Classics, Black Classicism and the Portals of Disciplines
A Conversation with Prof Patrice Rankine
Prof. Patrice Rankine is Professor of Classics and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Richmond. He was previously Dean for the Arts and Humanities at Hope College in Holland, Mich., and assistant head of the School of Languages and Cultures, as well as director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Classics, at Purdue University. He earned his PhD and MA in Classics from Yale University.
He is the author of Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), Aristotle and Black Drama: A Theatre of Civil Disobedience (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2013) and co-editor, with Kathryn Bosher, Fiona Macintosh and Justine McConnell, of The Oxford University Handbook: Greek Drama in the Americas (OUP 2015). He has also authored dozens of articles and chapters on Classics and Classical Reception, especially on Receptions of Graeco-Roman literature in authors from the African diaspora in the Americas. He is currently working on a book project entitled Slavery and the Book for Harvard University Press.
On March 15th 2019, thanks to the generous funding of the IATL, Prof. Patrice Rankine contributed to my Classics & Ancient History module ‘Africa and the Making of Classical Literature’ with a workshop on Black Classicism and a public lecture on the relationship between Classics and White Supremacy, in which he also addressed the racist events that occurred at the SCS-AIA Annual Meeting in San Diego in January 2019 (click here for a number of reports, reactions and reflections) and especially the public reflection after the event by Dr Dan-el Padilla Peralta (here). Before the workshop and lecture, Prof. Rankine answered some questions about his own research and the current status of Classics in terms of interdisciplinarity and the diversification of academic curricula.
EG Can you tell us how your first book, Ulysses in Black, came about, and how your transition into Classical Reception Studies happened, since your 1998 PhD thesis on moral agency in Seneca? Was it possible for you to engage with classical reception and comparative literature at Yale already at the time of your PhD? What has changed in the field since then?
PR If I start by answering the question on whether or not I was even allowed to engage with other literatures during the PhD program at Yale the answer is a definitive no – in fact I have an anecdote in Ulysses in Black about walking into a Professor’s office when I was preparing for my orals and having Black Athena with me, the book that made me think that I could do something a little different with Classics and take a look at some of the material outside of the literary Classical canon… and I was scolded by this Professor: ‘what are you doing with that book? It’s garbage.’ To him it was nonsense, and whether or not it is wasn’t the issue for me – even when I think about my engagement with Invisible Man, my seeds of interest were always in Black Athena. As a young African American man of Caribbean descent growing up in Brooklyn NY I just came to the Classics with a different set of experiences, and I remember Martin Bernal being invited to campuses in NYC and going to hear him speak. Also, the interests that my colleagues had as students at Brooklyn College just exposed me to a different set of questions than the ones I was facing in Classics as a major or the ones that I would find myself pursuing as a graduate student. So there was always this ground that had already been cultivated, even though I didn’t take classes in African American Studies in College. Brooklyn College had a very intensive core curriculum, so I didn’t have a lot of room to explore anything but my major and this core curriculum. But these interests were always there as seeds planted on not quite fallow ground.
And then during the early years of my Assistant Professorship at Purdue I fell very ill one winter and I couldn’t do my normal work… I had tried to read Invisible Man several times before but there had been several iterations of me starting it and stopping it – and here I was now, very ill during winter break, so I just dug in and finally read it, and I was actually blown away, I was not expecting the resonances which came to be the core of Ulysses in Black, namely the way he was engaging with classical mythology, with Homer, with the Ulysses theme… so I took all the references that I saw, outlined an essay and sent it to one of my College Professors, George Cunningham, who noted that there was a lot more there than the essay allowed me to explore. So that instigation led me to do more and it began to lead me away from what I was doing at the time. At the start I thought I would write my book on Seneca and my book on Ellison simultaneously, but then Alessandro Schiesaro’s The Passions in Play came out, and that was a stunning book for me, which said much of what I thought I wanted to say about Seneca’s tragedy, while on the other hand there was this field where there were just a couple of essays here and there from the ‘70s and early ‘80s – Seth Schein had written on the Ulysses theme in Invisible Man (1970), and John Stark on Ellison’s ‘Black Odyssey’ (1973) – but no one had really explored it to the extent that I saw possible.
