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Dr Sarah Derbew Interview

Decolonizing Blackness, alongside the Classics Curriculum

A conversation with Dr Sarah Derbew

(Elena Giusti)

Dr Sarah Derbew received her PhD in Classics from Yale University and is currently Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows; starting in autumn 2020, she will be an Assistant Professor of Classics in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.

Her research focuses on critical and self-reflexive theorizations of race and skin colour in ancient Greek literature and art from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE. She is currently working on a monograph provisionally entitled “Decolonizing Blackness: Literary and Artistic Representations of Black People in Greek Antiquity”.

In 2018, Dr Derbew released an interview for the Guardian in which she discussed the work and legacy of African American Classicists, in connection with an exhibition on Black Classicists at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC. Before coming to Warwick, in October 2018, she also delivered a public lecture on black people in ancient Greek literature as part of the Exhibition Event Series. In the same month, she was co-organizer of a panel on ‘Afro-Greeks’ (on the engagement of African and Afro-Caribbean literatures with the Graeco-Roman Classics) in honor of Prof. Emily Greenwood, held at the Classical Association of the Atlantic States Annual Meeting.

On 25th October 2018, thanks to the generous funding of the IATL and the HRC, Dr Derbew contributed to my Classics & Ancient History module ‘Africa and the Making of Classical Literature’ with a workshop and public lecture on Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women. Both in the lecture and in the workshop, she engaged in interdisciplinary practices, by showing the application of the theoretical frameworks of Critical Race Theory to ancient Greek texts, and by reading ancient literature in conversation with 19th-20th century anglophone American literature, in particular with poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and novelist Ralph Ellison. Between the workshop and the lecture, Dr Derbew answered some questions about her research as well as her views on how to make both pedagogy and Classics more inclusive.


EG Can you tell us about your current research and how it fits into previous debates about attitudes to skin colour in Graeco-Roman times? What does it mean to ‘decolonize Blackness’ in the discipline of Classics, and where are we now?

SD Decolonization is a word that has a particular resonance nowadays in the educational system in the UK, but in the choice of the title I am looking back to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 1986 Decolonising the Mind, in which he advocates a decolonization of literature as a reclaiming of literature for building national cultures and identities. For me, ‘Decolonizing Blackness’ means to reclaim the very concept of blackness and what it means in a time when the transatlantic slave trade had not yet happened and people didn’t know that it would happen; a time when blackness was a colour marker, an identifying marker, but a lot more capacious than what we can think about today. My research looks at the past and what it can tell us about blackness in broader terms, and in a way that doesn’t always need that black-white dichotomy to make sense. Thematically, the project spans most of what we would consider antiquity, from the 5th century BCE to the 4th century CE. I look at canonical authors such as Herodotus and Aeschylus, but also at late antique authors like Heliodorus. I also discuss art-works, and pay special attention to the ways in which we tend to describe these objects, wondering whether our descriptions are framed in such a way that allows everyone to join the dialogue or else make some people feel pushed out of the discipline. In terms of geography, I do of course treat Egypt as a particularly contentious country to pin-point in museums and in the academy – but I want to go further and think about Nubia as well as other regions neighbouring Egypt, those that do not quite need the Greek polis to be legible. sarah and elena

EG Since most of our secondary sources are steeped into the black-white dichotomy that you recognize as anachronistic for antiquity and problematic for the inclusivity of the discipline, how do you recommend we use these sources? And how should the Black Athena debate be taught in the classroom?

SD It is always important to be mindful of one’s own positionality. So I use the same critical lens that we’re taught to use in Classics to read both Martin Bernal and Heliodorus. We are not exempt from it just because we’re writing in the present. The fact that Bernal was a Cambridge trained tenured Professor very much affects the perceived legibility of his arguments. Before him, in 1926, an African American historian, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, wrote about similar topics, just like Engelbert Mveng, a Cameroonian Jesuit priest whose 1972 dissertation examined the presence of black people in ancient Greek literature, or Senegalese anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop. Somehow, arguments become more understandable when they come from a mouth that we perceive to be part of the established academy. So I do think it is important, if we decide to teach Bernal, to make sure that we situate Black Athena within a broader landscape. He is not the only one proposing these ideas. Also, by implying that there is complete racism in the ‘Aryan’ model and none in the ‘ancient’, he risks valorizing antiquity and demonizing the present – which is a first step, but not quite enough to understand that the past is complicated, and the present is also complicated. This is why I find scholars like Frank Snowden Jr. and Lloyd A. Thompson a bit more useful, because they are very aware of how blackness in the present affects their view of the past. Although sometimes, especially with Frank Snowden Jr., there seems to be an escapist attitude – a desire for antiquity to be colourblind, because there’s none of that in the present. The debates between Bernal and Snowden started to become ad hominem attacks rather than scholarly conversations, but we must always remember that Martin Bernal was white and Frank Snowden Jr. was black and the colour dynamics of the academy played an important part in the ways in which we received their different ideas. In 1947, Frank Snowden Jr. publishes his first essay, ‘The Negro in Classical Italy’ in the American Journal of Philology – one should just pause and think about what it means to be an African American scholar of Classics in 1947, and a Professor at Howard, which is the most elite HBCU in the country, after getting his degree at Harvard too. It is necessary to contextualize and realize that he is writing this essay right after WW2, when veterans are coming back home and seeing that the country that they fought for is not accepting them as equals. I do not mean to discount Bernal, but his privileges need to be mentioned, especially considering that he is writing in 1987. To me, Frank Snowden’s work appears a lot more tangible and thought-provoking, but it is Bernal’s work that is usually quoted as the one that has made that decisive shift in the field.

