Classics, Classical history, African Americans, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B Du Bois
A sermon published in 1782, addressed to “the Americans in general, but to the citizens of South Carolina in particular,” revealed remarkable, [End Page 517] if common, contemporary use of the classics. The tract’s author glorified Revolutionary valor in a thoroughly classicized fashion: The British, for example, “have been fought with bravery equal to that of Romans, by the raw and undisciplined Americas.” Praising “the virtuous daughters of Carolina,” the author praised their “courage, perseverance and fortitude [which] are equal to the daughters of ancient Rome and Sparta.” Such flourishes were customary in Revolutionary America, and we have learned much about the sophistication of Americans’ usage of classical history for their political needs by a growing number of studies devoted to the reception of the classics during the republic’s first century. This particular tract, however, was unique. Written by “A Black Whig,” the author self-identified as a black “son of freedom.”1
This author’s racial identity raises questions that historians of the classics in America have not yet dealt with satisfactorily. Was this author, as a member of the lowest social and racial caste, aware of the irony of praising women, who were also deprived of a meaningful participation in the classical discourse, in a language that must have been as foreign to many of them as it was to the vast majority of African Americans? Was he aware of the marginalization of women in classical societies? What went through this black South Carolinian’s mind when using the same classical idiom masters mockingly invoked in giving classical names to black slaves? Ironically, most of the Catos, Caesars, and Brutuses of America were not white Americans signing newspaper articles with classical pseudonyms or taking pleasure in the classical names and metaphors that their peers bestowed upon them—both prevalent modes of political discourse. Rather, they were enslaved blacks, deprived of their liberty—an idea that was itself understood in America through a conceptual language with its origins in Greece and Rome.
Aside from the remarkably high levels of classical proficiency in late-eighteenth-century America, the early national classical discourse left a sizable portion of white males, most women, and virtually all blacks out of its discursive boundaries. In the past decades we have learned through the pioneering works of such scholars as Reinhold Meyer and Carl Richard about the ways in which elite Americans co-opted the classics; [End Page 518] while historians from Linda Kerber to Caroline Winterer have underscored how women, though lacking a formal classical education, still made use of antiquity for their purposes. Chattel slavery in the New World unconditionally denied blacks access to the intellectual foundations of their society. American slaves and their descendants held little if any knowledge of the classics. Or so we have assumed.
Historians have largely overlooked African Americans’ participation in the classical discourse, a lacuna that Eric Ashley Hairston’s impressive The Ebony Column is bound to fill. Hairston’s study does not analyze idiosyncratic—and rare—tracts such as the aforementioned Black Whig’s. Rather, he conducts a learned series of close readings of four prominent black writers spanning some 140 years. Hairston’s goal is to point to black writers’ deployment of classical references and to demonstrate how “African Americans were able to use the classics pragmatically to craft more nuanced political, ethical, religious and intellectual positions” (5). The classics proved such an important arena for Africans and African Americans to demonstrate their intellectual worth because mastery of “the classics” was widely recognized as the mark of superior intelligence. Hence, Hairston’s object is overtly ambitious, an “African American reclamation of the West” and a full reconsideration of “the entire corpus of African American Literature” (24).
Hairston finds many forms of classicism in the writings of his protagonists. The African-born Massachusetts slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote poems suffused with sophisticated...