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Is the Classical Tradition White?

Facilitators: Julie Laskaris and Aurora Hermida Ruiz

This FLC will approach the question of whiteness in the classical tradition. It is a potentially controversial question, but our aim is not to approach it as yet another "hot topic" to highlight the crisis of the humanities. Instead, we aim to approach the classical tradition with hope for its future in our community, and with creativity and good humor.   

The topic was directly inspired by a number of events and discussions that occurred during the Spring 2021 semester.  The first was the closing of the Classical Studies department at Howard University, in fact the closing of the only classics department at a historical black college. This was followed by the immediate response of lament by many scholars, Harvard professor Cornel West prominent among them. Together with Jeremy Tate, the founder and chief executive officer of the Classic Learning Test, Cornel West wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that soon went viral, in part due to its apocalyptic views.  As they saw it, Howard’s removal of classics was a “spiritual catastrophe”.  Removing classics from the education of African American students could not be seen, in their opinion, as a welcome move towards their liberation.  If anything, it would accomplish just the opposite by limiting and even silencing their future voice. In their words: “the end and aim of education is really the anthem of Black people, which is to lift every voice (…). But you can’t find your voice without being grounded in tradition, grounded in legacies, grounded in heritages.” West, incidentally, had just days before spoken at the Sharp Viewpoint Series here at UR with Princeton Professor Robert P. George. The essay one of our Richmond students wrote in response to their talk seemed particularly insightful in the aftermath of Howard’s decision. The student, an African American freshman, spoke of learning from Cornel West that “human” had an etymology from which knowledge of death and burial can be deducted as being differentially human.  The student confessed to be very surprised about this for two reasons:  first, for having learned the deeper meaning of such a basic wordand, second, for never having learned it before.  

When the faculty at UR began talking about Howard’s decision, one the first things that appeared in the listserv was the immediate dismissal of classics as a “white” discipline.  

If we accept race to be a historical construction, can a discipline simply be dismissed for being essentially white? Could the classical tradition then be constructed to be less white?  We are inspired by the possibilities of this work. We envision two main goals for our community: 

Confronting the real and assumed whiteness of the past.  Comedian Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal aired a 2019 segment titled “White at the Museum” with the twin comedians the Lucas brothers, a pointed but humorous "reportage" that could serve as a light way to start the conversation. The tradition of comedy and truth is always a good topic, in any case.  In this vein, although on a more serious note, we will bring to the UR community the example of Juan Latino (ca. 1518-ca.1594), a former slave whose education in Latin gained him a professorship at the Cathedral and the University of Granada --as well as his eventual emancipation (Spain).  We have invited Elizabeth Wright, a scholar of Spanish Renaissance Studies and an expert on Juan Latino, to speak at UR (March 30, 2022) In hoping for this talk about the past to shine a light on the future, we also hope to be able to engage the larger community in this conversation

  1. Foreseeing the potential power of the classical tradition:
    1. We would like this FLC to help anticipate the connections of Classical Studies with the new Africana Studies at UR and the new Humanities Commons/Humanities Center
    2. We would also like to invite high school teachers of Latin in order to listen to their experiences and their ideas about the future of the classical tradition in secondary education and among African American students.