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February 24, 2023

“What is it like to be the only Black person in your department?”

I’ve been asked this question multiple times, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on it. Here’s my answer. At the outset, I would like to say that I am grateful for the fact that I am not the only minority in my department. That has certainly helped. But, over the years, I’ve felt a level of emptiness.

I first became interested in studying Classics when I took a World History survey course at the University of North Texas. The best part of the course for me was the module on Greece and Rome. Once I began to learn about the ancient world, I knew that I wanted to dig deeper. Part of what made me want to dig deeper was the consistency of lack of evidence. I became interested particularly in the study of disenfranchised individuals (women, slaves, foreigners) because of this lack of evidence. I then took a class on the Roman Republic and began to consider pursuing graduate school. From there, I took three years of Latin in my undergraduate. Throughout those three years, I was the only Black person in my Latin courses, and I was one of only a few in many Classics-related courses I took.

While I met a few people in the Classical Studies program at UNT who made my time there enjoyable, it was difficult being the only Black person in most of my courses. It made me feel as though I did not belong there. As if I was out of place for being there. And throughout my time at UNT, no matter how much my colleagues in Classical Studies made me feel at home, these feelings of alienation remained.

I arrived at the University of Texas in Austin in Fall of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic. Whether I was sitting in a seminar in person or via Zoom, it was obvious that I was, again, the lone Black person in the room. Though many of my colleagues and professors have been unfailingly kind and collegial, there is a sense of loneliness that has crept in.

Yet I am grateful for the internet. Otherwise, I would never know rockstars such as Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Jermaine Bryant, Jackie Murray, and Nadhira Hill, to name a few individuals who have made my time in the field a bit more cozy. Getting to network with these scholars and others — at conferences, via email, on Twitter — has reminded me that this field can be for me, too. These scholars have helped me navigate the field and have been models of how to engage with this field in a meaningful way as a Black scholar. They all not only engage deeply with Classics but also demonstrate how the discipline itself has a history of being disturbed by our very presences, which cannot be separated from the discipline of Classics itself.

Though I am not the only person in my department or any department who has felt this way, for Black History Month, I want to talk about my experiences as a Black person in my department.

The questions that I have frequently asked myself, as I have sat in a seminar room in Waggener Hall (where Classics is housed at UT) or gone to a graduate student meeting or departmental function are: What am I doing here? Do I belong here? Not because anyone has made me feel this way — but because I cannot help but notice the obvious.

We are currently searching for an ancient historian and, unfortunately, there are no African Americans in the finalists. We await prospective graduate students, and it would be quite encouraging to see another African American grad coming to UT. Though I understand that there are a lot of factors that go into the makeup of a department, it’s important to understand — or at least try to understand — how difficult being The Only One can be at times.

I am the only Black person in my department, and though it can be alienating, I have found collegiality here and established a network of supportive and inspiring colleagues. I am the only Black person in my department, but I hope that I will not be the last.

Part of what has made all of this so difficult is the very history of our field. Historically, a classical education has been reserved for white people, or thought of as something that is not for Black people. We are very much still living and breathing the effects of that history. There’s the racist scholar from a different university who sent me an appalling email because of my “sudden interest” in the study of ancient slavery. Or a dear friend and mentor of mine who has been repeatedly attacked by bigoted nonsense. More recently, there’s the scholar whose wacky and extremely racist comments are reflective of their own ignorance and demonstrative of how out of touch they are.

The history — and present — of this field can sting hard. I myself have felt its sting firsthand. And I continue to feel its sting when I participate in seminars, attend departmental gatherings, and just spend time around the department in general. I have found a group of fellow graduate students and professors who have made my time here a truly awesome experience. Yet the feeling of alienation that comes with what I have described does not go away easily. The important and controversial African American Classicist Frank Snowden, Jr., concluded in his book Blacks in Antiquity, “The Greeks and Romans counted black peoples in.” And while that statement has stirred much debate over the last several decades, it is clear that, when it comes to the field of Classics itself, Black people are still not counted in. This must change. After all this is our field, too…right?

Header image: Janiform kantharos with addorsed heads of a male African and a female Greek, ca. 480–470 B.C. Image courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum. Bequest of Junius S. Morgan, Class of 1888.


I was born and grew up in Fort Worth Texas. I stayed there until I went off to the University of North Texas for my Bachelors. It was there that I met my wife and, after we got married, we moved to UT so that I could pursue my Ph.D. in Classics. When I am not translating Greek and Latin texts or reading scholarship, I enjoy spending time with my wife and baby and playing video games.