When is an "Appropriation" Appropriation?

This other day I read a dialogue between Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan on Vulture about accusations of cultural appropriation against Bruno Mars. I won't go into the details as one can read the article themselves, but the focus is on how one talks about appropriation between people of color-- "Can there be cultural exchange between two minority cultures that exists without offense? Does 'appropriation' have any place in this debate?"

I'm not thinking about this because I'm a big Bruno Mars fan (I am actually not all that aware of him because I pretty much just listen to movie scores these days), but because I just spent the weekend at a conference called "Racing the Classics" at which the issue of appropriation came up numerous times, typically, in the context of white supremacism and classics. It also came up as a suggestion that to talk about "race" in antiquity is a type of appropriation--"race" understood as an important and uniquely modern phenomenon premised on blackness and whiteness, driven by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and underscored by science, has no place in the pre-Modern world and to talk of it is to, perhaps, either render "race" a safe or less challenging idea or serves to make Classics (and the predominantly white people who study it) relevant in a way that diminishes the lived experiences of those oppressed by systemic racism. In other words, it appropriates the experience of race and theorizes it away.

It's also something students in my Ancient Identities class struggled with last semester as they looked at Greece and Rome adopting and adapting ideas, cults, art/architecture, etc. from Egypt, the Near East, and each other--cultural appropriation was a term thrown around by them a lot. The idea of hybridity was largely rendered impossible by them.

Anyway, I've been thinking about it a lot and thought I'd write out the thoughts. I want to start with the first kind of appropriation (in support of white supremacy) and then consider the latter. But let's start with the definition of cultural appropriation from the Jenkins/Guan article:
If cultural appropriation is thought of as the theft of a minority culture by an oppressor, usually with malicious intent, how do we loosen the definition when people of color take from each other? 
The language of appropriation when applied to the use of classics since the late 18th century in the service of white supremacism in the US and Europe presupposes that the texts and material remains of the Greeks and Romans were stolen by an oppressor, that the ancients themselves were racialized as "white," and done with intent to cause harm. This notion of appropriation is driving a series of initiatives about "who owns the Classics," has spawned a website that documents appropriations by hate groups in the US, and more general conversations about diversity in the field in the US. What is at state when we talk of ownership and appropriation (and misappropriation) with respect to the Classics?

1. As Emily Greenwood reminded us at the conference, all uses of Classics are technically appropriations--not just the uses made of it by white supremacism (which is arguable any use of it in the US by a white person in any institutional context--so, the field of Classics, for example). Thus the language of mis-appropriation is appealing for those classical scholars discussing the so-called Alt-Right--but doesn't mis-appropriation imply that the ancient texts and images are free from the prejudices their user is putting them to? Or rather, that we are in a position to make value judgments about what is and what isn't a "proper" appropriation? Do we give antiquity a pass by claiming that they didn''t express versions of the ideas that they are being used to support (like Juvenal being used to support misogyny and xenophobia)  The malicious intent of appropriation seems clear in these cases, but the idea that the modern Euro-American is oppressing ancient Greeks and Romans is not as clear. It also pretends that ancient Rome was not a foundation for modern Euro-American education and culture in many ways. When we speak of white nationalist and fascist mis-appropriation, do we mean the appropriation of classics away from its proper "academic" sphere? As if academic classics has never been a party to white supremacy?

2. While classicists (including myself) have been arguing that Classics is not the singular heritage of white, Europeans and Americans (on the grounds that the Classics isn't just about ancient Europeans, they weren't "white", etc.), it is important to acknowledge the continual interactions with certain strands of Classics in Europe throughout late antiquity, the middle ages, and through the modern era  (for example, Roman law, environmental determinism theory, Hippocratic/Galenic medicine, Aristotle's philosophy, Christianity); these strands suggest not "ownership" of classics (which is the language of appropriation), but continuity with. And all of these strands have been used to create race science or argue for slavery.
Craig Jenkins: I feel like the answer to this question sits at the dawn of hip-hop, which was set in motion by a Jamaican immigrant in a community of black and Latin Americans and patronized early on by artsy downtown white folk. It was always a multiracial enterprise by nature of the lay of the land here, and I think that speaking of hip-hop as though it was historically an exclusively black art is not only a misunderstanding of how the culture worked from day one, it’s a disingenuous flattening of several conversations about racial identity and cultural exchange. 
And while this is only one strand of continuity in a very singular way, it suggests that the Greeks and Romans in these particular contexts are not appropriations, but are the undergirding for the entire enterprise of race science and white supremacism--these things are built upon ancient ideas, the ancient ideas weren't stolen from an oppressed people--malicious intent though there was. Further, the classical world itself was a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial endeavor.

