Classicism within Black Consciousness

Classicism within Black Consciousness


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes





One of the challenges for black classicism as it moves forward is to resist a critical straightjacket.

Goff and Simpson are right to focus on the incestuous dramas of Oedipus and Antigone as being

uniquely pertinent to the violent intimacy that vexes historical and indeed personal relationships

in the Black Atlantic. But there are other aspects of the complex histories of the Black Atlantic

<—-William Sanders Scarborough



Classicism within the Black Consciousness

Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association, Philadelphia, PA

 January 5 to 8, 2012


Call for Papers “Classicism within the Black Consciousness” for presentation at the 143rd Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association, Philadelphia, PA, January 5 to 8, 2012.   Much important work has been done on the recovery of long-forgotten black scholars of the classics in the United States between the end of the Civil War and the mid-twentieth century. These studies have established and even burnished the by now familiar paradigm of the African American mastering the classics to prove that he or she is a human being in the traditional sense of what a “human being” should be.   We are now entering the second phase of black classicism, one which describes appropriations and in some cases radical transformations of classical sources by poets, novelists, and visual artists as well as a reappraisal of what constitutes the classics themselves. Scholars are also exploring the use of the classics as tools of resistance by African American professors and their students when faced with the phasing out of classics courses at black colleges and universities: this was not only due to budgetary constraints but also to hostility on the part of both blacks and whites to the liberal arts, and a favoring of industrial education as more appropriate to the segregated lives African-Americans were forced to lead in the United States of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In her excellent review essay in Classical Receptions Journal 1.1. (2009) [See below], Emily Greenwood provides a possible template for an exploration of where black classicism may be moving, that is, toward a classicism within the black consciousness, but a classicism, ultimately, that breaks down any distinction between “white” and “black”.

She adduces the work of Romare Bearden, Rita Dove, Toni Morrison and others to describe the richness of the classical experience in the 21st century. It is a movement, she states, even beyond multiculturalism; it is a universalization of the classical experience We may, however, at the same time treat such “universalism” with skepticism, arguing that classics still remains too much an “old white boy” discipline. This, too, is a topic that invites further discussion.                                                                                                   Emily Greenwood–>>    

Our panel seeks papers that speak to all areas of research into the current state and future prospects of black classicism, papers that do not merely catalogue the achievements of prominent black scholars, but also represent the wide spectrum of work being done today both within and inside academe to appropriate, incorporate and transform our understanding of the Greek and Latin classics. In speaking about this transformation, we must keep in mind both the “products” of black classicism and how classics have themselves transformed the black experience.   The proposed panel will be comprised of participants selected though anonymous refereeing as well as invited speakers and respondents. Those interested in participating should please submit, as an email attachment, by no later than December 15, 2010, an abstract of no more than one page in length to Judith P. Hallett, University of Maryland at College Park Please do not indicate your name on the abstract itself.    Michele Valerie Ronnick, Professor Wayne State University Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures 487 Manoogian Hall / 906 West Warren Avenue / Detroit, Michigan 48202

*   *   *   *   *

Re-Rooting the Classical Tradition

New Directions in Black Classicism

By Emily Greenwood


Barbara Goff, and Michael Simpson, Crossroads in the Black Aegean: Oedipus, Antigone, and Dramas of the African Diaspora. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xii + 401 pp, £68.00 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780199217182.

Robert O’Meally, Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey. New York: DC Moore Gallery, 2007. 116 pp, $45 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780977496594.

Patrice Rankine, Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 272 pp, (Hardback). ISBN: 9780299220006. Out of print. Paperback edition published in 2008, 272 pp, $24.95 (Paperback). ISBN: 9780299220044.

Michele Valerie Ronnick, (ed.) The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship. Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005. xvi + 425 pp, $29.95 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780814332245.

Tracey L.Walters. African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 224 pp, $80 (Hardback). ISBN: 9780230600225.

The past five years have seen the publication of several works in the field of black classicism, from Michele Valerie Ronnick’s edition of the Autobiography of the African American classicist William Sanders Scarborough, published in 2005, to Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson’s Crossroads in the Black Aegean, Robert O’Meally’s Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, and Tracey Walters’ African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition, all published in 2007.

That these works should have been published roughly contemporaneously is notable in and of itself, but more exciting still is the fact that their publication represents a critical mass in the field of black classicism, at once consolidating the field and signalling new directions for future work.1 Black classicism itself is not new: contemporary research on race and ‘blackness’ in classical antiquity looks back to Frank Snowden’s research in this field (Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (1970), and Before Colour Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (1983)). Martin Bernal ’s Black Athena trilogy (1987, 1991, 2006) is an important turning point in this regard. Prior to Black Athena, the study of black classicism was largely internal to the black intellectual community in America, which was familiar with the appropriation of Classics by key figures in the black tradition, such as Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as polemical studies such as George G. M. James’s Stolen Legacy (1954).2 However, until recently black classicism has been a disparate field of research, with scholars undertaking isolated research in departments of Africana Studies, American Literature, Classics, Comparative Literature and History. Although the classicist Shelley Haley has been publishing and speaking about black classicism for several decades (see e.g., Haley 1989, 1993), it was only as recently as 1996 that ‘Classica Africana’ was launched as a specialization within Classics.3

This new wave of research into black classicism has enlarged the debate, linking historical research on race in Graeco-Roman antiquity to the study of the role that Classics has played in the larger cultural traditions of black America and Africa. Two recent studies have focused on Classics in African American literature and culture (Rankine 2006, and Walters 2007), and another has examined black classicism in the visual art of the African American artist Romare Bearden (O’Meally 2007). O’Meally’s study of Bearden’s ‘Odysseus Suite’ reveals Bearden to be an artist of the black Diaspora, who took his visual symbols and colour palette from Africa, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, while his method fused ‘high’ European art with Jazz composition and the ‘lowlier’ scissor-work of collage. A quotation from O’Meally neatly illustrates the shift away from a positivist, historical focus on blackness in Graeco-Roman antiquity to the presence of blackness in a composite, classical tradition.

Writing about Bearden’s depiction of the sea god Poseidon as pursuer of Odysseus, and the influence of the technique of black figure vase painting on Bearden’s depiction, O’Meally comments:

When Bearden makes the mighty god of multiple, ambiguous powers a figure in black, he is not making another Beethoven-was-black-claim of racial authenticity or one-upmanship. Rather, he is insisting that we see him as a culturally collaged figure, black in skin color and, in terms of broad cultural reaches, a man of many parts: black, brown, and beige.4

This emphasis on figuration and how the black tradition figures the Classics is even more explicit in Patrice Rankine’s Ulysses in Black (2006), which studies the literary equivalent to Bearden’s ‘figures in black’.

There are complex reasons for the expansion of black classicism at the present time. To a certain extent classicists are responding to the creative receptions of Classics in high-profile literary fiction by black authors, such as in the works of Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka. and Derek Walcott (although Soyinka and Walcott do not welcome the ‘black author’ tag). It is also no coincidence that black classicism has developed in the same period that Classical Reception studies is enjoying such a boom—a boom of which this journal is a product. We have reached the stage where every Classics department in the Anglophone world is conscious of issues of access and relevance, with the result that the study of the diversity and plurality of Graeco-Roman Classics and what they have meant to different readers and communities in different social, historical, and cultural contexts is an obvious element of the discipline. Consequently, a unitary classical tradition has given way to plural classical traditions. At the same time, both geopolitical shifts such as Postcolonial transitions and globalization, and changing disciplinary cultures within Arts and Humanities faculties, have meant that classicists have been more open to the different societies within ancient Greek or Roman society and the different cultures within these heterogeneous worlds (Chew 1997: 58–9).

As part of this reappraisal of the cultures of Greece and Rome it makes just as much sense—sometimes more—to compare Greek tragedy with Yoruba tragedy, as with English Renaissance revenge drama, or Racine. Barbara Goff  and Michael Simpson make this argument powerfully in their Crossroads in the Black Aegean (2007), which studies Oedipus and Antigone as figures of (violent) cultural transmission within dramatic adaptations of Greek tragedy in Africa and the black diaspora. Goff and Simpson’s book is notable for the supplement which they propose to Paul Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic’ model (Gilroy 1993). In this influential work, Gilroy proposed the Black Atlantic as a ‘transcultural, international formation’, in order to explain the intertwining of Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean in black cultures in the Atlantic world (1993: 4). For Gilroy, the Black Atlantic is symbolized by the image of ships, crisscrossing the Atlantic, particularly in the context of the triangular slave trade, connecting Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Goff’s and Simpson’s construct of the ‘Black Aegean’ is ‘a triangle, projected from within the Black Atlantic and symmetrical with it, but with its third point radiating eastwards so that it links Africa to ancient Greece and Asia Minor as well as to the imperial West’ (38–39). Contrasted with the figure of Black Athena, which comes with unwieldy baggage (notably the debate between the classicist Mary Lefkowitz and Afrocentrist critics),5 the Black Aegean offers a fluid and multi-directional framework for making sense of the different trajectories of cultural transmission that might be present in any one example of classical reception in the black Diaspora. The following extract from their discussion of the play The Gods Are Not to Blame (1969), by the Nigerian playwright Ola Rotimi, offers an insight into the complicated Oedipal genealogies that can be used to reconfigure the linear model of European descent implicit in the ‘traditional’ classical tradition:  

