Tell Them We Are Rising’: African Americans and the Classics

Posted on January 14th, 2008 by

For some really interesting reading on the social, educational, and political role of Classics in recent African-American history, read Kenneth W. Goings and Eugene O’Connor, “‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: African Americans and the Classics” (starts on p. 6) in this issue of Amphora (the newsletter for the American Philological Association).

From the time of the American colonies until well into the twentieth century, a “classical education” (meaning training in Latin and Greek) was largely associated with elites, that is, with white gentlemen.

The received wisdom of the time was that those outside this elite group had neither the requisite mental capacity nor the necessary leisure to master the classical languages. This criticism was leveled particularly at African Americans, who were assumed to be intellectually deficient and socially marginal. Thought to be descended from “savages,” they therefore lacked a vested interest in the foundations of Western civilization.

Evidence from the archives of historically-black colleges, autobiographies by early black classicists, and political writings by abolitionists demonstrate, however, that not only were large numbers of African Americans able to master the classics but that indeed they saw the classics as part of their own heritage.

Page, writing in 1902, recalls an incident he had experienced in the South during Reconstruction:

One morning I went to a school for the Negroes and I heard a very black
boy translate a passage from Xenophon. His teacher was a fullblooded Negro. It happened that I went straight from the school to a club where I encountered a group of gentlemen discussing the limitations of the African mind.

“Teach ’em Greek?” said old judge so-and-so. “Now a nigger could learn the Greek alphabet by rote, but he could never intelligently construe a passage from any Greek writer – impossible.”

I told him what I had just heard.

“Read it? Understood it? Was black? A black man teaching him? I beg your pardon, but do you read Greek yourself?” “Sir,” he said at last, “I do not for a moment doubt your word. I know you think the nigger read Greek; but you were deceived. I shouldn’t believe it if I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears.”

Given the racial and societal bias against them, it is important to note that educated African Americans in the early nineteenth century used their connection to the classics and the fact that there were great African civilizations in classical antiquity to bolster their argument for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in slavery and thereby
their inclusion in the American mainstream. Indeed, African Americans were appropriating for themselves the larger American impulse of adducing classical, particularly Roman Republican, models to justify their efforts to define the new American nation and their right to full citizenship in the American Republic.

Read the whole thing.

Bonus: This issue also includes a review of the classical Greek translation of Harry Potter as well as loads of other interesting stuff.


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