Last autumn – it seems a long time ago! – I was very honoured to be invited to speak on ‘Classics and Race’ at an event hosted by St Andrews. The organisers were aware of my research on Classics in West Africa, and I was pleased to be able to share that, plus I spoke about books that had recently inspired me, like Superior: the return of race science and Afropean: notes from Black Europe.
Afropean reminds readers of the persistent presence of people of African descent within a European continent that people sometimes think of as ‘white’. Superior starts with a visit to the British Museum, where the neoclassical architecture shows us that ‘Britain framed itself as the heir to the great civilizations of Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, and Rome’. This cultural power and entitlement expressed itself in many ways, including the domination of non-white people throughout the world. The legacies of this hierarchical attitude beset us still today.
Both these books invite reflections from classicists who are keen to site our discipline firmly in the twenty-first century, and to foreground a history that need not be one only of exclusion. Although these books address questions of race (even while they query the term), other recent work in Classics has shown how the marginalised populations of women and the working class have laboured to build meaningful relationships with the art, literature and history of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is an important reminder about what our discipline can be and do, at a time when numerous communities across the world are protesting the fallout from centuries of racism.
The move to ‘decolonise’ Classics take place in a context when disciplines like History, Art History, and Mediaeval Studies have all had similar developments. All of these disciplines want to rethink their history and make themselves welcoming to more diverse populations of students and scholars. The ‘Classics and Race’ workshop was part of this, as was the ‘Decolonising Classics’ workshop organised at Reading by Katherine Harloe and Rachel Mairs, in 2018.
All these intellectual currents came together at St Andrews, and I was delighted when Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis suggested that she and I collaborate to organise a seminar series on inclusive Classics at the Institute of Classical Studies. Alexia has long been involved in outreach events that promote diversity within Classics, and has a special interest in how material culture can be used in such contexts.
Events quickly overtook us and we found ourselves organising a big one-day workshop instead of a seminar series; our call for papers produced 12 contributions that range widely over topics like how to teach the ancient Persians, how to teach Latin to students with dyslexia, how to make the Parthenon Marbles accessible to blind students, and how to negotiate a career in Classics as a person of colour. When Covid-19 struck, we realised we had been even more overtaken by events. We wondered whether to cancel or postpone, but decided the issues were too urgent. So we agreed to take the event online, and spread it out over two afternoons, so as not to have too much ‘Zoom fatigue’.
The wonderful thing that has now happened is that instead of getting 30 scholars and students from the UK in a room at the Institute in London, we have 106 participants from 11 countries. Needless to say, we are terrified, but wildly excited too. It is a sign that these discussions are timely and are what people want to engage with. We are very much looking forward to intense and fruitful conversations, and we must cross our fingers that the new technology can keep up with the ancient discipline. Have a look at our programme here.
And please feel free to get in touch for further information.
Professor Barbara Goff (firstname.lastname@example.org).