On Decompartmentalizing Black Classicism
A Conversation with Dr Tessa Roynon
Dr Tessa Roynon is currently a Senior Research Fellow in English at the University of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute. Her research focuses on modern North American literature, and on the interactions between African American literature, Anglophone literature of the black diaspora, and Classical Reception Studies. She is currently writing a book entitled The Classical Tradition in Modern American Fiction (forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press), which explores engagements with Greek and Roman antiquity by seven American Novelists: Cather; Fitzgerald; Faulkner; Ellison; Morrison; Roth and Robinson. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison (CUP 2012) and of Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition (OUP 2013), which was awarded the Toni Morrison Society Book Prize in 2015.
She has published numerous articles and contributions on Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Bernardine Evaristo, Robin Coste Lewis, Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Marilynne Robinson, and on engagements with Ovid in novels by Jeffrey Eugenides and E.L. Doctorow. She is co-editing an essay collection on Ralph Ellison (Global Ralph Ellison) sprung from the International Ralph Ellison Symposium held at Oxford in September 2017, and has just completed a special issue of The International Journal of the Classical Tradition on the theme of ‘Ovid and Identity in the 21st Century’. She previously co-edited the acclaimed collection African Athena: New Agendas (OUP 2011), sprung from the conference African Athena: Black Athena 20 years on, held at Warwick in 2008.
Dr Roynon has also worked extensively with the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). She is convenor and co-founder, since 2015, of the Fiction and Human Rights Network, now hosted by the Bonavero Institute for Human Rights, and was previously coordinator of the Research Programme ‘Race and Resistance Across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century’. She is also Executive Editor of the book series ‘Race and Resistance Across Borders’ at Peter Lang, which she co-founded in 2014.
On 7th March 2019, thanks to the generous funding of the IATL, Dr Roynon contributed to my Classics & Ancient History module ‘Africa and the Making of Classical Literature’ with a workshop on Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition and a public lecture on Black Classicism. Both in the workshop and in the lecture, Dr Roynon engaged with theoretical and practical issues of how to research and teach about the engagement with Graeco-Roman Classics in the works of authors from the African diaspora, and she later answered some questions about her interdisciplinary work, the current status of Black Classicism as an academic discipline, and the decolonization of academic curricula in the UK.
EG When and how did you first become interested in Black Classicism, and how was the field conceptualized at the time?
TR My background is in English and American literature, not in Classics, and when I began my PhD here at Warwick in 2001 Black Classicism was not at all a concept I was familiar with. Certainly no one mentioned it to me throughout the five years I worked on my PhD, although a few people did mention Black Athena in passing, mostly in quite derogatory terms. So it really wasn’t until the African Athena conference here at Warwick in 2008, where I met a number of scholars from the international circuit all working in related areas, that I became aware of Black Classicism as a concept, and it was also not until after that event that I understood that I was working within Classical Reception either – in a way, I was a something of a latecomer to both parties.
EG Today in your lecture you have touched upon the difficulties in using the label Black Classicism - what are these difficulties, and how should we approach them?
TR My main reservation with the term Black Classicism is that it assumes that Classicism, without the qualifier of ‘black’, is white and at the same time universal – as if the universal phenomenon is white and thus if we are going to talk about things that aren’t white we need to label them as ‘black’. To me there is a helpful parallel in American literary studies, or African American studies, because in the 1980s plenty of books came out, and really needed to come out, that defined an African American literary tradition and made that tradition quite exclusive. And that was a really important stage to go through because African American literature wasn’t really being recognized or studied or published upon until then, as either primary or secondary texts. So while that really had to happen, once the field had been established people became less preoccupied with defining an exclusive tradition and more confident in discussing those texts in relation to white texts without losing the political traction.
I think that with Black Classicism we similarly don’t want to make it a ‘subfield’ of Classicism: it’s very important that Classics is seen as something that isn’t ‘purely’ white, and that people come to see Classics itself as hybrid. By grouping a number of works as ‘Black Classicism’ we risk a compartmentalization of work that ‘real classicists’ don’t feel they need to know about. This is also the problem with Classica Africana, and with African Athena, which is the name of the volume that I helped to edit. They are all labels that assume that Classics is something that, without those qualifiers, will never be ‘African’ or ‘black’.
EG Do you think the field is still very much focused on the US context?
EG Do you find of the hierarchy between the Western Classics and ‘receiving’ texts, which is often implicit in the field of Classical Reception, as problematic in terms of the politics of the field for the kind of work that you do?
TR My perspective on the issue is that of a non-Classicist, so perhaps I have less the sense of a privileged, original, Western Classical source-text. However, as a non-Classicist I can say that I had quite a mixed reception within English, while it’s actually Classicists who are interested and excited in what I do. My book on Toni Morrison was published in the Classical Presences OUP series and it’s been mainly reviewed in Classical and Classical Reception journals rather than in American literary journals; nearly all the invitations that I’ve had to speak have come from Classics departments rather than English departments, and I wonder why that is. Sometimes I think that Reception Studies doesn’t have any significance within English because it’s ‘just intertextuality’, it doesn’t make feel like a subfield in its own right.
You can teach the Waste Land and look at the Classical allusions without ever calling your work ‘Classical Reception’. So within English the idea that an author may borrow and rework an ancient text is in itself a truism, that’s what we talk about and think about all the time anyway. Once in an interview for an interdisciplinary research post I was told that my work isn’t really interdisciplinary, which may be a fair point, really.
EG What about the two disciplines in terms of pedagogical differences? In terms of curriculum decolonization, and of inclusive pedagogies in the classroom, do you see major differences between the different fields that you work in, namely Classics, English, Comparative American Studies?
TR I think that probably Comparative American Studies, which you have here at Warwick, must have been at the vanguard, because it is by definition about colonialism and postcolonialism. My feeling is that Classics at Warwick has a distinguished pedigree in the kind of work you are doing with your module, not just with Daniel Orrells and the African Athena conference, but also with previous Latinists such as Andrew Laird, who has been a pioneer in Classical Reception. I also think that, probably, the issue is less one of different disciplines and more one of different universities – unlike English at Warwick, for example, the English department at Oxford has not come to terms with decolonizing its curriculum at all, and it does not confront the issue of inclusive pedagogy in any meaningful way. Indeed, you can still do your entire English undergraduate degree at Oxford without studying a non-white author, while other departments there, like History for example, have changed this quite effectively. There are a few very dedicated people, and a very committed minority in the English Faculty at Oxford who want to see things change, but the majority don’t really have a sense of moral urgency about it, so while the same few of us routinely raise this as a concern, nothing really happens.
EG What about the work that you do with the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities? Is that mostly research-focussed?
TR Predominantly the work of TORCH (as accessed be me, anyway) involves seminars and public engagement events. I work with the ‘Race and Resistance’ Programme, which is deeply involved with the issue of decolonizing Oxford, but it doesn't have as much influence as we would like within the different faculties.
EG Can I ask you finally about the African Athena conference – what was it like to be involved in it, and how has the climate changed since then?
TR It was really the brainchild of my colleague Daniel Orrells, who was my second supervisor when I was doing the PhD. The Conference was called African Athena – Black Athena 20 years on; it was a really exciting event, with Martin Bernal himself here (podcast) and plenty of African American scholars and Classical scholars of all provenances here. It seems a really long time ago now, because although these debates have raged and raged, and have moved in unexpected directions this year in particular, that conference actually took place in November 2008, the very week of the election of Barack Obama. In that way, the climate felt very different from now.
Yet, encouragingly, the amount of scholarship related to these questions is really uncontainable now – the days that you could list the three or four scholars who did this work are long gone, and that is a really good development.