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After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana — Michele Ronnick

After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana

In After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana, Michele Ronnick coins the phrase classica Africana, which is a subversion (which is a common theme here) of Reinhold’s Classica Americana which concerned itself with the impact of the classics upon 18th and 19th century America.  Ronnick’s subversion sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the classical tradition of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and examines the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, that this heritage has had upon people of African descent not only in America, but also in the western world.  Her article offers brief examination of a selection of ideas that vary in scope and involve reassessment of old material in the light of contemporary theory and new approaches. All revolve around the interrelationship between the classics and people of African descent.  This creation of the term classica Africana gives rise to the basis of my project – to examine how and why the authors I am focused upon chose to utilize Greco-Roman mythology to subvert the traditional Euro-centric U.S. cultural societal narrative.

The Black Athena — Martin Bernal

The Black Athena Project

Authored by Martin Bernal, the Black Athena position is one that suggests that the Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (500-50 BCE) believed that their religion had come from Egypt that there had also been profound Egyptian influences on the formation of their philosophy and mathematics. Similarly, they maintained that Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon and Northern Israel/Palestine) had introduced cultural artifacts notably the alphabet. Bernal calls such beliefs, the “Ancient Model” of Greek origins. This Ancient Model was generally accepted until the beginning of the 19th century CE (AD). It then began to fall into disrepute and by the 1840s, it was replaced by what Bernal calls the “Aryan Model.” According to this model, the Greek stories of their origins were mistaken and Greek culture was “in fact” a mixture of the soft but civilized natives of the Aegean basin and the dynamic Northerners who had conquered them. This mixture was seen as having created the perfect balance of Greek civilization.

In Volume I of Black Athena, Bernal argues that the destruction of the Ancient Model was not the result of any new discoveries. Rather, that it came from various ideological forces, one of which was the racism which made it intolerable that Greece, now seen as the pure cradle of Europe should have received its higher culture from Africans and “Semites.”

Bernal argues that the rise of the “Aryan Model” (which should be distinguished from the fall of the Ancient one) came partly for these reasons but also because, by the 1840s, it was generally recognized that the Greek language was closely related to Sanskrit and Latin. Furthermore, it was plausibly supposed that the Indo-European linguistic family to which they all belonged, had originated somewhere to the north of Greece. Therefore, the founders of the modern discipline of classics envisaged the Northern invaders as Indo-European speakers or “Aryans”. Thus, although there were no Greek traditions of an invasion from the north and there was no archaeological evidence to suggest it, the case for such a conquest could be made on linguistic grounds alone. It was admitted that there were many Non-Indo-European features in Greek, but these were attributed to the language of the conquered early inhabitants or “Pre-Hellenes.”

Bernal does not advocate a return to the Ancient Model but to a Revised Ancient Model, which accepts the work of 18th and 19th century linguists who demonstrated that Greek is fundamentally an Indo-European language and hence that this indicates a substantial cultural influence possibly migration from the north at a very early period. However, Bernal posits that there is no reason why this should conflict with the Greek traditions of settlements from the South and East during the 2nd millennium, which together with subsequent contacts introduced the Egyptian religion, the Phoenician alphabet etc. While both sides agree that the Greek language is a mixture, supporters of the Aryan Model see it as one made up of Indo-European and the unknown language (or languages) of the Pre-Hellenes. Bernal argues that Greek is an admixture of Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic languages, both of which belong to the Afroasiatic language family, which was inserted into an Indo-European base.

Upon Reflection

Following the reading of the three pieces of literature in class so far, along with the supplementary theoretical underpinnings of race, ‘blackness’, and African American literature, my project has evolved significantly.  While before I was focused on the interplay between policy and art to examine whether there is a relationship between the two, I have now moved (thanks to Dr. Littler’s suggestion) to concentrate on the relationship that African Americans [and by extension their counterparts, the white demographic] portrayed through the literature have with their society.

This will be predicated on W.E.B. Dubois’ conception of double consciousness.

Initially, I intend to examine the simultaneous within and without through a close analysis of the use of Greco-Roman mythology in African American literature.  As the Greco-Roman tradition is central to the foundation of the western academic canon, I am curious to see what an African American appropriation of this tradition looks like, and how it is perceived more widely.  I am also keen to understand why this appropriation has occurred and the significance that it has in the self-conception of race.  I will use the literature read so far in the course (Ragtime, The Known World, The White Boy Shuffle) to conduct close readings to further my case.

Secondly, I will investigate the within and without element present in American society, and why it exists on a normative level.  This will involve some digging around on a philosophical level to determine a full understanding of the root of Dubois’ double consciousness (Hegel, Rousseau).  I also intend to examine the legal double consciousness and how policy (I had to sneak it in somewhere) has altered, or if it has altered, an understanding of race in America.

Finally, if possible and if relevant, I will examine Dubois’ assessment of the souls of white folk.  This would develop work conducted in class thus far (especially following Skiffington in The Known World and Father in Ragtime as just two examples) on the impact race relations have on white characters in African American literature.  This would be a fascinating line to follow, though I am nervous there will not be a great amount of scholarship available upon which to mount any evidence.

