CFP: Classics and Race

Classical Memories Modern Identities Series
Editors, Richard Armstrong and Paul Allen Miller

With cautious optimism, we hope the current anti-racism protests will provoke moves toward equity and justice. But how did we get to this moment? How can Classics help us process a historical and scholarly legacy of white supremacy? As a recent article stated, “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.” The editors of the Classical Memories/Modern Identities Series seek innovative scholarship that focuses on fully mapping out the racial complexities of the ancient world and how they relate to our time. We are looking for works that reflect on the contributions of African-Americans, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA), and other underrepresented groups in the field of Classics. We are also searching for works that investigate the archaeology of Classics as a discipline, the complexities and compromises of its formation and development, its appropriation by and for racist agendas, and its deployment as a tool of resistance.

The series is already dedicated to exploring how the classical world has been variously interpreted, transformed, and appropriated to forge a usable past and a livable present. Books published in this series detail both the positive and negative aspects of classical reception and take an expansive view of the topic. Thus it includes works that examine the function of translations, adaptations, invocations, and classical scholarship in personal, cultural, national, sexual, and racial formations. Please email Ana Maria Jimenez-Moreno at the Ohio State University Press for more information.


Write-up: Classics and Social Justice at CANE 2019

Write-up: Classics and Social Justice: Works in Progress, Working towards Progress – A Summary of the Classics and Social Justice Workshop at CANE 2019. By Dominic Machado.

On March 10, we held a workshop, entitled Classics and Social Justice: Works in Progress, Working towards Progress, at the Classical Association of New England annual meeting at the College of the Holy Cross. The event was a continuation of a series of earlier workshops on Classics and Social Justice at CANE and the CANE Summer Institute over the past two years. This year’s workshop sought to expand upon these earlier conversations by highlighting new projects that employ Classics as a means towards community building and social progress.

The workshop was very well attended, with roughly 50 people present, and lasted for 90 minutes. The meeting featured three short papers discussing a wide range of topics. Maia Lee-Chin (College of the Holy Cross) spoke first and described her experiences creating and implementing an Aequora program as a high school and college student. She discussed the differences that emerged in creating programs in both English and Spanish-speaking contexts. She also enumerated the difficulties and unanswered questions related to using Latin as a tool to aid students in underserved districts.

Dominic Machado (College of the Holy Cross) talked about the need to find new models for the public presentation of Classics. He argued that doing so was a necessary corollary to important work being done to delegitimize supremacist and misogynist appropriations of the Greco-Roman world. To provide an example of how such work can be transformative, he discussed Martin Luther King’s use of classical references in his sermons to create a narrative of inclusiveness and equity.

Roberta Stewart described recent work in the Troy to Baghdad/Homer4Vets program. She discussed how in an American society in which less than 1% serve and must return to the 99% civilian society a community book group program can harness world literature to create community for U.S. veterans within ‘home’ contexts. She argued that reading world literature provides veterans the opportunity to identify and develop a vocabulary for communicating and interpreting military experience as a premise for imagining or re-imagining their own personal life narratives of deployment and return.

These papers sparked much discussion about how we can continue to promote the advancement of justice in our field, particularly in the wake of the racist events at the SCS meeting in San Diego. Particularly notable was the mention of the potential of non-violent communication training as a way to facilitate difficult conversations about our field both inside and outside of the classroom.

New Diotima

In the wake of recent calls for changes to the profession, the WCC invites people to submit syllabi and resources for those interested in teaching women, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and disability in antiquity, as well as in classical receptions, to the new Diotima: Send material to

Diotima ( and the WCC ( have long been resources for teaching about women; we wish to continue to serve as a repository for more inclusive intersectional courses and pedagogies.

Follow these links to the Classics and Social Justice group (, MRECC, and Resources for Teaching Race and Ethnicity on Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s blog ( for other sources. It is our hope that by working collaboratively and pooling our resources, we can better educate ourselves and improve as teachers.


Some Concrete Suggestions post-SCS by Yurie Hong

The racist incidents at the SCS in San Diego prompted many strong reactions ranging from shock and surprise to anger and despair as well as skepticism and dismissiveness. Many have already written statements and responses to the incidents (there’s a great roundup on the SCS blog here.) Outrage at the outrageous is appropriate and ‘hard conversations’ are good, but for any of this to matter, feelings must be funnelled into concrete action. The question that, I hope, is on everyone’s mind is, “What can we actually do to change things?”

The following is an excerpt of an email that I sent a few days after the conference to panel members and SCS leadership. I was heartened by their immediate and positive responses, and my impression from the SCS leaders who contacted me was that they were eager to hear more suggestions about what else they could do in both the short and long term. What follows has been lightly revised in response to feedback from members of the Classics and Social Justice group and recent announcements from the SCS. I’m sharing here with the hope that it can spur us all to continue to think creatively and proactively about what we can do — as individuals, department members, and members of professional organizations — to make the structural and cultural changes necessary for our field to be as inclusive, just, and intellectually vibrant as it can be.

As the major professional organization in North America, the SCS has tremendous power to shape the field – its mission, its makeup, and its practices – going forward. The SCS website could be a repository for or gateway to resources for all individuals and departments who would like to shift our field away from white supremacist and colonialist discourses.

The following is not a comprehensive list, but here are some examples of things that I would like to see:

  1. A clarifying statement about our field – what it has been and what it would like its role in the world to be. It would be great to include some language about how the field of Classics is enriched by the perspectives of people who have not always been part of the scholarly discourse – people of color, women, gender/sexual minorities, first-generation scholars, etc. – *because of* and not in spite of these backgrounds and identities, as Dan-el states so powerfully in his piece in the Medium: “my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.”
  1. A statement on diversity and hiring
    On the above point, I don’t know how/where/if it could be stated but, in this era where seemingly all institutions expect professors to care about teaching as well as research, I would love to get the idea out there that diversity in the field should be valued and taken seriously as a factor in hiring, whether for visiting or tenure track positions.
    A hiring rubric, for example, could be boiled down to 3 more or less equally weighted components: 1. Teaching (quality/methods, experience, and potential), 2. Research, 3. Contribution to/Support for Diversity (e.g. in/out of the classroom, via research, and/or simply being a member of a non-majority group). Not only is this the right thing to do for all the pedagogical and intellectual value-added, it’s also a practical consideration given the demographic shifts in this country and increasing demands from students for a more diverse faculty.
    Best practices for mentoring and supporting junior faculty of color, who often face many structural barriers, such as carrying a heavier service and mentoring load, would also be welcome. In particular, departments and institutions could commit to counting this type of service more in tenure and promotion decisions or offer teaching relief or fellowship opportunities so as to assist in publication.
  1. Easy to find links to affiliated groups and committees that focus on diversity, such as the WCC, LCC, EOS, Classics and Social Justice, COGSIP, Mountain Top, etc. on the SCS website. Given that these groups are officially affiliated with the SCS and are already listed in the program, acknowledging them on the website would not only send a message about what the SCS is about; it would make it easier for undergrad/grad students, junior faculty, etc. to find those groups. (I think they’re on the website somewhere, but I can only find them by googling.) Affiliated group webpages could also house tips and guidelines of interest to their membership (see below).
  1. Guidelines for revising departmental webpages and course descriptions so as not to perpetuate harmful messages about ‘Western civilization’ and ‘The Canon’. This document could be housed under the Resources menu on the website and listed much like the “Tips for Teaching and Classics Research.”
    Maybe something akin to this style guide. I’m sure there are a number of blogposts that could be used as the basis for these guidelines. Here’s a link to Rebecca Kennedy’s handout for the ‘Centering the Margins’ panel, which contains comparisons of old and new versions of her course description.
  1. Some kind of diversity training/guidelines for journal editors and editorial boards? I don’t have much to add here but it’s obviously, as Dan-el demonstrated in his talk, something that should be addressed in a structural way.