This is where we might see appropriation: the theories of the Dorian invasion and attempts to make Greece and the broader Mediterranean (Egypt, the Near East, North Africa) the product of Germanic invaders. This appropriation was done as part of imperialist and colonialist projects that supported white "Anglo-Saxon" domination of 'others'. We might also call the use of classical architectural forms to promote whiteness and white superiority in the US an appropriation. We see it in the architecture of the World's Fairs and, as Dr. Lyra Monteiro argued at the Racing the Classics conference, in plantation architecture.

Which brings us to the second kind of appropriation: that trying to find "race" in antiquity is to appropriate a modern phenomenon and to do so in a way that renders it safe and white and harmless.
Guan: If such a new vocabulary exists, it wouldn’t exist purely or even primarily within the cultural sphere. Most of the current discourse just assumes that the American situation is the only situation there is, which is to say a white majority with money and connections set against a black minority with artistic brilliance. Whereas most people in the world aren’t black or white, and have musical and other cultural traditions that simply don’t fit into the black-white binary... 
I have suggested (and will argue to support) that race is a transhistorical category that modern US color-based race categories are one manifestation in a long history of attempts to categorize humans in the same way one categorizes plants and animals, that the foundation of modern race science is found in numerous ancient Greeks texts and contexts (particularly in Athens in its citizen/metic system). Anti-semitism is racism. Race and racism can be found in modern Israel, in ancient China, in ancient and modern India. It isn't just about black and white.
Jenkins: ... I do agree that the way the conversation about race unfolds here is 100 percent specific to the terrible history of this country, and that outlook doesn’t always translate well to or speak for people who exist outside of it.
Does it diminish the history of race in the US, does it make it "safe" to acknowledge that there are other ways "race" can be constituted? The term "race" as a scientific, biological category for humans is relatively new (250? years) concept, but it has existed as a term for biological descent in animals since at least the 13th century (it's a French word and was used in terms of dog breeding and then of French nobility--I strongly recommend Charles de Miramon’s "‘Noble Dogs, Noble Blood: The Invention of the Concept of Race in the late Middle Ages" in The Origins of Racism in the West).

Since the 18th century, the idea of race has been almost entirely subsumed into a scientific discourse that attempts to rationalize enslavement, irrational hatred and fear of non-whites by a white majority in the US. Something the popularization of genetics testing has given more life to. In between these two uses of race in the 13th and 18th centuries came the transatlantic slave trade and the identification of slavery with blackness and whiteness with free and superior. The history of race was changed in the US forever. But does that mean that race can and should now only be used in that context?
Jenkins...The closeness of these cultures is present in the rap from that era — stop and think of how many classic rap albums have a dancehall toast in ’em – and to pretend these cultures are not meaningfully intertwined and try to hand out roles to people by circumstance of birth just seems … I don’t know … young? But this is the same social-media sphere that doesn’t understand what an Afro-Latina is and accuses African-Americans of appropriating African culture for wearing dashikis to Black Panther. The conversation about race is flat, when the reality of identity is multidimensional.
Some scholars argue that we should only speak of ethnicity if we are talking about anything that is outside of that experience as a way to not diminish the history and lived experience of people of color in the US. Though then we leave out the rest of the world. And, with it, others peoples who have histories and experiences of colonialism, institutionalized oppression, and enslavement. Can the word "race" be exclusive to the modern US experience or the should scholars seek out the similarities in racist dynamics and institutions in other historical periods? Is it an appropriation by a bunch of mostly white people (classicists) to talk about a bunch of dead white people (presumably the ancient Greeks and Romans)?

What does Classics gain by engaging the language of race? Does it appropriate modern discourses to make itself "relevant"? Does it erase the horrors of the history of race in America and do a disservice to our colleagues of color? It is a mis-appropriation? Or does it force classical scholars to see the ancient ideas at the root of modern racism and our field's history of complicity? I'd like to think it will help us to engage the realities of the ancient world more thoroughly and accurately, and, hopefully, help us understand better how many of our institutions of higher education contribute to white supremacy and why modern race science became what it is and help us be part of the solution to undermining white supremacy in the US today instead of a continuing part of the problem.

On Being a [Foreign] Woman in Classical Athens

It's International Women's Day and so I want to celebrate it by writing not about powerful women in antiquity, but about two not-so-powerful women whose lives were marked not just by the fact of their being women, but, more importantly, by the fact of them being non-citizen or "foreign" women. I say "more importantly" because if it weren't for this foreignness, their non-citizen status, their lives would have been fundamentally different. Because of their foreignness, they were a twice oppressed class. If they were economically poor in addition to being women and foreign, it was a triple oppression. (You can read more about other of these women in a previous post).