EG Talking about authors’ privileges, how do you think we should use our primary textual sources when teaching about groups that do not get the privilege to write in antiquity? Do you see material sources more trustworthy?

SD It is important to highlight to the students that we are working on ‘representations’ of these groups. What we are thus getting is perspectives on a particular group of people. However, this doesn’t discount the importance of the source, it just shows a Greek lens through which we can look at a lot of different people in different ways that can be enriching for us. What we can tell is how the Greeks viewed them in a particular text, or a particular iconographic representation. The danger is when we use modern vocabulary to describe ancient figures. For example, I work on Janiform cups, where one side is black glaze and the other clay: when the black glaze side is described as Negro, or African, or black, each of these terms tells me more about the person writing the label than the actual object.


EG What are, in your view, the best strategies to decolonize the Classical curriculum? And what are the most difficult challenges that you have encountered so far?

SD There are different challenges in terms of how you present the material and what material you present. In terms of presentation, I am very passionate about democratizing the classroom; in seminars, I think of myself not as a bestower of knowledge but as a facilitator of conversation, especially when students have done their readings and are a bit more responsible as agents of their own education. I think that my role is to ask questions that are thought-provoking enough to make students feel engaged to talk, and then I start shaping it into a conversation that helps them move their points forward. In terms of the material, I try to emphasize that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations are bigger than the loci of Greece and Italy – I think that this helps the discipline attract different kinds of students, who see the world as more inclusive and cosmopolitan. They should be allowed to write papers on North Africa, or the region that we now consider the Middle East, as far as Pakistan, or to look at the Sibylline oracles; if we don’t have the expertise then I think that the onus is on us to learn more, rather than have the students feel that they can’t work on something because it’s not strictly ancient Greece or Rome. But yes, it is a lot of work and it requires a lot of learning on your own. In my opinion, if we are studying ‘Classics’ we need to study other classical civilizations; if we want to distinguish ‘Classics’ by time, then we could look at Nubia, we could look at China: there are different parts of the world that are developing a lot between the 5th century BCE and the 4th century CE and by incorporating them into the conversation we can destabilize Greece and Italy as the only places where things are happening.

EG Should scholars direct their efforts towards making the discipline more inclusive at the level of curriculum design and modules’ planning, or would you also recommend that lecturers adopt specific strategies in the classroom? 

SD Students generally feel included when you mention their points so I try to remember their comments and bring them up later. What Emily Greenwood and I used to do at Yale when we were co-teaching was to make students write weekly responses and prepare a handout for them with some of the responses included, and I tried to pick the responses of the quieter students. For those who were quiet this was very helpful, so I would at least ask them to read their comment for the class, and if they seemed nervous I would summarize it myself, or ask a follow up question if they were engaged. Emily was very good at rephrasing their comments later on by attributing them to specific students, and in this way the students really started to feel involved and become interlocutors with us.


EG What are the challenges of teaching topics such as race, ethnicity or gender in terms of the students’ potential discomfort, and how do you cope with them?

SD It’s an ongoing project, and there is no one right way to do it, but I think that if you come to the students with a level of trust and openness, they tend to be receptive to it. There will always be outliers who don’t, but I try to make sure that all students feel heard, and I pause a lot to clarify questions, especially if there is something that comes up that is inflammatory. It can happen that students make remarks that others would find offensive or disrespectful, and when that happens it is tricky not to dismiss them as close-minded but to make them think about why they made certain comments and how troubling they can be. If we respond to them in a negative way, then it is difficult for them to continue to feel comfortable to speak in the classroom. And maybe comfort is not what we always need, but we must be open to the ways in which different dynamics play out in different classrooms.valeria pace

EG Do you think Greek texts themselves create the dichotomy between self and other, or is this a modern creation of scholarly work? One thinks of Edith Hall’s 1989 Inventing the Barbarian, which is a seminal book for understanding Greek perspectives of ‘otherness’, but it risks mapping a strictly structuralist self-other dichotomy onto texts that show non-Greek people, and even Greek people, as something more complicated than that. 