Some of these things are more difficult and time-consuming than others, but I suspect that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here. We’ll never win over some people, but I have to believe that there’s a decent chunk of people at various stages of their careers who, for a lot of different reasons, just honestly don’t know that some of the go-to arguments about the value of our field can also contribute to white supremacist and colonialist discourse but would be willing to make some changes if they knew how to go about it.

I’m not under any illusion that such guidelines or statements will by themselves fix anything, but they can normalize a set of shared values and establish institutional protocols that can be useful. Case in point: the woman at the meeting was kicked out for violating SCS standards of behavior. Would that have happened if we didn’t have a code of conduct? I’m not really sure.

Anyway, all this to say that, for all the awfulness that occurred at the conference, I find it heartening that there are people who are working wholeheartedly and publicly for change. I’ve learned a lot from social media and these public conversations, much of which has made it into my own classes, departmental webpage/curriculum revisions, hiring committee meetings, etc. Information and resource-sharing so that people can make the structural and cultural changes where they can is how we change the way classics is done and what it will be in future. Thanks for reading.

While the SCS is mulling over those suggestions, here are some other things that individuals can do to make change:

  1. Support The Sportula – donate, tell students and faculty about The Sportula, encourage especially young classicists of color to participate in the Naked Soul conference in June.
  2. Get informed. If you haven’t already, check out Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae Helen Wong, and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn and Djesika Bèl Watson on the experience of being a classicist of color as well as this podcast with Jackie Murray; Sarah Derbew and Sarah Bond’s work on race, racism, and ancient art, Rebecca Kennedy’s very thorough website complete with teaching resources, and Donna Zuckerberg’s essay on what the role of classicists in a world that is still awash with racism and sexism and how to support scholars who are being harassed here and here.
  3. Look at the course descriptions and messaging in your own classes. A good place to start is Rebecca Kennedy’s Resources for Teaching Race, Ethnicity, Immigration, and Marginality in Classical Antiquity and materials from the Centering the Margins panel. It’s okay to start small but start somewhere and commit to building on those efforts as an ongoing project.
  4. Contact conference organizers and ask them to contact hotels in advance and tell them that you expect their staff to not racially profile people – not only potential conference attendees but everyone. Feel free to use/adapt this script:

“Dear X,

I’m sure you have plenty to do in planning/preparing Y conference. I was hoping, though, that you could contact the conference hotel and ask them to ensure that their staff have received appropriate diversity/implicit bias training. There have been a number of incidents where scholars of color have been racially profiled at professional conferences. We need to let hotels know that this is unacceptable and that we expect them to have protocols in place to ensure that such incidents do not occur.”

  1. When inviting speakers to campus, actively seek out speakers from historically underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds.
  2. Encourage your department to put out a statement, such as the one put out by University of Washington Department of Classics.
  3. Make it a priority in your department to revise departmental descriptions that give the impression that ancient cultures were inherently better than all others or that Greece and Rome were the first and best sources for all this is good in the world.
  4. Have your department convene a workshop or discussion series for faculty and students to talk about what classics means in the world and how we should talk about our field those outside it. We shouldn’t shy away from talking openly with our students about the history of our field and how various groups have used it for just and unjust ends. They are a part of our field and they deserve to be given the knowledge and opportunity to engage seriously with

This not at all a comprehensive list by any stretch but just some ideas to get started. Big changes are the result of lots of smaller individual acts. So if professional equity and justice matter to you (and I hope it does), pick a thing to do and just start doing it. There will always be more to do and not a single one of us will get all the things right all the time, but we have to start somewhere.


(scroll down to add your name!)

Nancy S. Rabinowitz
Hannah Culik-Baird
Amy Pistone, University of Notre Dame
Lindsey Mazurek, Assistant Professor of History, University of Oregon
Erin Walcek Averett, Creighton University
Alicia Matz
Danielle L Kellogg, Brooklyn College
Valerie M WIlhite
Melissa Funke, University of Winnipeg
Jacquelyn H. Clements
Dimitri Nakassis
Karen Carr, Portland State University
Dr. Tamara L. Siuda
Arum Park, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Arizona
Casey Haughin, Johns Hopkins University
Joel P. Christensen
Bethany Hucks, Heidelberg University
Rebecca Futo Kennedy
Dr. Alexis Castor, Classics Chair (7/19), Franklin & Marshall College
Alex Claman
Elizabeth Heintges (PhD Candidate, Columbia University)
Andrew Tharler
Aven McMaster, Thorneloe University at Laurentian
Darby Vickers
Evelyn Adkins
Sharon L. James, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Thomas Rover
Vanessa Stovall, Classical Studies at Columbia, MA
Simone Oppen
Mali Skotheim
Molly Jones-Lewis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Dept. of Ancient Studies
Clara Bosak-Schroeder, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Verity Platt
Maxine Lewis
Ruby Blondell
Seth L. Schein
Kathryn Topper
Christine Johnston, Western Washington University
Helen King, The Open University, UK
Tom Sapsford
Judith P Hallett
Sara Ahbel-Rappe
Kristen Ehrhardt, John Carroll University
Serena S. Witzke, Wesleyan University
Darcy Krasne
Caitlin Hines
Amy R. Cohen, Randolph College, Center for Ancient Drama
Lillian Doherty
Elizabeth Manwell
Emily Baragwanath
Bonnie Rock-McCutcheon, Wilson College
Heather Vincent, Eckerd College
Naomi Campa
Laurie O’Higgins, Classical and Medieval Studies, Bates College
Marilyn B. Skinner, University of Arizona
K. Scarlett Kingsley, Agnes Scott College
Elizabeth M. Greene, Western Ontario
Sabrina Higgins, Simon Fraser University
David J. Wright
Kelly P. Dugan, University of Georgia
Professor Janet M. Martin, Emerita, Princeton University
Charlotte Hunt
Jeremy LaBuff
Kaitlyn Boulding
Chelsea Gardner, University of Hawaii
Adriana Cásarez
Stephen Hinds, University of Washington
Kassandra Miller
Rosa Andújar
Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides, Macquarie University, NSW Australia
David Fredrick, University of Arkansas
Amy Norgard
Laurel Fulkerson
Scott A. Lepisto
Clayton Schroer
Daniel Libatique
James Newhard
Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, Cincinnati
Elizabeth Hunter
Konnor Clark
Lauri Reitzammer, University of Colorado, Boulder
Luke Parker, University of Chicago
Nina Papathanasopoulou, Connecticut College
Susann Lusnia, Chair, Classical Studies, Tulane University
Deborah Kamen
Seán Easton
Catherine Connors, University of Washington
Susan Crane
Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, Cincinnati
Sarah E. Hafner
Heather Waddell, Concordia College (Moorhead, MN)
Harriet Fertik
Andrew Carroll, Latin Teacher
Christopher Nappa, University of Minnesota
Elizabeth Bobrick
Brooke Holmes
Christina Salowey, Hollins University
Sierra Schiano
Allison Glazebrook
Elizabeth Bevis, Johns Hopkins University
Katherine R. De Boer


