Classics Beyond Whiteness: An Interview

Last month, the College faculty of Wake Forest University formally approved a major decision by the Wake Forest Department of Classics: starting in the coming academic year, all majors and minors in the department, whether in the languages or in Classical Studies, will be required to take a course called Classics Beyond Whiteness, which, according to its official catalog description, “Studies misconceptions that ancient Greeks and Romans were white; race in Graeco-Roman societies; the role of Classics in modern racial politics; and non-white approaches to Classics. Considers race as social construct; white supremacy, fragility, and privilege; and critical-race-theoretical study of ancient cultures.”

I sat down with T. H. M. Gellar-Goad — the faculty member who developed the course, and co-founded the Classics Beyond Whiteness series at Wake Forest — to find out more about the course, the series, and the curricular change.

 

1. So, to start off, tell us what exactly “Classics Beyond Whiteness” is. 

Classics Beyond Whiteness is a multi-modal series of departmental programming that aims to decenter the whiteness of the field, both in the discipline’s history and its future. It began in the 2019–2020 academic year with a series of talks and workshops, reading groups, art exhibits, public art commissions, and the course Classics Beyond Whiteness itself.

The three threads of the Classics Beyond Whiteness series were race and ethnicity in the ancient world; Classics and white supremacy; and nonwhite receptions of Classics. The course I taught in fall 2019 — which is the one now on the books as a permanent departmental offering, and required of all Classics majors and minors at Wake Forest henceforth — had the same title as the series and the same threads of inquiry, with an intersectional, critical-race-theoretical lens. Although it was a new, half-term course that fulfilled no degree requirements, it over-enrolled almost immediately. The discussions were always rich, and the curricular and extracurricular components of the Classics Beyond Whiteness series worked synergistically to engage the students outside of the class meetings.

One of the signal achievements of Classics Beyond Whiteness is a series of three portraits of Black classicists from North Carolina by Winston-Salem artist Leo Rucker. These are the first painted portraits of these subjects–Helen Maria Chesnutt, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Wiley Lane–and the portraits represent a lasting testament to the often-overlooked impact of Black classicists on our discipline, locally and worldwide.

2. Tell me a little bit about what prompted you to design Classics Beyond Whiteness in the first place. 

In the 2018–2019 academic year, my department decided on the theme “Classics Beyond Europe” for its series of teleconference guest lectures. So we had speakers on the reception of Classics in Brazil and in the United States; on contemporary issues of race and racism facing Classics as a discipline; and on Black scholars of Classics connected to North Carolina. That series was such a success with our students and our campus community that we decided to continue in the following year with a series focused on questions of race and ethnicity in the ancient and modern worlds. This decision was in part prompted by a talk Patrice Rankine gave for us in February 2019, in which he connected Athens, the early United States, and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s racist yearbook photos. A mere week after that talk, Wake Forest had its own Ralph Northam incident, as the Dean and Associate Dean of Admissions were found to have posed for photos in front of Confederate flags when they were undergraduates at Wake Forest.

The phrase “Classics Beyond Whiteness” is first and foremost a provocation — it is not a state of where the field is or my department is, but both a vision and a call to action.

Over the summer of 2020, in response to the worldwide protests for racial justice in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many others, a contingent of alums of Wake Forest Classics sent a letter to our faculty encouraging us to adopt new measures for racial justice in our own department. One decision we made in response to that letter was to add Classics Beyond Whiteness as a requirement to all our majors and minors. From now on, no student who earns a degree in our department will do so without encountering critical race theory or grappling with the crises in which our discipline is entangled.

 

3. What resources did you find most valuable or helpful in designing the course? Which would you recommend to others thinking of doing the same thing? 

Denise McCoskey’s book Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, as well as a number of articles published by Eidolon, were incredibly helpful resources, as is the burgeoning set of books and articles aimed at explaining systemic racism, white privilege, and white fragility, including Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “There is no such thing as Western civilisation.” I owe a huge debt to a number of scholars whose work has helped shape this course in all sorts of ways: Shelley Haley, Patrice Rankine, Mathura Umachandran, Jackie Murray, Sarah E. Bond, Kelly P. Dugan, and others. There are also excellent resource pages and venues for advice offered by scholarly organizations including MRECC, Classics & Social Justice, and the Social Justice in Secondary Latin Teaching group on Facebook. I also used excerpts from Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation (edd. Kennedy/Roy/Goldman).

 

4. What did you find most challenging and/or rewarding about the experience of designing the course and the series? 

I said earlier that Classics Beyond Whiteness is not a statement of where the field is, but rather a challenge to think about what it could be. The whiteness itself was a challenge — both my own, in errors that I made in framing and organizing events, and also in the fragility that white colleagues and administrators demonstrated in different ways, minor and major, throughout the process. The corollary to this is that, ultimately, Classics Beyond Whiteness did secure the funding and institutional support needed for its various extracurricular events, and especially for the public art commission. The meeting the minds and the debates and discussions prompted by Classics Beyond Whiteness were both intellectually rigorous and stimulating, and they were, for myself and for many of the participants, eye-opening. 

 

5. What advice or guidance would you offer to those thinking of designing similar initiatives at their own institutions? 

Think big. The planning of the series started with a blue-sky vision of what it would look like if there were no constraints on resources. It turned out that, when I pulled together smaller chunks of funding from various sources within the university and the discipline, every piece of that vision was able to be realized. Being white is not an excuse for not pursuing programming like this: it’s past time to shift what’s been traditionally centered in Classics, beginning at home in our departments. We had more people at these talks and workshops than we ever did before, from first-year students to majors to colleagues across the university to high-level administrators to community members — this is not to say, “do this to increase your numbers,” but rather, “do this because it is the right thing to do for all of our community, and there are many, many people who want this.” The interest in the Classics Beyond Whiteness course and event series at Wake Forest speaks to the desire of the current generation of college students to rethink and reshape the field. 

Artist Leo Rucker and Postdoctoral Fellow Caitlin Hines unveil Rucker’s portrait of Helen Maria Chestnutt 

 

T. H. M. Gellar-Goad is Associate Professor of Classics and Zachary T. Smith Fellow at Wake Forest University.  He specializes in Latin poetry, especially the funny stuff: Roman comedy, Roman erotic elegy, Roman satire, and — if you believe him — the allegedly philosophical poet Lucretius.  He is author of Laughing Atoms, Laughing Matter: Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Satire and Plautus: Curculio.

 

Amy Lather is Assistant Professor of Classics and Dunn-Riley Fellow at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on aesthetics and cognition in archaic and classical Greek poetry, and her monograph, Materiality and Aesthetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry, is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press.

3 thoughts on “Classics Beyond Whiteness: An Interview

  1. We at Wake Forest would be remiss if we didn’t express our gratitude to the scholar whose research introduced us to Brown, Chesnutt, and Lane: Michele Valerie Ronnick. Her photographic exhibit, 14 Black Classicists, offered an inspiration, as did her introduction to the artist Leo Rucker.

  2. Agreed–thank you for raising this point, Mary. When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1990’s, Michele visited the campus and gave a stellar, pioneering talk on Black Classicists. She has been doing anti-racist work for decades. And, a very interesting article!!

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