EG When you chose to devote your research time to Classical Reception in Ellison rather than to Seneca, did you see it as a risky choice at the start of your career? And would it be risky for young academics now? What helped you make that decision?
PR In a sense the field seems to have come full circle… 10 years ago I was here at Warwick – I had been travelling from Ireland and I remember coming here picking up newspapers along the way with the news of Barak Obama’s election – there was just a different sense of things at the time, there were many scholars doing reception in the UK, and I do think that things have changed a bit now.
For me, Reception became a vehicle for being able to wed all that I knew as a Classicist and what I was through my personal experiences as an undergraduate in Brooklyn. It was mostly College Professors and people from my background who encouraged me to pursue this new project; and in a way I wanted to write something that my mother could read, that my family could understand. And I had the opportunity to do it, but I think it was almost accidental. New colleagues coming up now still have the same issues of having to fit within the confines of what Classics is or isn’t. I am not really sure that the field really is more diverse than it was 10 years ago, and until it is those experiences won’t really be brought to bear on what it means to be a Classicist. So I think we still have a way to go, and things have kind of come full circle when you look at the political environment that we find ourselves in, with backlash against people like Sarah Boyd, Johanna Hanink, Donna Zuckenberg… people who are confronting white supremacy – because we have to call it what it is. There’s this sense that there’s a hierarchy of values and there’s a backlash out there against people who are doing work that calls attention to the Classics as the domain of everyone.
EG You have spoken recently about the ‘problem with the exemplar’, or the Western Classical model, in dealing with Classical Reception in African American literature, and of the often implicit hierarchy of value inherent in conceptualizing texts engaging with Graeco-Roman literature as the ‘receiving’ texts – and you have also written on how this engagement with the Greek and Roman Classics could be considered to be problematic already for authors like Ralph Ellison or Derek Walcott. Can you talk a bit about these problems, and how you think we may approach them in our research and teaching?
PR The point is that Ralph Ellison or Derek Walcott shouldn’t be validated because of the Classics. What the exemplar does is that it says not so much that the Classics is ok because these authors are involved in them, but that these authors are ok because they are involved in the Classics – so the Classics becomes a kind of standard. And I’ve written about the fact that part of the problem of taking these authors out of their context is that you end up devaluing the context as well, as if the experiences of Ralph Ellison are less important than the fact that he engages with Ulysses, or the broader context out of which Derek Walcott comes from is less important than his erudition and engagement with the Classics.
This is a problem, especially for their communities. I have been working lately on Theatre of the Oppressed and the way that Classical contexts – tragedy, in the case of Paulo Freire’s analysis – make the individual ‘the thing’, whether it’s Cicero citing Achilles or Aristotle citing Oedipus, the protagonist becomes ‘the thing’, as opposed to the context out of which the protagonist comes. Thinking about my own experience before I came to the Classics, what matters really is the context that I brought with me, that informed how I was viewing the texts. Obviously, the texts are important, but so is the context of the readers. And when we set up exemplars we forget about the broader context and the importance of bringing those experiences from the margins to the centre. And without a diversification, without people being present at the table, you really don’t have a broadening of models for how to do this.
EG Tessa Roynon earlier in the series has already talked about the problem with using labels such as Classica Africana or Black Classicism. How would you deal with this? Do we have to use labels?
PR We kind of do, right? I like to think of the label – even the label of Classics and its canon – as a portal, a doorway into an experience. That experience is not fixed, everyone is going to appreciate it in a different way, but it’s almost a necessary thing. The problem is when we stop there at the label, when the ‘Classics’ allows someone to say to me when I have a book in my hand ‘what are you doing with that thing?’ – that portal now serves as foreclosing something, shutting other possibilities. This is a problem, because we’re supposed to be intellectuals, we’re supposed to be in pursuit of truth, and if because of this label I may no longer be able to pursue a book that might or might not have value, then that is a problem. In the same way I think that Reception Studies itself has taken on a certain ‘value’ or ‘devalue’ in relation to Classics per se, and it also comes with tools, and top scholars, and approaches that, once you try to get past, you find yourself up against institutions, traditions and canons. When I wrote Aristotle and Black Drama what I was trying to do in a way was to push past Reception Studies; Reception had opened up a doorway for me to have Ulysses in Black appreciated, but it was also foreclosing for me the possibility of Performance Studies.
