In 1976 a landmark series in the history of art appeared. This was entitled The Image of the Black in Western Art and was inaugurated by a volume, subtitled “From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire.” This richly illustrated book, which offered readings of all the canonical representations from this period was inspired by the pioneering efforts of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997), a leading figure in the efforts to integrate the art world. The central chapter of the volume, however, was assigned to onetime Professor, Chair of Classics and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Howard University, Frank M. Snowden, Jr. (1911-2007), whose Blacks in Antiquity (1970) had greatly impressed de Menil with its range and scholarly rigor. This decision was to cast a long shadow in the history of classical scholarship in general and Africana receptions of ancient art in particular (Keita 2000).
Taking as its starting point Snowden’s contribution to The Image of the Black in Western Art, this paper will explore Snowden’s life and scholarship as an influential example of the Africana reception of ancient Mediterranean visual and literary culture. Of particular importance are his early trips to Italy where he prepared his as-yet unpublished Harvard dissertation, De servis libertisque Pompeianis (Snowden 1944), an important preface to his later scholarship. This exposure to both ancient and modern Mediterranean culture led him in the post-war years to begin to formulate the ideas that would characterize his later work, all the time continuing to move in African American intellectual circles, and corresponding with his former colleague at Atlanta University, W.E.B. Du Bois (Snowden 1956; W.E.B. Du Bois Papers). As he ascended through the cursus honorum at Howard University, Snowden also became involved in the political struggles of the day, both at Howard, where he served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and internationally as a lecturer in the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Libya (1953). This led to another highly formative moment, his time as cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Rome, where he served under Clare Luce Booth, the first woman to hold such a diplomatic rank.
It is within this rich historical context that we should understand Snowden’s contribution to The Image of the Black in Western Art. As the SCS comes to Washington, D.C., this is the perfect moment to remember one of the city’s great classicists, whose manifold contributions are yet to be fully explored (Greenwood 2009).
Black Classicism in the Visual Arts