Write-up: Race and Ethnicity Syllabus Workshop at CAAS 2018 (Philadelphia)

By David Wright (@rmavirumquecano).

At the 2018 meeting of CAAS in Philadelphia, CSJ and MRECC hosted a race and ethnicity syllabus workshop. It was a great success! The panel had about 20-25 attendees who were a mix of high school and college teachers. It quite appropriately preceded and complemented a panel on Afro-Greeks in honor of Emily Greenwood.

The topic of race and ethnicity in the Classics classroom has long been an important point of discussion. Recent political events have brought the issue to the fore to the point where it is impossible for any classicist to ignore.

This panel focused not only on the topic of race and ethnicity in the college classroom, but in high school classes as well. The panel gathered several speakers who have experience teaching the topics of race, ethnicity, and slavery.

Maggie Beeler (Temple University) discussed her experiences teaching “Race in the Ancient Mediterranean” GenEd course, which she first taught right after Charlottesville. She uses three main texts: Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World source book (eds. R.F. Kennedy, C.S. Roy, and M.L. Goldman), Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (D. McCoskey), and various articles from Eidolon. She makes of use of anonymous live polls using PollEverywhere in order to have students explore notions of identity. Maggie grounds the discussion of the ancient texts with discussions of contemporary issues related to race in America.

Dani Bostick (John Handley High School) shared ways high school Latin teachers can approach these topics. She spoke of her own experience with Latin’s role in the segregation of her high school: the majority of students in her Latin class were white in spite of the fact that she taught at a school that had a majority of students from underrepresented backgrounds. She strives to make her class accessible to all students, regardless of background. She frequently incorporates discussions of race, ethnicity, slavery, and migration in her Latin classes. In particular, she stresses the similarities between American antebellum slavery and slavery in the ancient world as opposed to the differences and has students critically examine the ways Latin textbooks treat the subject of slavery.

Denise Eileen McCoskey (Miami University of Ohio) has taught a course on race and ethnicity in the ancient world for approximately two decades.  She makes the point that institutional support is critical, and that she is fortunate to be in an academic environment that values this type of curriculum.  She stresses the importance of using Critical Race Theory in the course. Her course asks three main questions: 1) what are “race” and “ethnicity”?; 2) how should we apply these concepts to study of the classical past? (McCoskey emphasizes to her students her preference for the terminology of “race” 3) how have perceptions of race and ethnicity in antiquity shaped modern conceptions of identity and difference? Overall, she aims to equip students with the methods to be “historians of race” who can critically address constructions of race in any time period or context.  Finally, she highlighted the use of two case-studies she has found effective: the study of Alexander the Great’s racial “policies” (often idealized today in perceptions of his striving for “One World”) and Cicero’s pro Fonteio, which raises powerful questions about who should be believed and why in Roman legal contexts.

Kassandra Miller (Union College) teaches the course, “The Ancient Other.” She brings in experts in diversity and inclusion to help ground discussions of race and ethnicity into her classes of (mostly) white students. She also uses theater projects to engage students. One project involves students imagining that they are putting on a production of the Medea. Students consider questions such as: whose story are you telling? Who do you want to represent? Who do you want your audience to be? How do you actually put on the production? Kassandra also invited her campus’ Dean of Diversity and Inclusion to team-teach a class session. Together, they helped students translate lessons learned in the course of their study of race and ethnicity in antiquity into concrete actions which will promote diversity and inclusion in their daily lives.

Jackie Murray (University of Kentucky) is currently designing a course on the Medea that examines Medea both in the ancient and modern world. The first half of the course explores the myth in Classical texts in order to foster discussions of ethnicity in antiquity. In the modern world, she focuses on the reception of Medea among black authors who represent the heroine as a woman of color. The final segment of the course will involve an assignment that has students translate the Medea into a modern Kentucky dialect.

Elina Salminen’s (University of Michigan) talk looks at teaching race and ethnicity in conjunction with community-based learning. Elina has students engage with local communities so that the students can directly apply what they learn in class to the world around them — particularly from an intersectional perspective.  Elina has three suggestions for community-based learning: 1) collaborate with experts on particular topics; 2) keep it local; 3) take time for comparisons and analysis (e.g., comparing ancient slavery with contemporary sex trafficking). Elina brings up the important point about teaching topics of race and ethnicity from a point of privilege. How can the oppressors teach about oppression?

David Wright (Fordham University) brings up the issue that not every department can have an entire course devoted to race and ethnicity. He offers examples of texts that could easily be incorporated into civilization courses. Euripides’ Ion in particular is useful – it can be used in a literature or history-focused class. David is currently using the text in both his Athenian Democracy and Greek Drama class. The play is a great way for students to analyze the social constructions of race and autochthony.

Jackie, Kassandra, and David all talked about how titles of courses can attract or discourage certain types of students. A course like “Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians” tends to draw in white males who might not expect to be critically questioning conceptions of race and the Other in a class like this. On the one hand, it might be a way to “trick” students into having discussions about race and ethnicity who might not normally encounter the subject. David spoke of using the class Ancient Athletics to get students thinking about race as a construct since a focal point of the course examines the constantly changing idea of “Greekness.” At the same time, a title like “Greeks, Romans, Barbarians” might be alienating to students of color. Jackie shared her experience changing the class title from “Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians” to “Is Classics for White People Only?” – the result was a much more diverse group of students.

Audience feedback was particularly helpful. It is clear that there is a strong imperative for classicists to engage with these issues. White teachers should not shy away from this despite the anxiety it might cause. One especially important comment came up regarding the duty of many teachers to acknowledge and own their own privileged identity. We also identified that this issue is twofold: to increase our discussion of race and ethnicity in the classroom and to diversify our field. These two ideas intersect.

Thanks are in order for Rebecca Kennedy for her support with the abstract for this workshop and Nancy Rabinowitz, whose suggestion was the first spark that caused this workshop to come together. We are also extremely grateful to Vicky Austin-Perry for live tweeting the whole panel.

