Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity by Sarah F. Derbew.If you think that scholarship, particularly scholarship of ancient relics and literary works, is dry and tedious, think again.Sarah Derbew’s journey back and forth through time will acquaint you with, among many other things, clay artifacts from the fifth century BCE and how they relate to museum curation today, The Suppliants, a lesser known play of Aeschylus, and how it relates to the work of twentieth century Martinican writer Franz Fanon, and the role of Aethiopians, a term full of entanglements in itself,in Herodotus’s Histories and how this role relates to Cavafy’s wonderful poem “Waiting for the Barbarians.”
You are in for a dizzying ride because Sarah’s purpose is to show how much care we must take when we examine the distant past lest we make the mistake of seeing through the distorting lens of our own time.The stereotypes and conventional misconceptions embedded in the post-slavery world we inhabit cause people of our day to misconstrue what they see when they study the past.By untangling blackness in Greek antiquity Sarah shows over and over how today’s cultural biases present a false view of how people with black skin were perceived in antiquity.
The clay artifacts in question are cups with faces of two different hues on either side.(There’s a word for this- “janiform” meaning two-faced like Janus). These mugs remind me of the topsy-turvy dolls of a much more recent era that Karen Sánchez-Eppler ’77 describes in her book Touching Liberty. Most of us would say that one face is black and the other is white. However, Sarah discusses how complex the distinction between the two faces is and shows how current preconceptions have led to the assumption that there are differences of class between the two individuals depicted when there are none.Her analysis demonstrates the utility of Critical Race Theory in countering scholars’ and curators’ tendency to superimpose their own culture on the works of a different and, in this case, long-gone culture. The preference of curators at the British Museum for Egyptian over Nubian exhibits contributes to Sarah’s thesis that false hierarchies arise fromfailing to face up to how the culture of these guardians of the past impacts their objectivity.
So just how did ancient Greeks view black skin?Clues abound in The Suppliants, the story of the Danaids, who arrive in Argos from Egypt, to escape forced marriages with their cousins. These girls have black skin but at the same time descend from an Argive princess, Io, who was seduced by Zeus.As Sarah shows, at first the color of their skin is a marker of otherness, but as they claim their Argive heritage they gain the support of the people of Argos.The ancient world makes place for a hybrid identity.
In a chapter on fourth century CEnovel, Aithiopika,by Heliodorus the protagonist is a white skinned girl born to black skinned parents who reject her since privilege here goes with black skin.As in Baroque literature, this novel is full of disguises and people passing for what they are not.In a text I once used to teach English comp, the author counselled students to “wallow in complexity.” This is what Sarah does as she confronts the confusing jumble head on. Jumping into the tangled extant material of antiquity, Sarah does not shy away from the complications and contradictions she is presented with.She pulls apart the strands so that we can take a look. As she states, “In turning away from the reductive classifications of black people in ancient Greek literature and art, I have sought to lay bare uncritical analyses of black skin color that have long informed scholarship in Classics.“ (187)
The sweep of Sarah’s erudition is breathtaking. I am impressed that all her translations from the Greek are her own.The ease with which she connects the ancient and the modern, her implementation of performance theory and critical race theory, her clarity in defining her terms, her willingness to look into old texts and artifacts and see them with new eyes, and her courage in facing down received wisdom all make her a voice to listen to.I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.