BIPOC Features: Vanessa Stovall

One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.

For this month’s installment of the BIPOC Feature series, I am thoroughly excited to present Notes in a Classical Canon or, a (Re)petition to the Field, by Vanessa Stovall.

Vanessa Stovall at Euterpe Ancient Music School in Summer 2019 in Tarquinia
Photo included with permission of the author.

Prelude

My name is Vanessa Stovall and I am an artist and a scholar. In art, I am a harpist, playwright, poet, stage performer, composer, and I occasionally dabble in various glass arts when the opportunity arises. In scholarship, I am an interdisciplinary classicist who studies ancient mythology with three primary focuses: music, hair, and aesthetics, and how those all interrelate. I’m pretty bad at nailing myself down with time periods or geographical distinctions, but I tend to circle around Greece from the archaic to classical era, Rome from early to mid Empire, and American reception from the 19th century to the contemporary. 

As it stands, I am not affiliated with any institution. I realize that makes me an odd figure in relation to an academic field that defines itself by institutions–if I were to look towards the Academy of Athens for any such comparanda, I would say I’m probably the closest thing to a Diogenes the field has had in recent memory. I was not always on this path, however: a year ago I was rejected from the institution where I’d done my masters and with whom I’d been asked to apply for my PhD. This rejection came right as New York City was calling for a shelter-in-place for the unforeseeable future and I made very hasty and drastic arrangements to leave the city right as it was locking down. 

The plane ride back to Seattle was possibly one of the most stressful that I’d ever been on, but it was also the first time that my rejection was really allowed to sink in. I was suddenly on the edges of the field that I had just been trying to engage with more, kicked out, margin-alized, relegated to some sort of classical academic afterlife. But at the same time I realized that I had been putting a lot of effort into doing things “the right way” by the estimation of my professors. There were a whole host of strategies that I considered my own way of doing things that I hadn’t really tried out or even talked about much because my professors–while all brilliant–had a lot of disturbing anxiety around the justification of the classical tradition in regards to their livelihood. 

At the same time, my academic future became uncertain at the exact moment that everybody’s future became uncertain. I felt that the timing of that couldn’t be a coincidence. Or at least, I wouldn’t let it be a coincidence. And so it was on that plane ride home that I first conceived of Corona Borealis, of creating a space to think through what I wanted to do next around my own classicisms, of what future I could possibly build for myself. 

I kept coming back to canons and listening, especially the ways we learn and produce knowledge through canons and listening. Toni Morrison in her “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” very elegantly draws a parallel between cannon-fodder and canon-fodder in the efforts of polity-creation. She says, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range […] is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested.” I’ve always loved this quote but I’ve also felt that there’s an element of wordplay that Morrison misses out on by leaving it with those two definitions of can(n)on. And while I agree that in terms of our own classical canon it has definitely been used as a weapon in the ways that Morrison suggests around empire-building (looking at you especially British Empire), I want to talk about the classical canon not as a weapon…

But rather a loop

Specifically, I want to think of the classical (ie, ancient Mediterranean) canon (both our ancient texts and our customs around how to engage with them) in terms of a classical (the musical genre that birthed symphonies) canon (the compositional music technique): thinking through the repetition of canons, putting Plato and Pachabel in harmony, knowing that these things have happened before and will definitely happen again–as is the nature of canons and loops. 

A musical canon needs polyphony (or many voices) in order to establish itself–autophony (or a single voice) is impossible. I submit my own journal as evidence: Corona Borealis began as a singular way for me to figure my future out and has morphed into something else entirely. 

And the easiest way to understand that is by taking a look at the music…  

Movement 1: “Stuck in the Middle With M(n)u: An argument for Greek Consonance in these Existentially Voweled Times” 

This first piece was primarily to draw focus to the fact that the late stages of capitalism combined with a pandemic were about to expose some ugly truths and how taking a moment to understand the “middle” of where we were all at could be key–and using aspects of the Greek alphabet to talk about voice and memory. 

Playlist: 

Lift Every Voice and Sing – Aretha Franklin

Strange Fruit – Nina Simone

Stranger Fruit – Zeal & Ardor 

Follow The Drinking Gourd – Eric Bibb

O Patria Mia (from Aida) – Leontyne Price

The Gospel Truth (Parts I, II, & III) – Hercules OST

Zero to Hero – Hercules OST

A Star Is Born – Hercules OST

(I Won’t Say) I’m In Love – Hercules OST

Stuck In The Middle With You – Stealers Wheel

Movement 2: “A Tale of Two Creons: Black tragedies, White anxieties, and the Necessity of Abolition”

This piece originally was born as an attempt to salvage my own masters thesis on Antigone into something that could be an actual critique of power, specifically around the leadership in NYC in the wake of COVID–and then Minneapolis happened and a question from Imani Perry on Twitter set me off into writing something that became a hybrid of so many different writing styles. In this playlist, I’ve included some songs that have come out since Minneapolis that I feel are in line with what I was writing.

Playlist:

Americans – Janelle Monae 

I’m Covered – Antigone in Ferguson chorus

Chorus from the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Antigone 

Under The Devil’s Knees – Tre Burt

Wake of a Nation EP – Zeal & Ardor 

I Can’t Breathe – H.E.R.

Q.U.E.E.N. – Janelle Monae

Interlude: “The Haunting of Joshua T. Katz: On Tantric Mammification & Liquid Symptoms” 

And now we come to an interlude, or something that I was not planning on writing. In fact, had I not quoted Joshua Katz in SITMWM in a section where I also talked about white slave owners as a metaphor for the Furies, and if he hadn’t turned around and written a blog post about a Black student group being terrorists and “baying for blood” (a very common epithet for the Furies), this piece would not exist. But we both did, so here it is–also the three do make a fascinating triptych when you read them in a row, I will say (but not link–because I don’t really want to drive any traffic towards Quillette).  

