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Using Oral Histories to Conceptualize the Place of Classics in Marginalized Communities

Zachary Elliott

Brandeis University

Even though we are members of a discipline and a profession at risk, Classicists seem to dedicate ourselves too little to issues of social justice and inclusion. Nevertheless, Classical scholars have long been present in social issues from abolition to LGBTQ+ rights (Malamud 2016; Meckler 2006). Our ability to continue this work has become limited, however, by our demographics; Classics is demonstrably less diverse than other fields from its student body to tenured professors (“Racial/Ethnic Distribution of Advanced Degrees in the Humanities”). Addressing this issue is not only critical for ensuring the persistence and relevance of Classics in subsequent generations, but it is also essential for allowing us to engage in the critical social and political issues of our time. This project grapples with these issues by considering personal narratives about Classics and Classical education from African-Americans outside the discipline and how those narratives can inform the approach of the discipline as it attempts to be more inclusive.

The work of several scholars has highlighted the experience of African-Americans working within the discipline of Classics and their reception of ancient literature (e.g. Ronnick 2004; for an overview, see, Greenwood 2009). Autobiographies and memoirs from Classicists of color provide more personal insights from a wide range of time (Scarborough 2005; Padilla Peralta 2015). There is less scholarship, however, regarding the impact and perceived value of Classics and Classical education among African-Americans who did not pursue academic careers in the field. Cultural narratives and oral histories provide important data about these groups which is otherwise overlooked.

The HistoryMakers ( is a database of oral histories collected from over 1,700 prominent African-Americans by Brandeis University and Harvard Law School alumna Julieanna Richardson. The collection includes over nine thousand hours of recorded interviews with individuals whose lives span the better part of the 20th century. The oral histories detail personal events from early childhood, education, and careers which serve as powerful testimonies to many aspects of African-American lived experience, and they provide unique evidence for the impact of Classical education in these lives and the social place of the Classics in their collective narratives. From searching this archive, I have found abundant references to Classical authors, education based in the classics, and specific narratives from antiquity. My project first sets out to survey and catalogue such references and situate them within larger cultural narratives concerning race and education in the 20th century. I aim to show the profit of using oral histories and evidence from those outside the discipline of Classics to understand and highlight the reception of Classical material in marginalized communities. Based on these findings, I argue that the demographic and diversity issues which Classics experiences are not inherent to the field; rather, they come from problematic presentations of material which alienate participants from marginal backgrounds and reify the field’s perception as monolithically white.

This project has important implications for Classics and social justice. The narratives I have found approach Classics from an aspirational perspective, often positioning its content in moments of epiphany, intellectual liberation and personal growth. This project and similar endeavors can help to demonstrate the complex function and reception of Classics and Classical education to indicate its appeal across boundaries of class and race. Such research can also demonstrate that classical education can contribute positively to the pursuit of social justice as a means of coopting cultural authority.

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