Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
–“Beyond Vietnam,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the snow continued to fall steadily outside on an otherwise deserted campus, dozens of community members gathered in the Classics Library on the University of Michigan campus for this year’s Classics-themed event, which served as only one of many parts of the weeks-long Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium put on by the university and organized by our Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives. However, unlike the event that took place in that very same room almost a year ago, the atmosphere was much more egalitarian, and felt more welcoming than emotionally charged.
This year’s event, in keeping with the spirit of the speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. one year before he was assassinated, quoted above, focused, not on white supremacy (which was very timely last year given several incidents of hate-ridden flyers on and around campus), but instead on issues of patriotism, justice, violence and dissent. And nothing, perhaps, would be better to frame that discussion than in light of Sophocles’ Antigone.
In the spring of 440 BCE, the people of Athens gathered at their annual festival of Dionysus to watch Sophocles’ Antigone – the tragedy of a young woman protesting against the state’s treatment of her dead brother Polyneices.
In a similar way, we had all gathered at our annual MLK Day symposium to hear five students perform several scenes from the play and discuss those salient implications listed above in a town-hall forum. The two-hour event was structured in much the same way as, and perhaps strongly influenced by, ‘Antigone in Ferguson,’ a social justice project organized by the Theater of War, who has, since its inception, put on several ancient Greek plays in different settings to encourage discussion about current political issues. I believe that ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ sparked the most attention – though, to be honest, I had not heard of it until today – because of its obvious connections to the police brutality and the unlawful murder of Mike Brown there in August 2014.
To see a reading of ‘Antigone in Ferguson’ by Theater of War, click here!
Although many people in the audience made the point that our situation and experience of the play was much different from that of the audience in Ferguson, Missouri – the site of so much violence and tension between the police and people of color – I felt that there was still a lot that we could gain from our discussion of the play and its relevance to our greater experiences as citizens in this country.
Several things from the discussion portion of the event struck me as incredibly relevant to our lives, and my life in particular. One of those things was the point raised by one audience member that, in the play, there is a clear tension between what is perceived to be right and what is law. This is demonstrated by the conflict between Antigone herself and her uncle, King Creon, who refuses to allow her to give her brother, Polyneices, the burial he is (according to Antigone) owed by ritual. What Antigone perceives to be as ‘the right thing to do’ (in terms of familial obligation and religion) is condemned by Creon, on the one hand, because it does not align with what he has set down in law, and on the other hand, because she is of inferior status to him and, so, her opinion does not matter.
This ‘writing off’ of anyone who is inferior (be they gendered, black, or foreign bodies) as unwelcome in society or unworthy of the rights of other, more ‘superior’ individuals, is an especially salient issue, even today. Not only are their voices rarely heard or taken seriously by those in positions of power, but they are often cast aside or disregarded as worthless, or even subhuman. This calls to mind last semester in my Theories of Feminism course, where we talked about the differences in the ways that women of color and white women have been treated throughout history. In short, white women (who’s surprised? anyone?) have been treated slightly less terribly than women of color across the board.
This brings to the fore another issue – Creon’s blatant misogyny. As a Classicist and a feminist, I know and have known for a very long time that the Greeks believed that women were the inferior gender. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when the first thing that anyone ever says about Greek women is that they were ‘secluded’ to the ‘domestic sphere’ (scare quotes because…well…I have opinions). But Antigone (or, perhaps, the translation that was being performed) shocked me at a number of points in the dialogue. There were several times where Creon would say something so unnerving I had to remind myself to keep breathing. But the dialogue illustrated that very stark divide between men and women that I had already known so well.
And, as one of my former Greek professors explained later in the discussion portion of the event, Creon’s misogyny only served as one of the many characteristics (including his disregard of what is ‘right’ in favor of the law and his disdain for the opinions of inferior citizens) which made him an authoritarian character.
It was perhaps all too clear of whom Creon reminded everyone – and this was further illustrated by a small revision to the translation, from ‘fake truths’ to ‘fake news’ – but as far as any of us were concerned, his name did not need to be spoken. I think, though, that he represents both 45 and his followers, that is, those who subscribe to his brand of authoritarian leadership.