All workshop materials can be found here. For more resources on race and ethnicity in the Classical world, please see Rebecca Kennedy’s website.

Write-up: Classics and Social Justice at the 2018 SCS (Boston)


By Hannah Čulík-Baird.

The Classics and Social Justice group had a productive time at the SCS in Boston this year. Even though the Bomb Cyclone made it difficult for many to get to Boston, we nonetheless had a packed house for our open meeting on the afternoon of Thursday January 4th 2018. Thanks to Lindsey A. Mazurek, we can share the notes from that meeting with you — see the end of this blog post.

On Friday 5th January, we kicked off the meeting with an 8am panel organized by Jessica Wright (USC) and Amit Shilo (UC Santa Barbara). Elina Salminen (U of Michigan) began the panel with her paper, “At Intersections: Teaching about Power and Powerlessness in the Ancient World.” Salminen spoke about how she uses Community-Based Learning (CBL) in her pedagogy, describing a class on issues of equality in the ancient and modern worlds. Salminen had created this class with an audience in mind of students who couldn’t see how the ancient world connected to issues in their own lives. Community-Based Learning is any kind of learning that takes lessons outside of the traditional campus environment, through volunteering, organizing etc. One of the issues with CBL, according to Salminen, is that it requires greater planning up front to make room for both scholarly content and the practice of community work. Salminen also noted that the students who were attracted to this class on ancient and modern social justice were generally not Classics majors, the majority of them were women, and many of them identified as people of colour. Classics classes, Salminen said, which include this kind of diverse material and practice attract a more diverse selection of students who therefore end up taking a Classics class as part of their humanities requirement. One of the themes which consistently reoccurred in Salminen’s experience of teaching in this way was the fact that discussing modern problems of social justice alongside ancient texts allowed students to see more in the ancient material. Students learning about human trafficking in Michigan today, Salminen said, really changed how they viewed Aristotle’s statements about ancient slavery. Salminen included a student testimonial on her handout, which read:

“I feel like learning about slavery in ancient Greece is such a separate topic for me because it feels just like history of something that just ‘happened’ and was a ‘product of its time’. When I read Aristotle, these are the excuses I personally give him for his views on slavery. However, is this what future generations will say about our huge human trafficking problem nowadays? That we didn’t know better and are simply the product of our times?”

Casey C. Moore (Ridge View High School) skyped into the SCS panel session to give her paper, “Engaging Minority Students: Modifying Pedagogical Practice for Social Justice.” Moore began by noting that even though she teaches in an area that has a large population of people of colour, Latin and Greek language classes remain majority white. Most teachers, Moore said, are far removed from the areas where their minority students come from, both psychologically and geographically, and must make an effort to speak to their students’ context. Invoking bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, Moore noted that education is about freedom. Educators at all levels see educations as mastery of curricular content, but best the teaching has a student leave class having had the experience connect to their personal life. Moore has students write a weekly journal entry which can have anything to do with what the students are learning in class. The most valuable aspect of this, Moore said, was that it gave her a chance to establish a personal relationship with the students through their writing.

Rodrigo Verano (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) gave the third paper at the panel, “Reading Homer in and outside the Bars: An Educational Project in Post-Conflict Colombia.” Verano began by noting that an issue with Homer and other classical texts is that students, already familiar with the literature in some way, tend to skim read the text, bringing out the things they were already invested in, not new ideas. Colombia right now, Verano said, is going through a moment where it is transitioning from war to peace. In such a context, the Odyssey can be read in a new light. Verano showed the audience an image of Alex Sastoque’s Metamorphosis or La pala de la paz (Museo Nacional de Ejército, Bogotá, Colombia), saying that this image seems to emblematize how Colombia faces the classical.

With this in mind, Verano brought together university students and the incarcerated to meet and read Homer in post-conflict Colombia. In a piece written by Verano for the Universidad de los Andes, Verano wrote that the discussion focused on issues of justice, especially in the context of the process of seeking peace after conflict. Verano has put together a volume on this work with contributions from seven university students and one inmate, A Ítaca desde el Guaviare. Mirando el posconflicto colombiano desde los poemas de Homero. One of the issues that came out of the Q + A after this paper was the different ways in which the incarcerated engage in writing. Those in the audience who had also worked with the incarcerated noted that in some cases, inmates did not want to write; in others, the prison wouldn’t let written material leave the facility. A theme that wove its way throughout the panel is that social justice work is not the same everywhere: it has to happen where you are, with the resources and circumstances that are available.

Molly Harris (University of Wisconsin – Madison) was the fourth speaker at the panel, with her paper, “The Warrior Book Club: Advancing Social Justice for Veterans through Collaboration.” The Warrior Book Club began in 2016 at the University of Wisconsin – Madison as a discussion of war literature, classical and otherwise. Harris gave an extensive list of modern works which deal with working through issues of modern warfare through ancient accounts: Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994), Odysseus in America (2002), Lawrence Tritle’s From Melos to My Lai, Peter Meineck and David Konstan’s Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks (2014), Victor Caston and Weineck Silke-Maria’s Our Ancient Wars (2016), Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives, Theater of War, Roberta Stewart’s reading group. Asked after the panel whether the group plans to read poetry, Harris responded: yes, women’s poetry  — Scars Upon My Heart, written by women warriors of the first World War; Powder, written by women in the ranks from Vietnam to Iraq. I have written elsewhere about how Harris’ presentation of a bibliography was an invitation for anyone interested to do this kind of work themselves. Harris noted that one of the early issues with the reading group is the status of the classical texts themselves: readers tend to think that the texts have been assigned (Odyssey, etc.) because we’re supposed to find the “answers” there. This means that the facilitators of such work need to make it clear that discussion and dialogue is the main goal, not to arrive at a specific conclusion (much like Moore’s invocation of bell hooks, who encourages teachers to have students stop seeing them as the center of all authority/knowledge production). Harris also brought up an important point when she described her own contact with the media as part of this project. Scholars often don’t know how to speak with journalists or the public at large. Being public facing isn’t easy, but it is important. In the Warrior Book Club, Harris said, the topic of translation was of great interest: obscenities in Lysistrata spoke to a veteran who remembered how his Iraqi translator deal with obscene graffiti.

The last speaker on the panel was Amy Pistone (Notre Dame), who skyped in to give her paper, “First Do No Harm: Responsible Outreach and Community Engagement.” Before appearing on the screen, she tweeted the handout to her paper:

Pistone began by laying out the best practices of social justice work, emphasizing the fact the classicists engaged in this kind of work should have a clear vision of precisely what their role is — why are you doing this particular work with this particular community? Where does Classics belong in this dialogue? Pistone reiterated a much discussed issue, that of the language of “outreach”, which suggests “in” groups and “out” groups.” When asked in the Q + A  what term she prefers, Pistone said that she like the words “community” and “connections.” Pistone noted that it is not enough to say that the world needs Classics. Like Moore, Pistone made the connection between education and liberation, this time invoking Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and ideas of critical pedagogy as concerned with “critical consciousness”, liberation as a transformational praxis. Pistone also noted that we need to rethink classical exceptionalism, invoking Rebecca Kennedy. Pistone also recommended Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all too, noting that “white folks” is distinct from the race of the teacher, but rather describes a eurocentric pedagogy which focuses on teaching hierarchies.

