A Possible Path Forward. A Review of Sarah F. Derbew’s UNTANGLING BLACKNESS IN GREEK ANTIQUITY

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. American baseball legend Yogi Berra was supposedly talking about how he gets to his house, but this Berra-ism applies to Classical studies and Ancient history as well.

The origins of Classical studies and Ancient history are similar to those of history in general. White European men of the eighteenth century studied the past in search of their own reflection. Some of them searched among the civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean and believed they found it in the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Fast forward approximately 250 years, and their ideas are still with us. The mainstream view of the Ancients remains that of a prequel and model for Western hegemony.

The mainstream view of the Ancients continues to be represented among Classic scholars and Ancient historians; however, a shift has been happening over the past few decades, a shift that recently has picked up speed. Ancient Greek and Rome are no longer seen as the role models that we should base our own society upon. The Ancient Greeks were as influenced by Persia and Egypt as they were ingenious in their own inventions. The marble statues that the eighteenth-century founders of Classical studies used as evidence of Rome and Greece as white civilizations were in fact painted in gaudy colors. The Ancient world was a world of prejudice and slavery, but didn’t judge based on skin color.

The shift that is happening in Classical studies and Ancient history causes conflict among scholars. Meanwhile, the assault on the humanities that is ongoing in the United States at the moment means that flagship departments see their funding reduced or cut entirely. As a result, the fields of Classical studies and Ancient history are faced with an existential crisis. If the fields survive, what will they be?

Sarah F. Derbew’s book Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2022) clears a possible path forward. The book bursts out of the gate already in its introduction by taking to task bigoted and presentist interpretations of skin color in the Ancient world by scholars of the past as well as the present. Following the introduction is a chapter that analyzes the janiform, or two-faced, drinking cups known as kantharos that were used during symposia, or drinking parties, in Ancient Athens. Derbew’s analysis of the racialization of these cups by scholars of later times slices and dices their bigoted projections with such precision that nothing but strips are left when she is done. Derbew then sets her sights on how to read ancient literary texts such as the Lucian satires and Heliodorus’s novel Aithiopika in the twenty-first century.

The book’s theoretical framework is that of Critical Race Theory. Though mainly a theoretical framework to help explain how modern American society is shaped by perceptions of race and ethnicity, Derbew shows how Critical Race Theory can be used for a twenty-first century reading of ancient literature, thus ensuring its continued relevance while simultaneously steering Classical studies and Ancient history further down the path away from their racist roots.

For historians Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity provides little new information. Throughout the book, Derbew concludes what is already known: in the Ancient world skin color did not carry meaning when categorizing people. On the other hand, for the deconstruction of modern racist projections onto the Ancient world and for the future study of Ancient literature, Derbew’s contribution is invaluable.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 5: Foreword Reviews

It’s been a while since I did a round up of the books I have reviewed recently for Foreword Reviews. The novels that are included in the round up this time couldn’t be more different, from meditations on the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah, to trolling Marcel Proust, to presenting a new take on a nineteenth-century murder.

Enjoy!

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the July/August 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.

Lisa Solod, Shivah (Jaded Ibis Press, 2022)

“In Lisa Solod’s novel Shivah, family relationships are turned upside down after an abusive matriarch is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. During shivah—the seven-day period of Jewish mourning that follows the death of a close family member—each day is designated its own focus to help with the mourning process. Inspired by this custom, the novel is divided into seven chapters, one for each day. It is steeped in Jewish spirituality, numerology, and theology, and it turns the commandment of honoring your parents inside out. Returning to the same situations, but from different perspectives each time, Leah struggles with questions of how to honor a parent who never honored her children; how to mourn the cognitive loss of a parent who never showed her true self; and how to hold someone accountable when that person has no memory of their actions.”

Hermann Burger, Adrian Nathan West (transl.), Brenner (Archipelago, 2022)

“Hermann Burger’s Brenner is an autobiographical novel about childhood traumas and the pleasures of smoking a cigar. Hermann Arbogast Brenner is the heir to a Swiss tobacco empire who is approaching his own end. Wrapping up his affairs, Brenner drives in his newly purchased sports car to visit friends in the Swiss countryside. He wants to talk about life while also smoking his way through a case of cigars. In a mocking celebration of Marcel Proust and his madeleine cookie-triggered involuntary memory, Brenner chooses which cigar to smoke in the hope of conjuring a particular event. Complicated but rewarding (just like a fine cigar), the novel Brenner takes its time to get to where it is going.”

