AUGUST 8, 2022
THE PRESENT INESCAPABLY colors our understanding of the past. As an object lesson, take this high-handled ceramic drinking cup, made in sixth-century BCE Athens, in the shape of two female faces joined at the back of the head. One face is the deep black of slip, a mixture of clay and water; the other is the iron-rich red-orange of Athenian clay itself. One has full lips, a broad nose, and hair made of added pieces of clay to indicate curls and texture; the other, thinly painted lines for eyebrows and a darker red on the lips. Viewed from the side, the two faces appear sharply delineated.
How to make sense of such an object? Museum interpretations often rely on modern racial terminology. In the description of this particular vase, the black-slip face is read as “African” and “black,” the red-orange one as “Greek” and “white.” In ancient Greece, these terms would have been anachronisms. But today, because of the centuries of intellectual baggage that have intervened, the artifacts are often considered visualizations of alterity, with “black” people and women cast as “the other” in contrast to male citizens, without accounting for the nuances of these relationships. Is it possible, however, to understand ancient Greek representations of blackness such as these, along with their literary counterparts, without projecting backward modern constructions of race? Is it possible both to understand the past and find analogues in the present without blurring the distinction between the two?
These questions are at the heart of Sarah Derbew’s ambitious and groundbreaking book, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity. Informed by critical race theory and performance studies, Derbew aims to “promot[e] a contextualized, critical approach to representations of black people in Greek antiquity.” To do this, she assembles a range of case studies in ancient Greek literature and art from the fifth century BCE through the fourth century CE, treating each genre discussed “as metatheatrical stages on which performances of blackness occur.” Every chapter also draws parallels with modern subversions of racist tropes and acts of resistance carried out by Black people in daily life.
Derbew takes readers on a tour spanning 900 years of Greek art and literature, in which she identifies “performances of blackness.” The main text begins with a chapter on vases from ancient Athens. One chapter is devoted to Aeschylus’s fifth-century tragedy Suppliants. Others go beyond classical Athens to survey the cultural and chronological variety of the ancient Greek world. These treat the fifth-century BCE historian and protoethnographer Herodotus, an Ionian Greek from the cosmopolitan Asian city of Halicarnassus; the second-century CE satirist Lucian, a Greek-speaking Syrian writing under the Roman Empire; and the third- (or fourth-) century CE novelist Heliodorus, a Greek-speaking Phoenician from Emesa in Syria. Differences in genre allow the author to take a wide-ranging look at how blackness was deployed and manipulated in multiple contexts.
Derbew’s book arrives at a pivotal moment in classical studies. The past years have seen debates on the whiteness of the discipline and calls to burn the field down. The very term “classics” has come under fire for its perceived elitism and opacity, with eminent departments (including Berkeley’s) abandoning the name. Some have criticized the field’s intense focus on ancient Greek and Latin at the expense of archaeology, the ancient Mediterranean outside Greece and Rome, and the interdisciplinarity that forms the foundation of research like Derbew’s. Perhaps unsurprisingly, attempts to broaden the boundaries of the discipline have drawn fire from some quarters. The recent reworking of Princeton’s undergraduate language requirements in classics, for example, has become grist for the culture warrior’s mill. Yet what Sarah Derbew has accomplished is a testament to the kind of innovative work one can do by combining traditional philological rigor with fresh and novel thinking.
Of key importance to Derbew’s investigation is the distinction she makes between lowercase black/blackness and uppercase Black/Blackness. The difference is explained as clearly as possible, but this is where things become a bit tricky, to the extent that Derbew includes a table of terms and definitions before the book’s introduction. She explains that “lowercase ‘black’ denotes people with black skin and phenotypic features including full lips, curly hair, and a broad nose in ancient Greek literature and art,” in contrast to uppercase “Black,” which “refers to a modern, socially constructed group of people whose melanin is merely one of its distinguishing traits.” Ancient blackness, then, refers primarily to people with dark skin that the Greeks called Aithiopes (a compound of the words for “I blaze” and “face”), generally associated with Africa south of Egypt, and sometimes even India.