Playlist: 

ShoYoAss – The Coup

Imagine – Whack COVID Celebrity Cover

Future of America – James Baldwin

Orestes-ily – v ness (recording forthcoming)  

Movement 3: “‘O Father, Where Art Thou?’–Patriarchal Poetics, Athenian Mechanics, & Kitchen Intuition” 

This one is personal so it’s definitely the hardest one for me to talk about. It’s the least read piece on CB which is fine because it was really mainly written for the five members of my immediate family and no one else. I don’t know when I’m going to return to this one and go through it properly since, as I note in the beginning, I published it the day my grandfather died. My grandfather and I bonded a great deal over classical music, and this is the piece where classical music figures most prominently, especially in relationship to soundtracks. But also–I don’t see a point in being a classicist if I can’t use the skills I learn in my own personal relationships, and this piece was an attempt at that. 

Playlist: 

Back In Your Own Backyard – Billie Holiday

Back In Your Own Backyard – Sun Ra

Electric Blue – Arcade Fire

Oh, Maker – Janelle Monae

Sunrise (from Also Sprach Zarathustra) – Richard Strauss

Adagio (from Gayane Ballet Suite) – Aram Khachaturian 

Across 110th Street – Bobby Womack 

Man of Constant Sorrow – O Brother, Where Art Thou? OST

The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

Rhapsody in Blue – George Gershwin 

Strangers in Paradise – Dorothy Ashby

Isis and Osiris – Alice Coltrane 

Star Spangled Banner – Whitney Houston 

Movement 4: “Pynk P-words and Dewy Lacunas: What Ben Shapiro and Sappho’s critics lack in Erotic Tempo”

Basically… “Pynk P-words and Dewy Lacunas” is to me what Blues Legacies and Black Feminism is to Angela Davis–at some point we wrote a lot about abolition and then we were like “…actually let’s have fun now and talk about some Black female (and non-binary in my case) singers that we love.” This also utilized a lot more digital media and commentary in its creation–from Twitter threads to YouTube video take-downs to Tumblr gifsets–and I finally got to discuss meter and tempo, which are so central to the creation of a good musical canon. 

Playlist: 

WAP – Cardi B feat. Megan thee Stallion 

Tempo – Lizzo feat. Missy Elliott 

Rocket – Beyonce

PYNK – Janelle Monae feat. Grimes

Interlude: “Stakes Is High: Roman Elegy, Hip-Hop, and the Ovid Movie” 

Just when I was reaching my own autophonous point with CB and wondering what purpose it was really serving, enter Jermaine Bryant with his brilliant “Stakes Is High”, a piece originally commissioned for Eidolon for one of their segments on music, but had turned into a much longer and thought-provoking analysis of elegy, rap, and the recent film on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. That coupled with Eidolon’s later announcement that they would not be publishing any new pieces going forward made me realize that CB had the capacity to become something far more polyphonous. 

Playlist: 

Excursions – A Tribe Called Quest

Ready To Die (Intro) – The Notorious B.I.G.

Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

Rapper’s Delight – Sugar Hill Gang

Top Billin’ – Audio Two

Tha Shiznit – Snoop Dogg

Can I Watch? – MF Doom feat. Apani B

Ten Crack Commandments – The Notorious B.I.G.

The Message – Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

Education – Freddie Gibbs, Madlib feat. Yasiin Bey, Black Thought

I Ain’t No Joke – Eric B. & Rakim

Fuck Tha Police – N.W.A.

Cop Killer – Ice T.

Stakes Is High – De La Soul

2AM – Rapsody feat. Ab-Soul

Movement 5: “(a lunar tune)–Text and Commentary”

And we close on a loop; “(a lunar tune)” is a poem that I composed for my museum debut last September. This is the first piece where I don’t talk about any music outright, and instead meditate a lot on poetry, and especially the poetry of June Jordan. I do discuss the lyre and the moon, their relationship to tuning, and how that can be seen as its own philosophy of life. It’s a very in-depth piece if folks want to engage with it, being one part epic Stoic cosmogony and one part queer Platonic elegy. See if you can spot the canon in the middle of the second half. 

Playlist: 

The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity – James Baldwin

Reprise

So…I have omitted something. There is a piece of this whole puzzle that I’ve been dancing around for a year now because it is a lot of the why and how that’s at the root of why I still call myself a classicist and what I want to do with that in the future. 

It is also the why and the how of me not being a part of a graduate program at the moment. 

I did spell it out on CB in two different ways: “just a kinky hand-braided crown” and “thinking through alternate epistemologies of braids, textures, and extensions as opposed to classical structuralism in a state of pandemonium”.

If there was one part of my pitch that tenured professors found the most problematic, it was when I began talking about hair, particularly the way I was talking about it.

But I’ll discuss that more next week on the one year anniversary of Corona Borealis with an article that I first outlined a year ago on a terrifying plane ride to Seattle: “‘Quid, Si Comantur?’–Pic(k/t)ing Out Entangled Epistemologies of Ex(cess) in (Em)bodied Techne”

In the meantime? We as a field can move away from our preoccupations with individualism and autophony towards collective solidarity and consonant symphony. Our textual canons are inherently polyphonous already–we just need to lean into it more. I don’t have readily available answers, but I know I want to spend this next decade figuring that out, and by definition of what I’ve just outlined, there’s no way I can do it on my own. At some point we’re going to have to come together as a chorus.  

Until then? Well, here’s a playlist to get folks started

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