Steve Sem-Sandberg, Saskia Vogel (transl.), W. (The Overlook Press, 2022)

W. is an immersive, intricate historical novel about the alienation experienced by those who struggle to find their places in life. Inspired by George Büchner’s play “Woyzeck,” about a man who murders his wife and is driven insane by medical experiments, the novel also offers a possible backstory to the play’s real-life protagonist, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Johanna, in 1824. It involves both research and speculation as it sets Woyzeck on his adventures across Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, and Russia, all in search of a place to fit in.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian I shall return.

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Interview with Heather Camlot for Foreword Reviews

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Camlot, author of The Prisoner and the Writer, for Foreword Reviews. The Prisoner and the Writer is a children’s book that tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair, an antisemitic scandal that rocked France during the final years of the nineteenth century. The interview has been given a powerful introduction by editor-in-chief Matt Sutherland.

If you want to read my interview with Heather Camlot, please click here.

If you want to read my review of Heather Camlot’s The Prisoner and the Writer, please click here.

Enjoy!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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One for the Money, Two for the Show. Or, Why Do We Write Our Blogs, Anyway?

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

As I have mentioned before, at the beginning of this year (2022), I decided to write one blog post per week as an experiment. I wanted to see what a weekly writing habit could do for my craft as a writer. I also wanted to see if I could increase traffic to the blog by adding more content.

We are now halfway through the month of August, which means that I have been blogging nearly once a week for eight and a half months. I say nearly, because there have been five weeks across these months when I did not post anything on the blog, and one week when I posted twice. It has now been more than half a year, and I can start seeing some early results.

Let’s look at traffic first. The idea is that the more content you put out there, the more attention your are going to get. Is that true? Yes and no.

Yes, the total number of views on the blog has gone up because I have been blogging more. And no, because even though I have been blogging more and the total number of views has increased as a result, the average number of views per individual post is nearly the same. There is an increase, but the increase is so slight it is negligible. This average per post includes posts that are old as well as new.

This year I invested in an upgrade of my blog platform for the first time. I wanted to see if an upgrade could help increase the blog’s reach.

This year I invested in an upgrade of my blog platform for the first time. I wanted to see if an upgrade could help increase the blog’s reach. Since I started The Boomerang in 2013, I have been using the free version of WordPress. In February of 2022, I paid an annual platform fee for the first time. So far, though, it has been a poor return on investment. Yes, I now have access to Google Analytics, and I am able to add payment buttons to each post for those who wish to support The Boomerang with a small financial contribution (see below), but apart from that, not much has changed.

What about craft, then?

Craft is where I can see that something has changed. I started writing blog posts on The Boomerang in 2013. In 2014, I got my first freelance gig as a recurring contributor to Book Riot. In other words, I have been writing more or less constantly for nine years. Freelancing is mostly a side job to my regular job as instructor at Florida International University, but at times, it has been my main source of income.

This summer, I worked on the submission package that I will use when I query the Codex Gigas book project. I was surprised by how easy the writing process went. Yes, I did get very concerned when the proposal refused to come together, but I didn’t panic, because I found the solution to the problem, and steered the text in that direction instead. Writing the sample chapter was a breeze, which was wholly unexpected. One more thing: I discovered that I have developed a voice.

I am convinced that all of that came together they way it did because I have been writing one blog post every week since January. Every Friday morning, I have written something and published it. Some mornings I had to force myself, other mornings the words came easy. Some weeks, the blog post was written before Friday (spoiler: I am writing this on Thursday August 18, 2022). And some weeks, I decided to take a break. Forcing yourself to be creative when you don’t have to can be as counterproductive as not being creative at all.

As writers, we are bombarded with advice on what to do with our blogs, and why we should start one if we don’t have one. What this advice always boils down to is how to monetize our blogs, how to become rich on our blogs, as if that is a blog’s only purpose. I went into the project of writing one blog post a week influenced by this advice.

As writers, we are bombarded with advice on what to do with our blogs, and why we should start one if we don’t have one. What this advice always boils down to is how to monetize our blogs, how to become rich on our blogs, as if that is a blog’s only purpose. I went into the project of writing one blog post a week influenced by this advice.

