Pot of the Week #3: Race, Ethnicity, and Ancient Art in the Classroom

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek
Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek, ca. 480–470 B.C. Princeton University Art Museum.

Over the past few weeks, as my feeling of being overwhelmed by stress surrounding COVID-19 and the protests for racial justice mounted, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the state of the fields of Classics and Classical Archaeology in relation to current events.

In not wanting my newly minted pottery blog to fall to the wayside, I have tried to think of ways in which pottery and discussions of race and ethnicity might intersect, and the first thing that came to mind was this vase-type – the ancient Greek plastic vase depicting a “Greek” on one side and a decidedly “non-Greek” on the other. This made me start to wonder about how we talk about (or don’t talk about) race in the Classics classroom, particularly when it comes to images like this one.

The topic of “diversity” in the Graeco-Roman world is not a new one (see here, here, here, and here), and indeed it has been met with a mix of responses over the past few years. The debate needn’t be rehashed here, but I think that this particular moment in time is a good one in which to reflect on our relationship – as art historians, as classicists, as ceramicists – with diverse populations in the ancient world, and how that relationship is translated into the makeup of our departments, our institutions, and our field.

Some of this work is already being done – following what began as a discussion about whitewashing ancient statues in 2017, Rebecca Futo Kennedy addressed the importance of teaching about race and ethnicity in the Classics classroom and why she feels that we shouldn’t think of those classrooms as apolitical spaces:

Even the most casual reader of ancient texts will find discussion of what we today call race and ethnicity in a wide range of ancient authors — from Homer and Hesiod to Herodotus and Hippocrates, from Aeschylus to Ctesias, Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Pliny, Livy, Sallust, Horace, Ovid and more. Further, any trip to a museum yields ample images that further display the Greek and Roman interest in and engagement with human diversity. And yet, we still hear the refrain that wanting to study or teach race and ethnicity is a part of a “social justice” political agenda because the ancient Greeks and Romans had no words that are exactly equivalent to our modern concepts of race or ethnicity — which is not, in fact, true.

But where some scholars have made genuine efforts to diversify their lesson plans, departments, and institutions, others have done much less, merely scratching the surface of a problem with a long, racist history. In most cases, the efforts of Classics departments have been focused on how to make classes more diverse by introducing subject matter that might “appeal” to students of color.

But as a woman (and student) of color, I have never been drawn to Classics because of a course on “Slavery in Antiquity” or “Greeks and Barbarians,” two topics that I find more alienating that intriguing. Indeed, as Sarah Derbew has succinctly pointed out, such courses rarely challenge the “preconceived notions of Black people [and other PoC that] are seared into our country’s collective consciousness.”

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek

Potential solutions to this perpetual problem have been suggested in greater numbers over the past few weeks, with this Eidolon article by Pria Jackson gaining the most traction. In her article she advocates for systemic and ongoing change to the discipline, to how we teach and transform our departments. She also insists that we start the conversations about Classics’ long, white supremacist history early because:

It is these students who go out into the world and spread Classics culture. Their half-forgotten memories of lessons from that one Classics course they took back in college which they bring up over drinks with friends, or during a brainstorm session at work, or while watching the latest historical drama on Netflix will quite frankly do far more to change the Classics’ culture than a paywall blocked, 25-page JSTOR article on the reanalysis of Ethiopian motifs in Herodotus.

However, while her calls for mandatory collaborative interdisciplinary “discussions” seems well meaning, it isn’t enough. In recent weeks I have seen and attended too many  “conversations” and town halls centered around “discussions” about racial injustice and how to enact change. There hasn’t been enough meaningful work at the departmental or institutional level beyond putting heads together to think about how to lure students of color into their classes (newsflash: you can’t).

I think that the real solution is three-fold.

Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek

First, we need to recognize and showcase the work that has been done by scholars of color in the field.

The list of digital resources surrounding the works of scholars of color has been growing exponentially over the past few weeks, so this is a good place to start for anyone considering how to rethink courses that already exist, or how to create new ones. But these lists are only one part of this initiative.

We should also highlight ongoing work by scholars of color in the subfields of Classics, like archaeology and art history, so that students can “see themselves” in the work they want to do. This, I think, would be an important step in moving away from Classics’ white supremacist history and reputation.

Second, we need to provide students of color with real opportunities and resources to help them get involved.

In a recent tweet, a glaring issue in archaeological field schools was highlighted: they are inherently exclusionary because of the enormous financial burden it places on students wanting (or needing to) participate in field schools.

Believing that you can’t afford to do something like a field school is a surefire way to get students of color – or really anyone – to give up on continuing in the field. I know that I would not have been able to participate in the digs that I did in undergrad if I hadn’t been given scholarships to do so.

Finally, returning to the question of race and ethnicity in the ancient world, particularly in the case of the plastic vases (and other vase paintings) depicting glaringly non-Greek features, we need to think critically and carefully about what we want our students to get out of the experience.

We shouldn’t have students walk away thinking “Oh, the Greeks were racist,” because the choices made by potter and painter may have been influenced by any number of opinions and experiences that we might not be able to access today.

Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of an African Male Head (Getty Museum)
Pitcher (Oinochoe) in the Form of the Head of an African, about 510 B.C., attributed to Class B bis: Class of Louvre H 62. Terracotta, 8 7/16 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 83.AE.229. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Programetty Villa

Indeed, Sarah Derbew explains that:

Ancient Greece’s visual heritage included representations of black people that nimbly provoked and cut across hierarchies. Objects like the sixth-century BCE head-shaped pitcher and water jar…above were not part of any chromatic hierarchy because such categories had yet to be codified. Instead, they existed within their own historical and artistic context.

We should have students interrogate these factors, as well as think more broadly about the uniqueness of the object (Why don’t we see these vessels very often? What choices are made in descriptions for these vessels in museums? What assumptions are made about the identities of the faces and the intentions of the makers?) and what sorts of images are more often used in white supremacist propaganda and why.

The possibilities are endless, and I can appreciate that this may be part of the reason why scholars who have been set in their ways for decades are wary about changing along with the times. But this is important work, and it’s work that can’t just be done once and over with.

As Pria Jackson so importantly states,

The first step towards making a qualifiable difference in Classics…would be to yank the chair out from underneath Whiteness. Start teaching an anti-white supremacist, anti-racist Classics curriculum! Today! And tomorrow! And next week. And forever.

Selected Further Reading

Barrett, C.E. Egypt in Roman Visual and Material Culture. Oxford Handbooks Online. 2017.

Battle-Baptiste, Whitney. 2011. Black Feminist Archaeology. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press.

Bindman, D., H. Gates Jr, and K. Dalton, eds. 2010. The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the Pharoahs to the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vols. 1 and 2. Harvard University Press.

Gaither, Paula. 2019. Blacks in Context: An Analysis of Aethiopians in Roman Art. MPhil Thesis. https://www.academia.edu/43349980/Blacks_in_Context_An_Analysis_of_Aethiopians_in_Roman_Art

Rankine, Patrice D. “The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship.” American Journal of Philology 140, no. 2 (2019): 345-359. doi:10.1353/ajp.2019.0018.

Salmon, P. 1994 “L’Image du Noir dans l’Antiquité Gréco-Romaine.” In Emmigrazione e Immigrazione nel Mondo Antico, edited by M. Sordi, 283-302. Milano: Pubblicazioni  dell’ Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Contributi dell’Instituto di storia antica, vol.  20).

Snowden, Jr., Frank M. (1970), Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Snowden, Jr. Frank M. (1983), Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.