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The Ebony Column

Classics, Civilization, and the African American Reclamation of the West

Eric Ashley Hairston

Publication Year: 2013

In The Ebony Column, Eric Ashley Hairston begins a new thread in the ongoing conversation about the influence of Greek and Roman antiquity on U.S. civilization and education. While that discussion has yielded many exceptional insights into antiquity and the American experience, it has so regularly elided the African American component that all classical influence on black writing and thought seems to vanish. That omission, Hairston contends, is disturbing not least because of its longevity— from an early period of overt stereotyping and institutionalized racism right up to the contemporary and, one would hope, more cosmopolitan and enlightened era. Challenging and correcting that persistent shortsightedness, Hairston examines several prominent black writers’ and scholars’ deep investment in the classics as individuals, as well as the broader cultural investment in the classics and the values of the ancient world. Beginning with the late-eighteenth-century verse of Phillis Wheatley, whose classically inspired poems functioned as a kind of Trojan horse to defeat white oppression, Hairston goes on to consider the oratory of Frederick Douglass, whose rhetoric and ideas of virtue were much influenced by Cicero, and the writings of educator Anna Julia Cooper, whose classical training was a key source of her vibrant feminism. Finally, he offers a fresh examination of W. E. B. DuBois’s seminal The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and its debt to antiquity, which volumes of commentary have largely overlooked. The first book to appear in a new series, Classicism in American Culture, The Ebony Column passionately demonstrates how the myths, cultures, and ideals of antiquity helped African Americans reconceptualize their role in a Euro-American world determined to make them mere economic commodities and emblems of moral and intellectual decay. To figures such as Wheatley, Douglass, Cooper, and DuBois, classical literature offered striking moral, intellectual, and philosophical alternatives to a viciously exclusionary vision of humanity, Africanity, the life of the citizen, and the life of the mind.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press


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p. 1-1

Title page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Regrettably, an attitude dominates in the land that all things classical are the exclusive property of white folks. To declare this anemic attitude a crock of creeping ignorantum hardly addresses the extent of the problem. Over ten years ago, I published The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self (University of Tennessee Press, 2001), ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

In this book, I begin a new thread in a conversation about the influence of antiquity on American civilization and American education that has gone on for quite some time. While many of the scholars gathered around the topic have made exceptional observations about antiquity and the American experience, ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

I would like to thank my family for all their support as I developed this book. Thanks as well to the local Durham, North Carolina, businesses that continue to make space for scholars lingering over meals and coffee to work. I greatly appreciate those close friends and colleagues who were part of those regular, varied, and provocative exchanges ...

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Introduction: A More Than Partial Grace: A Prolegomenon for African American Experiences with the Classics

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pp. 1-24

African American writers have confronted a multitude of claims against black intelligence and humanity, lodged by white detractors and dating from the colonial period onward. They countered these assaults in numerous literary genres, notably Protestant evangelical sermons, political treatises, and the slave narrative tradition. ...

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Chapter 1: The Trojan Horse: Phillis Wheatley

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pp. 25-64

In 1772, at the commencement of a revolutionary season, a youthful Phillis Wheatley sought to publish a collection of classically pastoral, epic, religious, and elegiac poetry. Revolutionary in her own right, the young poet disrupted established assumptions about black literary authorship in eighteenth-century America ...

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Chapter 2: The Virtuous Voice of Frederick Douglass

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pp. 65-120

Frederick Douglass’s extemporaneous speech in 1841 at the Nantucket Athenaeum inaugurated his historic career as a national abolitionist orator and, combined with subsequent early speeches for William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery society, transformed abolitionist oratory. ...

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Chapter 3: Sine Qua Non: The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper

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pp. 121-158

The podium of the 1893 World Congress of Representative Women in Chicago held a formidable array of African American women. After bitter complaints from prominent black women that the Columbian Exposition’s women’s exhibit exemplified the exclusive and racist nature of the event, organizers invited Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, ...

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Chapter 4: Quo Vadis?: W. E. B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk

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pp. 159-192

The critical attention to Anna Julia Cooper’s writing pales in comparison to the volume of scholarship that W. E. B. Du Bois’s internationally renowned The Souls of Black Folk has produced. Du Bois has long been recognized as one of the most important African American writers and among the most influential American writers. ...

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Conclusion: Απολλων: The Temple of Apollo

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pp. 193-198

How the African American writers I have examined used the classics reflected their individual needs to establish positions of authority or authenticity as writers, scholars, race representatives, or leaders. Moreover, whether or not specific classical texts assumed prominence in their various works and which works emerged as definitive for each writer ...


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pp. 199-238

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 239-250


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pp. 251-262

E-ISBN-13: 9781572339842
E-ISBN-10: 1572339845
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572339422
Print-ISBN-10: 157233942X

Publication Year: 2013