Ten years ago if you had looked
up the words "black" and "classicists" on the internet,
you would have been directed to Martin Bernal (Sinologist at Cornell University)
or Mary Lefkowitz (Hellenist at Wellesley College), and the polarized, aporetic
debate over Bernal's book Black Athena. Today such a search will take you in
another direction to the juncture of these words. It will point you to "black
classicists" as a phrase and as a concept.
This is a direct result of my effort to turn the attention of academicians and the public at large to thinking about the very considerable influence that the culture of ancient Greece and Rome has had upon the creative and professional lives of people of African descent. Early last spring (2003), funds from the James Loeb Classical Library Foundation (LCLF) in the Department of Classics at Harvard University gave me the wherewithal to make one aspect of this research agenda a reality, i.e. to demonstrate visually and in a public way that black professors of classical languages with professional affiliations actually existed in 19th century America. With money from the LCLF, and sage advice from William Peck, Curator of Ancient Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, my collection of photos and documents became "12 Black Classicists." In September the installation made its debut at the Detroit Public Library and was displayed in the vitrines of Adam Strohm Hall. The dozen panels have been on the move ever since. The reactions I have received from the audience face-to-face, by e-mail or through comment left inside the guest books placed at various installations have made the Sturm und Drang of the process worthwhile.
The work, however, is by no means
complete. This is just the beginning, a veritable tip of the iceberg. Opportunities
for original research which will transform our current perceptions abound. Here
is an overview:
1) The history of classical studies covering the professoriate, the curriculum and its students at our historically black colleges and universities needs both codification and analysis. A comprehensive study has not yet been written. Certain individual black classicists deserve book length study as well. William Henry Crogman, co-founder of the American Negro Academy and professor of Greek at Clark University for over 40 years, is one striking example. The mandate springs from my own research into the life of William Sanders Scarborough and from the 567 page dissertation on Richard Theodore Greener written by Michael Mounter at the University of South Carolina (2002).
2) Similar study needs to be made of the classical curricula taught at secondary schools across the country. This is where many women of African descent, who were excluded from the male dominated structures of the university made valuable contributions. Examples include Lucy Craft Laney, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Helen Maria Chesnutt.
3) Equally important and equally unexamined is the study of the classical ideas and imagery that have been percolating through African American arts and letters for generations. This can be traced from Phillis Wheately and Jupiter Hammon in the 18th century to the present day through the creative work of artists such as Robert Hayden, Romare Bearden, Rita Dove and Toni Morrison.
I invite you to examine these pages whose cost was defrayed by a grant from the Wright-Hayre Foundation in Philadelphia. And I encourage you to begin your own investigation of the history of black classicism. If we are to speak of classical humanism without the countenance of hypocrites, then we must put these men and women back in the record. Somewhere the African born playwright and former slave Terence will be smiling as we give his oft-quoted maxim, nihil humani alienum a me (nothing human is foreign to me, Heauton Timorumenos, line 77) a brand new spin.