Hilary J.C. Lehmann
The ancient Greek and Roman worlds have a place in the psyche of the modern West, for better or for worse; it falls to professional classicists to attempt to curate the image Classics has in our culture. One important approach, put into practice by several online platforms, is to respond to the use of classical imagery by hate groups. This paper suggests some further approaches: to situate the Greco-Roman world in a broader chronological and geographical context, and to read, teach, and amplify the voices of writers of color who use classical themes in their own work to critique white supremacy and challenge the social constructs of race, gender, and sexuality in the present, past, and future.
The first part of the paper, “The Past,” describes a cross-disciplinary colloquium co-organized by Classics and Asian Studies, focusing on similarities between ancient Greek and classical Japanese societies, from myths conceptualizing the creation of the world as a process of sexual reproduction, to the androgynous female warrior goddesses Amaterasu and Athena, to institutions of pederasty among samurai warriors and elite Greeks. The parallels uncovered by this colloquium raised more questions than answers, leading to stimulating discussions among faculty and students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds.
The second, “The Present,” focuses on an undergraduate course in which Greek and Roman texts are paired with poems, plays, and novels by contemporary writers of color. The students come to recognize ways in which traditional academic power structures have restricted access to Greco-Roman cultural products, making them seem elite and available only to white members of the upper classes. Authors such as Rita Dove, Luis Alfaro, Cherríe Moraga, and Kamila Shamsie actively dismantle these processes of exclusion, transposing ancient narratives into the modern world and using traditional stories to illuminate the fragile constructions of racial, social, and gender identities.
The third, “The Future,” centers around two recent novels in which Greek and Roman literature takes on a essential role in the survival of human identity. Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place on a spaceship organized like an antebellum plantation. Its protagonist, Aster, uses her knowledge of ancient languages to dismantle the oppressive power structures of the ship and to lead humanity homeward (ad astra). In Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, humans have devolved to be hairless, pale, and sexless; their skin becomes a surface on which transgressive texts are inscribed. This novel, centering issues of identity, narrative, reproduction, and control, is influenced by Homer’s Odyssey. Both books forge a connection between the classical past and the speculative future that speaks directly to the current state of the world.
For Classics to have a place in the future, it needs to dismantle many of the outdated, damaging assumptions that shroud it today. I hope that the ideas presented in this paper can contribute to the breaking down of the binaries of East/West, male/female, and ancient/modern, and to the promotion of a more connected Classics.
Global Feminism and the Classics