See below the notes from our open meeting on Thursday January 4th, compiled by Lindsey A. Mazurek. A pdf version is available here.

The CFP for our panel at next year’s SCS in San Diego (2019) is already available. Read it here and consider sending an abstract. 

CSJ meeting 1CSJ meeting 2CSJ 3CSJ 4



Herakles statue.jpg

Terracotta column-krater, c. 360-350 BCE (The Met). An artist paints a statue of Herakles. The skin color of the statue is not represented as reflecting the skin color of the living figures.

By Hilary Lehmann.

The other day I was listening to an episode of the NPR podcast “Code Switch” covering the historical and political contexts of Charlottesville. The hosts, Shereen Marisol Miraji and Gene Demby, brought on a Republican operative, Alex Conant, who claimed that the president’s refusal to come down firmly against white supremacy could cause irrevocable damage to the Republican party. I listened to this with incredulity, particularly when Conant claimed that he had worked for “a lot of Republicans” and had “never heard any sort of racist sentiment at all.” But when he added that most Republicans “bemoan the fact that we underperform with minority voters,” I was shaken, despite having heard this sentiment from Republicans countless times before. Having just returned from a productive and invigorating workshop focusing on promoting the study of Classics, I had, even more than usual, the exact same concern on my mind.

The overwhelming whiteness of Classics, both faculty and majors, as well as the necessity of disrupting this racial disparity, has been well documented (and now, Denise McCoskey’s excellent essay). With regards to the Republicans, the reason why few people of color vote for them is laughably obvious. When Demby asked why the Republicans had such a hard time obtaining the support of minorities, Conant responded “well, obviously, episodes like this weekend [the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville] do not help with the Republican brand.” Republican policy and messaging is overtly, intentionally racist: it’s pro-police, anti-refugee, pro-gun, anti-welfare, and anti-immigrant. As much as Republican operatives like Conant like to cry ignorance, the fact that 90% of Republican voters are white is not an accident or a mystery. White supremacy is essential to the Republican ethos.

So if, in the case of Republicans, the answer to their diversity problem is obvious, could the same be said about Classics? When we wring our hands and bemoan the scarcity of minorities in our classes and conferences, is there an open secret that we are keeping from ourselves? Is Classics intentionally, explicitly excluding people of color, keeping our towers ivory? I know that some will find this association between the field of Classics and the Republican party hurtful, since most of the Classicists I’ve studied and worked with have been liberal, and I do not mean to call anyone out specifically. Nevertheless, within the discipline, I perceive a sense of complacency with, or perhaps resignation to, the status quo. We know it’s a problem, but I don’t see us making a real, concerted effort to change it.

I find this quote from Mathura Umachandran’s essay extremely telling:

“unless you can credibly defend the idea that black and brown people are either not interested or not smart enough to study ancient Greece and Rome, then structural oppression and discrimination have to be a plausible part of any account for this fact.”

I’ve heard my colleagues wonder, mystified, why Black students don’t want to take their classes, as if the problem lay with the students rather than the professors. Nobody is telling students of color that they’re not interested in taking Greek and Latin, that they don’t want to major in Classics (notwithstanding the convenient myth that minority students are only interested in the STEM fields) – nobody except us. Classics has the advantage of historical perspective; by its nature, Classics is incredibly chronologically, geographically, and ethnographically diverse. Our transhistorical perspective makes the artificiality of the East-West separation obvious: we study authors from modern Turkey, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, as well as modern Greece and Italy. As Classicists, we know that the capital of the Roman Empire was located in modern Istanbul for a thousand years. We know that the works of Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and Euclid were translated and studied for centuries by Islamic scholars, without whom much of the Greek philosophical, mathematical, and medical thought upon which the myth of Western Civilization is based would have been lost. When we don’t talk about the inherent diversity of Classics more, when we go on and on about the “foundations of Western tradition” instead of pointing out that our field necessarily destabilizes the myth of the west, we are performing an act of active erasure, of intentional whitewashing. When we rewrite the history of Classics to exclude Asia and Africa, when we continue to propagate the narrative of a Western tradition rooted in the Greco-Roman past, we are the ones telling non-white students that Classics is not for them.

In my classes, I make a big deal about the historical construction of racial categories and try to impress upon my students that the Greeks and Romans were not white and should not be considered as belonging to the same racial or ethnic category as white Americans, because modern American whiteness is a construct of our unique, racist, historical circumstances. This message is a response not only to neo-Nazi agitators and political strategists who have appropriated classical imagery and thought, claiming to be the rightful heirs of the Greco-Roman traditions, but also to Bernard Knox’s description of the ancient Greeks as the “oldest dead white European males.” Knox attributes this epithet to “modern multicultural and radical feminist criticism” as a mark of the irrelevance of Classics, but doubles down in support of this characterization with the strange assertion that “they were undoubtedly white or, to be exact, a sort of Mediterranean olive color” (26). What could reveal the situatedness of race more strikingly than the assumption that white and olive are the same color?

Maybe I’m just arguing with a straw man – Knox’s book was published in 1993 and my students are unlikely either to have heard of it or to have encountered the white nationalists of the internet shouting about European heritage. But it is generally true that if my students have heard of Classics at all, it’s been indelibly linked in their minds with whiteness, whether because of images of austere temples and statues or because our society assumes everything old (even imaginarily old) is white. And so I lay out the evidence, every class I teach, for the diversity of the Greek world (Asia Minor was always a part of it! In the Hellenistic period it included North Africa and vast stretches of Asia! The Greeks were certainly xenophobic but not because of skin color!). I teach about how people of color and white women strove to enter academia when it excluded all but upper class white men, how their efforts gradually opened higher education to all people. They found something of themselves in the study of Classics.

But at the same time as I’ve been proselytizing the historical diversity of Classics and Classicists, I am aware that I’ve intentionally elided the equally real historical use of classical precedents to promote slavery, racial profiling, and sexism. In a way, to claim that Classics is, by nature, egalitarian is disingenuous – the discipline’s very name is a testament to its exclusivity. Classics is predicated on the notion of hierarchy, that some things are just better than others. The striving of people of color and white women to gain access to the study of Classics has as its obvious corollary the fact that it was their exclusion that made Classics an elite discipline, a desirable object of study. They were told they weren’t good enough for Classics, and that’s what made them work so hard to be included. The narrative of the Western Tradition is both untrue and true. It’s untrue because there’s never been an unbroken line of descent between Greco-Roman antiquity and modern Anglo-European identity, but also true because over the last several centuries, Classicists have manufactured and sold the world on their idea of Western Tradition, an inheritance they made up from the best and worst parts of the past. This myth-made-real isn’t going anywhere unless we confront it and the damages it has caused.

