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Doing Justice to the Classics

Banner image: The Classical Facade of Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University Quad

Racist Intimidation invokes Socrates and “Classical Education”

In September 2019, several faculty and administrators at Wake Forest University received racist and homophobic emails that, according to recipients, called for “our land to be ‘purged’ of people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.” More recently it has emerged that the hateful and intimidating rhetoric of these emails used references to Greco-Roman Antiquity to define the curriculum that the racists believe should be “restored.”

The Classical Facade of Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University Quad

The emails drew attention from national media, where it was reported that they praised “the standards set by well raised white men” and complained that “diversity programs” undermine “what made the West the greatest force for true progress in the history of the world.” The classical content of these emails was revealed only several months later, in an interview with Joseph Soares, the chair of Wake Forest’s Sociology department.

The emails asked "how many of your shithole mud students can quote Socrates? How many have a classical education?

According to Soares, the emails asked “how many of your shithole mud students can quote Socrates? How many have a classical education? Even my own writing has suffered from just viewing the tweets of these Neanderthals.” This language echoes much that has been previously documented on Pharos, such as the racist claim that Greco-Roman culture should enjoy special prominence in college curricula, the idea that Greek philosophical thought has special value over and above other forms of knowledge, and the implication that only white people are able to understand and value the supposedly unique achievements of the ancient Greeks.

Two professors in Wake Forest’s Department of Classics, T.H.M. Gellar-Goad and Caitlin Hines, published a condemnation of this use of Greco-Roman Antiquity, writing that “being able to quote Socrates (or, rather, to quote Plato’s or Xenophon’s versions of Socrates, since the man himself left behind no texts) does not automatically make someone better or smarter or more fit for American citizenship” and denounced the email’s invocation of “classical education” and “the west” as “a modern myth with no basis in the history of the ancient Mediterranean world, devised by white Europeans to justify their enslavement and colonization of the rest of the planet.” This conflation of Greco-Roman civilization and the supposed superiority of “Western Civilization” underlies much of the appeal of antiquity to hate groups, as Pharos and others have argued.

Wake Forest itself has become a center for "a more honest, less whitewashed version of Classics"

Gellar-Goad’s and Hines’ response is well worth reading in its entirety not only for its vigorous refutation of the assumptions about antiquity inherent in these emails. It also provides a survey of organizations devoted to promoting approaches that recognize that “the Greek and Roman worlds were remarkably diverse and Greek and Roman conceptions of race were very different from ours and not based on skin color”: not only Pharos, but the Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity in Classics Consortium, Classics and Social JusticeThe Mountaintop Coalition, The Women’s Classical Caucus, and Eos Africana.

And Wake Forest itself has become a center for what Gellar-Goad and Hines call “a more honest, less whitewashed version of Classics” with their “Classics Beyond Whiteness” series, which includes a reading group, guest speakers, and an exhibition of portraits of “Black Classicists from North Carolina whose scholarly and pedagogical contributions to the field have gone unrecognized.”

At stake is whether the Greco-Roman World remains a symbol of white entitlement

The emails sent to Wake Forest faculty and administrators show that the association between the study of Greco-Roman antiquity and White Supremacy is alive and well on our campuses. Do not kid yourself about this just because you are somewhere where people do not feel empowered enough to make it explicit. But at Wake Forest there is a counterbalance to this view in the advocacy and programming of members of its Classics department.

This is no small thing on a campus where every day students walk past the classicizing facade of Wait Chapel (pictured above), a monument that honors the first president of Wake Forest, Samuel Wait, who, according to the 1840 and 1850 censuses, enslaved four people and who was himself a teacher of Latin. At stake is whether the classical elements of that facade, and the man it commemorates, remain a symbol of white entitlement or if it can come to be understood as a gesture toward a much more complex history.

And what about on your campus? In the case of Wake Forest we have two models for how to understand Greco-Roman antiquity: one that makes it a touchstone of white superiority, and one that makes it a site for the deconstruction of that racist legacy. Which will you choose?

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