To the extent that the Greek myth of Oedipus is used by The Gods to propose that the colonizers and the colonized now share a history, in the form of a common parent, both groups can suppose either that the colonized possess Hellenic qualities or that the colonizers possess African cultural characteristics. This startling implication is articulated, as we have seen, not only by the content of the myth, in which an extreme endogamy prevails, but also within The Gods  itself, where Yoruba and Greek elements cannot be categorized exclusively. Insofar as The Gods  deploys the Greek myth to represent colonial exogamy collapsing into colonial endogamy, and offers itself as the cultural issue of that union, the whole Western tradition of polarizing Greek and African cultures is short-circuited. Either Africans share cultural qualities with the Greeks, or the former colonizers share qualities with Africans.6 

In addition to the construct of ‘the Black Aegean’, Goff and Simpson’s study also suggests a stimulating new direction for black classicism by postulating that two figures from Greek mythology, Oedipus  and Antigone, possess particular explanatory power within black classicism. The choice of these two figures, who have also loomed large in diverse European receptions of Greek tragedy, is felicitous for the kind of crisscrossing African–American–Caribbean–European and ancient Mediterranean filiation that Goff and Simpson propose. However, as the other works under review show, there are other figures who might lay claim to competing significance in the black Diaspora: Odysseus/Ulysses is an obvious example, as demonstrated by the studies of Rankine and O’Meally, as are Black Orpheus (Orphée Noir), Medea, and Demeter and Persephone.7

One of the challenges for black classicism as it moves forward is to resist a critical straightjacket. Goff and Simpson are right to focus on the incestuous dramas of Oedipus and Antigone as being uniquely pertinent to the violent intimacy that vexes historical and indeed personal relationships in the Black Atlantic. But there are other aspects of the complex histories of the Black Atlantic that are best articulated through other myths. In turn, the presence of alternative myths in creative receptions of Classics in black traditions offers rich and diverse ground for future research.

In all, Goff and Simpson discuss six dramatic works: The Gods Are Not to Blame by Ola Rotimi,(Chapter 2); The Darker Face of the Earth by the African American playwright Rita Dove (Chapter 3); The Gospel at Colonus by American writer and director Lee Breuer (Chapter 4); Odale’s Choice, by the Barbadian poet and academic Kamau Brathwaite (Chapter 5); The Island by the South African playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona (Chapter 6); and Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan’s Tegonni: An African Antigone (Chapter 7). Chapter 5 also reads Brathwaite’s play in conjunction with Walcott’s epic verse novel Omeros. The comparative dimension between the West African, African American, and Caribbean plays is achieved through the coherence supplied by the myths of Oedipus  and Antigone, and the concept of the Black Aegean which posits a triangulation of the debate with the Greek past. 

At any one location, the debate with the Greek past will entail references to other locations that have also related themselves to the cultures of Greece. Goff and Simpson’s study appears at a timely juncture: in recent years, there have been several excellent studies of the individual plays which they discuss, as well as two important books by Kevin Wetmore Jr.8 Arguing against a strand of interpretation developed in different ways by Wetmore, Hardwick and Budelmann, which identifies the appeal of Greek tragedy in its affinities with traditional West African cultures (Wetmore, Budelmann), and in its capacity as a decolonized art form (Hardwick), Goff and Simpson suggest that these adaptations are ‘polarized between an oedipal love and hate for the colonizer’s culture [and] … between their relationship with the colonial culture and their relationship with an indigenous culture’ (59–60).9 This is a debate that will continue, particularly since re-performance enables these plays to be played differently, taking cues from the cultural accretions that the Greek dramas have acquired in different contexts (Hardwick 2006).

By building on and advancing existing scholarship on adaptations of Greek tragedy in the African Diaspora, Goff and Simpson have brought the complexity and sophistication familiar from the extensive scholarship on Greek tragedy to the study of these adaptations, which are original classics in their own right. The significance of their study for African literature and theatre, black classicism and comparative literature is obvious; it is to be hoped that their research will feed back into the study of Sophocles’ Theban plays as well.

Another important development in the study of black classicism has been the increased attention paid to the history of black classical scholarship. Here Michele Valerie Ronnick’s contribution has been immense. Aside from the two works reviewed here, Ronnick has published widely on African American classicists.10 However, it is Ronnick’s edition of the Autobiography of the black classicist, William Sanders Scarborough, and her separate edition of his Works (2006) that have had the greatest impact on the field. The significance of Ronnick’s study is apparent when one considers an article by Robert Fikes, Jr, published in volume 53 of The Negro Educational Review (Fikes 2002), in which he gives a short biographical and bibliographical overview of the tradition of black classicism and the careers of black classicists. That the existence of black classicists still bears remarking is a sad indictment of the putative whiteness of classicism and the classical tradition, not to mention the way in which knowledge of Classics was spuriously used, right up until the 1960s—some might say later still—as a biased test-case for the intelligence of Africans and people of African descent.11

In their respective books, both Rankine and Walters draw attention to the flipside of the perceived whiteness of Classics and the exclusion of African Americans from the Classical tradition: namely the exclusion of Classics from African American intellectual traditions.12 For Rankine, there is a deep schism in the term black classicism, and a central tenet of his study is that their engagement with Graeco-Roman Classics has estranged Ralph Ellison and other African American authors within the Black Tradition.13 Conversely, Rankine’s study is committed to demonstrating that ‘black classicism can in fact be part of a radical cultural identity’ (Rankine 2006: 42). Similarly, Walters remarks that the reception of Classics in the work of black women writers had been neglected not just because classicists overlook ‘the classical revisions of African Americans’, but also ‘because some African Americanists dismiss the Western classics as Eurocentric and antithetical to a Black literary tradition—or Black aesthetic’ (Walters 2007: 5).

This is what makes the life and academic career of William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926) such a compelling subject for black classicism. The publication of Scarborough’s autobiography, almost a century after his death, has had the interesting consequence of introducing a countercultural icon into the debate about the role of the Classics in African American intellectual life. Scarborough, who was born of slave status in Georgia shortly before the American Civil War, attended Atlanta University for two years and then transferred to Oberlin College, from which he graduated in 1875 with an A.B. in Liberal Arts (Oberlin awarded Scarborough an honorary M.A. in 1882. After a brief career as a schoolmaster, Scarborough was elected to the Chair of Greek and Latin Classics at Wilberforce University in 1877, and subsequently in 1908 to the office of President of Wilberforce, a position which he held for twelve years (1908–20). As a classicist, his publications include a Greek textbook, First Lessons in Greek (1881), and several scholarly papers delivered before scholarly associations on subjects ranging from ‘The Theory and Function of the Thematic Vowel in the Greek Verb’ to ‘The Greeks and Suicide.’14 Details of these papers can be found in the section on ‘Classical Philology’ in Ronnick’s edition of Scarborough’s works.15

As with W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Scarborough’s contemporaries, there is a temptation to elevate Scarborough to the status of a man whose genius triumphed over adversity and injustice. The autobiography tells a more complicated story in which Scarborough’s very considerable achievements as a scholar were won in spite of continuous setbacks. Notwithstanding the passage of years between Scarborough’s lifetime and our own, it is deeply shaming for classicists to read of a ‘colleague’ excluded on grounds of his race from hotels that were meant to be hosting the delegates of academic conferences at which he had been invited to speak, never being able to rely on a constant salary even when in possession of a tenured chair at Wilberforce, denied a pension after forty-three years of service to the profession, and having to rely upon rare ingenuity to get access to the publications that he needed for his research.

How much more could Scarborough have achieved if he had had the financial wherewithal enjoyed by white Classics professors at other institutions? By Scarborough’s account he was often driven into debt by the non-payment of his salary or by his generosity in trying to keep Wilberforce afloat during lean periods. These straightened circumstances impinged on his scholarship; for example, Scarborough tells us that in 1889 he had completed the manuscript of an edition of Andocides, which was left to languish because he did not have the means and connections to publish it (105). At several points Scarborough refers with dignified understatement to the humiliations of travel and the prejudice and poverty to which this often exposed him.16

The Autobiography reveals Scarborough’s reliance on influential patrons, black and white, throughout his career, and the patronage that he extended to others in turn, both black and white. As a respected Negro leader, Scarborough became a powerful advocate in politics, and was courted for his ability to sway the black vote.17 The racial politics revealed in Scarborough’s account are fascinating, but no less so is the nature of the Autobiography itself as an extended lesson in civility and humanity. The author shames the racist institutions of his day with matter-of-fact accounts of their bigotry, and by the pointed counter-examples of those individuals and institutions who treated him with courtesy and the respect due to him as a man.

