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CLASSICS: Leah Rochel Johnson

Classical Foundations
Leah Rochel Johnson

Title: Assistant Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean
Studies and History, Pennsylvania State University
Education: Ph.D., M.A., Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, University of California, Berkeley;
B.A., Classics, Harvard University
Age: 40

The scarcity of minorities in the classics is apparent to any observer. What isn’t as obvious is how much African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were influenced by their classical training, says Dr. Leah Rochel Johnson.

Meanwhile, many of her counterparts in African American studies haven’t noticed similarities between Du Bois’s writings and those of the early thinkers, Johnson says. Same with Washington’s writings. But Johnson has found them in her research and believes that Cicero, for instance, heavily inspired Du Bois. 

Johnson isn’t surprised by Black students’ traditional gravitation to disciplines such as education, the hard sciences and African American studies. The cultural mindset, however, disappoints and sometimes frustrates her. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Johnson taught a young Black woman whose enthusiasm for the classics led her to consider switching from her major of economics — until her parents threatened to cut off financial support.

“What a lot of African American parents have not realized is that a good liberal arts education is a springboard for any career,” says Johnson. “Unless you’re planning to get a job right after earning your bachelor’s degree, you can easily specialize in something in graduate school. In the meantime in the classics, you’re learning from all fields — law, business, literature, history, science, the arts, economics. African Americans in their careers will encounter people with all sorts of knowledge. They need to be able to deal with their White peers.”

Dr. Erich Gruen, Johnson’s dissertation advisor, says in his 36 years on UC-Berkeley’s faculty, he recalls only one other African American graduate student in the classics department. The number of Latino graduate students has lingered in the single digits, he says, and Asian Americans haven’t numbered much more, because of the same cultural tendencies to seek better-paid careers. Even the American Philological Association has trouble getting takers for minority scholarships, he says.

Gruen recalls Johnson, who also earned her master’s at Berkeley, as not only a social extrovert on campus but active in raising issues that improved graduate students’ working environments and their relationships with faculty. “She would be a superb role model for any minority interested in the classics,” Gruen says.

Fluent in Italian, Latin and Classical Greek and proficient in a host of other languages, Johnson has gained expertise in Hellenistic and Roman history; Greek and Latin epigraphy; and Greek and Roman numismatics. Currently, she’s writing a book entitled, Romani Facti: The Romanization of Italy, 133-44 B.C. She also has published several articles on Hellenistic and Roman history in the Encyclopedia of the Ancient World (Salem Press, 2001).

Johnson is in her third year at Penn State, although she is on sabbatical this spring semester to finish her book.

Last fall, she taught two undergraduate courses, one on the civilizations of Greece and Persia and their interactions with each other. The other was on ancient Greek language and culture. Previously, she has taught an experimental course at Penn State’s honors college on ethnicity, race and identity in the ancient Mediterranean world.

A passion for the classics rings clear in Johnson’s voice as she recalls falling in love with folklore as a 6-year-old in Detroit when she received a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology as a Christmas present. The youngest of 12 children, she went to the library once a week to check out “as many books as I could carry,” she says with a laugh. Her welder father supported them all. Her housewife mother, who’d come from a family of teachers, nurtured Johnson’s zeal for reading.

Getting educated at a New Hampshire boarding school, which included studying Greek and Roman civilizations extensively, only whetted Johnson’s appetite for more. On her way to a bachelor’s degree in classics at Harvard, she won the Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for an outstanding senior thesis. She scuttled her original career plans while seeking a Harvard professor’s recommendation letter for her law school application.

He told her, “There are too many lawyers and three very good reasons to work in academia: June, July and August.”

—  By Lydia Lum

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