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Careers in the Classics

Careers in the Classics

America’s few Black classics professors have overcome contempt and criticism to contribute a unique perspective to the study of the ancient world

By Lydia Lum

Dr. Patrice Rankine is accustomed to proving himself to his students. The

associate professor from Purdue University has grown used to the irony. As one of the few Black classicists teaching at an American university, he has drawn plenty of skepticism from those taking his Latin and Greek courses.

“Students wonder if I really know the languages,” says Rankine. “After a while, they realize that I do.”   

He and his peers say that minorities’ cultural aversions to the field, coupled with societal doubts about whether people of color can fully appreciate tales from Greek and Roman antiquity, make their jobs tougher. Like their colleagues elsewhere in the humanities, classicists traditionally don’t command large salaries, and high-profile minorities in the field have been few and far between.

Minorities represented only 2.7 percent of the doctorate-holding classicists teaching in the United States and Canada in 2002-2003, according to the American Philological Association. Neither the APA nor the Archaeological Institute of America has a minority caucus. Yet individual accomplishments over the years rival those in any field. Dr. Gregson Davis, the professor and dean of humanities at Duke University, was a valedictorian at Harvard in 1960 at age 19. An Antigua native, his career of more than 35 years has included positions at Stanford and Cornell universities. Dr. Frank Snowden, professor emeritus at Howard University, gained acclaim for his books in recent decades about Blacks in ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy. One of Black Issues’ 2001 “Emerging Scholars,” classics professor Dr. Danielle Allen, now dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, won a MacArthur “genius” grant that same year. All of these academic superstars credit charismatic teachers for sparking their interests. Their backgrounds are varied. A few of the future classicists came from well-to-do families. Others hailed from blue-collar America and earned scholarships to the country’s most prestigious institutions. In many instances, these scholars were the children of educators and museum-goers who nurtured their childhood passions for reading.  

What’s rare, though, is a scholar of color getting initially hooked on classics at a minority-serving institution. According to a recent online search among historically Black colleges and universities, only a few offer courses in the classics, says Rankine, an APA minority scholarship committee member.

Nonetheless, some minority classicists have initiated groundbreaking research on topics such as the similarities between ancient life and 1960s civil rights activism; the role of Africans in the Greco-Roman empire; and the influence of classical literature on contemporary writers like Toni Morrison.

An undervalued discipline?
The notion of minorities as classics experts isn’t new — and hasn’t been for more than 100 years. Latin was a benchmark subject in American schools during the first half of the 20th century and was commonly studied by students of all races. In recent decades, a shift in educational philosophy, dwindling funding for public education and an influx of non-English speaking immigrants have led to curriculum changes in the languages commonly taught.

A traveling exhibit called “Twelve Black Classicists” spotlights intellectuals who were active immediately after the Civil War. Four of them became college presidents, including William Sanders Scarborough, who was born a slave but secretly learned to read and write. The Greek textbook he authored in 1881 earned national acclaim, and Scarborough went on to head Wilberforce University. More information on the exhibit is available at <>. Black classicists of the past also directly contributed to the careers of today’s classics professors. The great-grandfather of Dr. Mary Ann Eaverly, an associate professor at the University of Florida, was a classics teacher at a now-defunct Mississippi college. And Rankine’s primary classics teacher as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College was Black. 

Yet Latin, Greek and courses about long-extinct civilizations now carry a stigma. Critics blast the subjects as time-wasting pursuits and brush off statistics that show classics majors topping the charts on the graduate school entrance exam. Meanwhile, advocates argue that a classics degree, like others in the liberal arts, provides students with a broad understanding of politics, law, economics and history, subjects that can be applied to graduate school in any discipline.

According to Dr. Leah Johnson, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, mentioning her career field to Blacks outside academia usually produces looks of amusement, disbelief and disappointment.

Most quickly become supportive, however, after learning about her research, which includes a comparison of the status of Blacks in post-Civil War America to that of minorities during Roman reconstruction. But not everyone sees the value in her research.

“They don’t see how this is going to improve the situation of African-Americans or solve any of our social ills,” says Johnson, who was one of Black Issues’ “Emerging Scholars” in 2005.

