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The Collation

Race B4 Race Seminar 2: What We’re Reading and Why

The second meeting of this year’s Reading Group took place on Monday October 16, and featured Emily Greenwood in conversation with Dan-el Padilla Peralta regarding the special issue of The American Journal of Philology (No. 143.2, Summer 2022) on “Diversifying Classical Philology.” She was the editor of, and a contributor to, the issue, and Dan-el co-authored one of the articles with Sasha-Mae Eccleston.

Emily Greenwood is James M Rothenberg Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and her enormous body of work brings together ancient Greek, reception studies, postcolonial studies, and Black studies, among other fields. She has written two books, Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century (2010) and Thucydides and the Shaping of History (2006), and is currently working on two book projects—Black Classicisms and the Expansion of the Western Classical Tradition and The Recovery of Loss: Classics and the Erasure of American Histories—both of which explore the complex reception of ancient Greek and Roman narratives in the contemporary world.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an Associate Professor of Classics at Princeton University, and works at the intersection of Ancient Rome and modern reception. In addition to his extensive academic work, he has also published a memoir titled Undocumented: A Dominican boy’s odyssey from a homeless shelter to the Ivy League (2015), and is a co-founder of the conference series Racing the Classics, with Sasha-Mae Eccleston.

Why are we reading this?

It is impossible to work on premodern race in Europe or in the Mediterranean without grappling with the Greeks and the Romans; we just can’t get away from them. These types of studies are even more challenging in the field of classics, since it is so much further removed chronologically from where we are now, but these two scholars are at the forefront of pushing for change in the field, which has traditionally, even more than medieval and early modern studies, been associated with the promotion and sustenance of whiteness and white supremacy.

We read three articles from the 2022 AJP special issue, alongside an earlier essay by poet Natasha Trethewey titled “On Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling.”

The issue’s introduction, “Classical Philology, otherhow,” authored by Emily Greenwood, sets forth an approach to classical philology that is self-reflexive, that, to use Greenwood’s phrasing, ‘turn[s] the tools of philological criticism onto the discipline to examine its sources of cultural knowledge, ways of knowing, and its lacunae” (190).

The opening essay, “Racing the Classics: Ethos and Praxis,” by Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Sasha-Mae Eccleston, explains the circumstances leading to and surrounding their collaborative founding of the Racing the Classics conference series. Both Oxford-trained classicists, they begin with an incisive critique of “the contemporary admissions policies and diversity initiatives that are presumed to move beyond this inheritance [of colonialism] but in reality cleave to it,” that “strategically minoritize” Black students, and “create a majority habituated to the scarcity of Black bodies” (200). One of the things we discussed in the first session was the assumption of whiteness not just as the default, but as the only perceived framework for rigor and impartiality.

‘It was never our race, our presence, our misunderstanding that was the issue: it was the racism, and its articulation across class, geographic, ethnic, gendered, sexualized, and abilified lines. It was the racecraft, the magic tricks that make racism’s role in the production of race and racialized inequality disappear as a matter of rationalized routine.’ (205)

It is within this context of frustration, tokenization, and isolation that Racing the Classics came into being. Eccleston and Padilla Peralta founded the series as a different kind of conference space, one that pushed against the emphasis on individual credit and achievement that defines most conferences; that aimed to ‘focus on building community with graduate students and early career researchers […] with the hope of encouraging collectively oriented inquiry over authoritative exegesis and explication” (212).

The final essay in the volume, Emily Greenwood’s “Reconstructing Classical Philology: Reading Aristotle Politics 1.4 After Toni Morrison,” offers an excellent example of the insights and complexities that can be revealed by bringing together classics and Black studies, specifically Black feminism. Drawing on the work of not just Toni Morrison, but Christina Sharpe and Hortense Spillers, Greenwood zeroes in on the passage from Aristotle’s Politics that has underpinned justifications of slavery since Aristotle’s own lifetime, where he refers to a slave as “a sort of animate piece of property.” She begins by unpicking the passage in both Greek and in translation, explains it thoroughly for those of us who do not have a background in Greek (myself included), and compares it to other passages in Aristotle’s works where he either uses or avoids those exact terms, calling attention to the philosopher’s internal contradictions and observing, “well might Aristotle vacillate and rely on indefinite pronouns and the figurative ensemble of metaphors and similes, because he is relying on powerful fictions to do the work of argument” (346). Aristotle’s own concept of metaphor, Greenwood explains, is not conceptual as ours is today; when he uses the term, the similarity under discussion is firmly rooted in the real world. Thus, his use of animal metaphor is “part of the ideology of domination through which slaves were objectified and demeaned” (349).

Greenwood then offers a careful genealogy of the uses to which Aristotle was put, particularly during the antebellum era in the United States to justify Black chattel slavery in particular. The Greek philosopher’s centrality to pro-slavery rhetoric cannot be overstated; to the point that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr made reference to the “animated tool” when talking about integration in 1962, a move Greenberg characterizes as trying “to rescue the concept of Black aliveness from a paradoxical ontology of non-being inherited from Aristotle’s metaphor of the slave as a ‘kind of animate piece of property’” (352).

The supplemental essay by Natasha Tretheway, “On Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling,” offers a deeper dive into race and/as metaphor. “The role of metaphor,” she argues, “is not only to describe our experience of reality; metaphor also shapes how we perceive reality” (61). She draws on her own experience as a mixed-race child before historicizing racial mixing within the context of how language is used as a tool of empire, as is the case with Antonio de Nebrija’s fifteenth-century Castilian dictionary, which classifies and taxonomizes mixed-race groups across Spain.

While I will not be going into the particulars of the discussion, in order to preserve the seminar space as a safe and private one, I do wish to call attention to the fascinating selection of scholarship that came up, so I will be listing those works below.

Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Doubleday, 2001).

———-. An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading (University of Alberta Press, 2020).

Jarvis R. Givens, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching (Harvard UP, 2021).

Kim F. Hall, Scott Manning Stevens, and Lehua Yim, “On Critical Indigenous Studies and Early Modern Critical Race Studies: A Tri-Interview,” in Seeing Race Before Race: Visual Culture and the Racial Matrix in the Premodern World, ed. Lia Markey and Noémie Ndiaye (ACMRS, 2023).

Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review 28.1 (1989): 1-34.

Imani Perry, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke UP, 2018).

Patrice Rankine, Aristotle and Black Drama: A Theater of Civil Disobedience (Baylor UP, 2013).

———-. Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature (U of Wisconsin Press, 2006).

Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke UP, 2017).

Natasha Tretheway, “On Abiding Metaphors and Finding a Calling,” in How We Do It: Black Writers on Craft, Practice, and Skill, ed. Jericho Brown and Darlene Taylor (HarperCollins, 2023).

Marchella Ward, “Queering Kinship Against Genealogy,” in The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Queer Theory, ed. Ella Haselswerdt, Sara H. Lindheim, and Kirk Ormand (Routledge, 2023), 257-72.

David Whitehead (ed.), Aineias the Tactician: How to Survive Under Siege (Bloomsbury, 2002).

  • Uses the concept of the ‘responsible passive,’ adapted from J.H. Hexter’s ‘irresponsible passive’, in On Historians (Harvard UP, 1979), 2n2.