For Derbew, things are not so neat, however, and people with dark skin are not all Aithiopes. The category of “black people,” for example, is used “as an inclusive term for geographically diffuse peoples with black skin, as they are rendered in ancient Greek literature and art.” As a result, ancient blackness was malleable, and could apply not only to Aithiopes but also to Egyptians and Greeks. In addition, she informs the reader that “undeniable similarities linking ‘black’ people and ‘Black’ people aside, ‘Black’ is not a direct referent for ‘black.’”
Derbew, however, does not claim that there was no such thing as race in ancient Greece. On the contrary, following classicist Denise McCoskey, she understands race in antiquity not through now-discredited biological formulations, but as a socially constructed, “outward-facing category of evaluation.” Helpfully, when Derbew mentions race in the ancient Greek context, she often includes a condensed version of her definition as a parenthetical to remind the reader; for example, “external categorization” is one such descriptor. Accordingly, Derbew borrows Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s idea of racial formation, whereby people label others to strengthen their own self-importance. She also highlights medievalist Geraldine Heng’s and classicist Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s important contributions to the study of socially constructed notions of “premodern race,” as well as the related but distinct concept of identity. Unlike race, identity “refers to people’s self-ascribed conceptualization of themselves.” Together, race and identity “reveal the mixture of social projections and self-declared moments of assertion at play during performances of blackness.”
Although race is not a novel topic for classicists, how scholars approach the subject and the kinds of questions they ask about it have undergone a major transformation. Derbew’s concept of race in ancient Greece advances far beyond Frank M. Snowden Jr.’s influential work. A Harvard-trained Black classicist, Snowden set out to show, beginning in the 1940s, that racism directed at modern Black people had no direct equivalent in Mediterranean antiquity. At the same time, Snowden maintained that race was a biological reality and a transhistorical phenomenon. As ancient historian Christopher Parmenter has recently put it, “Snowden neatly transposes American definitions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ 25 centuries into the past, establishing race as an essential principle of world history. Racism or colour prejudice, on the other hand, were perversions of the modern era.”
Derbew and Snowden’s respective approaches to race, then, are polar opposites. Snowden used race-essentialist physical anthropology to map modern biological race onto the ancient Mediterranean. Derbew’s much more expansive definition of “external categorization” allows her to move beyond skin color as the primary indicator of race. Her definition may be so broad, however, as to fall into a trap. As philosopher of race Adam Hochman points out, “social kind definitions of race inflate the category beyond recognition, allowing too many sorts of groups to count as ‘races.’” While Derbew diverges from Snowden on the issue of race, the two are not so distant when it comes to racism. Snowden contended that “color prejudice,” as he called it, was largely absent in Mediterranean antiquity, and Derbew maintains that ancient Greek attitudes toward foreigners cannot be directly equated to modern anti-Blackness.
The reader first sees Derbew’s methods put into action in her analysis of blackness in ancient artifacts and modern museum descriptions, including the example of the vase with which I began this essay. Performances of blackness using such vases took place in symposia, drinking parties wherein the consumption of wine allowed for conversation on subjects from politics to philosophy, as well as contemplation of self and other. Three-dimensional drinking cups formed in the shape of human faces lent an air of the theatrical. Derbew, following earlier scholarship, argues that the vases serve as both cups and masks, allowing their users to become performers by taking on new identities and decentering the self. The experience was heightened by both the visual and tactile aspects of the cups along with the increasing inebriation of the participants.
Where Derbew differs from earlier interpreters is in her assertion that these performances of blackness were not opportunities to contemplate and dominate the foreign and the exotic. Instead, they “reinforce the jocular atmosphere, in that they invite many performers to the party. Moreover, the interconnected faces circumvent cultural chauvinism.” Yet a key aspect missing from the discussion is that ancient users of the vases were not necessarily Greek. As with much Athenian pottery, the objects often ended up in the graves of Etruscans — a fact that requires recognition that the artifacts had multiple possible meanings depending on the context.
