Classics in Color: A View From the Minority

“Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them?” -Sarah E. Bond, Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color

When, almost a week ago, I came across this article, I will admit that I didn’t actually read it. I thought that it was an interesting interpretation of art history, shared it on Facebook, and left it at that. But after a more recent article, entitled “Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay,” I thought maybe it was time I gave it a look.

Although I agree with many of her sentiments and don’t deny the harsh reality of the racist investigations of early classicists and more recent alt-right groups, I think that the questions that Professor Bond asks (quoted above) all but scream for the perspective of the people she mentions – people of color who want to study the ancient world. People of color who are studying the ancient world. People like me.

Although I agree with her, when the white majority (91%, according to a 2014 survey of undergraduate Classics majors) of the field is the only one speaking and publishing and making their voices heard, it’s hard to fully understand the experiences of the minority and it’s easy for us to be overlooked save for the occasional statistic.

But despite all of that, she certainly does not deserve the response that she got. No one deserves to be attacked with death threats solely because their views do not align with your own.

In her article, Bond focuses on the origins of the white supremacist view that emerged among early classicists that color in sculpture meant barbarism and that the Greeks were far too sophisticated to color their white marble sculptures. It is no secret, at least to art historians and archaeologists, that pigments do sometimes survive on sculpture even today, leading to articles like Bond’s which point out the fact that the Greeks did, in fact, color their sculpture on many occasions, if not all the time. But she misses two important points.

First, the fact that the vibrant colors of sculpture sometimes served utilitarian as well as decorative purposes. Imagine looking at the pediment or frieze sculptures on a monumental temple from the ground – would it be easier to make out those scenes if they were in the same white marble as the rest of the building or if they were in color? Those vibrant colors, though sometimes gaudy and unbelievable, made it easier for the visitors of sanctuaries and public areas to see the magnificent handiwork of the artists who carved and decorated them.

The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Second, in almost every reconstruction of the colors of marble sculpture, it seems to be the case that, although Bond and others champion the idea of diversity in the ancient world, many of those reconstructions feature people of just one race – white. That is not to say that there weren’t other races of people living in Greece and in Rome and their territories, but the fact remains that those who create these reconstructions of marble sculpture more often than not have an idea in their mind of what a ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ looked like.

Painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by Bond for Hyperallergic)

Returning to my original quote, I have to return to a point that I made in a post I made earlier in the year. My sentiment remains the same: I do not think that it’s representation in the classics (that is, the literature, the art, the archaeology) that is the problem. I don’t think that simply knowing or seeing that there were people of color in Greece and Rome would make me more likely to have become a Classics major in undergrad.

I know now that there was, in fact, a lot of diversity throughout the Greek and Roman worlds – take, for example, Egypt and Asia Minor – but that does not necessarily mean that everyone was equal. On the contrary, there was a great deal of disparity between classes almost all of the time, and it was more often than not that the people who were wealthiest were Greeks and Romans in the strictest sense of the word. Even during the Hellenistic period, the first Ptolemy was just a Macedonian Greek who was assigned the kingdom of Egypt while actual Egyptians were more usually of lower status.

Slavery is, of course, another aspect of the disparity that existed. Sure, especially in the Roman period, slaves could be freed, take up trades, and become wealthy in their own right. But it is important not to think of slavery during the Greek and Roman worlds as equivalent to the slavery that occurred, for example, in North America. Slaves were not necessarily of a different race or ethnicity than those who owned them – they were mostly war captives or debtors during the earlier periods. Chattel slavery and slave trade came into play in later periods, but people were not enslaved because of the color of their skin. Difference or inferiority was most often determined based on the way someone spoke (i.e. if they didn’t speak Greek) or for cultural reasons (i.e. barbarians were people who wore pants and hats, rather than the traditional toga).

My point is that diversity existed in the Greek and Roman worlds, but we cannot let that automatically mean that everyone was living in harmony all of the time. We also cannot begin thinking that because there were people of color that they were always living good lives as opposed to the persecution minorities often face today, because ancient POCs were persecuted too, if for different reasons.

This is why I don’t think that representation in the materials we study will bring more students of color to the classics. I don’t think that seeing a statue painted with darker skin in a reconstruction based on some scholar’s interpretation or reading something about the lives of slaves or freedmen will make people of color interested. I stand by what I said when I said that it has to be more about getting more representation in the faculty and, maybe even if we have more people of color in the field speaking out about issues that we only ever see the white majority speaking about.