Some of you will recognize the women in this post from my book Immigrant Women in Athens. Others, may recognize them from classes you have taken or other scholars' writings on them. They don't make it very far, however, into the popular imagination. We know of them because they were prosecuted in court, a function, I argue, of prejudices due to their foreignness

Sandys' famous painting of Medea
could just as easily be of a woman 
like Theoris.

THEORIS was from the island of Lemnos. Although Esther Eidinow has suggested she might be a citizen due to Athens' long history of controlling Lemnos, it is unlikely that she would be recounted as "of Lemnos" is she were an Athenian citizen. What we do know, however, is that she was executed along with her offspring for the manufacture and distribution of pharmakia. We learn about her in an aside in a speech by the orator Demosthenes (25.79-80):

He is the full brother of this man on his father and mother’s side and his twin in addition to the rest of his misfortunes.  This man--I will not talk about the rest--but on his account you put to death the repulsive Theoris from Lemnos, the pharmakis, and all her family.  [80] He took these medicines and chants from the handmaid who later informed on this woman from whom this slanderer begot children, the use of charms, and quackery, and (he claims) the ability to heal epileptics, although he himself is culpable of all wickedness.

Here we can vividly witness the precariousness of this foreign woman’s life. We do not know her precise situation, but she was apparently condemned for witchcraft after selling drugs to the brother of Aristogeiton, who then resold them as a cure for epilepsy. She was called a pharmakis, a word often translated as witch, but it probably had a wide range of meanings and is literally something like “druggist” or “pharmacist.” Derek Collins has argued that Theoris was not a witch at all, but something akin to a folk healer (which I agree was most likely the case) whose remedy must have gone wrong and killed an Athenian citizen. Her punishment was extreme. She and her children were executed. 

There is no mention that she had a spouse; she may have been an independent metic ("immigrant") woman with children who earned a living by making and selling remedies and potions of various sorts. The Athenian jury must have determined that her actions were intended to harm or kill, thus the resulting death sentence. We do not know what representation she had in the court. If she was a simple folk healer (akestris) or herbalist (rhizotomos) who sold remedies or even erotic potions to customers, then it is difficult to believe that she intended for anyone to die. In the fourth century BCE, making drugs and selling them was not illegal. It was possible, however, to be taken to court if you sold a drug that went wrong. 

Was Theoris dabbling in magic and seeking to harm citizens with her potions, as her conviction and some stereotypes of foreign women suggest? It is not uncommon to hear slaves or “prostitutes” accused of selling or using love potions in court cases or in comedy. In some ancient cases, we hear of them killing by poison, thinking (Deianira-style) it is a love potion. The associations of harmful magic and drugs with mythical foreigners like Medea and Circe also encourages us to consider that Theoris’ condemnation resulted from prejudice against foreign women. Theoris may also have been a priestess of sorts. Either way, it didn't end well for her or her children.


Theano, citizen wife, remembered on her tomb.
NEAIRA is another fairly well-known, but not well-to-do foreign woman in Classical Athens. She is known best from a speech once attributed to Demosthenes ([Dem.] 59) in which she was accused of pretending to be an Athenian citizen when she was supposedly really a sex worker illegally married to an Athenian citizen and passing of her foreign daughter also as a citizen. Most scholars have accepted that she was a sex worker (calling her a hetaira) and many even accept the charges of illegal marriage. I am (not unusually) an outlier on this. 

Neaira, to me, perhaps best exemplifies the way prejudices impact foreign women’s lives in Athens and the violence to which they could be subjected without recourse in law. She also exemplifies for me the way scholars continue to allow those prejudices to do violence to her. Centuries later, we believe her accuser not because he proves his case, but because we buy into his biases and his story.

Apollodoros, the accuser and a political enemy of her guardian Stephanos, attacks her on charges of 1. pretending to be a citizen, 2. living in marriage with an Athenian citizen, and further, 3. attempting to pass off her own children as citizens. The speech, however, is only minimally interested in proving these charges. Instead, Apollodoros devotes the bulk of his time to weaving a sordid tale of Neaira's life from a childhood as a brothel slave to her days as a supposed sex worker in Athens itself, though the events he recounts mostly took place decades, before this case is taken to court. Neaira’s situation and the case presented against her has been much discussed by scholars--no surprise given how salacious the details are and how much of a supposed insight the speech gives us into the lives of sex workers. It is a story intended to make the jury unsympathetic to the accused, but one that demonstrates as well the violence that a foreign woman was subjected to (not to mention the prejudices). 

