Correcting Nonsense about the Ancient Greco-Roman Past

It has been about 2.5 years since I first wrote "Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World" for Eidolon.  The impetus for it was Donna Zuckerberg's article "How to Be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor," which called on classicists to teach more about the diversity of the ancient world. Like my colleagues Sydnor Roy, Denise McCoskey and Shelly Haley and others, I've been teaching iterations of this class for a long time. And, so I thought I would make a statement on why in order to encourage others to do it to. Also, of course, because teaching a class like this can be hard, Syd and I decided to make it easier on ourselves back in 2010 and publish the sourcebook in 2013--Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Sources. It isn't perfect and needs a second edition one of these days to add inscriptions, papyri, early Christian texts, focused material on immigration and enslavement. There is so much material on this topic from antiquity that it really is a life's work to track it all down. I've been gathering other people's syllabi for about two years now in order to make them available to others and to learn from how others teach their versions. And, because there is always more to learn, I am constantly changing my own syllabus.  

What follows is a reflection on the latest iteration of the class with student responses that functions as something of a revision of my Eidolon article and also as a response of sorts to the dangerous view of identity in antiquity and its modern appropriations represented in a recent review of books (screenshot of the opening paragraph--I am not linking to the site):

One of the goals of teaching race and ethnicity in the ancient world (as part of our larger courses and in stand alone classes) is to help disabuse people of these types of unserious and inaccurate positions. It is also to give students tools to identify and understand how such views are racist, orientalist, white supremacist and promote inaccuracies about both antiquity and the modern world in the service of ideology. Our success in the classroom can have impact down the road in making these sort of bad history takes less useful or common. So, here we go... 

**All materials from students used with permission.** 

I can only imagine that the true final project would have coalesced all of these aspects into one final performance on what we have learned throughout this semester. That is also what is so sad and disappointing about this semester, we never got to do everything that the course got to offer. I realize that it must be disappointing to have a plan for a semester and have it totally upended from some freak pandemic. Regardless, I really enjoyed the class and thought of it to be one of the more meaningful courses I have taken throughout my college experience so far. ~student comment
Let's start from reality. This class was not the class I intended it to be when the semester started. I had spent a lot of time this past year thinking about how I wanted to change the class based on the current cultural moment, on responses from the previous iteration, and based on my own shifting interests. So, I changed reading structure--instead of using scholarship on specific passages and text along with the ancient texts and then tagging on the reception of these ideas to the last 3-4 weeks of the term, I integrated the reception throughout and ordered Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning as the textbook we would read along side of the ancient sources. You can see that version of the syllabus (the one I gave out at the beginning of the term) here. I also planned a panel of classicists who work on various aspects of Classics Africana (or Black Classicisms) to come to campus and help us integrate the ancient material with the Kendi and with an exhibition at the Denison Museum called "Say it Loud". It included a performance of the Hype4Homer project. So awesome.  The panel happened, but 3 days later campus shut down. 

Obviously, the move to online teaching required some modifications to my syllabus. This involved reducing the length of readings, adding more visual content and restructuring the assignments. The revised syllabus for the last few weeks can be found here. What isn't visible on the new schedule is the targeted discussion questions on our Learning management System and the memes and audio recordings I asked students to do. The final project was originally for them to write an essay on the intersections between ancient and modern ideas of race and ethnicity and present it in a multimedia format (a program called Shorthand). Obviously, that was going to be rough, so instead I asked them to write a reflection of what they learned in the class and would take away with them to wherever they go in the future. For many students, this was and will be their only Classics course, so I was curious.

The plan for the semester was to integrate the discussion of modern receptions, adaptations, evolutions from, and uses of ancient ideas about race and ethnicity throughout, to help student see more jarringly the way ancient ideas moved into and were used in modern race constructs. Reading Tacitus' Germania and seeing the Nazi use of it at the same time is more impactful than reading it and then looking at Nazi receptions 4 weeks later.  Doing so, however, required that we begin the class with very clear definitions of what race and ethnicity are (or how we would use these terms in class). Students were very clear that the didn't have a definition of either (some had never really thought about ethnicity, for example), but knew that "race is a social construct"--whatever that meant. 
"The fact that race was introduced as “the institutionalization of prejudice and oppressions based on moving signifiers for human difference” because we need a different way to approach it when looking at it in ancient times really made sense. While we look at race as color and appearance now, color was used in a lot of different ways back then...For reasons like these it’s much more productive to view race as a technology that structures human interactions and manifests within institutions. The categorizations of race ideas found in Kendi—segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist—were also really significant, specifying two conflicting kinds of racism. But the argument from Kendi that resonated with me most was that racist ideas, hate, and ignorance stem from racial discrimination and policies instead of the other way around. This makes so much sense as I notice selfish motives, primarily money and status, being the actual causes of discriminatory policies not only throughout this class but throughout a lot of material from my other classes..."  ~student comment
"I remember the definitions we discussed on the first day and how we subsequently applied them to the ancient Greek sources dealing with origin myths. Based on these primary sources, I could see that today’s ethnic and racial classifications didn’t fit onto the ancient world as many people would think they did. The rubber really hit the road, so to speak, when comparing the identity discourses within the ancient sources to those that Kendi wrote about. It was clear that ideas of race and ethnicity from the late modern period, give or take, simultaneously incorporated ancient views and departed from them. The kernel of blackness in ancient descriptions of North African populations became exaggerated as the focal point for modern racist ideologies. Through this example and others, I could see that speaking of race and ethnicity in an ancient context requires an appreciation of these different paradigms." ~student comment
We started class with our working definitions and these would be the definitions we would use throughout the term. Importantly, I wanted them to understand that the terms 'race' and 'ethnicity' are not interchangeable, that theories like environmental determinism are not 'racial theories' unless that can be manifested in things like laws or political institutions and then form the basis for oppression (like the Athenian metic system or Spartan helots). As Kendi argues (rightly) racist policy creates racist ideas. By using Kendi and weaving him in throughout the course, student could see how ancient ideas came to be foundational to modern racist ideas. 