As someone who is actively experiencing the discrepancy between the majority and the minority, more often than not being the only person of color in a classroom or an excavation team, I think it would be a lot more encouraging to see people who look like me doing the things that I want to be doing. But I know that, with such small numbers, it is a difficult task to accomplish. However, I keep hoping and I will keep making blog posts as I see fit because people of color in the classics need to start speaking up.

My Solo Trip to Sounion

It might not seem obvious to anyone (I hope), but I am a very anxious person. I overthink everything down to the last detail, take photos of Google maps just in case (even though I can still use the GPS without wifi), show up too early in fear of being late, and generally avoid eye contact with anyone who might accost me on the street in a foreign city that I actually know pretty well (even if I’m still learning the language).

It certainly doesn’t help that I’ve spent a week alone in said foreign city with little knowledge of the language (I know some key phrases, and lots of words for fruits and animals) and zero company save for my Airbnb host. But I’ve made my peace with it all, and have somehow managed to do one thing I was most anxious about doing all week: leaving Athens on my own.

It was really my Airbnb host’s idea – to go to Sounion. I remember when she first suggested it I kind of laughed and thought to myself “that’ll never happen” and “I’ve got a whole month to go, maybe I’ll find someone to go with me” but as the days passed, I felt like this was something I needed to do. The best things happen outside of your comfort zone, no?

So, as I do, I planned it all out. Did the research: What time does the bus leave and where does it leave from? How long will it take on the metro to get to the bus station? How much will it cost? What is there to do at the site? But, of course, no matter how much research you do, there are always bound to be surprises.

The first surprise came when I arrived at the bus station, KTEL Attikis, located on a moderately busy street in Omonia (a 2-ish minute walk from the Victoria metro station, if you don’t get lost like I did). I asked the Greek men at the counter where the bus to Sounion left from, and he directed me to another counter about 50 meters down the road. So I went there and checked the timetables, only to find out that the information about the bus times I got both from my Airbnb host AND the internet were incorrect. I had arrived at 11:45am in the hopes of leaving by noon, but there were no buses leaving at 12:00pm. Only 11:05am and 1:05pm.

Of course, I could have just given up and gone home. That’s what the introvert in me would have done. But I figured I was already there and I’d brought my lunch, so I might as well stick around. So I walked to the National Archaeological Museum and sat outside eating my sandwich until about 12:30pm, then walked back over to the bus station and waited till the bus was about to leave.

The second surprise came when I was already on the bus and we had left the station. As the man who collected the fare came around, I was prepared to pay the 5 or so euros I had seen on the internet as being the fare for the trip, but found out that instead it was 6 euros and 90 cents! One of the reasons I convinced myself to go was that it would only cost me approximately 10 euros roundtrip, but despite my disappointment I was already on the bus and had to make due (good thing I brought a few extra euros just in case).

The trip from Omonia to Cape Sounion in all was about 2 hours long. We took a beautiful coastal road (though it was mostly cloudy all day) and switched buses in Anavyssos. The bus dropped us off right at the site, which consisted of a taverna, a gift shop, and the oh-so-commanding temple of Poseidon. There might have been a small museum as well, but I could be mistaken.

DSC03680DSC03687-1DSC03688-1

I also saw some super cool settlement foundations that got the archaeology student gears in my head working, because – if you know anything about me at all – one of the reasons I chose the U of M and why I chose to work at Olynthos (in July) was so that I could learn more about ancient domestic space. However, I will leave my reactions to these particular archaeological ruins to a different post (I have a lot of feelings)!

I spent about an hour at the site, but of course you could spend anywhere from an afternoon to a whole day there if you wanted. I was trying to save money so I didn’t eat at the taverna, and couldn’t figure out how you got down to the beach from the site, but I’m sure I could convince people to visit the site with me again before I leave Attica in July…

tl;drHow do you get to Sounion? Take the metro to the KTEL Attikis station in Omonia, wait at the bus station until the time the bus leaves, pay 6,90 euros, after a two hour ride you’ll reach your destination! Can you do it in less than a day? Sure! I did it in an hour! There’s a nice taverna, a gift shop, and beaches down below the site. Was it worth the trip? As an archaeologist, I am biased, but I definitely think so! There are super cool ruins and a beautiful view! Plus, it’s nice a cool up there thanks to the cross winds from the sea (and some cloudy coverage).