I think we can believe that Neaira was likely a sex worker when she was a slave--all slaves were technically able to be prostituted without restrictions--but after buying her freedom, she seems to have been uninterested in continuing that trade. As an independent woman, however, she was dependent on the goodwill of men, and particularly citizen men, for her safety particularly since she had no male relatives to properly represent her in court. 

After buying her freedom, she came to Athens with the citizen Phrynion (he had lent her some of the money she needed to buy her freedom). According to the speech, she ran away from Phrynion to Megara soon after, where Stephanos later met her. She left because Phrynion, Apollodoros tells us, treated her like as if she were his private prostitute and, beyond that, permitted her to be raped in his company, possibly even gang rape. Even Apollodoros is unable to hide the fact that Neaira was brutally abused and was horrified at this treatment of her person (he tells us that she had expected that Phrynion loved her, but was instead treated with ‘wanton outrage’).  

After she fled Phrynion, she secured the guardianship of Stephanos. Phrynion, however, attempted to have her enslaved to him by accusing her of being an escaped slave. Stephanos stood with her in front of officials and she was granted the status of a free, independent metic. Maybe they formed a relationship. Maybe, as I have considered previously, he hired Neaira to take care of his two children after their mother had died (not an uncommon occurrence in antiquity). Maybe she actually once was "just the nanny." Whether they had a more intimate relationship later wasn't illegal (unless it was marriage), but it might have angered those who thought foreigners shouldn't mix with citizens. 

And yet, the treatment Neaira was subjected to by Phrynion and his friends seems to have been justifiable in Apollodoros’ estimation in no small part because of Neaira’s former status as a slave and her supposedly sordid life as a sex worker and her status as a foreigner in the city.  He expects his audience to assume the worst of her, to assume she is still a sex worker, to assume that she would steal citizenship. He also hopes that the jury will believe that the children of Stephanos are his by Neaira and so not citizens (we don't know their ages and no wife is mentioned). And the penalty to Neaira if the case succeeded? She would be sold into slavery. 

It isn't a coincidence that Apollodorus ends his speech with an appeal to the jury in the name of protecting their citizen wives and daughters. He wants to divide this foreign woman Neaira from those other, "proper" women in their lives. Neaira isn't a “whore” and corrupt and deserving of enslavement because she is a woman, but because she's foreign. And the prejudices against her run deep. 

Some (most)  scholars believe Apollodorus. I do not. We don't know how this case turned out. But we do know that he was a notorious liar. He was banned from prosecuting others in the courts, including his step-father. In his attacks on his step-father, he also accused his own mother of complicity in murder (of his father!) and implied that his brother was the child not of their father but of his mother in adultery with his step-father. He did this without proof, without any shame. And the Athenians got so tired of his frivolous lawsuits against his step-father, that they banned him from continuing them. 

Given this background, why should we believe him in this one case? Why does he and not Neaira deserve the benefit of the doubt? Why is it that even feminist scholars continue to believe him and not read between the lines and see his biases and question what has long been regarded as truth? Why is it that we can't see that her foreignness here is more important than her being just a woman? Because if she wasn't foreign, she could been Stephanos' wife. And any charges that she was illegally married would be moot. If she was a citizen of some city, she would never have been in a brothel as a slave, having to buy her freedom and make a new life for herself somewhere else on her own. 


Both Neaira's and Theoris' lives were defined by their being women in many ways. But their experiences as we know of them were fundamentally impacted (for the worse) because they were foreign. Had they not been foreign women in Athens, they would likely not have even made it into the historical record, because their lives would have been like most other citizen women's--safe from prosecutions, safe from the need for or charges of sex work, safe from violence, safe from sale into slavery, safe from execution. Their children would have also been safer and not marked out for the same violence their mothers experienced.  

I've spent the better part of 5 years living with these women as my research subject and daily I am struck by how relevant they are to our world. Because we aren't all "just women" or even "women first." We are variably white women, women of color, citizen women, immigrant women, wealthy women, not so wealthy women, tenured women, contingently employed women, well supported women, or women with little to no support networks to speak of (to name only a few variations). All this variety can't be hidden under the name "women" alone. The permutations of our existences matter, these other identities shape our experiences as women. Some women live closer to power, have better access to justice. Others do not. To pretend that the lack of access that being a person of color or immigrant or not wealthy doesn't mean as much as being woman alone is a mark of one's access to power--the closer you are, the less those other permutations of womanhood matter. It's a truth of privilege not just now, but in the past, too.