While to conduct all three is a large project, I am comfortable to follow strands to reasonable conclusions and assess whether they are worth following.  For example, should there be very little scholarship to assess regarding Greco-Roman mythology in African American literature then that avenue will not be followed closely and I shall move on to another option, as listed above.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Double Consciousness

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has become, following several classes with Dr. D’Amato, my academic Wikipedia.  Their articles are always accurate (thanks to peer review), they are always balanced, and they are always absolutely thorough.  This is why I followed the idea of double consciousness to this publication to see what I could glean.  The article here discusses W.E.B. Dubois’ idea through a philosophical lens and examines various ways that the term could be interpreted, it’s possible roots in Hegelianism, how Rousseauian elf-estrangement could play in and other uses and extensions of the concept.  It also draws upon some of Dubois’ later works where he examines and assesses the “Souls of White Folk”, something to which he considers himself (and by extension his race) as particularly qualified to do.

This article will be the basis for my understanding of double consciousness from a purely normative standpoint.  It will also allow me to fully interrogate the idea and ask why Dubois distanced himself from the phrase after it had gained popularity.  I am particularly interested in the assessment of White Folks Souls in Darkwater (1920) and the quotes:

“I see these souls undressed and from the back and sides. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know”, and…

“We whose shame, humiliation and deep insult [the white man’s] aggrandizement so often involved were never deceived. We looked at him clearly, with world-old eyes, and saw simply a human being, weak and pitiable and cruel, even as we are and were”.

An examination of the effect that racism has on the white population, even if it is a secondary consideration in my project, would be edifying and might act as counterpoise to the focus on the effect that it has had on the black population.  The contrast in the amount of scholarship conducted in regard to the effect racism has on the black population, and the lesser amount on the white population versus the apparent prevalence of Greco-Roman mythology in African American literature and the dearth of scholarship on this subject compared to the use of the same by whites might offer an interesting statement on the narratives regarding both groups and what they are ‘supposed’ to write about/engage with?

“A most disagreeable mirror”: race consciousness as double consciousness

“A most disagreeable mirror”: race consciousness as double consciousness by Lawrie Balfour in Political Theory opens with a quote from James Baldwin that posits that the United States is a nation haunted by racial brutality and inequality, that race-blindness is failing as a solution to racial inequality and that race consciousness could “defuse the accusatory ring of racism”.  The author reasons that “Race consciousness is morally and politically imperative as long as Americans’ inability to talk openly about race perpetuates racial injustice”.  As we have discussed in class, Americans find it difficult to openly discuss race, and because of this the problems and issues associated with racial inequality are never fully addressed and thus never solved.  The article discusses the understanding Baldwin has of Dubois’ double consciousness and “Rather than reading double consciousness as a black “problem,” [the author] mines The Souls of Black Folk for clues about how Du Bois uses double consciousness to convey the struggles of a whole society haunted by a history of racial oppression. [He] then turns to Baldwin for an expanded account of this American “problem.”

This article incorporates various elements I have been seeking.  It discusses separate societal understandings of race, it poses a solution to the problems which arise from these disparate understandings and incorporates a key element of the IMW neighborhood: mirrors.  Note: “For mirrors are double devices: they reflect and, as glass, they cut”.

The article also succinctly and eloquently discusses what we have wrestled with in class: “Attempts to overcome “the relentless tension of the black condition” may manifest themselves internally in battles for the mantle of authenticity. As Cleaver’s assessment of Baldwin indicates, struggles over what Amelie Oksenberg Rorty calls “the right of authoritative description” serve to dehumanize members of the very group in whose name the struggle is undertaken”.

Balfour’s work will act as a political theory element to the notion of double consciousness alongside the literature that I will discuss.

African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison

I FOUND SOMETHING ON MYTHOLOGY! (And also a reason why there isn’t a lot out there on African American literature and Greco-Roman mythology).

In African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison, Walters examines how female African American writers “appropriate Greco-Roman mythology”.  She dissects Classica Africana into three sections, the most prescient for our purposes being section three, which “concentrates on how African American authors have adapted myths”.  Walters here points to authors who have explored the connection between the classics and African American literature –N.B. Michele Ronnick, Christa Buschendorf, Shelley Haley, Jane Campbell, Elizabeth T. Hayes, Madonne Miner, Jacqueline de Weever, and Therese Steffen.  Walters points out, disappointingly, that there is a lack of scholarship on the connection between Greco-Roman myths and African American literature because “classicists do not give adequate attention to the classical revision of African Americans”.  This does not deter me from following this line of inquiry, as there are some works which focus on this subject which will guide my thought processes and research.  Walters book will be an excellent source in itself, and will provide many useful jumping off points.  Unfortunately, Olin does not have it, so I will be ILL’ing it to really engage with the text.