In other news, my friends will be here this weekend and archaeological excavations start on Monday! Thanks for reading!

When Jokes Fall Flat: Why We Shouldn’t Be Laughing at Ancient Greek Vases

I’ll admit it – the choice of title isn’t great, and it doesn’t convey the fact that I really mean that we shouldn’t be laughing at all ancient Greek vases. I wholly accept the idea that there was a certain level of visual humor that existed in Greek art, some things at levels even we today couldn’t possibly get at first glance, but I haven’t read Alexandre Mitchell’s Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humor or David Walsh’s Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase Paintings: the World of Mythological Burlesque so I don’t feel totally qualified to speak to that subject.

However, I did recently stumble across an article that appeared on my Facebook timeline, entitled Laughing at the Jokes on Ancient Greek Vases by Daniel Larkin. As a budding scholar of ancient ceramics and given that this article was being promoted by the American School for Classical Studies, I was intrigued.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.

I don’t know anything about Larkin. I really don’t. I didn’t even know he had authored the article until I had finished it. But there were some glaring issues with the article that I couldn’t quite ignore even as I dragged my way to the end of it. First, it was quite clear that the author was trying way too hard to pander to his audience. Reaching for a laugh, I think that in this day and age, it’s disappointing to see someone making jokes of things that probably would’ve gotten a genuine laugh twenty years ago.

His first attempt was in the first paragraph of his article:

Too many Greek vase jokes are lost in translation. For example, this duel between Achilles and Hector looks serious. But tragicomic ironies abound in ancient epic. The Trojan war started over a woman — Helen of Troy — and before this particular duel, Achilles chased a frightened Hector around the city three times before he would finally face him. That’s not exactly courageous, is it?

As a classical scholar and a die-hard Helen of Troy fan (I wrote my senior thesis in undergrad on her, y’all), maybe this was more cringe-worthy for me than for most others. But is the idea of a war starting over a woman really that funny? Personally, with all that I know about the origins of the Trojan War – the pact between the suitors of Helen, the Judgement of Paris, the involvement of the gods – I don’t think that the situation is funny at all. Sure, we might think that, today, there are more ‘logical’ reasons for going to war, but in that time, fighting to get back a lost possession, a wife, after traditional customs (i.e. xenia, guest friendship) had been betrayed, was logical for the Greeks. That’s why they wrote about it, after all.

Another quip by the author of this article that really bothered me was this:

For example, Zeus, not pictured, lusts after Ganymede, pictured below, in one object on view. It’s not just funny because it’s gay, it’s funny because it’s Zeus. Imagine if the leader of the gods was a sex addict and, like Bill Clinton, he always got away with it. How reassuring Zeus must have been to carousing men in symposia scheming to get away with cheating, too.

“It’s not just funny because it’s gay” – I have two questions for the author: what century are you living in and do you know anything about Greek culture at all? ‘Gay jokes’ are seriously a thing of the past, and even if they were still as prevalent and tolerated as they were decades ago, they certainly would not apply to the ways in which the Greeks saw themselves or their gods.

If there’s anything that I learned from an Ancient Sexualities course that I took two years ago, it’s that the sexual experiences of our modern world do not map on to the experiences of the Greeks thousands of years ago. I do not think that the images of Zeus and his consorts on vases were meant to be entertaining in the ways that this author thinks that they were. I think that, although it might be amusing to think of Zeus, the king of the gods, as the antithesis of moral Greek behavior – because of his infidelity with both unmarried and married women, not because of his interest in men – Zeus may have been mythologized in such a way in order to explain other parts of Greek history and of the Greek world. For example, many of the Olympian gods (Dionysos, Athena, Apollo, Artemis) would not exist without Zeus’ infidelities, nor would the Horai (the goddesses of the seasons), the Morai (the goddesses of fate and destiny), or the Muses.

Moreover, ‘cheating’ in our world did not carry the same connotations in the Greek world. Greek men were, in general, much more free to carry on with whomever they pleased, whether or not they were married (with some age-restricted exceptions).