Talking to our students about the dark side of Classics’ whiteness is much harder and less pleasant than championing its diversity, but I think it’s necessary to be frank about the ways in which the elitism of Classics has been used to exclude and oppress. Perhaps we won’t be able to convince everyone – I don’t think we’re going to be able to “well, actually” the white supremacists; as Mary Beard’s constant Sisyphean battles with racist trolls demonstrate, the acolytes of a monochromatic classical past do not respond well to expertise or to evidence that falls outside of their carefully curated set of talking points. But what we can do is be upfront with our students about the dark history of Classics and our intentional goal of emphasizing the diversity rather than the elitism ancient Greek and Roman cultures. And to get to that place, we need to make sure that we, as educators, are all on the same page. We need to have these conversations with each other

Of course, it’s hard for those of us who are white to talk about race. Growing up in America, we’re taught that it’s racist to talk about race, that we should be colorblind. A lot of Classicists are socially awkward, anyway, and have perhaps internalized a kind of gentility that renders talking about worldly matters like race too gauche. I noticed this when I was on the job market the last two years, struggling over the Diversity Statement, wondering why it was so hard to just articulate that we need more people of color in this field or we risk collapsing into an echo chamber. There’s a lot of frustration surrounding the Diversity Statement – nobody seems to know what it’s for, either on the part of the applicants or sometimes even the hiring committees. Before we even talk to our students, we need to have a conversation among ourselves about why the Diversity Statement is required – we need to see it as more than just an HR requirement, to get to a place where the schools that are hiring, and the candidates they’re considering, are truly, deeply, from the heart committed to decolonizing Classics.

ON RACE AND MEDIEVAL STUDIES: A Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color

[Cross-posted from the Medievalists of Color website. Thanks to Jonathan Hsy () for bringing it to our attention.]

August 2017

Medieval studies is increasingly acknowledging realities of race and racism in the profession—reflected in everything from the call to recognize that racism is inherent in the very use of the term “Anglo-Saxon”; to Richard Spencer and the so-called alt-right’s cooptation of Western European medieval studies to buttress their white supremacist ideology; to concerns about the exploitation of Hawaiian culture in the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists’ conference currently underway in Honolulu. These issues have arisen most visibly since the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2017 with individual and collective calls for structural change in the profession and its culture.

Medievalists of Color is a fellowship of scholars who study the early, high, and late Middle Ages across the disciplines and who identify as persons of color from a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. We, the Medievalists of Color, find it necessary to offer a collective response that advocates for a more inclusive, productive, and world-improving medieval studies.

If the recent controversies in medieval studies have seemed shocking, that shock derives simply from the truth of how uneven and disparate our realities are within the field. A tasteless joke about skin color that inaugurated the 2017 Leeds keynote plenary on “Otherness” illustrated this disparity all too well. Those who object to the attention given to a single joke about race fail to understand that for medievalists of color, this joke is not an isolated event. It is a symptom of a culture, both in medieval studies and in the wider world, in which we regularly hear jokes about our appearances, accents, names, and experiences. Indeed, such jokes frequently escalate into mockery, threats, and even physical violence. Opening the plenary session on the problematic thematic strand “Otherness,” the joke established an unwelcoming environment from the outset. Likewise, the open acceptance of such racist jokes has proliferated in various social media, listservs, and other spaces in which medievalists congregate. This then is not merely a sensationalized incident, but rather a normalized speech act that indicates a pervasive and deeply problematic professional and social climate.

Creating and maintaining a climate that is welcoming to all requires intention and deliberation. Drawing from extensive administrative experience in higher education in the UK and Australia as well as several traditions of philosophical inquiry, Sara Ahmed attests to how professional environments and intellectual cultures engage in a “politics of stranger making” that reveals “how some and not others become strangers” and “how some bodies become understood as the rightful inhabitants of certain spaces” (On Being Included, 2012). The moderator’s joke—that a suntan would make him appear as an “other”—would have been inappropriate in any professional setting, but in the particular context of an introduction to the opening keynotes at one of the major medievalist conferences in the world, this act of “stranger making” reveals an underlying assumption that the physical presence of nonwhite medievalists—and our collective years of expertise in the field on topics of “otherness”—is ignorable and extraneous to primary conversations in the field.

We emphasize that our letter is not just about any one person’s alienating comments, nor even about the conception of one problematic thread. What is at stake here is the very possibility that such a statement, like countless similar statements every day, could be made and condoned while its real harm to nonwhite medievalists was left unacknowledged and unchecked. Though such statements are sometimes made without malice or intent to harm, the harm they cause is nonetheless real—from stigmatizing individuals to foreclosing lines of scholarly inquiry. When our scholarly spaces are not welcoming to all who would practice in the field, the field loses the capacity for intellectual risk and no longer serves its primary objective: to seek a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to analyze the present and help shape the future.

The current controversy offers an opportunity for medievalists who identify as white to understand the perspectives and experiences of medievalists and other people of color. On blog posts and comments, on listservs and on Facebook, the reactions of many of our fellow scholars have been deeply disturbing, with remarks that range from dismissing such jokes as “harmless social lubricant” to accusing those who legitimately express dismay at such jokes as “policing,” “silencing,” or “blacklisting” conference speakers to violent and profanity-laden abuse directed at medievalists of color. Some comments and conversations suggest that our white medievalist colleagues experience dismay at assumptions about them based on their race: their intentions seem not to matter; they are objects of suspicion; their positions are assumed to be wrong. We ask white medievalists feeling this way to recognize that this is what is it is like to be a person of color every day, in the world and all too often in the profession. We make this point not to perpetuate a loop of mutual resentment but rather to offer an inroad to understanding our perspective. This is a watershed moment that, if used productively, will make medieval studies home to an intellectual environment that is sustainable and innovative, promotes risk-taking, and leverages an ever greater number of experiences and scholarly lenses in order to build the most comprehensive body of knowledge about the Middle Ages possible.

We, the Medievalists of Color, need our colleagues to understand the systemic racism of which we speak and the role it has continued to play in our field’s constitution and practices; to educate themselves in the critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit; and in doing so to move past preoccupations with individual intentions. Chafing at the accusation of racism is illogical: systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices. The most damaging consequence of systemic racism is not that one might stand accused of racism; it is the harm—historically manifested on a continuum from rhetorical to psychological to physical violence—done to persons of color. Were more constituents of medieval studies to educate themselves in the critical theory of race, we could all actively address these harmful impacts in ways hitherto not possible in the field of medieval studies.

