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    patterns in the style of classic Greek vases

    Are the Classics Racist?

    A Black Classics Professor Begs to Differ.

    Anika T. Prather

    July 15, 2021
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    • Peter McCallum

      Am I just tired? Tired of having black and white forced into my mind at every opportunity and from every conceivable aspect? Who is the audience for this article? Is it me? I belong to the 94% of my generation that did not benefit from a classical (Latin and Greek) or even a classics education - shamefully I acknowledge I never read any and never was encouraged to read any - and who did not go to University; unlike your contributor who seems to have been immensely privileged in these ways. Yet your contributor may style me white and thus unavoidably privileged. Yet I grew up in a poor Scottish household and knew no privileges whatsoever. Why the capital B yet no capital C at Classics and no capital P at Professor in your note below? What exactly is a BLACK classics professor and how does such a professor differ from a Chinese, Japanese, Indian or even, heaven forbid, a European classics professor? (I cannot bring myself to use the “w” word). There are 16 capital B in the article and 7 capital W in the article. My English is not the best but is this not an incorrect use of capitals? I observe this with much sadness, it seems to me to be racist and a form of racism. When will it dawn on writers on race that they are irretrievably colonised? They, or most, write in English (… or German, or Spanish, or Italian). I shudder to think of the explosion of fury when that particular aspect of modern existence registers. It such a shame when we can be all one in Christ Jesus, when we are all created in the image of God, and can all be children of God.

    • Delores Douglas

      Absolutely one of the most inspiring articles that I have read in sometime. Thank you for sharing your God given gift and insight to challenge us all.

    • April McClure Stewart

      I really appreciate the author’s perspective and practices. I think this approach will resonate with Plough readers who are accustomed to looking at life through a lens of expecting-to-be-troubled- “troubled” in the sense of movement…being discomfited because that’s what the Spirit does. The community to whom this is shared expects that Christian faith immediately requires a shift into a different means of seeing the world and acting within it - a means that is alongside but not within the dominant cultures of Whiteness. Dr. Prather does a beautiful job of describing how the classics work within this alternative and altered view. It’s the sort of thing that many of us yearn for- where identity in Christ doesn’t flatten, but instead deepens our humanity so that a scripture like “no male nor female, Jew nor Greek” does not negate who we are but provides a commonality even more fundamental than the qualifiers we embrace. All of that being said, there are so many Christians who simply cannot imagine that their Christian faith transforms them to the extent that Dr. Prather’s family and communion has obviously transformed. I hesitate to share this because in my white, homeschooling-mom circles, the affirmation of the classics will likely be the only takeaway. Most do not have the paradigm-shifting tradition of the Bruderhof and others to resonate with the complexity of identity and transformation that is detailed here. In such cases, I wonder…is it helpful to say something like “the teaching of the classics has been steeped in racism” as, at least, a caution to look again at our educational traditions?

    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that we thought it was just for us and not for them.
    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that we thought it wasn’t for us and just for them.
    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that we could not see ourselves or see anyone else but ourselves
    In the story of humanity

    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that everyone should see them and be them just as we do
    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that everyone who looks like me should look like them
    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that we thought everyone in them looked the same
    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that we thought there was one color and one culture
    And not an intersection of all of humanity.

    What if the mistake we all made about classics
    Is that many of us have misread them
    Mistaught them
    Misrepresented them
    Misused them
    And did not “see” all of humanity in them.

    We are engaged in a battle for the classics. There is a faction arguing that classics are at the root of the racial distress of our country. But let me reveal the truth of what it has been like growing up as a Christian Black woman in the United States. I can provide a new perspective on the role classics have played in my life and the life of my ancestors. Beyond fighting to show their general relevance to society, my goal is to show that this thinking, that classics are at the bottom of our racial crises, is based on a fallacy. It is the people who have misused the classics that are racist, not classics themselves (the Bible included). It is my hope that I can show others how the classics have been used as a tool for liberation for African Americans. To accomplish this, I thought the most credible testimony would be my own. Why is this necessary? In the introduction of his book The Battle of the Classics, Eric Adler says classicists must “muster disparate sorts of arguments to stave off the demise of their disciplines. Different circumstances – and different audiences – will require the use of different tactics.” This resonates with me; my testimony is that tactic. Through examples in my life and the examples of my ancestors, I will show how classics are a major part of the African American narrative and to cancel them, we run the risk of canceling an integral part of the African American story.