The article is rife with what can only be characterized as, for lack of a better term, ‘locker room talk’, straight from the mouth (or keyboard) of a man who clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. From the quip about Zeus being ‘gay’ being funny, to the Greeks no less, to his speculation about whether Athena might have put Medusa’s head on her shield because ‘she was jealous that Medusa was too beautiful’ (are we sure he’s not referring to Aphrodite?), it is quite clear that an ancient history lesson is in order.

However, I’m not the one to give it to him (though I probably could).

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t laugh at any of the ancient Greek vases we come across. There are plenty of vases out there that – whether they were intended to make us laugh or not – amuse us in different ways. With that said, though, we should never pretend to know what the intentions of the ancient Greeks were, nor should we assume that their opinions on things like sexuality and war were the same as ours.

Perhaps Socrates was right when he said “For the gods too love a joke,” but those jokes are far out of our reach now, filtered through the lenses of artists who have agendas and senses of humor of their own. I think that, if there were to be a study of the humor of the ancient Greeks, the closest we might get to that is through the plays of comedians like Aristophanes, not through the so-called ‘visual humor’ of vase paintings (unless we use the humor of the comedies as our guide).

When in Doubt, Throw Some Pots

I’m hoping lots of people will be intrigued enough by the title of this post to read it… But alas, if you know anything about how pottery is made, you will know that I was not, in fact, throwing pots in the literal sense (although that may have been fun, too).

In January, I heard from a little birdie (aka one of my cohort-mates) that she was signed up for a six-week pottery throwing class and instantly became intrigued. I had always been interested in the iconography of pottery – especially those styles and themes typical of Archaic and Classical Greece – but it was not until this term that I started to think more about the forms, functions, and general make-up of pottery. She thought it would be a really good opportunity to go and learn how pottery was made, and I agreed. So I signed up. And I loved it.

For $190-ish for a six week, two-hour a week class, we learned so much and I wish that I had had the time to go in for some extra practice (since the course fee included an extra 12 hours of studio time outside of class). All of my pots came out looking pretty similar to one another – small, sort of round bowls – until I learned how to make larger vessels like plates and large bowls. I never quite got the hang of pulling (where you stretch the clay upwards to make taller shapes, which would in turn become more bulbous shapes, like jugs and honeypots), but I was content with what I had learned in such a short amount of time.

In addition to learning the basics, I felt that it was such a wonderful escape every week to go and put all of my energy into learning these pottery throwing techniques. It wasn’t anything like the work I had to do in the office – no reading, writing, or even really thinking required. You just grabbed your hunk of clay, sat down, and let the wheel and your hands work their magic (to the best of your ability). Even when your work totally sucked and didn’t turn out the way you wanted, it was still so much fun, and I hope to be able to do it again in the future.

As it relates to ancient ceramics, I feel as though I’ve learned so much about that inadvertently. Our pottery throwing instructor, Nancy, was not super familiar with ancient pottery – though she was super excited to hear about our experiences in the field and as PhD students venturing into an archaeological experiment with her class. I think that this class has given me a real understanding of the amount of effort, time, and technical knowledge required for throwing pottery on the wheel. Especially as I struggled with the (relatively simple?) technique of pulling and stretching my clay into a taller shape, I could only imagine the huge lebetes gamikoi of Greece and Italy, which must have required an immense amount of skill to produce.

It has given me such an appreciation for ancient ceramics, and makes me want to hone my pottery throwing skills a little more so that I can replicate something from the ancient world (I’d love to make a pyxis – with a lid!) in the future. The friend I took the class with made a Carthaginian lamp that turned out so nicely, especially after it had been fired.

I highly recommend taking a pottery throwing class if you ever get the chance and are even remotely interested in ancient ceramics – it can be so eye opening (and a really nice break from Real Work)! Has anyone done anything similar before? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know about other people’s experiences!

E Pluribus (Feminis) Unum

Yesterday could have been a historic event. It wasn’t – in spite of what the new administration might have you believe – not when we put yet another white, Christian male in the most powerful office in the country.

But today was.

Today, hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of women around not only the country but also the globe stood up, rallied, and marched for women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights in the face of what might have been the most devastating blow to our country in a very long time. Sure, we were all upset when Hillary lost in November, but the panic didn’t necessarily set in until that dreadful man was confirmed as our 45th president. It was not until we really realized what the extent of the damage he might – and could very well – cause so many people, not only in America but all over the world, that we decided to stand together against him on his very first full day in office.

