The Journal recently reported on some of the racial issues with which Wake Forest University has been dealing (“Racial and social issues persist at Wake Forest University,” Dec. 8). Part of the story quoted from the racist threats of violence emailed to Wake Forest faculty and staff in September of this year. The anonymous author of those vitriolic and despicable emails asked how many Wake Forest students “can quote Socrates” and “have a classical education.”
We, two members of the Classics faculty at Wake Forest, condemn and repudiate the emails, the hate speech they contain, their vile and prejudicial disparagement of non-white students — and their misuse of Classics and of the ancient world.
Being able to quote Socrates (or, rather, to quote Plato’s or Xenophon’s versions of Socrates, since the man himself left behind no texts) does not automatically make someone better or smarter or more fit for American citizenship. And it’s not what Classics is about. Classicists strive not to quote or name-drop but to understand things in context: what that quote actually mean inside the text it’s been plucked from, how it interacts with other ideas and historical trends and social dynamics of the time, what relationship it has to power and inequity in ancient cultures and so on.
When the author of these emails writes, “We need to stop all diversity programs and restore what made the West the greatest force for true progress in the history of the world,” they are purveying a false construct of “western civilization,” a modern myth with no basis in the history of the ancient Mediterranean world, devised by white Europeans to justify their enslavement and colonization of the rest of the planet. The Greeks and Romans weren’t white; the Greek and Roman worlds were remarkably diverse and Greek and Roman conceptions of race were very different from ours and not based on skin color.
Unfortunately, these emails aren’t alone in misusing Graeco-Roman antiquity to advance hateful, revanchist ideology. The American Identity Movement, formerly known as Identity Evropa, uses decontextualized, whitened classical statues on its posters. Misogynists on the internet appeal to ancient Greek and Roman myth, philosophy and literature to justify their sexist attitudes. And members of the alt-right viciously harass scholars who push back against racist and sexist distortions of the past.
But Classicists aren’t yielding in the face of these abuses. Pharos documents and refutes extremist exploitations of the Greek and Roman pasts. Professional organizations including Eos Africana, the Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium, the Classics and Social Justice group, the Mountaintop Coalition and the Women’s Classical Caucus are advocating for a more honest, less whitewashed version of Classics.
Here in Winston-Salem, we have organized a year-long series at Wake Forest University called “Classics Beyond Whiteness” that centers the voices and perspectives of scholars, authors and artists of color and their invaluable contributions to the field throughout its long, troubled history.
As part of the series, local artist Leo Rucker is creating portraits of Black Classicists from North Carolina whose scholarly and pedagogical contributions to the field have gone unrecognized. Thanks to the original research of Michele Valerie Ronnick, whose photo exhibition “14 Black Classicists” will be hosted by Z. Smith Reynolds Special Collections in the spring semester, these North Carolina scholars will be immortalized in paint for the first time: Helen Maria Chesnutt, author of the first Latin textbook published by an African-American woman; Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who transformed a one-room schoolhouse into a junior college despite white supremacist opposition in the state government; and Wiley Lane, the first black professor of Greek at Howard University.
These portraits will be displayed permanently in the Department of Classics at Wake Forest University, and students of color will see themselves represented, perhaps for the first time, as an essential part of the field’s history.
The legacy of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds should belong to everyone, and we welcome everyone to study Classics. But we also reject forcefully the notion that the study of Classics somehow makes one race better, more valuable or more educated than other people. And we hope that those who have been excluded and erased from the discipline’s history will feel welcome — if they so choose — to be a part of its future.