Ulysses in Black

Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature


Copyright © 2006 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22000-6

Chapter One

Classica Africana

The Nascent Study of Black Classicism

The happier Terence all the choir inspired, His soul replenished, and his bosom sir'd; But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace, To one alone of Afric's fable race; From age to age transmitting thus his name With the first glory in the rolls of fame? -PHILLIS WHEATLEY, "To Maecenas"

African American literature is as obscure to some as the classics are to others. Apart from their common remoteness, the one might seem to have little to do with the other. The latter is an emblem of a European heritage extending back to at least the third century BCE with little real interruption. The former, although born before America itself, is a field that entered American educational institutions only after the Civil Rights movement of the late twentieth century. Yet despite the relative obscurity of each, the classics and African American literature are indelible features of an integral American historical, cultural, and political reality. They are also more organically related than might be immediately apparent. Just as Africa's contact with Greece precedes the cultural order of Western civilization, so the African American mind encounters archetypal myths and classical wisdom clandestinely, in unseen, invisible places. The paucity of African Americans in the academic field of Classical Studies belies the influence of the ancients on black life and thought, beginning with the clergy and congregation on any given Sunday. On a more academic level, Homer, Cicero, and Plato seep through the oratory and writings of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison in profound and unexpected ways.

The cataloging of the African American intellectual's contact with the classics-important if for no other reason than that it lifts the artificial veil of race that designates American culture as either integrated or segregated-is a practice that has recently come into vogue. Race officially became an explicit point of contention in the academic field of Classical Studies in 1987 with Martin Bernal's publication of Black Athena, which, among other heretical assertions, claimed that Greece had African origins repressed in the Eurocentric study of antiquity. More recently, Michele Valerie Ronnick has been a pioneer in a new area of scholarship, named (perhaps a bit misleadingly) Classica Africana. Ronnick characterized the study as follows:

It is time for scholars and educators to look beyond the Martin Bernal-Mary Lefkowitz debate, and turn toward other types of research. One of these new approaches is Classica Africana, a name patterned upon Meyer Reinhold's pioneering book Classica Americana (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), which examined the impact of classics upon eighteenth-and nineteenth-century America. The new subfield sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and looks at the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, that this heritage has had upon people of African descent, not only in America but also in the Western World.

With "the Martin Bernal-Mary Lefkowitz debate," Ronnick of course refers to the controversy over Black Athena. Reaction from classical scholars to Bernal's book crystallized in the 1990s with Mary Lefkowitz's work, which, as Stephen Howe sees, was aimed at protecting the linguistic, cultural, and moral integrity of the Western heritage. I will discuss the Black Athena debate in chapter 3, but for present purposes it should suffice to note that Classica Africana, as Ronnick frames it, does not address the issues and concerns raised in the Black Athena debate. Ronnick clearly felt that, after over a decade of circular arguments, it was time for a new direction. What she essentially called for was a change in the subject of inquiry, a shift from how we construct the past to how the past influences present thought. (In the end, we cannot answer one without the other.) Given the conceptual difference between these two investigations, it is noteworthy that Ronnick takes the Black Athena controversy as a springboard for the emerging area of Classica Africana. Indeed Black Athena was a watershed moment in the relationship between the classics and race discourse.

The obvious-though otherwise counterintuitive-connection between the Black Athena controversy and the new Classica Africana is, of course, race. Race is real, and the abysmal representation of African Americans in Classical Studies is as real as the group's invisibility in other areas of American life, particularly on the higher frequencies. What has not been seen is that previous forays into the subject of race, though undoubtedly well intentioned, sabotaged the field of Classical Studies and primed it for the Black Athena controversy. Frank Snowden's studies, Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983), were among the first to transfer modern racial questions to classical antiquity. Although in some respects timely, these books emerged out of the search for an idyllic past that often accompanies classicism. The longing, in this case, was for a time when race, although real, was not as deterministic a factor in politics and culture. These works sabotaged the discussion because Snowden's posture put each party on the defense, with classicists, on the one hand, eager to maintain the "difference" of their classical subjects vis-��-vis prejudice, and outsiders (such as Addison Gayle), on the other, insistent on the classical roots of contemporary race discourse.