I think the class was successful in part because we had clear terms for engagement, I was very clear about why we needed to read the ancient and the modern together--in order to know how the modern world has (mis)used the ancient, they need to be laid side by side. It is unfair to ask students to infer connections that are often so embedded as 'reality' for them--prejudices, assumptions, 'nature'--without some sort of guidance or framework.  

This brings me to the silly book review screenshot above--the idea that a war in antiquity could be somehow the pivotal moment in the history of some imaginary 'western' world identity. So, what did my students learn this term? 
"In fact, just recently I was able to enlighten my younger sisters on where race came from while they were participating in a heated debate considering whether black people could be racist to whites. I overheard the conversation and put what I have learned in this course to the test. After conversing with my sisters I was proud of what I was able to accomplish and realized that this information will give me a step up when entering the workforce. Although preconceived notions and racist ideas may not always be on display, they are in the minds of the people around us and as a black man I am forced to think about that everyday." ~student comment
"I learned quite a bit in this class, especially about how residual some ideas are. I was shocked to read some passages about certain ethnic groups that could still be written today, and how destructive a mindset they could be. It was quite interesting to “track” these assumptions about people from their beginning in ancient times to the present, and see their true origins. My favorite class period was the one focused on the census, and tracking the evolution of racial categories from its inception in the early 1800s. Race has always been one of the biggest issues in America, and the world, so seeing how our ideas of who is who has changed, and how the need to categorize people definitively is so ingrained." ~student comment
"While I understood that racism built on foundations laid in the past centuries (or millennia) before taking this class, the examples I encountered highlighted its presence for me. Linking the caricatures of black people provided by everything from minstrel shows to Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben products today to ancient (and sometimes fantastical) descriptions of specific African groups were helpful in this respect. Another aspect of this is the white European self-identification with ancient Greeks and Romans. 23andme and other such testing services seemed harmless to me a year ago. Even cool - using science to peer into your past. That’s part of their image used to market the product, of course. But based on this class and the various related lectures I attended, I can now see how easily they can be used to affirm a subjective image of someone’s identity." ~student comment
"This class also helped bring attention to the ways in which we as a culture glorify Greece and Rome a lot. It’s really important that we ask, “What is it about us that makes us want a group to be homogenous?” when countries not only today but since ancient times have actually been mixed entities with all different kinds of people within. The fact that being Greek can’t be seen just as being from the nation-state of Greece since they were essentially spread across the span of about three continents was something I’ve never thought about before." ~student comment
"The most important part of this class that I will carry with me is the connection between ancient viewpoints and the foundational beliefs of the United States. To think the education system of the United States was very recently based in ancient Latin and Greek. The reading of ancient philosophers was basic, foundational knowledge necessary to enter into a university. I know now that many of these texts also contain racist, classist, and sexist ideas. The fascination with classicism in the United States ties to our “founding fathers’” creation of a system of government that inherently benefitted straight, white men from the beginning. The mythos that the ancient Greek and Roman empires were white or even racially homogenized only contributes to the place these texts hold in white supremacy." ~student comment
The comments are like this from almost every student. They also say that they learned how to be better critical readers, to question their own assumptions and potential biases, and feel more confident analyzing primary materials. These are all things that are so important in the world we live in today. I am pretty sure all of my students would read that review and give it the big eye roll and F-you it deserves. 

But, it isn't just how we talk about readings and videos and whatnot. Who we give voice to for our classes matters. Bringing in Kendi changed the dynamics of the class and made students, especially the white students, confront some realities they didn't necessarily know or think mattered to them. Also, the panel I organized with my colleague Omedi Ochieng in Communication had more impact on some students than the entire rest of the class:
"This experience also had a big impact on me because, as a woman of color, it really meant a lot to me to see other people of color be passionate about and accumulate success in the classics field; it reaffirmed a message that Dr. Goldman gave the first day of my “Classical Drama” course, that the classics is not just for old, white men. I will always remember this experience for both personal and academic reasons..." ~student comment
After loving the classics for years and being told by their parents that they couldn't be a classics major, and feeling unsure why they even loved classics, to have this student say this meant more than anything else.

Classics really can be a classics for all, if we are willing to let go of its ties to whiteness and power, be open to the world beyond the canon, and invest efforts in "non-traditional" courses in translation that can reach more students and can really be transformative for them. None of the quotations in this post are from a classics major--80% of the student had never even taken a classics course before. And yet, it meant something to them and will change the way they engage with the world around them and how the classical appears in it. Teaching this class over the years, and this year most of all, has been transformative for me in so many ways, because it meant something to nearly every student in the class who took the journey with me.