    How Faith Shaped My Classical Journey

    When I was very young, my mom and dad recommitted their lives to Christ. Their new conversion was quite unique and every part of that process is foundational to who I am today. My dad has deep roots in the Church of God in Christ and when he married my mom, she joined him in the denomination. Then through a miraculous healing – my mom was told she would never walk again, but God healed her – they renewed their faith. This renewal led them both to reevaluate their faith and the scriptures. They began deep study of the Word of God and came to feel that God was calling them to a simpler walk of faith and that the traditional church was not what God wanted for them. They eventually began to invite friends, family, and neighbors to join them in deep study of the Word in the basement of their home.

    There was nothing special about this little Bible gathering. No emotionalism or “rituals” but just a group of people closely reading Genesis to Revelation together and discussing it. My mom and dad said they wanted to be like the Bereans who “… were more receptive … for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Out of this process my parents would search the Word for themselves and gain the clarity they needed to live the Christian life. And like the Bereans, the small group of people who studied the Word began to grow and grow. People began to re-evaluate their spiritual lives or to get saved. From this small group formed The Washington Christian Center, which is the church I grew up in from the time I was two years old until today. The church has no choir, no robes, no collars, no typical church pageantry, but is simply a small body of people who come together about three times a week for prayer, praise, and worship, and most importantly, to study the Word of God under the teaching of the pastor. My parents felt that the early church as described in Acts was the blueprint God wanted them to follow.

    This process of reading, studying, and teaching the Word as it is purely given flowed into how my parents also began to think about matters of race, within a Biblical context. My mom and dad did not just practice the skill of reading the ancient text of the Word closely for themselves, they taught my brother and me to do the same, and this practice transferred into how we were taught to read everything. This type of training served my brother and me well as we attended predominantly White Christian schools from the late seventies to early nineties. In these schools my brother and I were regularly taught that God had cursed Black people and that slavery was the will of God for Black people in order to save them. The schools we attended did not realize that our parents daily spent time showing us how much God loves Black people. They meticulously showed us the African presence in the scripture and taught us the truth about the curse of Ham (Genesis 9), so often presented falsely as a scriptural justification for slavery and racism. Many times when my parents were teaching us this, my dad would say, “Now if you go to school and your teacher tries to tell you about the curse of Ham, you show her the scriptures and correct her.” I often would speak up in class when these myths were presented and would support my thoughts with scripture, even as a ten-year-old child. Of course it often got me put in the corner or sent to the principal’s office, but I had been taught to search the scripture closely so that I could know it for myself and to know my place as a person of African descent in the Word.

    My brother and I read everything in this close way. In our home we rarely used commentaries or someone else’s explanation of the Bible. As a rule, before we could even come down for breakfast, we had to have read an assigned set of verses and written an explanation of what the verses were saying and how they applied to our lives. This had to be done daily and we still do it today. While we would read, we were always alert to when a person from the continent of Africa was being mentioned in scripture. Not because we wanted to make everyone Black in the Bible, but because most churches, Christian publications, Christian camps, etcetera, did not portray any people of color in the Bible (and they still rarely do), my parents wanted our minds equipped with the truth of the Word and they wanted us to know that we as a people are a part of God’s love and plan. It is this story that reveals why my parents were drawn to classical education. It connected to their desire to know the truth about the human story. With its focus on the historic timeline and in-depth reading of ancient texts they found an educational philosophy that would provide another channel whereby they could minister to the African American community. Although I was surprised when they decided to open a classical Christian school for African American students, looking back now it all makes sense. It was while working in that school for ten years that I came to fall in love with classics and where I also gained a deep appreciation for the life and ministry of my parents in the church and Christian education.