The impact was so powerful that although it started as the Women’s March on Washington, it spread in a ripple across America, into Europe and Asia, even to Antarctica! Despite it being called a ‘women’s march’ or a ‘sister march’, it wasn’t just about us ladies – it was about minorities, about access to health care, about immigration and so much more. It was about standing together in this fight – not just today but for the next for years (at least).

While I kept my Snapchat updated throughout the rally at Lansing, Michigan (our capitol), a lot of people were posting on Facebook and all over social media about why they were marching. It wasn’t until I was at home again after the fact that I really had a chance to think about all of the reasons why driving an hour, standing in muddy grass with my socks soaked and my toes cold, and being jostled by too-many-people as they tried to navigate the close quarters of the rally seemed worth it to me. I suppose, like a true classicist, my reason for marching was three-fold.

I’m a Double Minority

Not only am I a woman, but, surprise surprise, I am also a black woman, which, in the past, has not led to the best of situations. Already are women and women of color harassed, marginalized, underpaid, underrepresented, silenced, discriminated against – the list goes on and on. But knowing that, somehow, a man who has been taped saying things which imply sexual assault (i.e. ‘grab ’em by the pussy’) and a man who is and has been against allowing women to have the power to make their own choices about their own bodies were elected into the highest office of the land makes me physically ill. Knowing that those same men, who also support the safety of police OVER the safety of citizens of color (re: the concern should be more equal imo), don’t see the need for stricter gun control, and have made it known that they support ‘stop and frisk’ procedures that encourage racial profiling, are calling (most of) the shots. It makes me nervous. It makes me angry. It makes me want to get out and do something every single day.

My Friends and Family

Even if my friends and family didn’t agree with me politically, I would care about their rights. I would care if their rights were seriously threatened by a corrupt and evil man sitting in the highest office of the country. I would care if they felt afraid, or hurt, or angry, or depressed. I stood up for them, and will continue to stand (though not literally) for them for the next four years, or until we know for sure that our rights as women, as citizens, as human beings will not be infringed upon.

It is appalling to me that anyone could honestly look at our 45th president (who shall remain unnamed), look at the things he has done, the lies he has told, the cabinet he has chosen, and the utter lack of knowledge of any aspect of the American government and not see how wrong of a choice he was. How, even if they don’t see that, anyone could not see that so many people’s lives – people who they might even care about – are going to be affected in a serious way. You can already see who might be the first targets: people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, and Planned Parenthood. I sincerely hope that anyone who continues to actively support this man will look around one day and ask themselves if they’d really be okay with seeing any one of their friends’ lives fall apart because of him.

My Education

Although my tenure as a PhD student lasts far beyond the confines of this presidency (I hope), what concern me in the here and now are the choices that are being made about Education in general. Not only is Betsy DeVos nearly as unqualified for her position as our newly elected president is, but there has been talk that many programs and funding for these programs, including Arts and Humanities ones, are under threat as well. One particularly striking bit of news was that the Heritage Foundation is considering defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, because the “government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.”

Whether or not this action will be carried out through the new presidential administration, and whether or not this will directly affect my education in particular remains to be seen, but the defunding of NEH especially could pack a punch since its grants typically go to cultural institutions like museums, archives, and libraries, as well as colleges and universities. Moreover, my interests academically are in academia and in museums, so if funding for those areas falls through under our new president, who knows what the aftermath could look like.

It is only day one and we have so much work to do. One can only hope that our voices will be loud enough for someone in that dreadful administration to hear us and help us maintain the equality and love that thrived in the last eight years. Today was amazing and eye-opening, but the fight isn’t over. Never forget: love trumps hate.

+ More photos from today:

fullsizerender2fullsizerender1

img_3887

Racism in Classics: A Teach-In at UofM

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Monday January 16, 2017, in honor of the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Classical Studies department at the University of Michigan hosted a teach-in (or teach-out) entitled Racist Appropriations of the Classical World: Past and Present. In spite of some minor technical difficulties, the lack of seating to accommodate everyone (thanks to the AWESOME turnout), and a rather unfortunate member of the audience who seemed to be attempting to challenge everything the teach-in was trying to combat against (which I’m still fuming about internally, but won’t get into here), I’d say that the event was a success and sincerely hope that it will continue to be built upon in the future.