It can even apply to those who wield almost no power at all – the guy who crashed our MLK day event last year, the entire alt-right, the slightly racist girl in your Wednesday class – these people, although not in actual positions of power like King Creon, believe themselves to be superior to others; disregard the opinions of those who they believe to be inferior to them; and are often misogynistic. They thwart the actions of people of color by ignoring them and invalidating their struggles by harping on what they perceive to be ‘law’ – be it the actual law of the land (as in the case of those proclaiming that ‘blue lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter’ in opposition to BLM) or an idea they hold to be wholly true (as white supremacists do).
Those who refuse to behave in the ways that they believe to be right, like Antigone, are condemned to verbal abuse, physical violence, and even death. But unlike the 5th century BCE play, it seems that there is no reprieve, no visible ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ – Creon, after losing everything near and dear to himself, finally realizes that he was wrong.
Of course, as it is a tragedy, there isn’t much hope for Antigone, either. She is ultimately given the choice to sit in a tomb and rot or kill herself, and she chooses the latter, knowing that her fate is sealed. I try to believe every single day that our fates, here in the present, are not as determined. Unlike Antigone, we have more opportunities to challenge those people and laws that wrong us.
Also unlike Antigone, we have strength in numbers. We have the ability to organize in public spaces, to make noise, to wave signs and to (sometimes) get the people in power to think, if not totally change their minds. At the beginning of the event, we were read a scene in which Antigone and Ismene (her sister) argue about the merits of burying their brother’s body and it is clear that, while Antiogone has made her mind up and is set on giving her brother a proper burial, Ismene is much more reluctant, more interested in preserving her ‘proper’ place in society and listening to what the men tell her to do. Later on in the play, when Antigone is condemned by her uncle to death, Ismene tries to stand by her, but Antigone tells her that it is too late and that she must face this alone.
Something that was brought up in the discussion was what are we to make of the way in which Ismene changes her mind? One audience member brought up the fact that she, and her earlier conversation with Antigone, represents a similar internal struggle that we all face when we are called to action in the present day. Another audience member spoke of feeling ‘intimidated’ by the protests that sometimes are organized on campus by other students – intimidated, perhaps, by the feeling of social obligation in conflict with personal obligation to one’s own schedule, work, background, etc. I know many friends who have voiced this conflict in the past, wanting to participate in these big events but being afraid of what might happen if they are arrested.
I feel that, in light of this reading of Antigone, and Ismene in particular, these feelings are validated. It’s okay to not know what to do – like in any other public setting, we, as individuals, should cater to our own needs. There are many ways to participate, to get involved, to make a difference. Do so in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
This is a way that I feel most comfortable voicing my opinions about race and inequality in my field – in writing, on the internet, only slightly exposed. Just a few days ago, I saw a call for papers for next year’s Archaeological Institute of America/ Society for Classical Studies joint meeting entitled “Who ‘owns’ classics? Who is the field of classics for? Defining the field/ diversifying the field.” At first glance, I knew I was interested. But at the same time I knew I was not interested in giving a talk myself. I know that I’m not ready, so I continue to do what I feel the most comfortable doing.
In some ways, it feels good to know that I am still making (albeit tiny) difference in some people’s lives. Although I have no idea how many people have viewed the post, I do know that 38 people have completed the survey on minorities in Classics!! That’s way more than I had ever hoped would contribute their input, and I certainly hope that more of you (especially in graduate school…come on guys…where are you?) will cast your votes and/or reach out to me and share your stories in the future!
Some final thoughts about today’s MLK day event – I will admit that, at first, I had no idea what to expect from it. I had originally only planned on going to find out what it was all about, but even then was on the fence. But after going and experiencing it, I think that it was a brilliant idea and that it went very well – so many people contributed really great insights and I’m proud to say that I am a part of this community at the University of Michigan. I look forward to the coming years!