Minority classics students also deal with skepticism and hostility from within their own homes. Faculty members relate stories of parents threatening to cut off tuition payments if their children switch from majors such as engineering, business or the hard sciences. Perhaps as a result, the national APA minority scholarship competition often receives only a handful of applications. In some years the number has been in the single digits. In their essays for the competition, many prospective students voice the tensions between families and themselves. One parent summarized the earning potential of the major by telling his child: “I hope you like the taste of books.” 

Dr. Erwin Cook, who headed the APA scholarship committee this past academic year, doesn’t blame the naysayers. “Communities who have been historically marginalized have persistent — and legitimate — concerns about the students’ futures.”

Ironically, people of color have plenty to offer interpretively to the classics, says Cook, who taught for 13 years at the University of Texas before becoming a Trinity University professor and humanities program director. Some of his South Asian undergraduates have found similarities between their cultural rituals and those of the ancient Greeks. And a Latino student compared Homer’s honor-driven society to inner-city gangs. In both, its members live and die by a code of honor. “The more perspectives we have, the more enriched the stories become,” says Cook, who’s White. 

One of Cook’s former students, Dr. Matthew Gonzales, agrees. Because Gonzales grew up navigating between his father’s Mexican-American heritage and his mother’s Scottish-Irish roots, he’s better able to teach the multiculturalism of early civilizations to students at Saint Anselm College, where he’s an assistant professor. But like Purdue’s Rankine, Gonzales also has encountered students doubting his competency. “We turned it around by the end of the semester, but for a while, a few of them were very willing to challenge my authority.” 

Even schools with solid African-American representation in the classics programs have trouble actually coaxing them into the field. During 2004-2005, almost 20 percent of University of Florida classics majors were minorities. But “we lose a lot every year to law school,” says Eaverly.

Blacks make up 25 percent of the student population at Temple University, but many in the classical studies program are forced to choose between their academic interests and economic realities, says Dr. Martha Davis, the acting chairwoman of the Greek, Hebrew and Roman Classics department. Illustrating her point is the story of one of her Black students who had to quit the program so he could work full-time and support his family. The student, who had been double majoring in English and classics, managed to complete the English program but never earned his classics degree,  Davis says.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, some minority classicists have met naysayers among their colleagues. Rankine, who grew up in Brooklyn, felt alienated while earning his Ph.D. at Yale, so he moved to Harlem and commuted 90 minutes each way by train. Neighbors knew him only as a graduate student — the word “classics” was essentially Greek to them. But he didn’t mind their disinterest, compared to the active disdain he encountered at school by White peers who scorned him for having a copy of the controversial, polarizing book Black Athena. “They shouldn’t have been surprised that I would at least take an interest in it,” Rankine says. “It was as if it was okay for me to be in the classics with them as long as race didn’t come up. It was okay if I was passing or otherwise assimilated.”

With few minorities choosing to teach the classics, college leaders understandably scramble to hire those earning their doctorates. At Temple, Martha Davis recently hired Dr. Jackie Murray, an African-
American woman, from the University of Washington, the first minority classicist during Davis’ 28 years at Temple. Eaverly at Florida recently hired a Hispanic woman, Dr. Victoria Pagán, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Duke’s Gregson Davis was trying to fill a vacancy several years ago, he met Dr. Grant Parker, a Black Issues “Emerging Scholar” in 2003 and a native of South Africa who has explored the interactions between ancient Greco-Roman societies and other cultures. Although Parker’s credentials didn’t fit the job description, Davis lobbied his provost to hire him anyway as an assistant professor. The provost agreed and the department picked up two new faculty rather than one.  

 The intrinsically Eurocentric focus of classical studies programs has prompted Gregson Davis to consider launching a transcultural interdisciplinary honors program at Duke with geographically diverse course offerings.

“The Greeks didn’t invent everything,” Davis says. “We should teach Egyptian myths, for instance, alongside the writings of Homer and Plato. It’s a disservice to our graduates if we give them an inaccurate account of history.” 

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