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Response to Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism

Shelley Haley

Hamilton College

I know as a Black woman who has been exploring race in the ancient world and the racism of the Classics disciple for nearly forty years, “I have a burning need to work out my own ambivalence and, at times, animosity over the newfound enthusiasm for [the field of Black Classicism] that I think of as my own hard won territory” (DuCille, 87). In my response to Margaret Malamud, African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism, I will raise a number of questions about the sense of dis-ease that the work engendered in me. As a critical race feminist and specifically a Black feminist classicist, I certainly am NOT arguing for territoriality, but I will raise concerns about what it means when the study of Black Classicism is only validated when done by a non-Black female body or a Black male body. What does it mean when, once again Black American women are given scant attention in a work focusing on “abolition and activism,” even though they took on the bulk of the lifting in racial uplift?

I raise the concern about the fetishizing of Black intellectual history to serve the purpose of making Classics “relevant”, and, thereby magically absolve it of its role in the construct of whiteness in the United States, white supremacy, and scientific racism. When this current particular political moment, steeped as it is in white supremacist, patriarchal ideology, passes, will our attention stray to the next trendy topic?

I raise the concern that lack of attention in the work to the emotional labor expended and the emotional knowledge invested by the various scholars Malamud discusses. There is next to nothing about the interiority of the women and men who valiantly defended their race’s intellectual capability at emotional, psychological and physical costs to themselves. In other words, at what cost did the “Talented Tenth” rise? Ultimately, racial uplift is always tied to shame.

Finally, I raise the concern that African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism is situated in what Michelle Wright has called the “middle passage epistemology.”  We must be careful to avoid what DuCille describes in her field of Black women’s literary studies, “[Such work] suggest[s] a kind of color line and intellectual passing within and around the academy: black culture is more easily intellectualized (and canonized) when transferred from the danger of lived experience to the safety of white metaphor, when you can have that ‘signifying black difference’ without the difference of significant blackness” (DuCille 91).

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African Americans and the Classics by Margaret Malamud

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