The teach-in was composed of four ten-minute presentations by professors from the university, David Potter, professor of Classical Studies; Heidi Morse, lecturer in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Classical Studies, and English Language and Literature; Ben Fortson, professor of Classical Studies; and Despina Margomenou, lecturer in Modern Greek, followed by a general discussion at the end. Overall, the research that was presented, the questions raised, and the discussions which followed were fruitful and informative.

Potter discussed early scholarship on racism and the end of the Roman empire, especially that of Otto Seeck, who apparently has been considered an ‘authoritative work’ in spite of his view that there was a direct link between the fall of the empire and the ‘invasion’ of a different race (i.e. an ‘extermination of the best’ by a ‘genetically worse’ population). Morse addressed fundamental issues with an organization called ‘Identity Evropa’ which claims a European identity and believes that whites are more superior than non-whites, perpetuating this belief through the appropriation of classical art, individuals, and ideas, both online and on flyers. Flyers associated with this organization appeared on the university’s campus this past fall, in addition to other flyers perpetuating white supremacy. Fortson examined the historical background of the term ‘Aryan’, from its Sanskrit origins, meaning ‘honorable’ or ‘noble’, to its appropriation by Indo-Europeans, becoming synonymous with ‘bringers of civilization’, imploring scholars, especially those in historical linguistics and classical philology, to denounce the misuse of findings to perpetuate prejudices. Finally, Margomenou, though explicitly stating that her talk was “not a story of how Greeks became racists,” presented an interesting history of how race has been conceptualized (and how that conception has changed) by modern Greeks in relation to their past, touching on their association between ‘stark white’ and classical Greece, the Gods in Color exhibition in Munich which sparked controversy about the vibrant colors used on models of sculpture, and the appropriation of media-created themes such as those in the 2006 movie ‘300’ by the neonazi group Golden Dawn.

However, while these talks and the discussion they inspired were interesting, I still felt somewhat uncertain about the implications of incorporating more discussions of race, racism, and the classics into future courses. Particularly problematic for me was the discussion, towards the end of the event, which revolved around the next steps for education relating to race/racism/classical reception in Classical Studies.

In my last post I touched briefly on what I thought the real problem with representation in Classical Studies was – to me, it isn’t about the courses we teach, but rather the people who teach them. Of course, I do not have a solution to this that is readily employable, and I do not think that there is an easy solution to the problem – you cannot just go up to PoC and force them to become Classics majors. It simply isn’t that easy. But the general consensus in the room today was that it might be.

One suggestion that was made was to offer subjects that are generally subject based – like sport and war – since they would be more accessible and applicable to all types of people. While the sentiment is sound on a number of levels, I have seen this backfire first hand, on numerous occasions. In particular, while these ‘general courses’ may attract lots of people who are not Classical Studies majors, and maybe even a few PoC, courses that are general often attract not people who are genuinely interested in Classics (though a small percentage of them are) but people who don’t really want to be there. These courses, at least at liberal arts colleges and universities, are often fulfilling a requirement – at my undergrad a course on Ancient Greek Athletics counted for an arts general education requirement and a course on Ancient Warfare counted for History major requirements – and attract people who are only marginally interested (i.e. athletes) or who would’ve taken anything else if something more relevant to their studies had been offered.

So, the way I see it, presenting general topics that are only marginally interesting to a wider audience will only attract more people who are only marginally interested, much less PoC (if that’s the ‘ultimate goal’). However, I don’t want to make it seem like I was against everything suggested in the discussion – in fact, I did like the suggestions to do away with this idea of ‘Classical Studies’ and to move to a more geographic qualifier like ‘Mediterranean Studies’, since it is true that what we who identify as part of a Classical Studies department don’t always study Greek or Roman things. Moreover, this change would be inherently more inclusive of Egypt in all of its eras, not just the Graeco-Roman period. Perhaps more inclusion of Egypt and the wider Mediterranean in this way would, in fact, attract more PoC who are interested in learning about ancient PoC – however, I do not personally know if the ratio of whites to non-whites is actually lower in, for example, Egyptian or Middle Eastern studies.

