Christopher Stedman Parmenter
Between 1960-76, the Houston-based Menil Foundation undertook the monumental publication of The Image of the Black in Western Art, a 10-volume series tracing depictions of people from Africa between 3,000 B.C.E. and the present. The series took what was then the bold position that race was a sociological construct; in the general introduction, its editor Ladislas Bugner noted that “any preliminary definition of the ‘Negro’” (1976.1.3) had to be arrived at contextually, rather than through fixed anthropological or biological criteria.
This paper explores the role of the African American classicist Frank M. Snowden Jr.’s contribution to The Image of the Black in continuing to set the agenda for the study of race in antiquity. As early as 1947, Snowden had laid out the argument that a) black people were recognized as a distinct ‘racial’ category by Greeks and Romans, known as ‘Ethiopians;’ b), Greece and Rome were ‘white’ societies; and c), black people did not suffer from systematic discrimination or bias (1970.1-21, 1976.133-35, 1983.1-17).
Snowden was a deeply conservative figure. His politics had been challenged by student protestors at Howard University in 1968; scholars have noted his continued reliance on the same biological definitions of race disavowed by Bugner (Keita 1993, Tanner 2010, McCoskey 2012). Yet his contribution to The Image of the Black solidified his legacy, particularly among white scholars. The Menil Foundation produced a sequel to his chapter (Karageorghis 1988) and his work was repeatedly cited Martin Bernal’s critics (1987-2006). Snowden’s scathing defense of his work from critique by other black classicists (Snowden 1990 on Thompson 1989) ensured that it remains authoritative even in the 2010s (e.g. Gruen 2011).
Snowden’s ‘Ethiopian’ thesis precariously balanced unresolved tensions between his arguments that Greeks and Romans recognized ‘blackness’ as a racial category but that they never developed systemic racism. He located the entrance of the ‘image of the black’ into Greek consciousness in the settlement of Naukratis in the Nile Delta after 620 B.C.E. There, migrant Greek craftsmen produced naturalistic depictions of the locals for export to the wider Mediterranean. The most spectacular instance of these were the 137 molds for manufacturing faience amulets in the shape of ‘African’ heads; examples have been found as far away as Spain and Ukraine (Snowden 1976.140; cf. Gorton 1996, Masson-Berghoff 2018).
The case of the head amulets offers a good illustration of the immediacy of Snowden’s impact. Head amulets circulated widely during between the 8th-6th cents. B.C.E.; usually found in the graves of infants or children, their artisans freely borrowed from Assyrian and Egyptian depictions of outsiders, the faces of whom might have been believed to be apotropaic (Reyes 2001, O’Connor 2003, Bahrani 2006). Up to the 1970s, scholars frequently identified these in racially-neutral language like “tête d’homme” (Perdrizet 1908.25), “tète à bonnet” (Vercoutter 1945.95), “Form eines menschlichen Kopfes” (Zazoff 1983.69), or “tête masculine” (Clerc 1991.67). But increasingly after 1976, Anglophone and Francophone scholars defined all head amulets as ‘African’ regardless of appearance, citing Snowden’s work as the final word (Giveon 1978.90-91, Boardman 1991.161, Gorton 1996.123, Masson-Berghoff 2018.8-10). In claiming a place for blacks in a (white) artistic canon, Snowden quickly fossilized the “image of the black” in terms set by him.
I contextualize Snowden’s intervention in terms of the politics of black classicism during the first half the twentieth century. Studies of African American classicism between c. 1860-1960 have shown how the vision of a ‘colorblind’ Greco-Roman antiquity allowed exceptional individuals like Snowden to insert themselves into the conceptual world of the white elite (see essays in Orrells, Bhambra, and Roynon 2011, Hairston 2013, Malamud 2016). Snowden’s ‘Ethiopian’ thesis was a rearguard action defending these visions from a militant younger generation who questioned the viability of elite ‘race leadership’ in advancing the cause of equality. Restoring politics to Snowden’s antiquity offers a way of understanding the complex interplay of race and ethnicity in ancient societies beyond the ‘great man’ approach to intellectual history.