Scarborough’s success as a classicist is interesting from the perspective of the history of scholarship, but more striking still is the symbolic authority which this classical education, supposedly the basis for civilization and humanity, gave him in being able to speak and write back to his contemporaries on the evil and injustice of racial prejudice.18 Classics as a human qualification is an ever-present thread in the Autobiography, driven home by James Calhoun’s sneer, which Scarborough refers to in three different places, that ‘if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man’.19

The cultural symbolism of the black classicist in the decades after emancipation is conveyed in an electrifying passage in which Scarborough records accepting an invitation to deliver a paper on Plato at the University of Virginia in July 1892:

I was on the program for my paper on ‘The Chronological Order of Plato’s Works,’ designing to prove the order in point of time of Plato’s writings by the Greek used by him and by the circumstances that surrounded him at the time of writing. The [session] was held in the Rotunda of the University used as its library. The white aristocracy of the city turned out in large numbers. There was hardly standing room. On the walls hung the portraits of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Southern Confederacy, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army and other prominent Southern generals. The feeling that came over me was a strange one, as I stepped forward to present my paper. Every eye was fixed upon me and a peculiar hush seemed to pervade the room. It was a rare moment. Like a flash the past unrolled before my mind, my early Atlanta examinations, Calhoun’s famous challenge, that no Negro could learn Greek. For a moment I felt embarrassed as I faced my audience aware too that they must experience a peculiar feeling at the situation—a Negro member of that learned body standing in intellectual manhood among equals and where no Negro had ever been allowed even to enter, save as a servant—a Negro to discuss the writings of a Greek philosopher.20

There is much in this passage alone that merits discussion. Scarborough’s depiction here and elsewhere, of the intersection of intellectual manhood and black masculinity raises questions about the role of black women in the struggle for the uplift of the race, about his own interracial marriage—the politics of which are glossed over—and the alternative model of classicism espoused by the confederate leaders whose portraits witness Scarborough’s lecture.21

In this context, it is important to reflect that Scarborough pursued not a black classicism, or a white classicism, but a classicism beyond colour and accessible to all races. As Scarborough is co-opted into black classicism we should distinguish between his commitment to pursuing Classics and other academic subjects to further the advancement of the race, and other versions of black classicism in which the Classics are variously rejected, subverted, and adapted in ways that Scarborough did not envisage.

That we can now study and reflect upon Scarborough’s classicism is entirely due to Michele Ronnick’s edition of his Autobiography, which is the result of years of careful archival work, tracking down correspondence and newspapers for which Scarborough wrote, or in which he was written about. The introductory essay and the notes to the individual chapters supply an excellent scholarly basis for future research on Scarborough. Then there is the considerable editing that has gone into the presentation of the Autobiography, most of which is signalled in square brackets in the main text.22

Ronnick informs us that she has ‘stabilized’ Scarborough’s voice, converting any third-person references to first-person references, so that the entire Autobiography in this edition is told in a first-person voice. The text is undoubtedly more intelligible and readable as a result of this policy, but scholars working closely on Scarborough’s voice and self-representation will want to consult the manuscript to examine the fluctuation between first- and third-person narrative. Since the publication of the Autobiography in 2005, Ronnick has published an edition of Scarborough’s Works (2006), containing a representative sample of Scarborough’s speeches and his academic and journalistic prose. As noted above, there is a section devoted to Scarborough’s publications in Classical Philology, excluding Scarborough’s two major classical publications, First Lessons in Greek (1881), and The Birds of Aristophanes: A Theory of Interpretation (1886).

In the Introduction to Scarborough’s Autobiography, Ronnick frames Classica Africana as a new sub-field of the classical tradition, and presents a roll call of authors who might be said to constitute the black classical tradition.23 This roll call is problematic for its historical, geographical, and cultural heterogeneity, and for the fact that it lists people of African descent, but no African authors. To postulate a black classicism/Classica Africana is to posit a dialogue between black authors; it also brings us back to Bernal and the Black Athena controversy, because black classicism in the Americas (including the Caribbean) cannot duck the complex historical relationships between the cultures of Africa, Greece, Rome, and modern Europe.24 This is a case that was made forcefully in Kenneth Wetmore Jr’s books on adaptations of the classics in black theatre and literature (Wetmore 2002, 2003) and now, as we have seen, in Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson’s Crossing the Black Aegean.

Some of the theorizing necessary to develop the field of Classica Africana is done by Patrice Rankine in the first chapter of Ulysses in Black (2006). Entitled ‘Classica Africana: The Nascent Study of Black Classicism’, the chapter offers an excellent discussion of the origins and future of black classicism and should be required reading on syllabi devoted to the black classical tradition. The range of Rankine’s book is not immediately apparent from the title or table of contents. In addition to Ralph Ellison’s classicism, which is the focus of the book, specifically in Invisible Man (1952) and Juneteenth (1999), Rankine also has much to say about the potential interactions between Classics, African American literature, and black vernacular culture.

For instance, in the second chapter ‘Birth of a Hero: The Poetics and Politics of Ulysses in Classical Literature’, in order to illustrate his thesis that ‘black classicism can be part of a radical cultural identity’ (42) Rankine demonstrates the potential for counter-hegemonic readings in classical literature by looking at the instability of the hero Odysseus/Ulysses across three classical receptions of the hero: Odysseus in Odyssey 9; Odysseus in Euripides’ Hecuba; and Ulysses in Seneca’s Troades. The heroism of Odysseus in Odyssey 9 is revealed to be internally antagonistic, made possible through its opposite. In Hecuba, the Trojan queen mounts a powerful subaltern challenge to Odysseus’ moral and cultural authority, and in Troades the agency of those who are captive cannot be manipulated by those who notionally have power over them. Drawing on the work of Orlando Patterson, Rankine skillfully uses the opposition of slave and free, which is so central to the black (and white) experience in America, to tease out the presence of these oppositions in ancient Greek and Roman literature.25

Continuing the investigation of black classicism in Chapter 2, Rankine begins Chapter 3 by suggesting that one of the ways in which the black American tradition might be reconciled to the classical tradition is through a reordering of the common dichotomy that pits Graeco-Roman classics against black culture. Instead, Rankine proposes that the Classics/Black dichotomy looks different when juxtaposed with the internal tension within the classical tradition between Greek/Roman culture. Rankine argues that Roman was to Greek what Black is to the Classical tradition in the modern world and that black classicism has much to learn from the relationship between these competing cultural identities, which ‘causes a rupture in the narrative of the Western tradition’ (71). The remainder of the chapter examines the limitations of some of the theoretical debates that have dominated approaches to the study of Black classicism in the past, including Bernal’s Black Athena, and the corpus of Afrocentrist scholarship.

These first three chapters constitute the theoretical groundwork for Rankine’s study. Chapter 4—a transitional chapter—offers a reading of Countee Cullen’s Medea and Tony Morrison’s The Song of Solomon which seeks to demonstrate their commitment to an integrated knowledge in which classicism has a positive part to play. The discussion of these works enables Rankine to formulate the idea of a ‘New Negro Ulysses’, in which Ulysses’s nostos includes both a journey into the abyss of slavery and racial discord, and a return from this underworld. Here Rankine draws on the concept of ‘the black (w)hole’, articulated by Houston A. Baker and connects it to the katabasis of ancient epic. The ‘New Negro Ulysses’ then serves as foil to the discussion of Ralph Ellison’s classicism in Chapters 5–7.

There is much to like and admire in Rankine’s book, including the structure and style of Rankine’s argument, which reflect the book’s theme. The book is structured as a katabasis, with a view into the abyss and a journey out again—the abyss being the segregated world view in which Classics is an inveterate, white, discipline with nothing positive to offer black readers. There are many smart turns of phrase as well, including this nice play on the roots motif, which suggests the potential of Classics to be part of a revised roots narrative: ‘The aim of this chapter is to unearth some of the root qualities of classical literature that might have timeless appeal to writers—and, in this context, black writers specifically’ (38). However, most impressive of all is the thoroughgoing and successful attempt to invent a coherent theoretical framework for the discussion of black classicism in relation to the black tradition. This work speaks equally to scholars and students in classics, black studies, and comparative literature.

When Rankine writes on page 20, that ‘the current phenomenon of the study of black classicism represents a yearning toward the discourse of race within classical studies’, this claim begs interesting questions about the internationalism of black classicism and, as a corollary, the internationalism of blackness. As black classicism expands as an area of study, further thought will need to be given to its valency in Africa and the black Diaspora. As scholars trace black classicism through changing international contexts, then discourses and concepts will have to shift. Specific discourses of race that might be appropriate to African American classical receptions will not necessarily travel to the internally diverse Caribbean, or to diverse African contexts. Goff and Simpson have suggested one model, which is to trace the circulation of mythical types within ‘the Black Aegean’, and this model does indeed allow for diversity and historical and cultural specificity: Oedipus and Antigone can signify the tragic interruption of cultural and genealogical transmission in the contexts of the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and apartheid, while still allowing for these figures to be figured in very different ways from one author to the next.

However, although Goff’s and Simpson’s study suggests that classicism can be a vehicle for an international black identity, it is not always easy to distinguish the internationalism of black classicism from the Eurocentric classical humanism that previously excluded black cultures from the Graeco-Roman legacy. The interaction of local and international black cultures warrants further investigation in future research on black classicism. As a result of their proximate publication—Rankine in 2006, and Goff and Simpson in 2007— it was not possible for any overt dialogue to exist between these two works, but it is to be hoped that these scholars will engage with each others’ theorizations of black classicism in future publications.

Whatever future directions that the research in black classicism takes, it will be informed and enriched by Rankine’s study, which attempts to open up a serious dialogue between Classics and Black Studies, away from the polemics of the Black Athena debate. What the continuation of this dialogue might look like is suggested by two studies published in the following year (2007): Robert O’Meally’s Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey and Tracey Walters’s African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. In different ways, both authors speak from their respective disciplines to show what roles Classics can play in black mythopoiesis.