It is true that there needs to be more exposure to racism in Classics, and I think that this was a well executed starting point for it. I am very happy to have seen such a huge turnout, even if it did include a self-proclaimed white supremacist, and I learned a whole lot about things I wouldn’t have thought to consider before today. Again, I hope that this sort of thing will continue in future years (though hopefully with less instances of racism in our country… though with the current state of our government, who even knows), and perhaps more students and/or PoC might share their own experiences with and perspectives of the scholarship.

If any other school has done anything cool like this please let me know!

Being a PoC in Classics: Some Thoughts

Ever since reading another blog post written by someone who had attended the Archaeological Institute of America/Society for Classical Studies joint annual meeting in Toronto, Canada, and realized that there needs to be more representation in Classics (see: Classical Studies’ glass ceiling is white), I’ve been thinking a little bit more about being a person of color in Classics than usual.

Here’s my situation – I have been an avid fan of Classics since I sat down in the computer lab on my registration day the summer before my freshman year of college, almost five years ago. Then, of course, I didn’t think anything of the color of my skin in relation to my colleagues. However, the disparity was and has always been there: in most Classics-related classes I have taken since then, I have been one of maybe two PoCs (with the other one only being marginally interested in Classics or just taking the course to get a general education credit out of the way, cue eye roll), and those classes have always been taught by white men and women. The disconnect became more glaring when I went on my first excavation, at the Athenian Agora in Athens, Greece, a two month experience where I got to engage in Classical Archaeology first hand and which reinforced my absolute love for the field. Sure, I had noticed that there were less than a handful of PoCs on the excavation, including myself, but it was not until I started writing statements of purpose for graduate school, some two years later, that it really hit me.

The ratio of whites to non-whites in Classics is abysmal. But I don’t think that’s really anyone’s fault. The field was built up by rich white men who wanted to collect ‘cool old stuff’ (that’s a technical term) and show it off to their friends to make themselves appear more affluent and impressive.

A lot of people, including the person who wrote the above mentioned article, believe that the problem is the lack of discussions of representation and race in the classroom. But I don’t really think so. I don’t think that seeing PoC represented in ancient art, or reading about them in ancient literature, or discussing the differences between modern and ancient slavery are unimportant approaches to the issue of race, but I do think that it can be incredibly discouraging to not see many people who look like you working in your field.

This quote from a Ted Talk by Dena Simmons on imposter syndrome spoke volumes to me:

I have eternal imposter syndrome. Either I’ve been invited because I’m a token, which really isn’t about me, but rather, about a box someone needed to check off. Or, I am exceptional, which means I’ve had to leave the people I love behind. It’s the price that I and so many others pay for learning while black.

In fact, it made me realize the real reason why I was doing all of this – sure, I’m pretty deep into my field (I’m getting my PhD, aren’t I?) so I don’t feel the burning need or desire to be force-fed seminars on representation in the ancient world since I know it all well enough. However, my ultimate goal is to become a professor and conduct my own research, and I think that those things are important for students of color who are marginally interested in Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences majors because I think that if they could only see people who look like them doing what they love, then maybe they would be inspired to pursue their interests as well. I know I would have.

I get it. Parents are often protective of their children, wanting the best for them or better-for-them-than-they-had and push them into jobs that will get them somewhere, like law or medicine. My own mother, when I was thinking about where to go for high school, since where I grew up had magnet schools, really wanted me to pursue an engineering magnet (I suspect because she’s an engineer herself). I think I’ve had an aversion to science since I came out of the womb, so I made a beeline for the arts magnet and never looked back.

I am grateful to have a mother who has supported me so much from day one, even when I have stumbled over myself trying to explain what I could possibly do with a Classics major (A Lot!).

I am very lucky to have not had to go through a terrible time in my youth or my college years, to not have been discriminated against, to have been supported every step of the way by my professors, and to have been accepted into my dream graduate program. But I know that not everyone has been so lucky, and that not everyone is so secure in their interests that they feel confident enough to truly pursue them.

I can only hope that more people will be inspired to do so, especially in Classics and in Classical Archaeology, whether it be on their own or be from seeing someone who looks like them doing what they want to do and being where they want to be.

Maybe then the ratio of whites to non-whites at annual meetings won’t be so striking.