Indeed, the intellectual and ethical protocols of our discipline require us to immerse ourselves in relevant scholarly discourses. No medievalist working on Western Europe would dare discuss the term “nation” without consulting Patrick Geary’s Before France and Germany. No medievalist working on medieval memory would ignore the work of Mary Carruthers in the Book of Memory. We affirm that the same ethic of scholarly rigor applies to critical race studies and to the discussion of race, ethnicity, nationhood, and “otherness” because these topics are crucial to both the content and the professional conduct of medieval studies. Even, and especially, if we find that the scholarly paradigms of critical race and ethnic studies, postcolonialism, and decolonization do not speak fully to the historical moments we study, we are obligated to enter, and even expand, the conversations they engender. If we wish medieval studies to engage meaningfully in the modern world of which it is a product, and in which it is an agent, then medievalists must also rigorously engage with the fields that examine the ideologies and distributions of power that define the modern world. When medievalists endeavor to understand systemic racism, medieval studies becomes a stronger field whose constituents together have far greater resources for analyzing the past and present while shaping the future.

We aim our attention toward the survival and future of the study of the Middle Ages, which we must continuously work to separate from its links to nationalist and white supremacist impulses. At a time when such impulses have increased the rates of violence—rhetorical, psychological, and physical—in the US, UK, Europe, and elsewhere, we must ensure that the conditions for violence are not fostered within medieval studies. Indeed, medieval studies must form a bulwark against such conditions. We wish to foster a medieval studies whose members respond to one another, even in disagreement, with the responsibility to be ethical, compassionate, and well informed about the systems in which we operate in order that medieval studies will be a space for free intellectual inquiry—for all medievalists. Race has always mattered to medieval studies, and scholars of color play key roles in the field’s past, present, and future.

We intervene, putting ourselves at professional risk and in the path of potential aggression and hostility, because of the meaning this field holds for us, the stakes we have in it, and our commitment to contributing productively to its continued viability. We intervene for the sake of the innovative space medieval studies has at times been, and can increasingly be. We intervene to protect the powerful lessons that the Middle Ages holds for the modern world, and because we believe that deep and considered knowledge of the Middle Ages, with rigorous scholarly practices, can help realize a future in which the world is a better place—for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.

—A Fellowship of Medievalists of Color


For additional professional responses to the “Otherness” thread at the International Medieval Congress, see the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the open letter and petition by the President-Elect of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA), and two letters from the President of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).

For resources pertaining to the intellectual and professional significance of race in medieval studies, see this bibliography of scholarship on race and medieval studies, the special issue of the journal postmedieval on “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages,” the plenary session on “The Color of Membership” held at the SAA Meeting in April 2017, the workshop on Whiteness in Medieval Studies (held at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 2017), as well as its participant reflections and organizer reflection.

The HistoryMakers (Part II): Classics, Social Justice, and Oral Histories

Author: Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott). This is the second in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part I was written by Joel Christensen (@sentantiq), and can be read here.


A video and transcript result from The HistoryMakers database

When I was first approached to work on a project studying oral histories of African American experience in Classics, I saw it as an opportunity not only to perform research that might aid in addressing the endemic lack of diversity in the field, but also to give back to the movement that allowed me to pursue graduate study. I chose to attend my undergraduate college primarily because of the financial aid package, and my ability to attend Brandeis University as a graduate student depends on being in the first cohort to receive the Diversity, Excellence, and Inclusion Scholarship (DEIS). The DEIS program aims to provide students with a non-traditional background for academia (e.g. those from underrepresented minority groups and first generation college students) access to Master’s programs so that they can later pursue doctoral study when they otherwise might have lacked that opportunity. To put it directly, without active attempts to provide access to higher education for people in situations like mine, I would not have been able to work in a field where I believe I can make meaningful contributions.

The research we have conducted using The HistoryMakers archive profoundly undermines the narrative that Classics lacks diversity because it is an inherently “white field.” Many of those interviewed reference ancient works of literature. Many tell stories about how classical education contributed to their personal and intellectual growth. Many point to teachers and professors of ancient languages and Classics as mentors and role models. These oral histories suggest that the issues surrounding diversity in Classics arise not due to the content but rather access and presentation.

Randolph Michael McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the Social Justice Center at Pace University Law School, addresses the perceived whiteness of Classics directly when describes his time at Columbia University and the value of his classical education:

“I mean, positively, I hated Columbia as a student, but, now, looking back on it, that was a classical education that I got.  That was a great education because I can converse with anybody about practically anything and you have knowledge. That says–I say I was classically trained.  You have a base of knowledge about a lot of different–that if you just became a political science and that was the track you were on, you wouldn’t have that base.  It was liberal arts education in the highest form.  I know there’s been a lot of opposition to that method of education–you know, they call it studying dead white men.  Well, you know, sometimes they got something to teach us and you gotta study everybody.”


Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, draws attention to the lack of opportunity and the intersectional issues in the ability to pursue Classics and academia more broadly:

“And they were women who, if they had lived in my time, would have been classics professors or could have been if they wished to, instead of Latin teachers. A Latin teacher could have been a mathematician as opposed to a math teacher, an economics professor as opposed to an economics teacher and so it goes.  And now, and so that’s who my teachers were.  I had a few men, but mainly women.”


Shirley Ann Jackson ©The HistoryMakers


Callie Crossley, an award-winning broadcast journalist, expresses her issues with classical education:

Crossley: “And a very strong liberal arts institution. More to the point, I feel very strongly about liberal arts education, and it was–it’s one of the best you can get.”

Interviewer: “–It’s almost a classical education?”

 Crossley: “Not classical, classical in the sense of, you know, Homer or nothing, you know, (laughs) it was–it was much broader than that, but it definitely emphasized the variety and an openness, remember I came from a house with emphasis on openness, about all of the things that one could learn and the ways in which one could learn and analytical reasoning and all of that, and it was a big emphasizer. Wellesley [College, Massachusetts] is huge on writing.”


Callie Crossley ©The HistoryMakers

These three examples are indicative of the sentiments expressed in many of the oral histories and provide a framework to rethink the way Classicists approach diversity. Classics, when made accessible and presented as one, non-exclusive avenue toward liberal arts education, holds value for all groups. The study of Greco-Roman antiquity is not owned by the monolithically white, imagined community of the “Western world.” To adapt Thucydides, Classics is not just a possession for all time, but also for all people.

For more on the project, see my other blog posts with the links below. When new material is posted from the project, you can find it on Joel Christensen’s website, his twitter feed, and my twitter feed.


Randolph Michael McLaughlin (The HistoryMakers A2005.130), interview by Shawn Wilson, 06/08/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Randolph Michael McLaughlin describes his interest in pursuing a law career.

Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/22/2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Shirley Ann Jackson discusses the racial composition of the segregated and integrated schools including Barnard Elementary School.

Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interview by Larry Crowe, 04/23/2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Callie Crossley talks about her positive experience at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.

