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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