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The Birth of a Discipline: White Supremacy and Classics in Late Nineteenth-Century America

Benjamin Howland and Sean Tandy

Southeastern Louisiana University and University of Delaware

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fantasized that the name “Ku-Klux” stems from the sound a revolver makes when cocked, the truth is more banal and, for present-day classicists, more disturbing. The Klan took its name from the Greek word for a circle, relying on a common tendency of secret societies of the time to lurk behind a veil of Classical learning. Other classical tropes are embedded in the structure of the organization: administrators are named after Greek mythological creatures (Cyclopes, Centaurs, and Titans) and the organization is envisioned as a sort of secret Roman Empire with provinces and governors. The founding documents of the Ku-Klux, the prescript and revised prescript (c. 1867), also feature a series of Latin quotations in the top and bottom margins of every page. Through both allusions to specific Classical authors (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) and expressions connected with Greco-Roman history (“ne quid detrimenti respublica capiat”), these Latin quotations covertly provide the narrative never directly mentioned in the prescripts themselves, namely white southern collapse and the goal of recovering a dominant position. Beyond justifying the racial violence perpetrated by the “order,” this clandestine narrative also implies ownership of the Classical tradition by white Americans, as the only ones in society who could understand and lay claim to this body of knowledge. In this respect the Ku-Klux Klan were not unique, but part of a wider trend in nineteenth-century America.

This paper will demonstrate how the Ku-Klux’s claim to white ownership of Classical civilization was indebted to a wider cultural discourse about ancient Greece and Rome present both in popular American culture and the nascent Academy. While the Ku-Klux Klan certainly intensified and reified these cultural assumptions for the purpose of emboldening racial violence, the underlying discourse was already available to them to exploit. This paper will begin by examining the use of Classical themes in the self-presentation of the first Ku-Klux Klan, paying attention to the underexplored use of Latin in the founding prescripts and integrating this discussion into recent work on the Ku-Klux (Kinshasa, 2006; Losurdo, 2014; Parsons, 2015). The paper will next delve into the wider debates over whiteness and the Classics (especially Latin) in the late nineteenth century, especially in terms of racial appropriation of the Classical past, as treated in numerous recent studies that show how politicians, educators, and popular entertainers all connect “whiteness” to Greece and Rome (Curtis, 1997; Monoson, 2011; Malamud, 2016). We pay particular attention to Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, founder of the American Philological Association, who held prejudiced views on race and the classical tradition (Lupher and Vandiver, 2011). Gildersleeve, a former Confederate soldier, shows how Classics at this time codified and solidified the concept of a superior ‘western’ culture derived from Greece and Rome. We conclude by noting how many perceptions laid by both the discipline and the first major white supremacist group continue to set the tone for white supremacist appropriation of the Classical tradition.

Session/Panel Title

Greco-Roman Antiquity and White Supremacy

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