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

Heidi Morse

University of Michigan

My response to Margaret Malamud’s book African Americans and the Classics: Antiquity, Abolition and Activism (2016) also functions as a call to explore points of conceptual crossing between the fields of African American studies and classical reception studies. I argue that scholars of classical reception should be invested in building on existing scholarship in multiple fields—not just “sampling” authors or references who fit a particular narrative—and crafting arguments that will have purchase in more than one scholarly conversation. By highlighting aspects of the book that perform this crossing particularly well, or that open up promising avenues for future exploration, I show how Malamud’s book introduces a wide range of readers to the rich and tangled history of receptions of classical antiquity in public debates over American institutions, from slavery to education.

There is a tendency in the field of black classical receptions to repeat in each new study particularly resonant anecdotes and classical references, for example Thomas Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry or John C. Calhoun’s insulting remark “that only when he could ‘find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax’ could he be brought to ‘believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man’” (Malamud 10). References such as Calhoun’s statement make clear the stakes of classical education in early America, while examples of African American engagement with the classics—such as Frederick Douglass’s reading of The Columbian Orator or W.E.B. Du Bois’s affinity for Cicero’s pro Archia Poeta—reassure readers that “knowledge of Classics was a powerful weapon and tool for resistance” in the hands of antislavery and antiracist activists (Malamud 4). The success of Malamud’s book as I see it is the breadth and diversity of examples she chooses, which demonstrate unequivocally the importance of the topic of classics in African American history. By synthesizing previous scholarship and framing it in a comprehensive and approachable overview for a wide audience, she lays the groundwork for future research.

Malamud’s emphasis on demonstrating the stakes of the debate over race and the classics in American history does have its drawbacks. In her focus on proslavery and antislavery arguments in chapter three, for example, Malamud foregrounds how white slaveholders and abolitionists use classics to frame the debate rather than how African Americans themselves did. While this is important material to document, it offers fewer opportunities for conceptual crossing between the fields of African American studies and classical reception studies than I see emerging in other sections of the book. The areas I would like to highlight that do perform this work, or that pave the way for future researchers to do so, include the later sections of chapter two, “Figuring Classical Resistance,” which focus on works of visual art and oratory (80-102), and a section of chapter four, “Constructing History,” which also focuses on visual art (169-175).  These forms of black classicism are particularly resonant for dialogue and cross-pollination with current scholarship in African American studies because of their popular accessibility to a wide range of nineteenth-century American audiences, not only those who had a classical education, and because they intersect with extant and emerging scholarship on African American orality, rhetoric, and visual history. Malamud’s analysis of popular visual and oral forms in these sections opens up the study of black classical receptions from the dominant mode of studies of black classicists like William Sanders Scarborough or of writing by classically educated black authors to a more capacious framework of what historian Caroline Winterer has termed the early American “culture of classicism,” including neoclassical art, sculpture, and oratory (Winterer 2002).

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African Americans and the Classics by Margaret Malamud

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