I turn to O’Meally first. In the essay ‘Of the Training of Black Men’, Du Bois wrote poignantly of conversing with the classics of literature across the colour line:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the colour line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling man and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. (Du Bois [1903] 1965: 69)

A novel vision of what Classics across the colour line might look like is offered in the ‘Odysseus’ collages of Romare Bearden, initially displayed at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York in the spring of 1977 and, thirty years on, the subject of an exhibition entitled ‘Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey’ at DC Moore Gallery in New York (13 November 2007 to 5 January 2008).26 Robert O’Meally’s study Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey was published on the occasion of the latter exhibition. O’Meally’s study comprises an introductory essay discussing Bearden’s engagement with Homer’s Odyssey in the larger context of Bearden’s art, reproductions of each of the twenty ‘Odysseus’ collages and parallel commentaries to accompany these illustrations. In addition, the volume also reproduces twenty-three watercolours that Bearden produced following the exhibition: twenty of these watercolours reproduce scenes treated in the collages, but three contain additional scenes.

As one might expect from an art-house press, this is an extremely elegant publication. While the layout of text and images is a dream, the quality of O’Meally’s text makes no small contribution to the volume’s style. O’Meally brings his expertise in Jazz studies to the question of Homeric reception in Bearden’s art.27 One of the recurring arguments in this study is that we should understand Bearden’s ‘Odysseus’ collages as a jazz-style collaboration with Homer.28 For O’Meally, the jazz paradigm operates on many different levels simultaneously: in the first instance, Bearden is improvising on a myth received from Homer, just as Homer had improvised ‘new ways of interpreting the received wisdom of very old tales’ (12).

Then O’Meally introduces the ‘Harlem sense’ of improvisation, in which improvisation is a collaborative endeavour. According to this sense, Bearden is an ‘improviser’ collaborating with Homer as with another artist: ‘Bearden in this series of collages gets close enough to The Odyssey of Homer that the two artists play together like section-mates in a jazz band’ (22). Then O’Meally suggests a Homeric, oral-derived ‘call-response’ jazz pattern, in which Bearden’s audiences, like Homer’s, are also in on the improvisation, completing the act (23). Finally, the hero of Bearden’s collages is also seen to be a master improviser, as O’Meally gives a jazz sense to Odysseus’ epithet polutropos, ‘of many turns’ (16–18). In fact, O’Meally himself emerges as an improvisatory author who shifts comfortably between different disciplines and approaches.

As evidence for the relevance of Odysseus’s improvisation for black American culture, O’Meally cites the original, compound epithet ‘jam-riff-clever Odysseus’ coined in the novel The Magic Keys by Bearden’s close friend and associate, Albert Murray (O’Meally 2007: 18).29 The circulation of Odysseus as trickster figure within black culture is an example of Bearden’s concept of ‘the Prevalence of Ritual’, according to which ‘all people however distant from one another in terms of geography or historical moment, engage in repeated actions’ (Ibid). There is a subtle difference here from the argument that black cultures have a capacity for ritual and the repetition of rituals (e.g., in dance and song) that modern European culture has lost—the argument put forward by James Snead in his influential article ‘Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture’.30 This latter argument has informed black classicism, especially in the version put forward by Wole Soyinka in Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), that the shared background in ritual and polytheistic religion better equips Nigerian dramatists to engage with Greek tragedy than is the case with their European counterparts.31

To return to Du Bois’ vision of Classics ‘across the colour line’: O’Meally presents us with a portrait of Bearden working with Homer ‘with no question of subordination on either side’ (11–12). What is more, any racist colour hierarchy in which ancient Greece is white-washed is thoroughly subverted by Bearden’s colour palette. In the collage entitled ‘The Fall of Troy’ (1977), Bearden depicts black-figure warriors, their profiles like Benin sculptures, mounting a jetty, which is also a ramp into Troy, brandishing swords and spears. An innocuous-looking Trojan horse is stationed off-centre, on the right side of the collage, having disgorged its men, and the towers of Troy are blazing with jagged, blood-red flames shooting from their tops. In the foreground, the sea swarms with triremes bearing more black-figure warriors. Troy occupies the top half of the collage, painted in the iconic combination of green, red and black which had been adopted as the colours for the flags of many newly independent African nations.

In O’Meally’s discussion of this scene, Bearden’s bold use of colour is one of the keys to interpretation, with striking or even dissonant colour combinations adding urgency and movement to the flatness of the collage. In a suggestive turn of phrase, Bearden spoke about liberating his colours so that they can ‘walk about the picture like free men’; O’Meally picks this up in the idea that Bearden’s colours in this collage are akin to ‘free men of colour’, free to shake up aesthetic meaning (2007: 32). O’Meally sees Bearden’s version of the fall of Troy as not a case of foreign armies clashing, but a civil war, ‘war as destruction of a great city, seedbed of life and culture—war thus as one of the great disasters that can befall the human family—war against humanity itself’ (ibid.). He also supplies a black American context for this collage:

Nor should it be forgotten that this is a collage from the 1970s by a black American artist whose work typically vibrates with social commentary. The Fall of Troy parallels the years of riot and rebellion in American cities as blacks protested and struggled for full citizenship in the divided house of the United States—still, according to many observers, resolving issues of its own long Civil War (Ibid).

Bearden’s black-figured rendition of Homer’s Odyssey blends the aesthetic of Greek vase painting,32 itself in the business of ‘receiving’ Homer, with black American culture in what amounts to an ideological statement about the collage of all cultures. Conventional models of cultural diversity cannot begin to account for the intersection of cultures in Bearden’s collages; instead, O’Meally describes Bearden as ‘omni-cultural’ (19). This cumulative model in which cultures are piled on top of each other informs Derek Walcott’s classicism; speaking against the backdrop of a Bearden exhibition at Duke University in the Spring of 1995, Walcott described the New-World aesthetic of the Americas embodied in Omeros as a model of ‘free-form choice . . . which owes to everything and is referential in that sense’ (1997: 242).33

Tracey Walters’ study, African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition (2007) is also preoccupied with the role that Graeco-Roman classics play in the web of references available to writers in the black tradition in America. Walters is specifically interested in black women writers and the cultural politics of their turn to Graeco-Roman mythology. Within this large subject, Walters focuses on Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison and Rita Dove, supplementing her study of these authors with shorter discussions of Phillis Wheatley, Henrietta Cordelia Ray and Pauline Hopkins. In particular, Walters identifies the myths of Niobe, Demeter, and Persephone, and Medea as recurrent mythological tropes in African American women’s writing.

The Introduction (‘Writing the Classics Black’) rehearses the history of black classicism familiar from Ronnick 2005 and Rankine 2006, and relates it to Walters’s particular interest in black women engaging with the classical tradition. The first chapter offers an overview of ancient and contemporary versions of the myths of Niobe, Demeter and Persephone, and Medea, emphasizing that different versions of each myth circulated in classical antiquity. Chapter 2 discusses the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writers Phillis Wheatley, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, and Pauline Hopkins as the original architects of the tradition of Black women’s classical revision. Chapter 3 offers a detailed study of Gwendolyn Brooks’s long poems Annie Allen (1949) and In the Mecca (1968) as revisions of the Demeter and Persephone myth.34 Walters stresses the countercultural nature of Brooks’s use of the classics at a time when the Black Arts Movement was turning away from what was perceived as white, western and classical mythology. Chapter 4 examines Toni Morrison’s equivocal use of Graeco-Roman mythology in the novels the Song of Solomon (1977)  Beloved (1987) and The Bluest Eye (1970). 

It is equivocal, in the sense that any presence of Graeco-Roman mythology is counterbalanced by the black tradition, specifically black folklore, which is far and away the more dominant voice. In the case of Song of Solomon, Walters evokes the myth of Daedalus and Icarus; in the case of Beloved, the myth of Medea; and in the Bluest Eye, the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Several writers have discussed Morrison’s engagement with Classics, particularly the dialogue with Euripides’ Medea in Beloved; however, Walters’s discussion of The Bluest Eye offers an original contribution to existing scholarship in demonstrating that Morrison is simultaneously engaging intertextually with revisions of the Demeter and Persephone myth in the work of other black women writers.35 Finally, Chapter 5 explores the cultural politics of Rita Dove’s independent approach to the classical tradition as one of the many traditions available to the writer who takes a universal approach to her or his work. There are analogies here with O’Meally’s comment about the ‘omni-cultural’ Bearden, and with Derek Walcott’s classicism—a point that Walters makes (140). Walters focuses on Dove’s play The Darker Face of the Earth (1994) and the volume of poems Mother Love (1995).

I cannot do justice to the full scope of Walters’s study in this review, but discussion of this last chapter will help to illustrate her contribution in the context of scholarship on black classicism. At the centre of Dove’s play is a tale of miscegenation on a slave plantation in the American South between a white mistress, Amalia, and one of her black slaves, Hector, resulting in a son called Augustus Newcastle who is given away and subsequently becomes his mother’s lover when he returns as a slave to the plantation where he was born. Goff and Simpson’s book contains a cogent chapter on The Darker Face of the Earth as an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in which this Oedipal tale of incest is a metaphor for both the violence done to society by the institution of slavery, which perverts family relationships, and the difficulty of tracing genealogies as a result of the deracination effected by the slave trade.

