether).
There is no denying that Latin and Greek have been used in the formation of elites. However, we should remember how tenuous assertions of linguistic and cultural ownership actually are, particularly when tied to an unnatural construct such as ethnicity. Who can forget the New York Times’ risible attempt to appropriate Rabindranath Tagore as a “white” writer. The Bard of Bengal, a Pirali Brahmin, was the first Asian to receive a Nobel Prize (in Literature in 1913): “Tagore, if not exactly one of us, is, as an Aryan, a distant relation of all white folk” (November 15, 1913). Not only is this endeavour to appropriate a Bengali writer as “white” reflective of similar attempts made by the American “alt-right” in the case of Latin and Greek authors, it also demonstrates a similar lack of basic familiarity with the subject: the New York Times listed Tagore’s name as “Babindranath”.
The debate concerning the perceived whiteness and Eurocentricity of the Classics is an old one. Already in 1992, J. H. D. Scourfield considered the future of Greek and Latin in South Africa, given the manner in which both languages can be linked to Eurocentricity (Scourfield, 1992). Latin has a strong association with the South African legal system (both in terms of the previous requirement for advocates and attorneys to have completed courses in Latin and the extent to which the South African legal system is the heir of the Roman-Dutch legal tradition). As a result of apartheid, Latin became associated with a repressive legal system. In the post-apartheid era, the initial continuation of the requirement to complete courses in Latin for entry to the legal profession meant that Latin was viewed as unfavourable to African students (who would have to study it via a foreign language — English or Afrikaans — rather than through their mother tongue).
Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987) claimed that the Egyptian and Phoenician influence on ancient Greek civilization had been consciously erased from the historical narrative as a result of racism starting from the eighteenth century. According to such an account, then, classical scholarship elided the Afroasiatic contribution to ancient Greece in order to feed into this narrative of Eurocentrism and whiteness. Bernal’s work has proven problematic for numerous reasons. By training, his area of expertise was Chinese politics, rather than Classical Philology and professionally-trained classicists did not perceive his treatment of either ancient Greek myth or of etymology to be particularly competent. Bernal’s theses, if they could have been proven, would have completely altered our understanding of the ancient world — and such a paradigm shift in our cultural self-awareness would have been incredibly exciting. There was, however, no evidence to support Bernal’s claims — and in the decades since the publication of Black Athena, no cogent new evidence has come to light to support his position.
However, the debate is far older than Bernal. In an American context, one thinks of the disagreement between two leading lights of the African-American community: W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University and Booker T. Washington, the Principal of the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama (an historically black college). Washington argued for a practically- and industrially-oriented education for African-Americans, such as was offered at Tuskegee, where brick manufacturing formed part of the curriculum. This made sense in the context in which it was provided, as Washington argues in his autobiography Up from Slavery (1901). Tuskegee was constructing its campus at the time. The funding provided by the Alabama State Legislature was for salaries only, not for building, and its students could supply little in the way of tuition fees, so their labour was a form of compensation. Many of Tuskegee’s graduates would return home trained as teachers with no place to actually teach; their first duty would be to construct a schoolhouse. Washington’s stance was also designed to avoid rousing the ire of whites, upon whom he often relied for donations for his institute.
The Atlanta Compromise (1895) between Booker T. Washington and the Southern white elite embodies this tension between the classical languages and practical education, between ruling elite and exploited worker. In return for accepting political domination and eschewing attempts to achieve justice or equality, basic (i.e. practically-oriented) education for the African-American community would be funded. Crucially one aspect of the Atlanta Compromise was that African-Americans would not purse a classical education. In his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois instead argues for the importance of a classical education for African-Americans, viewing it as vital in order to produce leaders for his community and seeing its rejection in Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, as leading to further disenfranchisement. The claim that the classical languages are white, as it is advanced in the US, can only be understood in terms of this historical context. Both Washington and Du Bois genuinely wanted what was best for their community and though they found themselves at opposite ends of the debate regarding the role of the Classics in education, both had valid points.
