Looking Back, Thinking Forward: what Black Lives Matter means in our own department and discipline
By Sara Chopra, Cate Simons, Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi
In the first interview of the Black Lives Matter & Classics series, Professor Emily Wilson discussed the translation and reception of BIPOC voices in classical literature. In our second installment in this series, Professors Kimberly Bowes and Sheila Murnaghan provide critical considerations of the exclusionary past of our field and discuss strategies for cultivating a climate of inclusivity here in our department, especially in light of recent statements made by members of peer departments.
Kimberly Bowes is a professor of Classical Studies and the current undergraduate chair of Penn’s Classical Studies department. She is also the director of Penn’s Integrated Studies Program. She has held the Mellon Professorship at the American Academy in Rome, where she later served as the Academy’s 22nd Director.
Sheila Murnaghan is the Alfred Reginald Allen Memorial Professor of Greek and the faculty director of the post-baccalaureate program in Penn’s Classical Studies department. Currently, Professor Murnaghan is the president of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS).
We deeply appreciate our professors’ generosity in responding to these questions and are excited to share their thoughts with you.
The statements made by Professor Murnaghan and Professor Bowes speak solely for themselves and are not representative of the Penn Classical Studies department at large.
Why is it important for people to study classics in the 21st century, given the problematic elements of the field and of the material itself?
KB: There are few academic fields that don’t have problematic histories: the racist past of this country seeps into most systems of knowledge, from biology to English. Classics has a particular challenge and a particular potential: the problem you all know: its use in propping up racialized notions of so-called western civilization. Its potential is that, of course, the ancient Mediterranean worlds were neither western nor white, they were deeply and wonderfully and differently heterogeneous. They wrestled with questions of racial identity – albeit in very different ways and different contexts – they both embraced and decried new immigrants, they argued about sexual identity. Classics is a laboratory for many of the challenges of equity we face today. Which is not to say it’s always a positive laboratory, but it reveals our charge for true equity in a different and particularly sharp light.
Professor Murnaghan, many of us found solace and motivation in the SCS’s editorial on police brutality, systemic racism, and the death of George Floyd. One part that especially resonated was the statement that “the Society for Classical Studies recognizes and acknowledges the complicity of Classics as a field in constructing and participating in racist and anti-black educational structures and attitudes.” Could you expand a bit on how these non-inclusive educational structures came about, and if there are any practical steps we can take to dismantle or reform them at the university level?
SM: There is a pretty clear story to tell about how the field of Classics was constructed in such a way as to reinforce various forms of exclusion. The idea that the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome are uniquely worth studying – and must be studied together – originated, at least in part, in the search for a pure and exalted lineage for certain groups of white Europeans. Meanwhile, the study of classical cultures – especially their languages and literatures, especially by male students who had started Greek and Latin at elite schools – came to be seen in certain prominent settings as the most worthwhile academic endeavor and the natural prelude to a life of power and privilege.
Those views are by now relatively easy to repudiate (especially in the crude forms appropriated by today’s white supremacists) and to treat as part of the past. We need to focus instead on the subtler forms of complacency and inattention that still persist. Our field no longer has that privileged status, and the historical narrative that justified it has been largely discredited. Throughout my whole career, classicists have been challenging the idea of a pure and superior western heritage, showing the Greeks’ debt to Near Eastern cultures, treating Homer as one example of worldwide oral poetry, attending to the experiences of disenfranchised people at the margins of our surviving texts, reading those texts more skeptically, taking note of the other cultural strands that are implicated in later receptions of classical material, and so forth. The ancient Greeks and Romans have been taken off their pedestals and have become much more interesting and useful to think about. And yet, when anxiety kicks in about the future of Classical Studies, in an academic landscape that is getting much tougher for the Humanities in general, we often try to reassert that privilege and default to old arguments about the priority and superiority of what we study. Those arguments are increasingly ineffective as well as unfounded, and we urgently need new ways to explain the value of what we – and other humanists – do that doesn’t depend on being first and best.
White classicists have also been guilty, in common with the broader culture, of assuming that the victories of the civil rights era had solved the problem of systemic racism in this country. The expectation was that, as we moved to a post-racial society, the composition of our departments and the population of our classrooms would naturally become more diverse, without us doing anything really different. Multiple events of recent years, of which the killing of George Floyd has become emblematic, are forcing us to face up to what hasn’t changed. Looking back at my own career, I can recognize ways in which, while I meant to be welcoming, I was also sending unspoken signals that I assumed someone who wanted to study the classical past would automatically be a lot like me in tastes and experiences and assumptions. Greater self-awareness and explicitness about how race (along with other features of identity) has shaped and continues to shape modern encounters with the ancient Mediterranean world – in ways we might sometimes judge positively and sometimes negatively – is essential if we are going to communicate a more expansive vision of what studying that world has to offer. A commitment to such transparency runs through the various practical steps for combatting racism that have been identified both by the Department’s faculty and by our graduate students, many of which will be implemented in the coming year.