As Goff and Simpson put it, ‘The uncovering of slave stories may be considered oedipal in that the narratives resist telling: identities are lost on the journey of the Middle Passage, and the stories are suppressed because they are so devastating’ (152). Walters stresses the Oedipal tropes in the play, but also appeals to the tradition of African American women’s literature, relating the play’s focus on incest and rape to the treatment of these themes in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (Walters 2007: Ch. 4). In Walters’ reading, the myths of Niobe and  Demeter and Persephone are also part of the mythological fabric of The Darker Face of the Earth, as Dove’s radical depiction of Amalia, the slave mistress, sees her suffer the loss of her child, which was a common fate for enslaved women on the plantations:

Dove shows that despite her position of power, in some ways Amalia is as oppressed as her slaves. As a young girl she is forced into the standard arranged marriage, which results in a loveless and sexless union. Rather than adhering to the cult of womanhood and playing the role of sexually-frustrated plantation mistress, Amalia defies convention and empowers herself sexually, first by seeking out her own partner and second by defying the laws of the day and engaging in an affair with a slave. [ … ] Augustus’ birth is a tragic moment for Amalia because in addition to losing Hector (the relationship ends after Hector thinks Augustus is stillborn) she also loses her son. Like the women featured in Wheatley’s ‘Niobe’ or Brooks “In the Mecca,” Amalia is depicted as the grieving mother who suffered separation from her child.36

Walters’s study demonstrates that the revisions of African American women constitute a significant chapter in the study of the feminist reception of Classics, and classical mythology in particular. Reading this book, I was reminded of the recent volume on classical myth and feminist thought [Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought] edited by Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard. Writing about the prominence of Greek myth in feminist thought, Zajko and Leonard remark that:

Instead of creating new genealogies, many feminists have chosen to revivify ancient narratives to arm contemporary struggles. There is a tendency to overlook the strangeness of this choice. These myths are after all not only the products of an androcentric society, they can also be seen to justify its most basic patriarchal assumptions.37

The addition of a black feminist perspective further complicates the strangeness of the move to Greek mythology and raises important questions about the cultural identity of feminist thought. Walters contends that African American women writers approach Classics as ‘double minorities’ by virtue of their race and gender (27). How usable are their powerful revisions for white women readers? For example, the black tradition clearly influenced Margaret Atwood’s feminist revision of Homer’s Odyssey in her Penelopiad (2005). The pivot for Atwood’s revision is the maids in Odysseus’ palace at Ithaca, whose rape and hanging put Odysseus on trial in her rewriting. Atwood’s depiction of the maids takes its cue from the slave experience in America, as well as the infernal race crime of lynching.38 In view of Walters’s powerful argument that African American women writers have used the universal scope of Graeco-Roman mythology to communicate both the local and the universal significance of their own narratives, we should also allow that writers outside the black tradition, such as Atwood, can also contribute to black classicism.

Walters’s study is particularly commendable for her constant return to the political and social contexts for the classical revisions of African American women writers. The discussions of rape in myth never lose sight of poverty, rape, racial and sexual discrimination as acute concerns for black women and for American society at large in the twentieth century. It is no exaggeration to call Walters’s discussion of ‘classical discourse as political agency’ inspiring.39 Again and again she shows how familiar classical myths have been signified anew by black women writers, extending the currency of these myths and contributing to a more intricate understanding of the dense web of cultural references in the black tradition. However, the analysis of the different revisions is sometimes uneven, with insightful and extremely well-informed criticism co-existing alongside sweeping generalizations which are not in fact borne out by Walters’s nuanced discussion.

When Walters writes on page 39 that, ‘In 1773 Phillis Wheatley established the tradition of Black women’s classical revision,’ much is left unsaid about the controversial subject of how such traditions are invented. Or, on page 114, when Walters comments that ‘Like other women in this study Morrison’s goal is to present classical myth from the Black female perspective,’ the bland descriptive content of this statement rings hollow in view of Walters’s own discussion of the diverse and complex reasons that African American women writers have had for turning to classical myth.40 But this is not to detract from the importance and originality of Walters’s book.

The works reviewed above project an interesting future for black classicism. First and foremost, they demonstrate the importance of a cross-disciplinary approach to the study of the black classical tradition. Writing from outside Classics, both O’Meally and Walters show that the study of black classicism across disciplinary traditions contributes to a much richer, internally diverse model of the black classical tradition. Secondly, they reveal the need for the cross-cultural study of receptions of Classics in the literature of Africa and the black diaspora. One of the challenges for future research in this field is the task of negotiating the differences between ‘black classicism’ and ‘classica africana’: the former is closely tied to the African American context, while the latter—which is not exactly synonymous—evokes the role of Africa in the construction of black identities in the New World.

Four of the works reviewed here are dedicated to the African American reception of Classics, as opposed to the reception of Classics in Africa or the black Diaspora in its entirety. Potentially black classicism encompasses a much larger field and differential receptions; it will be interesting to see how tropes worked out in relation to the black experience in America interact with tropes in the arts of Africa, the Caribbean and Europe.41 Here again there are unlikely points of contact between the black tradition and the classical tradition, as black internationalism can be used to critique the universalism of the classical tradition, and vice versa.

Finally a plea for the inclusivity of black classicism. As I argued above, William Sanders Scarborough did not take up Classics in order to establish an exclusive black classicism, but rather to prove the point that classicism was not white. Black classicism does not propose an either/or model for the classical tradition, but a both/and model: the tradition is stronger for its ability to appeal to different cultural traditions which are anyway profoundly interconnected. All of the works reviewed here expose the crude fiction of a zero-sum model of culture in which one tradition’s ascendancy is another tradition’s demise.

Source: OxfordJournals

*   *   *   *   *


1 Greenwood (2009) will supplement this research with a study of the uses of Classics in the Anglophone Caribbean in the twentieth century.

2 See a forthcoming essay by Margaret Malamud on ‘Classics and Race in the Early American Republic’.

3 Michele Valerie Ronnick organized a panel on ‘Classica Africana’ at the 1996 annual meeting of the American Philological Association. See Ronnick (2005: 334, n. 10).

4 O’Meally (2007: 15).

5 For an overview and critical discussion of this debate, see the volume of essays edited by Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (Lefkowitz and Rogers 1996), and Berlinerblau (1999). For Lefkowitz’s argument with Afrocentrism in the context of the Black Athena debate, see Lefkowitz (1997). The legacy of Bernal’s Black Athena was the subject of a recent ‘African Athena’ conference at Warwick University organized by Daniel Orrells (6–8 November 2008).

6 Goff and Simpson (2007: 111–12).

7 On Black Orpheus, see Wetmore (2003: Ch. 1); on Medea, see Haley (1995), Wetmore (2003: Ch. 4) and Rankine (2006: 94–103). On Demeter and Persephone, see Walters (2007).

8 McDonald (2000); Budelmann (2005, 2007); Djisenu (2007); Gibbs (2007); Wetmore (2002, 2003). Although not exclusive to African adaptations, there is relevant theoretical discussion in Hardwick (2005, 2006).

9 Contra Wetmore (2002), Budelmann (2005) and Hardwick (2005).

10 An online bibliography of Ronnick’s relevant works is available at the following web address: <> [accessed 13 October 2009]

11 See Rankine (2006: 30–1). See also Martha Southgate’s novel, The Fall of Rome (2002), which explores the implicit racial politics of the discipline of Classics and the potential tension between Classics and black identity through the figure of Jerome Washington, an African American Latin teacher at an elite private school in Connecticut. I thank Irene Peirano for bringing this book to my attention.

12 See Gates (2003: passim).

13 Rankine (2006: 19), ‘black classicism negatively affects the reception of the works of black authors’.

14 A notice of the former, taken from TAPA 15 (1884), is reprinted in Ronnick (2006: 273), while a summary of the latter, from TAPA 38 (1907), is reprinted in Ronnick (2006: 331–2).

15 Ronnick (ed.) (2006: 273–332).

16 See e.g. Scarborough’s failure to secure accommodation in Williamstown, related on p. 134: ‘I … found myself on the way forced to put up with one of those situations so inconvenient and humiliating to the race.’

17 Although the term ‘Negro’ is now widely regarded as pejorative, it was the signifier of black identity used by Scarborough and his contemporaries.

18 For the idea of Classics as a qualification for civilization and for the pre-occupation of black intellectuals with demonstrating civilization through learning in this period, see the Reverend Alexander Crummell’s inaugural address to the American Negro Academy, entitled ‘Civilization the Primal Need of the Race’, delivered on 5 March 1897 (Crummell 1898a: 3–7).

19 See Ronnick (2005: 7 and 342, n. 29). Of Calhoun’s sneer, Crummell comments: ‘Just think of the crude asininity of even a great man! Mr. Calhoun went to “Yale” to study the Greek syntax and graduated there. His son went to Yale to study the Greek syntax, and graduated there. His grandson, in recent years, went to Yale, to learn the Greek syntax, and graduated there. Schools and Colleges were necessary for the Calhouns, and all other white men to learn the Greek syntax’ (Crummell 1898b: 11).

