Blackness in antiquity

A shard of pottery from a North Ionian amphora, 560-540 BCE. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum, London

To truly see black people in ancient art we need to look beyond the historically recent trope of ‘Blackness = inferiority’

Sarah Derbew is an assistant professor of Classics at Stanford University in California and the author of Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (forthcoming, June 2022).

In their memo ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’ from 1968, the lecturers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (then known as James Ngũgĩ), Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong spearheaded an educational revolution at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Eager to sweep out the vestiges of British colonialism from the university’s English Department, they proposed abolishing it, to be replaced with ‘a Department of African Literature and Languages’. They also suggested a revised curriculum that emphasised the centrality of Africa via the study of its oral and written literature, art and drama.

Building on this manifesto for literary emancipation, Ngũgĩ later drew attention to the immense significance of the written language in his essay collection Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986). Here, the Kenyan scholar bid farewell to the English language as his literary medium and vowed to write all future works in Swahili and his native Gĩkũyũ. Instead of espousing colonial languages on the African continent, Ngũgĩ urged fellow African writers to develop literature in their mother tongues.

Snapshots from Ngũgĩ’s career underline the real-life stakes of liberation work. After Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, Ngũgĩ worked with Kenyan farmers at the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre to create plays that interrogated unchecked political control in their country. Soon after the 1977 performance of Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want, 1977) – a play co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, about a crumbling love affair between a poor woman and the son of her wealthy landlord – Kenyan government officials arrested Ngũgĩ. Following his release from prison and protracted exile, he returned to Nairobi and survived a violent assault.

These glimpses into Ngũgĩ’s life lay bare the challenging position in which writers who seek to revamp lopsided archives find themselves. These archives are, to quote Saidiya Hartman in ‘Venus in Two Acts’ (2008), ‘asterisk[s] in the grand narrative of history’, and writers-cum-archivists determine their parameters. Those who are not invested in liberation work may believe that they can produce impartial and authoritative additions to these archives, but it is reckless to presume that writers’ lived experiences do not affect their output. Writers cannot step outside of their historical present any more than they can step outside of their bodies.

Ngũgĩ’s work highlights the benefits of identifying biases and rectifying gaps in imbalanced archives. Nonetheless, there are consequences associated with such initiatives. For instance, while recent scholars such as Donna Zuckerberg and Sarah Bond have received praise for calling to task racist ideologies masquerading as relics of Greco-Roman antiquity, they have also had death threats in response to Zuckerberg’s book on white supremacist receptions of Roman imperial history and Bond’s research on polychromy on ancient Greek sculptures. Such vitriol reminds invested parties that there remains a need for a vast community of thinkers who are willing to apply precision and equity to their research. Only those who examine their convictions to ensure that they are not perpetuating prejudices can help move the needle forward.

For the field of ancient Greek and Roman studies, unchecked subjective biases can all too easily lead to literary colonialism, as is the case in Grace Hadley Beardsley’s The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type (1929). Corrosive ideology has also entered the public sphere, as is apparent in the appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman history by hate groups. Intent on countering these mishandlings of the past, I have elsewhere spoken and written about diverse representations of blackness in Greek antiquity. Continuing to channel Ngũgĩ’s liberation work, I explore ancient portrayals of black people from a variety of locations. The subsequent tracing of blackness in ancient Crete, ancient Nubia and ancient Greece unsettles the hierarchy that tends to emerge in discussions of the past. In particular, the privileging of some histories (read: European) over others (read: African) in the academic and public spheres have unfairly monopolised the parameters of ‘antiquity’.

Geopolitical renderings of blackness that overlay ancient countries onto modern maps with no regard for historical context promote neocolonial narratives. Moving away from these subjective hierarchies, I champion an examination of ancient blackness based on themes, such military might and travel. This approach offers alternative ways of looking at skin colour that does not reproduce the virulent narrative of anti-Black racism. As part of my interrogation of my own historical context, I have also thought carefully about the orthography of blackness I use in this piece…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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