The HistoryMakers (Part I): Classics, Social Justice, and Oral Histories

Author: Joel Christensen (@sentantiq). This is the first in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part II was written by Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott), and can be read here.


searching the database of The HistoryMakers

Usually around the first of every year as I gear up to attend the SCS Annual Meeting, my wife—who is Indian and Muslim—starts to troll me, asking “how does it make you feel that only white people care about the Classics.” I used to bluster; I used to draw on my training in rhetoric, and marshal periodic sentences with rising tricola to defend my field (and myself). But, lately, I have mostly just been shaking, then nodding, my head.

Until this year I taught at a large, public university that served a minority-majority population and enrolled some of the largest numbers of veterans in the country. I cherished this job precisely because of the opportunity it provided to bring Homer, Plato, Thucydides and Sappho to first generation college students. But in the decade I was there, I came to understand that access to this material was limited by a range of institutional challenges: underfunded, undermined public schools at the secondary school level, political hostility, structural prejudices, and, frankly, outright racism.

Our public discourse about education has been dominated by questions of demonstrable economic utility. ‘Esoteric’ fields like the Classics (and History!?) are constantly under siege with questions about how our classes translate into jobs. Many of us spend countless hours crafting arguments about how learning Latin and Greek or studying history, philosophy, and literature provides students with the critical thinking and writing skills to succeed in any job. We collect data on GRE, MCAT and LSAT scores. We make websites and powerpoint presentations. We write these goals into course objectives and assessment plans.

None of this is intrinsically unjust, but by defining the importance of education purely in terms of economic utility, we are acceding to a system that defines the worth of a person in terms of financial potential. Even worse, when we cancel programs or limit what we teach because it will not be useful to a certain economic class, we are complicit in a system that says “this kind of education is not right for these kinds of people because they need to worry about working or ‘more important’ things.” In a country where class is almost entirely inherited and in which race and social class reinforce inequality, this is part of institutionalized racism. When politicians, coordinating boards, and even deans demand that students from certain backgrounds be trained primarily with a view towards future employment, they might truly believe that they have their best interests at heart.  However, the outcome of denying courses of study to some students reifies Classics as a discipline of a leisured elite, impoverishes the range of voices and responses our generation can bring to the ancient world, and enacts a paternalistic delimitation that is racist in effect if not intent.

* * *

When I left my first university for my current one, I was excited in almost every way except for one: I knew I was giving up a mission that allowed me to answer my wife’s question honestly. And I know from talking to many people in the field that there is a desire to do more, to advance our field in different directions, and to make our world better at the same time.

Classics is not alone in facing uncertainty in our political and economic climate, but our discipline faces some of the starkest numbers when it comes to racial, religious, and even gender diversity.  One area where we have made progress in the past generation is gender equity, but even there, we have to increase the number of women in permanent and tenure-track jobs.  Moreover, we need to find more ways to give them support and recognize the institutional and structural obstacles they still face. We cannot hope to make significant and long term gains in terms of undergraduate diversity if we do not change the composition of the professorate.


Figure 1, Diversity Percentage for Undergraduate majors. This graph shows that Classics undergraduate populations were in 2013 the least diverse of surveyed fields in the Humanities.

One aspect of the pursuit of social justice in our field must be how we work to diversify our own ranks. The SCS and other organizations have created minority scholarships which can have a real impact on student lives. But we could do more—especially those of us who are in stable positions. Nationally, we can raise money to fully fund underrepresented groups at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate level. (I for one would happily forego an annual meeting or two and dedicate the money I would have spent to this effort). At our home institutions, we must work both inside and outside our departments to hire these PhDs and mentor them. We also need to listen to what they say about their experiences and safeguard their careers as if they were our own.


Figure 2, Percentage of PhDs Held by Women. This graph shows that Classics outperforms other fields in gender representation, but is still not equal.

Further, we must also remember that the way we teach Classics can contribute positively to social justice. It is an act of resistance and a reaffirmation of a universal right to knowledge and independent thought to teach marginalized and disenfranchised communities. (And an act that often requires new pedagogical approaches.) That resistance can come in many forms, but it most definitely means more active outreach by Classics faculty to underrepresented groups.  As Timothy Joseph recently demonstrated, Plato’s Socrates was an inspiration and a metaphor for Martin Luther King Jr. And this was no mere flight of fancy: as Thomas E. Strunk argues, King’s engagement is a powerful testament to a tradition of liberation philology.

As Classicists, most of us are trained to argue for the importance of our field—we can point to its influence on major figures in our intellectual history from philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, through artists, authors, dancers, musicians and more. Our luminaries and forebears receive the past and engage in critical dialogues with it. By denying access to the Classics and by not actively recruiting students from underrepresented groups, we bar communities from a conversation and the tools of language that have shaped our politics, religions, and aesthetics. Our duty is not to champion the superiority of one culture over another, but to ensure that no matter what body or class you were born into, you have the opportunity to hear, to understand, and to join this conversation in a meaningful way.

* * *

To engage in this type of social justice, we need to get into spaces where students and the public at large can hear us. For those of us who are in traditional educational institutions, this also means we have to figure out how to get new students into our classes. As a discipline, one of our challenges in facing demographic shifts alongside economic and cultural tides of late capitalism and the information age, is, not unironically, a lack of clear and actionable information. How do we even begin to address issues of perception among various groups without a clear idea of what such perceptions are? (As a good friend has told me, the first step is asking.) And, more importantly for a movement concerned with social justice, how do we learn to hear the voices of marginalized groups?

Even the most rigorous classical philologist is to an extent engaged in cultural histories—we should apply some of our academic training to these problems: admirably, classicists like Michele V. Ronnick and Margaret Malamud have already charted the course in this direction. But oral interviews, surveys, and archives allow us the opportunity to listen to personal testimonies of African Americans (and others). Archives like those collected and curated by The HistoryMakers, moreover, also provide a searchable database of transcripts.

With a small grant from the office of the Provost at Brandeis University (dedicated entirely to paying a graduate student fairly to do the archival research), our project is to collect and analyze what African Americans say about the Classics in the late 20th century and afterward. The testimonies are mixed—while many interviewees do position classical education as a vehicle of liberation, many also see it as an extension of elite values and power. The oral testimonies, we suspect, will echo many of the conclusions reached in Malamud’s recent book African Americans and the Classics (2016). At the same time, they attest to a deep diversity of responses to Classical material.

Admittedly, the aims of the project are rather modest given the magnitude of the challenges we face. But I try to imagine the aggregate effect of sharing this material online through my website and twitter feed. And, more importantly, I try to take seriously the potential exponential effect of teaching Classics from a social justice perspective: if only one graduate and one undergraduate a year leaves my classroom with the ability to communicate the importance of Classics for all people and to understand social justice from a diachronic perspective, then over the years they will influence many more lives. Finally, and perhaps optimistically, I imagine the combined effect of my colleagues all over the country doing the same thing.

Thanks to Suzanne Lye for constructive criticism of an earlier draft. Special thanks as well to Shahnaaz for having the patience and kindness to teach me what it means to be someone else for the last 20 years.