The Shame of Mock Slave Auctions in Secondary Classics

Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in a Virginia public school. She has published several collections of Latin mottoes online and has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on Twitter.

The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.

My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin. 

We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.

The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.” 

The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.” 

1950s

Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”

Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery. 

loyal slave

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”

The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.

The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.

Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field. 

It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.

The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.

This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at dani.bostick@gmail.com 

Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:

1)  Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration. 

2)  Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.

3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.

4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.

Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider: 

1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children. 

2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect. 

3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication). 

4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field. 

3 thoughts on “The Shame of Mock Slave Auctions in Secondary Classics

  1. Molly A Jones-Lewis

    I was sold in a slave auction in 1996 at our JCL chapter Saturnalia party. The tradition was that freshmen members were sold to upperclassmen. I decided to organize a revolt, ran off with the rest of the Freshmen, and holed up in the cafeteria (it was after hours at school), and I got in a medium amount of trouble with my teacher. This was in Virginia.
    I don’t recall if I “purchased” anyone when I was a senior, but I really hope I didn’t. But I might have. I never spoke out against the practice when I was a student (besides my brief stint as Spartacus), and I do regret that deeply now. I’m a big fan of living history as a teaching tool in my classroom now, but this is a hard line I’d not cross. There’s no way to do it without removing your students’ agency and encouraging some students to abuse others. It was scary and coercive, and it didn’t result in a good, nuanced discussion of Roman slavery.

  2. Pingback: Petition to Condemn Mock Slave Auctions at JCL Classics Events | Classics and Social Justice

  3. Evan

    Slavery in Rome wasn’t based on race, rather on domination following war. Slavery in Rome can’t be compared to that which occurred in the Americas.

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