By Paula D. Royster |

The Great Books of the Western World was theorized by John Erskine of Columbia University in 1920.  Erskine said that preserving white dominance was the moral obligation of intelligent English people. He desperately wanted to teach coursework on antiquity because we had an immigration “problem” in the U.S. People from Turkey, Iraq, Albania as well as Jews were classified as “white” by U.S. Customs officials upon entry, which meant that white power was being diluted by non-white people. Erskine, determined to save whiteness, assembled a collection of works focused on the 548 B.C.-300 B.C. eras and he gave it a name: The Classics. He reorganized humanity to begin with the Persian Empire and the birth of the Grecian mythical figure Heraclitus, the demarcation point of where Eurocentric perspectives emerge. Starting with the Persians summarily dismisses the inclusion of previous civilizations (i.e. ancient Egyptian dynasties) thus creating new theories of power structures and cultural identities dissimilar to what Herodotus, Strabo, Dionysius, Pliny the Elder and the Younger, or Polybius had all previously written about.

Of course Adler’s vision would not see the light of day at Columbia, but it didn’t have to. His protégés, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins sympathized with need for preserving white history in a visibly browning country but unlike their mentor, they were successful in doing so in 1954 under a new name: the World Book Encyclopedia now called the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The erasure of meaningful contributions to humanity in the canon is not lost on non-white scholars and students. For example, anyone viewing the imagery of Queen Teutana (Teuta 231–228 B.C.) would naturally assume that the Ethiopian queen was of European descent. Many of us know that Hatshepsut, the second female Egyptian pharaoh who ruled in the eighteenth dynasty, gave us the concept of museums and the Arts, and she created what we now call international trade. We also know that Imhotep (c. 2600 B.C.) was both an architect and the world’s first physician, yet Hippocrates, who received his medical training in Egypt, is credited as the “Father of Medicine”. Forgotten is Salvii Julianus (c. 110 – c. 170) of Tunisia, the jurist who edited the Praetorian Edict, and Marcus Tullius Tiro (103 B.C. – 4 B.C.), the formerly enslaved African who wrote Cicero’s letters. Scholars should know that chariots were invented by Sumerians and thatLibyans taught Grecians how to harness four horses. The invisibility of Ahmose (1680-1620 B.C.), the Egyptian scribe who copied 87 Egyptian mathematical problems and answers from the Akhmīm Mathematical Papyrus (c. 2000 B.C.), but whose works were appropriated as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus and expropriated by The British Museum. Classicists open wide their arms to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and never once acknowledge that the trio studied the Seven Liberal Arts in Alexandria, Egypt. Some of us do not ignore Herodotus who said Greeks learned to read and write from the Kolkhis (Egyptians); that military uniforms, mythical gods and annual festivals were all cultural appropriations of African culture. Back then, citing origins was the credible thing to do.

In all of my “foundational” coursework, I have never once experienced discourse on these concepts. Not even a hint that there were significant contributions to humanity by the first peoples of the world. The people who were the first mothers, fathers, priests, educators, doctors, farmers, philosophers, artisans, metalsmiths and architects. The people who invented the color purple. The Classics aren’t dying because they are antiquated. The Classics are dying because they are overtly racialized, inherently sexist and transparently fictional. Resolute in their cause, any evidenced-based intimation that Greco-Romans could have possibly borrowed (stolen) anything from any other cultural group, least of all people of African descent, is met with diabolical reproach. Understandably, careers, books, movies and college departments were built on this pathology of greatness but independent scholars researching the African Diaspora have been peeling back the unhealed scabs of whiteness for the past 50 years to produce new sources of information. Scholarly findings have resulted in projects such as 1619 and influenced a recent decision by Howard University to eliminate the classics department by the fall semester of 2021.

Howard University, an R2 Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Washington, D.C., announced in April that it would phase out its classics department. Its decision to integrate classical coursework across disciplines was met with customary demonization by white elitists at Harvard University. They accused the Administration of engaging in an unnamed wide-ranging spiritually evil plot to destroy the humanities as if the only discipline in the humanities is classical studies. The hubris and ignorance speaks for itself. 

Howard’s African American students pay $45,000/year in tuition and are uninterested in classical studies beyond the compulsory GenEd requirements. The topic is detached from their truths and their views based on their experiences—Erskine’s apotheosis of white civilization deserves credit for this apathy. Practically speaking, there’s not one problem solved today that can be attributed to classical studies.

If classicists want to remain relevant in the 21st century, they will have to investigate other truths such as the presence of Africans in Krḗtē and Roma quadrate during Greco-Roman antiquity. Other ways of knowing requires engaging scholars with expertise in disciplines that intersect with classical studies but are not whitewashed by classical worldviews. This can be accomplished through visiting/guest lectureships; organizing/sponsoring interdisciplinary conferences and publications; attending non-classical events to expand networks and reading lists that spur new theories or research methodologies.

Classicists can ill-afford to think that transparency is faddish and will dissipate when the political heat of inclusion cools off. The worldwide demographics paradigm does not support that assumption. Howard University saw the 50 years in the making handwriting on the wall and changed course to meet the demands of the future. If there is a future for classical theorists, they would follow suit.

Paula D. Royster, Ph.D. is an Africana Studies interdisciplinary scholar, educator and author of Decolonizing Arts-based Methodologies: Researching the African Diaspora (Brill, 2020).

Photo by AussieActive on Unsplash