- The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship
America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.—Coates 2017, 180
Our discipline has always been, at its core, concerned with language. At its best, The American Journal of Philology has professed to being a forum for those seeking knowledge of the words and worlds of Greece and Rome. It is unreasonable, however, to disentangle the discipline of philology and its allied fields—art history, philosophy, archaeology, and so forth—from the modern realities of slavery, race, and their impacts well after global abolition, emancipation, and any declaration of a postracial period. That is, we bring a great deal of cultural baggage to what we call the Classics.
If we can acknowledge and act on this reality, then the picture that I imagine for Classics is not bleak. Hope abounds, though it continues to dwell not in the center, but in border towns, as it were. Playwright Luis Alfaro's opening session of the 2019 SCS meeting last January in San Diego attested both to promise and to marginalization. On the one hand, my optimism for the Classics bordered on exuberance when I attended his lecture, the opening session. As one of the co-editors of The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas, along with Justine McConnell, Fiona Macintosh, and the late Kate Bosher, I have known Alfaro's work for years.1 I had the opportunity to see his Oedipus el Rey in 2012, in Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater. In his SCS presentation, here was Alfaro arguing what classical reception theorists have been saying for years: that the classical "beats" (as he put it) of a given text, play, or experience harmonize in unexpected ways with the rhythms of modern [End Page 345] life and knowledge. Recognizing these beats brings understanding, on so many levels. In the first place, it helps us to realize what guides our perceptions. Alfaro's adaptations do not solely ask us to transport ourselves to the theater of Dionysus in the 5th century b.c.e., although there is value to reconstructing, from the text, what we ascertain would have been aspects of the language, staging, costume, gestures, and reactions of the moment. Oliver Taplin and others have guided us well through reconstructions of ancient drama.2 More than this, however, Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey and his other adaptations help us to realize what guides our perceptions of the text and its meanings in the first place. Alfaro's adaptations encourage us in the direction of a deeper understanding of our contemporary world and what drives us toward particular texts and interpretations. This process unveils truth, so that we may know where we are and who we are, before we seek to understand the world around us and its past. Approaching texts from a deeper understanding of our investments—emotional, cultural, and ideological—breaks down the gates of the stronghold of the Classics, the cultural, ideological, and emotional power the field has held. It helps bring us to a richer understanding.
Thus, Alfaro's participation in our meeting gave me hope, on that first evening. His perspectives expand our understanding of familiar plays, some of the most canonical texts in world literature. His perspectives contribute to our understanding, help us to feel the beats that he feels, all of which we discover, with him, through interaction with and interpretation of the texts of the ancient plays themselves.
The significance of Alfaro's presence at this meeting, the opening of the 150th anniversary of the SCS, was drowned out, however, by the sights and sounds of a miasma. The pollution, in this case, is entitlement, and race-baiting. By the time of the Saturday panel on "The Future of Classics" and the attendant extracurricular scuffling about who belongs and who does not, Alfaro's presentation was long forgotten.3 A different panel, for which I served as respondent, was examining at the same time Margaret Malamud's African Americans and the Classics.4 Our panel was better attended than many similar ones have been in the past, but it still did...