Tellingly, Snowden would become one of the opponents of the Afrocentric strain in Black Athena, despite the common search in both Euro-centric and Afrocentric camps for moral emblems from idealized times. With this backdrop, Classica Africana becomes a somewhat unconscious attempt to undo the harm that the previous three decades of scholarship had done (bracketed, I maintain, by Snowden from 1970 and the Black Athena debate into the 1990s). It also allows us to reexamine the veil of race vis-��-vis Classical Studies and to take the discipline to task on its commitment to human and intellectual diversity.

"Cataloging" best characterizes the data-gathering stage of the nascent Classica Africana. Archival research has led to the unearthing of the names and publications of African American classicists, and biographical sketches of these men and women have appeared in a number of scholarly journals. Ronnick surveyed this work in the introduction to her 2001 pamphlet, published by the American Philological Association (APA). There she presents Richard T. Greener as the first black member of the APA, along with Edward Wilmot Blyden, a West Indian who joined the APA in 1880, and William Sanders Scarborough, whom Ronnick characterizes as the first professional classicist of African American descent. Ronnick also began touring a photographic exhibit, funded by Harvard University's Loeb Foundation, titled "Twelve Black Classicists," on September 13, 2003, at the Detroit Public Library. The impact of Classica Africana is clear in the rewarding of Ronnick, who has spoken and taken part in symposia on a number of university campuses throughout the country, with a second Loeb Grant.

In addition to Ronnick's work, Trudy Harrington Becker (1999) published a biographical sketch of Daniel B. Williams, Virginia's "first black university classicist" (94). Nor were men alone in the pursuit of classical training. Ruth Cave Flowers, as Joy King (2001) writes, was "the first black female graduate of the University of Colorado" (59); Flowers was, in addition to this, a teacher of Latin (and one-time head of the Languages Department at Fairview High School in Boulder). It is also significant that creative writers such as the slaves Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley prefaced the black ascent into the professional ranks of academicians. In America, then, black classicism antedates and transcends the academic discipline of Classical Studies. Black classicism touches upon broader political and cultural issues throughout American society, as Ronnick's forays outside of biographical data and into the realm of imaginative speculation reveal.

Of the proponents of Classica Africana, Ronnick has done the most to situate the inquiry in its broader social context. This includes considerations of classicism in America in general, i.e., the historical (and to some extent ongoing) tension in the country between the proponents of college education and those of technical training, and the relationship of these concerns to race. Ronnick rightly casts Classica Africana as a subset of the well-researched area of the role that the classics have played in American life. Writers such as Carl J. Richard (1994) broaden our understanding of the extent to which Greek and Roman authors, both in translation and in their original languages, influenced the founding fathers. Leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries returned to classical models from Demosthenes to Tacitus for their sense of citizenship, style (both personal and literary), and nobility. What often goes unstated in the inquiry into American classicism, however, is the extent to which these values, particularly the idea of nobility, culminated in a new social construct, that of whiteness. Furthermore, white male citizenship, which a classical education reified and further refined, rested on the backs of black slaves and, later, emancipated workers.

The story did not end with a stable "whiteness," juxtaposed to black identity and Negro segregation. With the liberation of slaves, the increasingly industrialized nation would reexamine the purpose of education for blacks and whites respectively. The emerging agricultural institutions entered a debate in the mid- to late-nineteenth century about whether a classical education needed to be an aspect of the nation's technical training. The presence of a new mass of educable citizens, the former slaves, ensured that race would continue to be an aspect of this debate for generations to come. American history has shown the extent to which broader social changes affect the parameters of such seemingly esoteric questions as the role of a classical education in the lives of African Americans.