    I share my experience growing up in order to reveal how this type of upbringing is at the root of why I am drawn to classics and am not swayed by the constant controversy surrounding it. I am well aware of how classics and the Bible have historically been used to oppress my people and to promote White supremacist ideologies. Yet, just as I was taught to read the scriptures closely for myself to find out what is true, I read classics in the same way. I read everything this way: I read to find my people and I read to see how the text connects to my life. As a result, when I read classics I am not discouraged from loving them because of how many White people have misused them. I read them for myself and form my own opinions about them.

    artwork of Achilles and the Trojan Horse in the style of classic Greek vases

    Public domain

    A Classical Mistake

    The Bible presents a beautiful image of the diversity of ancient times. Even if one is not a Christian or even if one believes the Bible to be a collection of myth, it still reflects the diversity of the time. Yet classics have historically been used to divide us, setting one group up as superior to another. Whites have made this mistake and Blacks have as well, in part by seeking to learn classics in order to set themselves apart from the rest of their own race. To me, classics do not support the notion of an elite intellectual group within the Black race, nor do they support the idea that classics represents an elite White race that is superior to all of humanity. Classics are simply part of the story of humanity and give us a window into a time long gone, but one from which we can still learn. Classics connect us to the roots of all of our ancestors, and if you are a Christian, you can even feel classics draw you closer to the very beginnings of the unity that was formed with mankind at creation.

    Even with all the history behind how classics have been used as a tool of oppression, we still cannot blame classics, but we look to the hearts of the educators who present them, that they may learn to share the classical world as an inviting space that welcomes everyone. Although I am new to the academic world of classics, I am not new to teaching classics. In both the university and the K12 classroom I have used the same strategy, and that is to teach all of history. I mean that in teaching classics, I am teaching about ancient Greece and Rome, but I am also teaching about how Black people have become liberated through reading these texts. I am teaching about how classics have been used to form the philosophies for many Black activists and change-makers. For example, I teach Martin Luther King Jr.’s journey into classics, which he used to help shape his philosophy for leading the civil rights movement. I teach how Huey P. Newton read Plato’s Republic and found inspiration to free Black people. I point to Anna Julia Cooper, who used classics to help her uplift Black people through education. Currently, I am going deeper into the African civilizations that intersected with ancient Greece and Rome and starting from this space, I have created a perspective on classics for my students that is unique, because we start the journey with them seeing themselves in the text.

    If you look closely at classics, you will see that most continents are mentioned in the ancient texts: Africa, the Middle East, Asia. When we study classics and open up the diversity there, all students learn to see through a lens of inclusivity and diversity. We stop seeing this body of knowledge as “belonging” to any one group of people and we start seeing it as being for all of us.

    Socrates demonstrates the value in classical learning when he engages in dialogue about virtue, friendship, and human society. Aristotle also lives out a more purposeful use of classical learning when he exercises his sense of wonder to understand the essential being of living things. When classics are merely used to divide one group from another, setting one up as superior over the other, we find ourselves disappointed with the emptiness of that end result. Yet, when we learn about Frederick Douglass reading classics in order to gain the inspiration and the rhetoric to fight slavery and oppression through oration, we find so much more meaning in this type of classical learning. Classical learning should have a purpose of serving humanity, connecting humanity, and uplifting humanity. Using it for personal pride and gain is a total misuse and misunderstanding of its purpose.