20 Scarborough in Ronnick (2005: 121).

21 See Winterer (2002: 21) on the ‘culture of classicism’ in the American South. The alternative model of classicism which I allude to here is the classicism that was mobilized to underwrite the ideals of the American Republic, but which was also frequently used to justify slave-owning as a ‘classical’ institution.

22 See Ronnick (2005: 21) for details of her editorial approach.

23 Ronnick (2005: 5).

24 See Greenwood (2004).

25 Patterson (1991).

26 O’Meally notes that Bearden had had an earlier Homeric-themed exhibition, ‘The Iliad: 16 variations by Romare Bearden’, at Manhattan’s Niveau Gallery in 1948 (O’Meally 2007: 11).

27 Robert O’Meally founded the Centre of Jazz at Columbia University and has published extensively on Jazz, including Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1989); The Jazz Singers (1997); Seeing Jazz (1997); (as editor) The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (1998); and (as co-editor) Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies (2003).

28 Compare the bardic character Billy Blue in Walcott’s The Odyssey: A Stage Version (1993). ‘Blind’ Billy Blue is a black blues performer, who simultaneously evokes the African griot and Greek rhapsode. The play opens with Billy Blue performing a riff on Homer’s Odyssey: ‘Gone sing’bout that man because his stories please us,| Who saw trials and tempests for ten years after Troy. | I’m Blind Billy Blue, my main man’s sea-smart Odysseus, | … ’.

29 Albert Murray The Magic Keys (New York: Pantheon, 2005) p. 242. For Murray and Bearden’s relationship, see Price and Price (2006: 37–9).

30 Snead (1990).

31 Soyinka (1976), although Soyinka is just as preoccupied with the differences and contrasts between Yoruba religion and Greek religion; see also Okpewho (1999); Wetmore (2002, Ch. 3); Djisenu (2007); and Goff and Simpson (2007: 74).

32 As O’Meally points out (20), Bearden was not the first African American artist to experiment with the black silhouettes on Greek black figure vases. O’Meally cites the example of Aaron Douglas.

33 See Price and Price (2006: 96–7), who quote Walcott’s lecture in their discussion of the narrative technique of Bearden’s watercolour, ‘Odysseus Rescued by a Sea Nymph’, and the corresponding collage ‘The Sea Nymph’ (both 1977).

34 The collection Annie Allen includes a poem sequence entitled The Anniad for which Brooks invented a mock-heroic form called the anniad to celebrate the life of her protagonist, Annie. The title ‘Anniad’ alludes, subversively, to the Iliad and Aeneid.

35 For an overview of bibliography on Morrison’s relationship with the Graeco-Roman classical tradition, see Roynon (2007b: 31, n. 1). Additional discussions include Rankine (2006: 103–18) and Roynon (2007a).

36 Walters (2007: 149–50).

37 Zajko and Leonard (2006: 2).

38 See e.g. Atwood’s Chapter II (‘The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme’): Atwood (2005: 5–6).

39 The phrase in quotation marks is the title of Chapter 2 of Walters’s study.

40 The publisher (Palgrave) should have done a better job of correcting the proofs of Walters’s book: the repetition ‘the the’ occurs twice on page 1, and there are some typographical slips in the spelling of Greco-Roman names (e.g. ‘Macenas’ for ‘Maecenas’ on p. 5, and ‘Procene’ for ‘Procne’ on p. 109).

41 The Editor rightly pointed out to me that migration and its concomitant cosmopolitanisms mean that these cultural poles are diffuse, with the result that the arts in Europe increasingly reflect perspectives that are extra-European.

 *   *   *   *   *


Atwood M.. The Penelopiad. Edinburgh: Canongate; 2005.

Berlinerblau J. Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 1999.

Bernal M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Free Association Books; 1987.

Bernal M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 1991.

Bernal M. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; 2006.

Goff B Budelmann F. ‘Greek Tragedies in West African Adaptations’. In: Goff B, editor. Classics and Colonialism 2005. p. 118-46.

Hardwick, Gillespie Budelmann F. ‘Trojan Women in Yorubaland: Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu’. In: Hardwick, Gillespie, editors. Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds 2007. p. 15-39.

Chew K. ‘What Does E Pluribus Unum Mean? Reading the Classics and Multicultural Literature Together’. Classical Journal 1997; 93/1:55-81.

Crummell A. ‘Civilization the Primal Need of the Race’. The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers 1898a;no. 3:1-7.

Crummell A. ‘The Attitude of the American Mind Toward the Negro Intellect’. The American Negro Academy Occasional Papers 1898b;3:8-19.

Hardwick, Gillespie Djisenu J. ‘Cross-Cultural Bonds between Ancient Greece and Africa: Implications for Contemporary Staging Practices’. In: Hardwick, Gillespie, editors. Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds 2007. p. 72-85.

Du Bois W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Essays and Sketches (London: Longmans, 1965) (first publ. in 1903).

Fikes R. Jr. ‘It was Never Greek to Them: Black Affinity for Ancient Greek and Roman Culture’. The Negro Educational Review 2002;53:3-12.

Gates H. L. Jr. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. New York: Basic Civitas Books; 2003.

Hardwick, Gillespie Gibbs J. ‘Antigone and her African Sisters: West African Versions of a Greek Original’. In: Hardwick, Gillespie, editors. Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds 2007. p. 54-71.

Gilroy P. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso; 1993.

Goff B. (ed.). Classics and Colonialism. London: Duckworth; 2005.

Milne L Greenwood E. ‘Classics and the Atlantic Triangle: Caribbean Readings of Greece and Rome via Africa’. In: Milne L, editor. Caribbean Connections, special issue of Forum for Modern Language Studies. XL/4. 2004. p. 365-76.

Greenwood E. Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2009.

Culham P, Edmunds L Haley SP. ‘Classics and Minorities’. In: Culham P, Edmunds L, editors. Classics: A Discipline and Profession in Crisis? Lanham, MD: University Press of America; 1989. p. 333-38.

Sorkin Rabinowitz N, Richlin A Haley SP. ‘Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering’. In: Sorkin Rabinowitz N, Richlin A, editors. Feminist Theory and the Classics. New York: Routledge; 1993. p. 23-43.

Goff Hardwick L. ‘Refiguring Classical Texts: Aspects of the Postcolonial Condition’. In: Goff, editor. Classics and Colonialism 2005. p. 107-17.

Martindale C, Thomas R Hardwick L. ‘Remodeling Receptions; Greek Drama as Diaspora in Performance’. In: Martindale C, Thomas R, editors. Classics and the Uses of Reception. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell; 2006. p. 204-15.

Hardwick L, Gillespie C, editors. Classics in Postcolonial Worlds. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2007.

Lefkowitz M. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: New Republic Books; 1997.

Lefkowitz M, Rogers GM, editors. Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Okpewho I. ‘Soyinka, Euripides, and the Anxiety of Empire’. Research in African Literatures 1999;30/4:32-55.

Patterson O. Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. New York: Basic Books; 1991.

Price S, Price R. Romare Bearden: The Caribbean Dimension. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2006.

Ronnick MV. (ed.) The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader. Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.

Roynon T. ‘Tony Morrison and Classical Tradition’. Literature Compass 2007a;4/6:1514-37.

Roynon T. ‘A New “Romen” Empire: Toni Morrison’s Love and the Classics’. Journal of American Studies 2007b;41/1:31-47.

Louis Gates H Snead JA. ‘Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture’. In: Louis Gates H, editor. Black Literature & Literary Theory. repr. (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) pp. 59–79 (First publ. by Methuen in 1984).

Southgate M. The Fall of Rome. A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster; 2002.

Soyinka W. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1976.

Davis G Walcott D. ‘Reflections on Omeros’. In: Davis G, editor. The Poetics of Derek Walcott: Intertextual Perspectives. Special Issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly. 96/2. 1997. p. 229-46.

Walcott D. The Odyssey: A Stage Version. London: Faber and Faber; 1993.

Wetmore K. The Athenian Sun in an African Sky. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company; 2002.

Wetmore K. Black Dionysus. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company; 2003.

Winterer C. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780–1910. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2002.

Zajko V, Leonard M, editors. Laughing With Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.

Source: OxfordJournals

*   *   *   *   *

Howard  is the only historically black college that has had a classics program since its inception . . .—A Shift in Direction at Howard

*   *   *   *   *

Frank Snowden Now An Ancestor

Major Scholar of Blacks in Antiquity


Frank M. Snowden Jr. passed away on February 18 of this year in Washington, D.C., after a long and celebrated life in a variety of professional vocations—instructor, scholar, administrator, diplomat. The classics world can justifiably claim that it has lost one of its giants. Professor Snowden graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1928 and proceeded to Harvard University, where he was awarded his bachelor’s (1932), master’s (1933), and doctoral (1944) degrees in classics.

He began his professional career as an instructor in Latin, French, and English at Virginia State College (1933–1936) and then moved to Spelman College and Atlanta University, where he was an instructor in classics (1936–1940). From then until 1990 he was a member of the faculty at Howard University  . . . . —WashingtonPost

*   *   *   *   *


Books by Dr. Joyce E. King


Black Education / Preparing Teachers for Cultural Diversity / Teaching Diverse Populations

 Black Mothers to Sons: Juxtaposing African American Literature with Social Practice.