The debate might be an old one, but its consequences can be felt even today. It cannot be denied that at certain times the classical languages have been co-opted in order to further a racist (or otherwise politicized) agenda. This is underlined by two relatively high profile events recently. In the arts publication Hyperallergic, Sarah Bond, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, criticized the equation of the white marble of classical statues with beauty, pointing out the original polychrome nature of such statues during Graeco-Roman antiquity; an uncontroversial claim amongst classicists (Bond, 2017). As a result of her article, Bond was subject to threats of violence online and calls for her termination. American “alt-right” websites (whose authors either did not read the original article or were incapable of understanding it) misrepresented Bond to have stated that white statues were racist. Also in 2017, a BBC educational cartoon on Roman Britain depicted a soldier at Hadrian’s Wall with dark skin. The “alt-right” objected on the grounds that this was an attempt to present Britain as having always been ethnically diverse. When Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, weighed in to comment on the essential accuracy of the piece and even suggest an historical figure upon whom the cartoon character might have plausibly been based (Quintus Lollius Urbicus), she became the target of a stream of misogynistic abuse (Beard, 2017). The response, of course, should not be the abandonment of the Classics to the “alt-right”, but rather the development or demonstration of greater academic competence — as Prof. Bond and Prof. Beard have shown — to unmask the inaccurate narrative spun by such groups.
The fact that the protesters at Reed have chosen to adopt the tactic of disrupting lectures is not a strategy that is likely to win much sympathy within academia and indeed deprives the movement of moral authority. It is, of course, the right of every generation to question the literary canon and to articulate a new relationship to that canon. Even if the aim of great literature is to be universal and timeless, the questions which we ask of it are always rooted in the particular. As a university lecturer, I cannot in all good conscience object to students’ concern that they receive a first rate education. The urge to push for greater inclusion, while addressing issues of historical injustice, is also laudable, (but disrupting the education of others is certainly problematic).
The Classics, though, offer wonderful and boundless possibilities to engage with the concerns expressed by the current generation of students. Greek and Roman representations of other groups, the depiction of the “other”, the openness of certain traditions (notably the Platonic one) to other cultures are themes which we, as classicists, could explore with our students. Indeed numerous universities already offer modules on such topics (Kennedy, 2016). Courses in ancient history can address the manner in which the past is used and abused to further competing agendas. Historiography is, in many ways, a form of “ethnic activity”; it is rarely the case that the historian simply describes the acts that were perpetrated by one “ethnic” group upon another. Rather in the act of description and in the construction of the “historical” narrative, the historian helps to create the “ethnic group”: the majority who are empowered and the minority who are disenfranchised.
It is our job as educationalists to teach our students about the nature of the society they inhabit. The fact remains that Greece and Rome played a major role in the cultural self-understanding of both Europe and the US. That there are works from outside the Graeco-Roman or European traditions that need to be added to the canon of great books is a legitimate argument. It may possibly be the case that — given the decline in familiarity with the classical languages and classical literature that occurred in the twentieth century — Classics will become less central to our cultural self-awareness. However, that situation does not face us yet and what makes great literature great is that it always remains relevant. Rejecting the classical tradition without engaging academically with what we are abandoning and opposing Graeco-Roman culture for ideological reasons, without seeking to understand it, will ultimately make us intellectually poorer. The same can also be said about the hijacking of the classical tradition for nefarious purposes by the “alt-right”.
In academia facing criticism or disagreement is not a significant problem; it is far worse to be simply ignored. Far from being an irrelevant subject in a world dominated by STEM disciplines, the Classics are once again at the forefront of the discussion concerning the very nature of higher education. The ancient world is still in so many ways the frame through which we navigate the present. The debate over the appropriateness of teaching the Classics should really be a debate concerning the most suitable manner to address the issues which students have identified within the Classics curriculum. This will entail not an abandonment of the Classics, but rather a return to the ancient texts.
Beard, Mary: “Roman Britain in Black and White”, The Times Literary Supplement, August 3, 2017.
Bernal, Martin: Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Rutgers University Press 1987.
Bond, Sarah E.: “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Colour”, Hyperallergic, June 7, 2017.
Chae, Yung In: “White People Explain Classics to Us: Epistemic Injustice in the Everyday Experiences of Racial Minorities”, Eidolon, February 5, 2018.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, A. C. McClurg Co. 1903.
Flaherty, Colleen: “Diversifying a Classic Humanities Course”, Inside Higher Ed, April 12, 2018.
Jaschik, Scott: “Oberlin’s President Says No”, Inside Higher Ed January 21, 2016.
Kennedy, Rebecca Futo: “Why I Teach about Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World”, Eidolon, September 11, 2017.
Scourfield, J. H. D.: “The Classics After Apartheid”, The Classical Journal 88 (1992), 43–54.
Washington, Booker. T.: Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, 1901, repr. Oxford 2008.
Zuckerberg, Donna: “How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor”, Eidolon, November 21, 2016.