SD Absolutely - even in the Suppliant Women there is a passage where Pelasgus, the Argive king, says to the Danaids, who have arrived from Egypt but claim Argive ancestry, that they could be from Libya, or from Cyprus, or from India, or Aethiopia, or be Amazons… None of these places are next to each other, their only distinguishing marker is to be not-Greece, so he almost gives you a map of the ancient world, to the East and South and West. Some people do read a passage like this as demarcating who is Greek and who isn’t, but the Danaids themselves break this dichotomy down by the end of the play, so what does it mean that Pelasgus becomes able to understand their hybridity between Egyptian and Greek, and that that binary is no longer at play? In a way, we are still stuck in Pelasgus’ world, we still think about Greeks and non-Greeks, with everyone else on the other side, and we almost come to uncomfortable terms with characters like Alexander even, who is from Macedon. The language probably has a role to play, because we teach mostly Attic Greek, which becomes the norm against which students compare any other dialect.

EG Do you think that interdisciplinarity is necessary in the effort to decolonize and diversify academic curricula? If so, which disciplines should Classics learn from, and could Classics itself be of help to other disciplines?

SD Interdisciplinarity is critical for Classics, not only for the future of the discipline but for the integrity of it. It is important to break down the elitist idea of Classics as an esoteric study that people do when they have free time and money, and belong to a particular gender too. It’s important to invigorate the discipline with a dose of reality and realize that the ancient world itself would have looked very cosmopolitan; I imagine that ancient authors and artists would have laughed at how much we try to pigeon-hole Classics to fit what is after all a more modern framework. It is important for the discipline to think about broader worlds, because in turn this would attract different types of students and encourage a diversity of ideas. I also have trouble with the term ‘Classics’ because of how it positions ancient Greece and Rome at the centre and everyone else at the fringes, so I admire UCL for example that calls it the ‘Department of Greek & Latin’, which is a lot more honest. ‘Classics’ still has the sense of there being a hierarchy in which Greece and Rome are at the top.

sarah and mask

EG And how do you think Greek & Latin studies should engage with literatures or cultures from other contexts? How do you feel about Classical ‘Reception’, with the name of the discipline itself embodying the very hierarchy that you see as problematic?

SD I see it as intercultural dialogue. I don’t see for example Ralph Ellison as speaking directly back to Aeschylus, but I think that, as in Comparative Literature, there is a lot to gain in bringing these texts together and seeing what comes out of it. I think that Classics can learn a lot from disciplines like African American Literature or Comparative Literature, fields that are designated to be interdisciplinary by nature. Anthropology is also fascinating especially in terms of what it teaches us about our own positionality as researchers and how it affects the material we are examining, or what we believe to be important. With African American Literature and Studies, I find it useful to think about particular tropes – in the case of my lecture here at Warwick I think about the trope of ‘masking’: what does the mask mean in 19th century America, and what did it mean in 5th century Greece? There’s an excellent book by Christina Sharpe called In the Wake (2016), where she theorizes Blackness as being different parts of a nautical experience (the wake, the ship, the hold, and the weather); this makes me think about the rostra in ancient Rome, and about what it means to have ships and the sea as such an important part of your political identity. I think that there are so many ways that we can span different disciplines with the Greek and Roman worlds, but it is important to do it in a responsible way, emphasizing that no context is more important than the other. We may know more about one of them, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t put both in conversation with each other in equitable ways.

EG Have you perceived so far significant differences between US and British academia in relation to these specific issues, either among the research community or in the classroom?

SD My experience of British academia is limited, but it seems to me from my previous experience at UCL that British students are a lot more independent and very much invested in their education. In terms of scholarship, I have always thought of the UK as leading the conversation on Classical Reception Studies, especially with Lorna Hardwick's work (Reception Studies, 2003), and ways to think about Classics in the 21st century, and I wonder whether it has to do with the history of the country and the colonies that the British Empire had, so that the idea of teaching particular texts becomes very important.

charli kelly

Barbara Goff’s book Your Secret Language (2013), which examines the role of ancient Greece and Rome in Anglophone West African countries when they were British colonies, points out the complex nexus of education, ancient Greece and Rome, and the British Empire. It makes me wonder what ancient languages signify now that Latin and Greek are no longer mandatory for getting into Oxford or Cambridge, what does it mean that there were generations of people for whom the languages themselves were so important? In terms of the US, I feel encouraged by all the interdisciplinary work that’s happening, programs that are trying to figure out ways to connect with departments of African studies, or African American studies, and so I believe that the next step would be to make more joint appointments so that students can really get access to people who are invested in different kinds of communities. My position at Stanford will be in Classics but in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and I think that these kinds of connections are very important in order to help students see that different worlds are not actually so far apart and encourage them to think about their projects in broader and more inclusive ways. But it is also crucial to have institutional support and willingness to invest in new faculty who really work in between departments in order for the projects to get off the ground and play a concrete role in the history of the institution.