*   *   *   *   *

Dear Rudy and Professor Michele:

I greatly appreciate this article and the sources cited. It will be extremely invaluable to me and my doctoral students in education. You and your colleagues offer a stunning example of the power of the Black Studies intellectual tradition.  Thanks also to you, Rudy, for providing this liberated gathering place of memory that again, is unmatched in service to our people and our intellectual liberation. I will direct my class this term to this article. We just had a very brief discussion of Du Bois and Washington in my Social Foundations of Education course—that only scratched the surface. 

I work with a team of doctoral students and community-based educators. We are not in the “Classics” but our work involves developing ways to use our African heritage, including the Black Studies intellectual tradition, to transform the educational process for teachers, students and parents—for our liberation and for human freedom. Sometimes my students complain that Black scholars like Du Bois have been omitted from their own education coursework—in philosophy and sociology, for example.  They have a lot of catching up to do in order to make their contribution.

So this article will be very useful to fill in many gaps in their studies and our work. More reading!! It’s also fascinating to see how interdisciplinary Black Studies scholarship is re-writing the so-called European Classical tradition (which we know has been influenced by Africa/ns from the beginning.)

Finally, I would like to suggest that some folks in your field might want to look at the way younger activist writers are re-inventing Black Classics for young readers. The Memnon series by Brother G is one example.

Gregory L. Walker (Brother G). Shades of Memnon: The African Hero of the Trojan War and the Keys to Ancient World Civilization. Posen, IL: Seker Nefer Press. 

In solidarity,

Dr. Joyce King

PS I am copying this message to a couple of Black Book stores (Community Book Center in New Orleans and A Different Booklist in Toronto), who are also serving our communities as educators! 

*   *   *   *   *

Letter to Dr King

Dear Dr. King: Greetings from Detroit!  Great to hear from you.  I think that you’ll  be particularly interested in *The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship   (Detroit, 2005), PDF attached. His narrative is a rich slice of intellectual and philological history in the larger struggle for freedom in body, mind & soul in this country.  He was a life-long friend of Frederick Douglass, B.T. Washington, and other famous people, and his story in his own words is available for the first time in this edition. I actually found his unpublished manuscript in Ohio and it has been waiting for over 80 years to tell his story to the world.   Scarborough began life in slavery in Macon, GA on February 16, 1852. As a boy he learned to read and write in secret, carrying his book hidden under his arm and pretending to play. He witnessed the fall of Macon to Union troops and saw Jefferson Davis led away as prisoner of war. Henry McNeal Turner, African American bishop of the A.M.E. Church, saw the brilliance in the young boy and told his parents to educate him at all costs. After the war ended he studied Greek and Latin at Atlanta University (where he heard R.R. Wright say “Tell them we are rising”).  He was Atlanta University’s first student and in fact was the only member of the senior class of 1869. He later earned BA and MA degrees in classical languages at Oberlin College and studied Spanish as well. He then joined the faculty at Wilberforce University as professor of ancient languages. His Greek textbook, published with A.S. Barnes in New York City in 1881, made him famous.  Many like David Hume in the 18th century and John C. Calhoun in the 19th did not think that a black man had the capacity to learn Greek and Latin.   In 1888 this young man, who had heard General Sherman thundering through Georgia as a boy, sat by the side of the General’s brother, John Sherman, at the first Lincoln Day Banquet held in Ohio.  He became a well known lecturer on scholarly  subjects, politics and racial topics  both in the US and abroad. In 1892 he gave a lecture at the University of Virginia on Plato in Jefferson’s Rotunda where he said that he and the white audience knew at once that he stood where no black man had stood before save as a servant. Scarborough’s is a story of courage, dignity and devotion to the life of the mind set against the larger background of the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crowism. He   blazed his own path in the academy becoming the first black member of the Modern Language Association which set up a prize in his honor in 2001 and the third black member of the American Philological Association. This membership was life long, 44 years with over 20 papers presented at APA meetings many of which he describes. He was also member of the American Negro Academy and the NAACP. As President of Wilberforce University he directed the school through World War I   and handled the concomitant problems with the segregated armed forces. He knew all the early African Americans who had come out of West Point men including Flipper, Young, and Davis.Choice Magazine gave the book a “highly recommended” rating.  Kevin Boyle in his own book, *Arc of Justice (National Book Award 2004), says that Scarborough was the exemplar of the “Talented Tenth.” Du Bois who taught Greek at Wilberforce in Scarborough’s place from 1894-1896 was in his baby clothes when Scarborough was a college student. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. declared in the forward to *The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, Oxford University Press, 2006 (PDF attached which is the companion to the autobiography) that: “Scarborough was the consummate black academic . . . the black scholar’s scholar.” Warmest regards,Michele Valerie Ronnick,  Professor Wayne State University Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures 487 Manoogian Hall 906 West Warren Avenue Detroit, Michigan 48202 http://www.  

posted 5 November 2010 


*   *   *   *   *

Shades of Memnon

Novel by Gregory L. Walker

Shades of Memnon is an exciting, inspiring, award winning series of adventure novels written in the epic style similar to classics like The Lord of the Rings. According to many teachers, these books help to promote a truly multicultural experience in the classroom, promoting historical self-esteem and interracial respect. The reading program consists of books, teaching guides, music and art and has proven to be a powerful educational tool.  

Gregory Walker talked about his research into the Greek mythology of the Trojan War. The Ethiopus, one of the missing books from the Trojan epic cycle that includes Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, includes the story of the hero Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, who came with an expeditionary force to help Troy against the Achaean invaders. Shades of Memnon: The African Hero of the Trojan War and the Keys to Ancient World Civilization (Seker Nefer Press; January 1, 1999), the first book of a mythological fantasy series based on this epic.—C-Span

*   *   *   *   *

Memnon—in Greek mythology—was an Ethiopian king and son of Tithonus and Eos. As a warrior he was considered to be almost Achilles’ equal in skill. At the Trojan War, he brought an army to Troy‘s defense and was killed by Achilles in retribution for killing Antilochus. The death of Memnon echoes that of Hector, another defender of Troy whom Achilles also killed out of revenge for a fallen comrade, Patroclus. After Memnon’s death, Zeus was moved by Eos’ tears and granted her immortality. Memnon’s death is related at length in the lost epic Aethiopis, composed after The Iliad circa the 7th century BC. Quintus of Smyrna records Memnon’s death in Posthomerica. His death is also described in Philostratus’ Imagines. . . .

Frank Snowden—in Blacks in Antiquity—examined the later Greek and Roman tradition tying Memnon to African “Ethiopia.” Snowden notes that according to Greek tradition, Memnon was the progenitor of the Ethiopians, which in this context referred to African people.

Through changing depictions of Memnon on vase paintings and scenes of the Trojan War, Snowden shows that the Asiatic portrayal of Memnon was abandoned in favor of an African origin. Literary accounts of the Trojan war, as well as numerous Roman authors, consistently describe Memnon with African characteristics as an Ethiopian from Sudan and Egypt.—Wikipedia

*   *   *   *   *

Gregory L. Walker (Brother G) is a Chicago based journalist, poet, historian and author. While working part-time for the Associated Press, Brother G spent 10 years conducting research for the African Legends genre, writing Shades of Memnon and developing contacts in archeology, anthropology and linguistics worldwide. He has also written columns on comic books and graphic novels for the American Library Association, contributed to the national news publication In These Times and is one of a popular group of Chicago poets who inspired the motion picture Love Jones” Recipient of the Best New Author Of the Year Award at Chicago’s Black Book Fair 2000, Brother G has been a featured speaker at the Harlem Book Fair, The East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, the Association For The Study of Classical African Civilizations, and numerous other schools, colleges and organizations.

Shades of Memnon author speaks  / Gregory Walker and his book Shades of Memnon

*   *   *   *   *

Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey

By Robert O’Meally and Romare Bearden

Foreword by Bridget Moore

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) had a true Renaissance sensibility. He was a fine artist who also successfully turned his hand to printmaking, writing, costume and set design, as well as composing jazz music. In addition, he helped to found the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York’s Cinque Gallery, and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, and was once even offered an opportunity to play professional baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics. But it is for his rich and textured collages that Bearden is best known today. In 1977, Bearden created a sequence of twenty collages based on episodes from Homer’s Odyssey. It may come as a surprise to even his most avid followers that this devoted chronicler of African American culture and the Harlem Renaissance would gravitate to such a canonical text.

But in the essay accompanying Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, scholar Robert G. O’Meally argues for their thematic consistency and suggests that, in the figures of Odysseus, Penelope, Poseidon, Nausicca and others, Bearden found themes sympathetic to the African American experience. These motifs of wandering, mourning and the questing for home–considering Bearden’s scores of interiors and exteriors, country and city life and depictions of family love—emerge as the central themes of all his art. Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, the first in-depth consideration of these collages since they were originally exhibited 30 years ago, will prove a surprise to Bearden fans and newcomers alike.