The Old and the New: Double Consciousness and the Literature of Slavery

In The Old and the New: Double Consciousness and the Literature of Slavery, Maurice Lee uses examples from Emerson, Melville, Douglass, and Stowe to “suggest that a diversity of authors faced slavery as both a practical and a theoretical problem”.  Lee demonstrates, quite convincingly, that during the American renaissance and through until the Cold War, “much of the focus was on idea, especially romanticism and New England theology; and though the prosepcts of democracy did not go unnoticed, most scholars defined the American Renaissance over and against material contexts, as did R.W.B. Lewis in 1955 when he separated ‘the history of ideas’ from ‘sociology’, ‘political history’ and ‘economic geography’”.  Under these circumstances, “and despite the growing influence of American studies, such controversies as the slavery crisis were not main concerns”.  It appears that ‘texts about chattel bondage, even from major figures, were considered minor works, while the shadow of blackness that casi itself over celebrated American Renaissance books seems less about slavery and race and more about the psychology and theology of sin”.  This changed with the Culture Wars.  To dwell on idealism was, it seemed, to miss more pressing political points and “Stowe, Douglass, Delany, Harriet Jacobs, Margaret Fuller, and others formed a new canon, while slavery and race came to the fore in a host of scholarly work”.  This apparent flash point led to a “dominance of cultural studies in antebellum literature” due to the fact that it “discovered and continues to discover exciting synergies between the old canon and the new”.  This flashpoint between old and new canon, and the rediscovery of the slave “story” offers an opportunity to push back against Matthiesen’s mono-culturalism.  Lee posits that “The American Renaissance’s literature of slavery is a site for [a] potential synthesis” of “old- and new-fashioned criticism” and an opportunity “to explore with theoretical sophistication the possibilities of democracy, and to demonstrate the relevance of the history of ideas to matters of cultural studies”.

This coupling of idealist and materialist understanding and the attendant importance bestowed upon certain texts will allow for a more holistic understanding of what American culture has, and does, value and the narratives that are constructed to propagandize these values.

W.E. Dubois and Frederick Douglass on Double Consciousness

Up from `twoness’: Frederick Douglass and the meaning of W.E.B. Doubois’s concept of double consciousness.

Even the educated colored: the long school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that.

Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987

A nation’s identity is derived from the ways in which history has, as it were, counterpointed certain opposite potentialities; the ways in which it lifts this counterpoint to a unique style of civilization, or lets it disintegrate into mere contradiction.

Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 1950

These two quotes from Morrison (with whom we are quite familiar with in this class) and Erikson speak to the double consciousness which is implicit in race relationships.  This term was initially put forth by W.E. Dubois in his seminal 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk in a passage detailing the peculiar African-American dilemma of being “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body. . .”.

As the author here adroitly demonstrates, “harmony in the physical universe so often seems a result of a collision of opposites…extremes of good and evil operating upon one another, so also history is dynamic, shaped by paradox and irony. In any consideration of the individual or collective psyche, therefore, polarities of self-definition–or forms of “double consciousness”–ought perhaps to be expected”.  This might be especially true in the United States, which is “a land where history has forced upon most people a sense of cultural biformily, as well as a positive embrace of change, mobility and literal or symbolic renewal”.  Consequently, “DuBois’s assertion of African-American double consciousness must… be analyzed with caution”. It seems that some critics of his work suggest that the “twoness” concept was simply an expression of DuBois’s own spatio-temporal dilemma, and that as a commentator on black identity, he had misjudged the nineteenth-century experience of his people.  I find this difficult to believe as the accuracy of his neat phrasing continues to ring true in a contemporary setting, despite the apparent ‘advances’ we have made.  Consequently, I completely agree with the author who argues that “DuBois’s concept of double consciousness should be taken seriously, in both its public and private aspects, especially as he himself applied it retrospectively to his nineteenth-century predecessors, as well as inwardly to his own soul”.

This source is not intended to act as an insight into Douglass’ particularly, but more to lay the groundwork for how Dubois idea has been understood and used as a basis for history by the African-American population.  Perhaps this has helped them to form a self-narrative? Or a self-made controlling image?  The article offers an early idea of wokefulness, in that “Reading opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.”

Process Post

The sources I have found thus far all come from quite disparate disciplines.  Literary criticism by an academic, art historical criticism by an academic, societal-psychological analysis by an academic, political statistical analysis by an academic, and historical-educational-cultural commentary by a hip hop artist/poet at the Oxford Union.

Despite the variations in the sources, the take away for each is roughly the same: There is a narrative being told, and it isn’t holistic, inclusive, or equitable.  It strikes me that anyone can define racism as a problem (as they each do), anyone can come up with a simple answer (Judge Straight in The House Behind the Cedars) which is palatable to most, if not all (Love can defeat racism, and that custom is tyranny), but that what is increasingly difficult is that the self-perpetuating, self-strenghtening narrative that has been told from the beginning of the western civilization (Akala) is so dominant that it is almost insurmountable.

Literature and art speak to what is happening at the time, and so could be said to be the distillation of a societal feeling.  If this is true, then it could be argued that they influenced policy, especially if they temporally preceded the policy at hand.  The issue to contend with is the narrative.  It appears to be driven by a zero sum understanding of society in which disparate groups vie for resources (socio-economic position for example).  Where did the narrative start?  How did it develop?  Where will it end?

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