In Negro circles, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois were the most prominent combatants on the issue of the proper education of African American society at large, as Ronnick (2000a) rightly notes. Washington, as founder of Tuskegee Institute, where Ralph Ellison attended college and studied music for three years, advocated technical training as the means by which the former slaves and their offspring could be productive and gain affluence. He compared an institution that he attended between 1878 and 1879, where "there was no industrial training given to the students," to technical schools like Hampton Institute. At schools "that emphasized the industries" he found that "the students, in most cases, had more money, were better dressed, wore the latest style of all manner of clothing, and in some cases were more brilliant mentally." Basing his philosophy of education on this technical model, he opened Tuskegee on July 4, 1881. In Washington's view, time was of the essence for African Americans. Within this context, classical training could be little more than an afterthought, unnecessary dilettantism in a world of mass media and the emerging industries.

For Du Bois, who taught Cicero and was Harvard-trained, education in general, and classical training specifically, was a necessary process in the creation of black citizens. (Although Washington also touches on the issue of citizenship in Up from Slavery, he of course takes a more practical stance.) At least in his early years, Du Bois conceived of citizenship in terms of the cultivation of humanity, a notion consistent with classicism. He felt that teachers should "be broad-minded, cultured men and women, to scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself." This approach was, ostensibly, at odds with that of Booker T. Washington. At the same time, Du Bois was not entirely inclusive in his ideas. He subscribed to the idea of the "talented tenth," the concept that exemplary men determine the fate of their race. Thus, Washington and Du Bois represent a broader, far-reaching conflict within African American circles about our relationship to American society at large in general, and issues of education specifically.

Although I am rehearsing the facts about Du Bois and Washington for the sake of context, it is without doubt trite to conceive of the early twentieth century debate about education, segregation, and the relationship between these as a Du Bois/Washington dichotomy. Future inquiries into the issue of education, as Trudy Harrington Becker sees, should first consider the broader context of the Du Bois/Washington conversation. In her work, Becker spends a significant amount of time discussing the 1862 Morrill Land Act, and the later reformulation of it in 1890. In this historical milieu, we might also consider J. A. Rogers, whose history of significant contributions by African Americans did, tellingly, include Cleopatra. That is, while we consider the broader context for the Du Bois/Washington conversation, it is also necessary to be aware of the rhetoric at the time among some blacks, which includes sometimes-curious strategies for racial uplift.

Although Washington and Du Bois played significant roles in educational policy, it is important to remember that the political positions of black leadership sometimes belie their lived experience. As Ronnick asserts, black classicists such as William Sanders Scarborough articulated positions that at times fell outside of the proscribed, segregated lines. As we will come to see, in nonacademic, literary circles, the classics continued to have an impact on the life and thought of African Americans. Time, moreover, has added a much-needed perspective on the education debate of the early twentieth century as it pertains to race. Scholars have, for example, documented the extent to which Washington's public stance was at odds with his private ideas and ideal. Put otherwise, Washington's public positions were part of a strategy for Negro uplift, and, as we know, politics and political expediency are sometimes separate issues from one's deeper ideals and beliefs. Washington clearly valued his own education, which he speaks about at length in his autobiography, Up from Slavery. Both Washington and Du Bois were interested in the uplift of Negroes. What differed were their strategies vis-��-vis white audiences, a consideration that has not been a salient feature of discussions within Classica Africana.

As we will see throughout Ulysses in Black, audience is an important determinant in the black artist's or writer's self-presentation as classicist or otherwise. In recent years, the rise of reception-theory has prompted us to consider the dynamic of rhetoric, which includes speaker (or writer) and context, in our analyses of texts and media. When we consider the "rhetorical paths of thought" (quoting rhetoric scholar Steven Mailloux), which are the recurrent themes that emerge in presentations and performances such as speeches, books, and other print media, we realize the significance of Washington's and Du Bois' primarily white American audience. Southern and Northern audiences alike were resistant to including Negroes at their schools, places of business, or country clubs. While the South and the North had radically different stances on social integration, the deep-seeded taboos against miscegenation influenced the entire culture. The black intellectual who spoke on behalf of his race would have to consider the context for his positions.


Excerpted from Ulysses in Blackby PATRICE D. RANKINE Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
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