However, sometime during the spring, I realized that I don’t care about the money when it comes to The Boomerang. (Don’t get me wrong. I do care about money when it comes to freelance writing, but I don’t work for free for anyone else but myself.) Nor do I care about the number of views on each post.

Once I realized this, I added a new catch phrase to the blog banner. In addition to “Understand History, Understand the World,” the banner now says “Thinking Out Loud with Erika Harlitz-Kern, PhD and Historian-at-Large.” Because that is what I do, and that is what I am. By expressing my thoughts out loud in writing for anyone in the world to read (according to the Stats and Insights, readers of The Boomerang really do live all over the world), I found my voice; I found a way to write even when my mind is blank; and I found a way to wiggle myself out of the corners I sometimes write myself into.

To summarize, I write this blog for me. Here is where I express my thoughts the way I want to express them. It is only when we write for no one else but ourselves that we develop our voice. Because when we write for ourselves, we set the rules, we set the tone, we decide the parameters.

The Boomerang will not make me rich, but it is making me a better writer. And isn’t that what we all really strive for?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Apples, Oranges, and Totalitarian Eugenics. A Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s HOMO DEUS

What does it mean to present something new? What does it mean when someone is appointed the spokesperson of an age?

Does it mean that the anointed one is saying something that has never been said before? Or, does it mean that what is being said is the same old stuff but in new packaging and those who believe in the status quo lap it up as further validation of their beliefs?

These are the questions that I ask myself after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. At the back of the book, critics rave about Harari as a rod for the Zeitgeist and his uncanny ability to predict where human civilization is going. After finishing this book, I agree with none of that. If Harari is a rod for the Zeitgeist and able to predict where humanity is headed, we are in trouble.

Harari’s thesis in Homo Deus is that famine, plague, and war has prevented humanity from realizing its full potential, but now in the twenty-first century when these three are about to be eradicated, humanity will move on to pursue the goals of immortality, happiness, and divinity. The goal is to make ourselves immortal. To upgrade ourselves from Homo sapiens to Homo deus. We will achieve this upgrade through biomechanical engineering, that is through the indefinite postponement of death.

The first couple of chapters of Homo deus are thought-worthy discussions where Harari sets up the parameters of his argument. The idea that we can change the future by abandoning how history has been written in the past is a compelling one and charts out a direction for twenty-first century historians working to save the discipline from its own sordid past. The discussion on how human’s fear of death drives creativity, compassion, and ingenuity is also interesting, although not particularly groundbreaking.

The purpose of these early discussions is for Harari to set the stage for an in-depth discussion about how human beings are biological machines who can, and should, be engineered for optimal performance. The premise here is that human beings do not have a soul. That is to say, Harari dehumanizes human beings by claiming that there is no humanity to them, only biology. Because humans beings are only biology, they are not sentient. What we perceive as consciousness are neurological responses to external stimuli. Conclusion: Non-sentient beings can be experimented upon without ethical implications.

As the book progresses, it becomes evident why Harari spends so much time removing humanity from human kind. Because what Harari ends up advocating for in our future is the engineering of humans. That is to say, Harari is an advocate for eugenics on a scale never seen before.

The future that Harari predicts is based on his own worldview, which by the end of the book has revealed itself as anti-democratic, anti-human rights, pro-eugenics, pro-totalitarianism, and racist. What began as an interesting discussion on how to change history writing as we move into the future has at the end morphed into a screed against liberalism as a political ideology, the complete dehumanization of humanity, and the promotion of the opaque, ill-defined new religion of Dataism.

To get there, Harari engages in hypotheticals of the type if-so-then-this, which are never backed up by evidence. The analytical leaps he takes are gigantic. The language is consistently vague. The comparisons are in the vein of comparing apples and oranges. Historical facts are either misrepresented so that liberal achievements are turned into socialist achievements or plain misunderstandings of history, period. Singapore is called a successful no-nonsense city state, the Soviet Union is called mighty, conquest and colonization of other (read: Black and Brown) civilizations is a good thing, and Hitler was right in principle but wrong in method.

Homo Deus is an incoherent argument in favor of eugenics, totalitarianism, and colonization. View anyone who agrees with this book with great suspicion, and whatever you do, keep them away from your human and civil rights.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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