Within the past few months, faculty and staff members at many universities across the country have penned open letters, calls to action, and petitions advocating for institutional commitment to anti-racism on their campuses.
Recently, Joshua Katz, a tenured professor of Classics at Princeton University, published a response to a faculty-signed letter encouraging the university’s administration to take specific anti-racist actions. In his essay, Professor Katz argues that implementing the letter’s recommendations would have a negative impact on the institution, and also describes a now-inactive Black student activist group as a “terrorist organization.” Faculty and students at Princeton, including members of the Department of Classics, have since condemned Katz’ statements as racist. As a faculty member of a peer department at a peer institution, what are your thoughts on Katz’ essay, especially given his background as a classicist?
SM: Katz’ essay is not specifically about Classics, so any connections one might draw between the views expressed there and his academic specialty would have to be speculative. And I am not myself aware of other classicists who have endorsed the essay. But classicists, who do worry a lot about the future of the field, are not immune to the feelings of fear and incomprehension that the essay betrays – fear in the characterization of student activists as terrorists, incomprehension in the claim that faculty members Katz respects could only have signed the letter if they hadn’t read it or were succumbing to peer pressure or vague sympathy for the general cause of anti-racism. Such feelings are understandable reactions to proposals for giving up familiar ways of doing things, but also serious obstacles that have to be faced and overcome if we are going to make progress in a situation where business as usual has just not been working. And sadly, the condescending and dismissive tone of Katz’ essay cuts off any dialogue, obscuring the fact that his reservations about particular proposals might be worth discussing, in keeping with the letter-writers’ hope that those proposals would be “implemented with care and consultation with all affected parties.”
KB: It’s distressing and disheartening, to say the least, and I’m particularly sorry for our friends and colleagues at Princeton who have done so much to try to change the discipline in recent years. But Josh doesn’t speak for classics or classicists.
As diversity within Classical Studies grows – with regard to both the texts and histories that are read and the people who study them – how do you see our discipline becoming more accessible, both at Penn and at large? What steps can faculty and students take to foster a welcoming and open space for classicists from underrepresented backgrounds?
KB: I think that we have to start with all of you – with our undergrads. It’s only once we persuade the full range of Penn undergrads from all backgrounds that the ancient world is a fascinating and fruitful place, that we will have begun to change the folks who apply to graduate school, and thereby change the professoriate and the discipline. You’ve outlined some of the ways we do that: we teach directly to the heterogeneity of the world we study – its racial, sexual and economic diversity. The textual corpus, even the canonical one, is a super-rich one, and speaks directly to many of the issues we care about – inclusion, exclusion, difference – we need to bring those issues out. We need to cross list our courses with departments and programs like Africana Studies and Sociology and Urban Studies – with which they often have much in common. And you all have a role to play in reaching out to your peers: you get why this world has so much to offer and why this department is a welcoming and fun place to learn. You’re great ambassadors.
What is giving you hope as we look back over a year which has already brought us a lot of challenges?
SM: The massive protests and the widespread expressions of individual and institutional commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement that were sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and others give me some hope that the country has finally turned a corner: enough is enough, and there is now a critical mass of support for creating a truly equitable society. Things are happening that once seemed impossible, like Princeton’s removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from their School of Public Policy and International Affairs. But that (however significant) is a symbolic step, and it remains to be seen whether the major and sustained reforms we need in areas like policing, incarceration, community investment, and school funding will follow. The effects of the coronavirus, which has also played an important role in heightening awareness of structural inequalities, will of course make that more difficult. So, I have some hopes, but I am not counting on anything.
KB: So many people are now taking an urgently hard look at their world and themselves. It’s the examined life that Socrates urges us to, and which we, as a country and as individuals, have neglected for so very long, to the detriment of so many of our fellows. Our challenge now is to move from examination to action – which all of you, in asking us these hard questions, are doing. So these questions and the fact you’re asking them, give me hope.
If you are a faculty member interested in joining this conversation with Discentes, we would love to hear and broadcast your thoughts. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cate Simons (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Languages and Literature) and minoring in Fine Arts.
Sara Chopra (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies, Consumer Psychology, and Ancient History.
Elizabeth Vo-Phami (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Classical Civilizations) and Cognitive Science.