The modern parallel that Derbew offers concerns displays of ancient blackness in museums. Here, the focus is the presentation of Nubian artifacts, often grouped as subsidiary sections of Greco-Roman or Egyptian collections. Derbew details the positives and negatives of the Nubian installations in the British Museum, which at some points place Nubia in a hierarchy subordinate to Egypt, but at others present its importance beyond relations with its northern neighbor. Derbew highlights as a positive example of “critical curation” the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s 2019–20 Ancient Nubia Now exhibition, which situated Nubia within a network of other cultures including Egypt, Greece, and Rome without subordinating it to any of them. Derbew’s emphasis on museums is incredibly important, as these are the interfaces between specialists and the general public, and it behooves curators to present artifacts and the ancient cultures that made them as accurately as possible.
Derbew’s literary analyses display her skill as a classical philologist and her profound command of theory. One example is her treatment of Lucian’s satires, where Derbew’s analysis borrows cultural critic Rey Chow’s concept of the “xenophone” — that is, “the linguistic domain in which nonnative writers of English disrupt the presumed monolingualism of the anglophone archive.” Swapping out English for Greek, Lucian “unsettle[s] the category of ‘foreigner’ (xenos) via the language (phōnē) that he places in the mouth of his characters.” The most interesting case is Lucian’s Anacharsis, set in the sixth century BCE, which relates a conversation between the Scythian traveler Anacharsis and his Athenian friend Solon. The two watch athletes train while discussing issues including physical appearance, dress, and identity. Anacharsis, as a foreigner, is situated within the Athenian xenophone and stages a non-Greek perspective on Greek athletics, including incredulity at the fact that the athletes use mud to protect their skin from the sun. Their mud-darkened skin, then, is, according to Derbew, “a temporary mask. It contributes to the athletes’ physical prowess, which in turn feeds into their successful performance of Greek identity without demanding any permanent bodily alteration.” The men, once stripped of their mask of blackness, are no longer virile but feminine: their complexion is again white like that of elite Greek women, whose activities required that they spend much time indoors.
Derbew also uses the Anacharsis to show how modern ideas about race shape translation, singling out elements of H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler’s 1905 translation. Solon notes that some Greek men, unlike the mud-covered athletes, are “somewhat red to rather black because they have been colored and toughened up by the sun” (in Greek: hyperythroi eis to melanteron hypo tou hēliou kechrōsmenoi). The Fowlers simply gloss this as “sunburnt.” By choosing this term, Derbew rightly points out that they “have catapulted Lucian’s characters out of their literary context and into a modern world in which prolonged exposure to the sun has become synonymous with a painful affliction for people with low levels of melanin.” The discussion ends with a modern parallel to Lucian’s “variable manipulations of blackness” in the form of Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel The Sellout, a satirical take on skin color and modern race. In the novel, the main character is a Black man named Me who “ends up in front of the US Supreme Court charged with human enslavement and violation of the Civil Rights Act.” A stranger in the capital like Anacharsis in Athens, Me offers an outsider’s look, in this case by “mock[ing] the city’s pretensions to emulate ancient Rome.” By describing himself as an “Ethiop,” Me “also signals an unexpected resolution at the intersection of past blackness, through the etymology of ‘Ethiop’ (aithō, ‘I blaze’), and present Blackness, through his lived experience.” Here, Derbew deftly separates blackness from Blackness while showing how the latter aids in understanding the former.
In the end, does Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity accomplish its titular goal? Generally speaking, the answer is yes. Derbew guides readers through the complexities of race and its terminology while offering nuanced interpretations of authors, genres, and artifacts in which she has identified performances of blackness. In drawing attention to modern parallels, Derbew demonstrates how the modern can illuminate the ancient without conflating the two. Even so, this is a difficult needle to thread, despite the effort at terminological and conceptual precision. Ultimately, the book is certain to spark much discussion among scholars, students, and other interested readers, and this itself is a success. Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity is proof that the future of classics is already here. It’s simply waiting for everyone else to catch up.
Najee Olya is a PhD candidate in the Program in Mediterranean Art & Archaeology at the University of Virginia and the incoming Bothmer Fellow (2022–23) in the department of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was previously Bert Hodge Hill Fellow (2019–20) and William Sanders Scarborough Fellow (2021–22) at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.