I mean, there are people in Reception Studies who do Performance Studies, but I was finding for example that the black body was a phenomenon that Reception Studies wasn’t talking about. How do I deal with writing a paper on black drama and the Classics when people aren’t really talking about black bodies, but about ‘reception’? Because to inhabit a black body is in conflict with lots of the experiences that make up the Classics. In the case of Classica Africana it is the same thing: it gave us a way to talk about black authors interested in the Classics, and it gave us a way to talk to each other, it gave rise to a body of work; but again it creates a canon and it forecloses things that are in and out of that canon. It helps you to hold on to something, to apprehend a phenomenon, but if you stop there you become a professional black classicist, just like a professional classicist, you are not an intellectual, or someone in pursuit of truth.
EG You were here in Warwick in 2008 for the African Athena Conference, at the eve of the election of Barack Obama. How do you feel Classics has changed since then, and what are the current struggles that we are facing to make the discipline more inclusive for students and scholars of colour?
PR I think it’s worth thinking more about the economic crisis and how it has affected the Humanities. I think that our openness to others, and to other possibilities, was foreclosed by the crisis. These are global issues, we are seeing the ramifications of the crisis in the UK, in the US, in Brazil… when we look at the backlash against the ‘other’ and the closing of borders, it is linked in very important ways to the economic crises, or the perception of economic crises – so young people prefer to choose ‘practical’ subjects, which is something that puts us in a tough position, because when I went to College it was four years of exploration, not four years of preparation to a business life, it was four years of encountering new ideas… and I think we have stepped away from that. So what I try to do in my work and in my administrative role is to try and find ways to invite students into a dialogue in the Humanities more broadly, while at the same time opening doors for them to think about what they might do if they are able to study the Classics alongside something that they may perceive to be more practical. In a way, the Liberal Arts open up ways of viewing the world that will help you no matter what you do, and that’s perhaps a very philosophical approach to the problem.
But I think it’s important for students to have their possibilities open, for them to have some bit of what I had as a College student. You are going to learn something you didn’t know, you are going to be ‘wowed’ in some way, you are going to be brought to marvels that will be with you through life, no matter what you end up doing. Maybe this is what allows us to appreciate the other a bit more, to be less judgmental.
EG So do you think that we should try to treat themes that must resonate with them?
PR Well, people are always first interested in themselves, and then in the other.
This was the case with me as well… but maybe part of what we are seeing is that people aren’t curious even about themselves, at least not curious enough to ask ‘what are my interests? My sensibilities? My likes and dislikes? And how do they fit into a broader culture? And what are the interests of others? The experiences of others?’. This is the way that one creates empathy.
EG Do you think that Classics can learn from other disciplines? And what role does interdisciplinarity play in these issues?
PR There’s so many great examples on this – In African Studies I think of Wole Soyinka talking about myth in the African world and how much he teaches us about ritual and performance, for example, how much about drama outside of ancient Greece. And African American studies, with authors such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, have also enriched the field in very important ways. Here again, I would go back again to the idea of the portal. Classics has always been enriched by other fields, it was enriched by sexuality studies, by anthropology, by comparative mythology… I am personally stuck on performance theory: I mentioned black bodies and the ways in which understanding performance opens up how we might approach a text and understand another culture in ways that I hadn’t understood before getting into performance studies.
For me the good thing is that Classics has actually always been more malleable than it might seem, it’s been more open than it might seem at first glance. If you really catalogue the ways in which scholars have been benefiting from all these various tools in approaching classical texts and images, interdisciplinarity has always been there.