BLM x CLST: A Series of Interviews with the Faculty of Penn Classics — Part 3: Professor Cynthia Damon

Future Directions and Resources

 

By Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi, Sara Chopra, Cate Simons

 

For the third installment of our Black Lives Matter & Classics series, we invited Professor Cynthia Damon to talk about the relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the current reassessment of past scholarship in the field. She also provides advice for fostering inclusivity in our classrooms and suggests reading material and resources for us to become better allies by listening, reading, and learning.

 

Cynthia Damon has been a professor of Classical Studies at Penn since 2007 and serves as the current chair of the department’s graduate program. She is the recipient of many teaching awards and fellowships, including the 2015 College of Liberal and Professional Studies Distinguished Teaching Award for Standing Faculty and the 2016/17 Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship in the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

 

We would like to express our appreciation to Professor Damon for participating in this interview and are excited to share her thoughts and recommendations with you.

 

The statements made by Professor Damon speak solely for herself and are not representative of the Penn Classical Studies department at large.

 


 

In what ways can the Black Lives Matter movement inform how classicists should study the ancient Mediterranean – an area which historically has been read through a Eurocentric lens? And should it affect the way we view historical narratives made by past generations of classicists?

 

The Black Lives Matter movement adds urgency to the ongoing project of investigating and counteracting systemic racism in the academy generally and our field particularly, where the temporal and geographic extent of the relevant materials makes the project especially complex. All of the scholarship used for the study of the ancient Mediterranean is now being read with new eyes, as we investigate its underlying assumptions both explicit and implicit: books and articles communicate more than their ostensible content, translations communicate more than the words of a text, and so on. The existence of this surplus meaning has long been recognized, but its effects on our field have only recently become a focus of study and action for classicists. If we want to demonstrate the enduring value of the study of the ancient Mediterranean, we will have to attend to the entanglements that have made classicists and classical studies complicit in the far-reaching system of oppression highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

Here are two projects that show some of the ways that classicists, ancient historians, and archaeologists are addressing these issues:

 

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? (Racial, cultural, educational, etc.)

 

A full response to this question is beyond the scope of this forum, given that what needs to be addressed is a systemic problem with deep cultural roots: there would be something to say about every aspect of our discipline. So I will focus on the context in which most faculty/student interactions take place, the classroom, and specifically my (virtual) classrooms for the coming semester. Unusually, both of my classes for the fall term are classes that I have taught several times before. But as I reread the course materials for the umpteenth time I see barriers to inclusivity everywhere. There are the pronouns, pretty much all male in the textbook for Latin prose composition, the first edition of which appeared in 1839: male author, male editors, male students, and mostly male characters, apart from the occasional woman depicted in a city on the verge of being sacked. There is the unabashed imperialism, which pervades both the composition textbook and the texts pertaining to the age of Caesar, including those written by Caesar himself, often accompanied by self-serving definitions of self and other. There is the political rhetoric equating slavery and the loss of political freedom, blind to or — worse — complacent about the contemporary realities of enslavement. And so on. So one thing we can do as faculty and students is look squarely at this issue in the materials before us. I fully expect that my students will have keener eyes than I do in this matter, and I hope that opportunity to scrutinize Caesar’s legacy and the traditions of Latin pedagogy in a context in which we have much to learn from one another will help students overcome any barriers that may stand in the way of learning about these aspects of their world.

 

Do you have reading recommendations (books, journal articles, websites, etc.) that focus on the lived experiences of people of color in the ancient Mediterranean?

Interesting question. It presupposes the relevance of the modern POC category to the ancient world. There were certainly people and peoples that were marginalized on the basis of physical characteristics such as skin color, but I’m not sure that it makes sense to amalgamate them as “people of color” and differentiate them from various other marginalized groups (e.g., non-citizens, or rustics, or people living with physical and mental disabilities, or practicing religions incompatible with polytheism). Last year, for example, Professor Wilker taught a course on “Foreigners in Rome,” including their experience, but the overlap with what you are after is only partial. Professors Bowes and Grey work on forms of marginalization that stem from economic or geographic difference; here again the overlap with POC is only partial. Two current graduate students, Julia Simons (CLST) and Kyle West (ANCH), who are doing research on physical disabilities, include the experience of the disabled in their purview. It would be interesting to ask them all to what extent the experience of one group is generalizable to other marginal groups. In all cases we have better evidence for the marginalization itself than for the lived experience of marginalized groups; to get at experience we generally have to extrapolate from scant evidence from the ancient Mediterranean or seek out comparanda from other times and places. So your question is really two questions: Is the modern category relevant to the ancient Mediterranean world? and How did skin color inflect the experience of persons living in that world? On the former, I would suggest the following two essays:

1.     Tim Whitmarsh (2018) “Black Achilles”

2.     Rebecca Futo Kennedy (2019) “Is there a ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ in Greco-Roman antiquity?”

On the latter, here are two books that provide some useful sources and theories:

  • Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation. Eds. R. F. Kennedy, C. Sydnor Roy, and M. Goldman (Hackett: 2013).
  • McCoskey, Denise Eileen. Race: Antiquity and its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns (Tauris: 2012).

 

As you can see from my references to work being done at Penn — and these were by no means comprehensive! — there is a lot of interest in these questions in the department.

 

What is giving you hope as we look back over a year which has already brought us a lot of challenges?

 

The intelligent, creative, and constructive responses by students and colleagues to the task of understanding the history of our field and using that knowledge to build its future.

 


 

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 penndiscentes@gmail.com.

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