    How the Bible Commands Unity

    One of the main reasons I am drawn to using classics to bring us together is because over and over in scripture we see a move of God to bring people together. A perfect example of God’s desire for there to be racial unity is the story of Peter and Cornelius. In Acts 10 Peter is instructed by God to reach out to a Roman named Cornelius in order to welcome him into the Christian faith. Peter is hesitant. God gives Peter a vision, which some feel is how God tells us we can eat whatever we want, but really it is a command not to consider any race of people as inferior and that all are welcome to faith in Jesus Christ. After the vision, Peter does not get up and grill some ham, but instead he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34–35). Even before this vision appeared to Peter, in the first chapters of Acts there are repeated examples of God’s intentional actions to make sure the Gospel went to every continent. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples immediately went out and spoke to people from every continent in their own tongue (Acts 2:5–11).

    God started the growth of the early church through an intentional effort to welcome and celebrate diversity. When I read this, I do not think about the pain of racism I went through. All I think about is that whoever names the name of Christ is commanded to welcome diversity and to pursue racial unity in the body of Christ. So all of my passion for racial healing is birthed from studying the Word and seeing God’s desire for this.

    Because the stories of the Bible reveal an intersection with ancient Greece and Rome and many of the ancient civilizations, I find scripture inspiring my use of classics as a tool for unity. The way that all nations came together around faith in Jesus reveals that we all can come together around classics because they tell the human story.

    Classics in My Hand

    As God began to convict me more and more about his desire for racial healing and unity in the church, I began to pray for God to show me what I can do to obey his Word in this area. Soon after I prayed, I was reminded of when Moses stood before the burning bush and he felt insecure about such a monumental task as leading all of Israel out of Egypt. God said to him, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2) I then asked myself, “Anika, what is that in your hand?” I immediately thought of classics. At first it may seem so far removed from any work done with racial healing, but if you think about it, classics provides us with a wonderful gift. I feel we can use ancient times as a model for how we can come together. When I think of all the stories of the Bible and the way that God shows how humanity was so woven together, we can see what is possible. I also think of classic texts and how connected they are to Biblical events. I think of Terence the African being a respected playwright in ancient Rome, even though he was a former slave from Africa. I feel we can value the contributions of all people, no matter what ethnic or socio-economic background they come from, and classics show us that there was a time where this was lived out. The Bible shows us the same thing.

    The world we live in is so different from those times, but still we can open a classic text and find a new world where the color line does not exist. W. E. B. DuBois shares these feelings in the following passage from Souls of Black Folk:

    I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land? (486)

    The time of ancient Greece and Rome surely had its vices, but the concept of “Black” and “White” is not there. What a terrible misrepresentation of this body of knowledge, to teach it as if elitism and racism are associated with classical studies. Yet, what a beautiful thing to be able to read texts untainted by racism as we know it to be. Frank Snowden, the great classicist and former head of the Classics Department at Howard University, says in his book Before Color Prejudice, “The very striking similarities in the total picture that emerge from an examination of the basic sources – Egyptian, Greek, Roman and early Christian – point to a highly favorable image of Blacks and to White-Black relationships differing markedly from those that have developed in more color-conscious societies.” This quote reveals why when Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, or Anna Julia Cooper read the classics, they did not feel the pain of the racist society they lived in. They, along with so many other African Americans and people of color, felt liberated and embraced when they read these texts for themselves.

    I remembered the magical world that DuBois speaks of where along with Aristotle and others they all danced together in “gilded halls.” I remembered this is what I felt as I read them for the first time and as I engaged with people who do not look like me, around the “Johnnie Table” while a graduate student at St. John’s College. I remembered how my students felt as I took them on the same journey through these texts. So inspired by the move of the Spirit to create a diverse church, I offer the experience of studying classics through the lens of diversity, with a purpose of uniting humanity as Christ sought to unite the church. This is what is in my hand to offer to anyone who is willing to open their hearts and minds to receive a new perspective on studying and teaching classics. It is my hope that we can fix the mistakes made in the teaching and learning of classics by using classics as a tool to build a bridge between races.

    Contributed By

    Anika T. Prather earned her BA from Howard University in elementary education. She also has earned several graduate degrees in education from New York University and Howard University. She has a masters in liberal arts from St. John’s College (Annapolis) and a PhD in English, Theater, and Literacy Education from the University of Maryland (College Park).

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