Romare Bearden  / The Negro Artist and Modern Art / About Romare Bearden  /  Romare Bearden’s Southern Sensibility

The Art of Romare Bearden  Romare Bearden: Visual Jazz  / Thru The Ozone The Art of Romare Bearden 

Discovering Romare Bearden  / Romare Bearden: Master of Space and Form  Inside New York’s Art World: Romare Bearden 

*   *   *   *   *

Ulysses in Black

Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature

By Patrice Rankine

In this groundbreaking work, Patrice D. Rankine asserts that the classics need not be a mark of Eurocentrism, as they have long been considered. Instead, the classical tradition can be part of a self-conscious, prideful approach to African American culture, esthetics, and identity. Ulysses in Black demonstrates that, similar to their white counterparts, African American authors have been students of classical languages, literature, and mythologies by such writers as Homer, Euripides, and Seneca.

Ulysses in Black closely analyzes classical themes (the nature of love and its relationship to the social, Dionysus in myth as a parallel to the black protagonist in the American scene, misplaced Ulyssean manhood) as seen in the works of such African American writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Countee Cullen. Rankine finds that the merging of a black esthetic with the classics—contrary to expectations throughout American culture—has often been a radical addressing of concerns including violence against blacks, racism, and oppression. Ultimately, this unique study of black classicism becomes an exploration of America’s broader cultural integrity, one that is inclusive and historic.

*   *   *   *   *

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

 (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume 1)

By Martin Bernal

Winner of the American Book Award and a Socialist Review Book Award What is classical about Classical Civilization? In one of the most audacious works of scholarship ever written, Martin Bernal challenges the whole basis of our thinking about this question. Classical civilization, he argues, has deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures. But these Afroasiatic influences have been systematically ignored, denied, or suppressed since the eighteenth century—chiefly for racist reasons. The popular view is that Greek civilization was the result of the conquest of a sophisticated but weak native population by vigorous Indo-European speakers—or Aryans—from the North.

But the Classical Greeks, Bernal argues, knew nothing of this “Aryan model.” They did not see their political institutions, science, philosophy, or religion as original, but rather as derived from the East in general, and Egypt in particular. Black Athena is a three-volume work. Volume 1 concentrates on the crucial period between 1785 and 1850, which saw the Romantic and racist reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the consolidation of Northern expansion into other continents. In an unprecedented tour de force, Bernal makes meaningful links between a wide range of areas and disciplines—drama poetry, myth, theological controversy, esoteric religion, philosophy, biography, language, historical narrative, and the emergence of “modern scholarship.” Martin Bernal is Professor Emeritus of Government Studies at Cornell University; he was formerly a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.

*   *   *   *   *

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

(Volume 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence)

In this volume Martin Bernal‘s objective is to demonstrate the extent of Egyptian and Phoenician influences on the Aegean during the period in which Greek cultural and national identity was being formed. He reviews the archaeological and documentary evidence supported by research into the linguistic, mythological and religious cultures of the period

*   *   *   *   *

Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

The Linguistic Evidence, Vol. 3

Could Greek philosophy be rooted in Egyptian thought? Is it possible that the Pythagorean theory was conceived on the shores of the Nile and the Euphrates rather than in ancient Greece? Could it be that much of Western civilization was formed on the “Dark Continent”? For almost two centuries, Western scholars have given little credence to the possibility of such scenarios.

In Black Athena, an audacious three-volume series that strikes at the heart of today’s most heated culture wars, Martin Bernal challenges Eurocentric attitudes by calling into question two of the longest-established explanations for the origins of classical civilization. To use his terms, the Aryan Model, which is current today, claims that Greek culture arose as the result of the conquest from the north by Indo-European speakers, or “Aryans,” of the native “pre-Hellenes.” The Ancient Model, which was maintained in Classical Greece, held that the native population of Greece had initially been civilized by Egyptian and Phoenician colonists and that additional Near Eastern culture had been introduced to Greece by Greeks studying in Egypt and Southwest Asia. Moving beyond these prevailing models, Bernal proposes a Revised Ancient Model, which suggests that classical civilization in fact had deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures.

This long-awaited third and final volume of the series is concerned with the linguistic evidence that contradicts the Aryan Model of ancient Greece. Bernal shows how nearly 40 percent of the Greek vocabulary has been plausibly derived from two Afroasiatic languages—Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic. He also reveals how these derivations are not limited to matters of trade, but extended to the sophisticated language of politics, religion, and philosophy. This evidence, according to Bernal, greatly strengthens the hypothesis that in Greece an Indo-European-speaking population was culturally dominated by Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic speakers. Provocative, passionate, and colossal in scope, this volume caps a thoughtful rewriting of history that has been stirring academic and political controversy since the publication of the first volume.

*   *   *   *   *

Black Dionysus: Greek Tragedy and African American Theatre

By Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

Many playwrights, authors, poets and historians have used images, metaphors and references to and from Greek tragedy, myth and epic to describe the African experience in the New World. The complex relationship between ancient Greek tragedy and modern African American theatre is primarily rooted in America, where the connection between ancient Greece and ancient Africa is explored and debated the most. The different ways in which Greek tragedy has been used by playwrights, directors and others to represent and define African American history and identity are explored in this work. Two models are offered for an Afro-Greek connection: Black Orpheus, in which the Greek connection is metaphorical, expressing the African in terms of the European; and Black Athena, in which ancient Greek culture is “reclaimed” as part of an Afrocentric tradition.

African American adaptations of Greek tragedy on the continuum of these two models are then discussed, and plays by Peter Sellars, Adrienne Kennedy, Lee Breuer, Rita Dove, Jim Magnuson, Ernest Ferlita, Steve Carter, Silas Jones, Rhodessa Jones and Derek Walcott are analyzed. The concepts of colorblind and nontraditional casting and how such practices can shape the reception and meaning of Greek tragedy in modern American productions are also covered.

*   *   *   *   *

The Athenian Sun in an African Sky

By Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

Western literature has become more influential in Africa since the independence of many of that continent’s countries in the early 1960s. In particular, Greek tragedy has grown as model and inspiration for African theatre artists. This work begins with a discussion of the affinity that modern-day African playwrights have for ancient Greek tragedy and the factors that determine their choice of classical texts and topics. The study concentrates on how African playwrights transplant the dramatic action and narrative of the Greek texts by rewriting both the performance codes and the cultural context.

The methods by which African playwrights have adapted Greek tragedy and the ways in which the plays satisfy the prevailing principles of both cultures are examined. The plays are The Bacchae of Euripides by Wole Soyinka, Song of a Goat by J.P. Clark, The Gods Are Not to Blame by Ola Rotimi, Guy Butler’s Demea, Efua Sutherland’s Edufa, Orestes by Athol Fugard, The Song of Jacob Zulu by Tug Yourgrau, Femi Osofisan’s Tegonni, Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s Odale’s Choice, The Island by Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, and Sylvain Bemba’s Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone.

*   *   *   *   *

Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds

By Lorna Hardwick and Carol Gillespie

Classical material was traditionally used to express colonial authority, but it was also appropriated by imperial subjects to become first a means of challenging colonialism and then a rich field for creating cultural identities that blend the old and the new. Nobel prize-winners such as Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney have rewritten classical material in their own cultural idioms while public sculpture in southern Africa draws on Greek and Roman motifs to represent histories of African resistance and liberation. These developments are explored in this collection of essays by international scholars, who debate the relationship between the culture of Greece and Rome and the changes that have followed the end of colonial empires.

Felix Budelmann. ‘Trojan Women in Yorubaland: Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu’, in L. Hardwick and C. Gillespie (eds.), Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 15-39. Also in: Sola Adeyemi (ed.), Portraits of an eagle–a festschrift in honour of Femi Osofisan (Bayreuth: Bayreuth University, 2006) 89-110.

*   *   *   *   *

Classics and Colonialism

By Barbara Goff

This collection of well-focussed essays is the first to examine explicitly the role played by the literature and culture of classical antiquity in the various discourses that established, maintained or undermined the British empire. Drawing on reception studies and postcolonial studies, the contributors investigate topics such as the intersections among nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories of the Greek, Roman and British empires, the place of neo-classical poetry and classical education in the Caribbean, and adaptations of Greek drama by postcolonial writers in Africa and elsewhere. A substantial introduction discusses the role of classics within the British Empire: why it should compel our attention and how it might provide fruitful ground for further enquiry. The emphasis throughout is on the diverse ways in which the classical tradition has been used both by those who identified themselves with imperialist goals and by those engaged in struggle against imperialism.

*   *   *   *   *

Felix Budelmann. ‘West-African adaptations of Greek tragedy’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 50 (2004) 1-28, and reprinted in B.Goff (ed.) Classics and Colonialism (London: Duckworth, 2005) 118-46.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

The Great Divergence

America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It

By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms “the Great Divergence” has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

*   *   *   *   *

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

American democracy is informed by the 18th century’s most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. We’ve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economics—the cutting-edge ideas of today—generate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. It’s an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 16 May 2012




Home  Wilson Jeremiah Moses Table  Miriam DeCosta-Willis Table 

Related  files: The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough   The Works of William Sanders Scarborough  Practice and Perception of Black Classicism 

Celebrating Alexander Crummell   Classicism within Black Consciousness   Frank Snowden Now An Ancestor  Ten Vital Principles for Black Education  

Black Nationalism in America  Albert Murray on Ralph Ellison Aesthetics   What America Would Be Like Without Negroes  The Omni Americans Excerpts

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.