Classica Africana:
The Influence of Classical Studies on People of African Descent*

Michele Valerie Ronnick

It is time for scholars and educators to look beyond the Martin Bernal - Mary Lefkowitz debate, and turn toward other types of research. One of these new approaches is Classica Africana, a name patterned upon Meyer Reinhold’s pioneering book Classica Americana (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), which examined the impact of classics upon eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. The new subfield sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and looks at 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 (1). The past 400-500 years offer us many noteworthy examples of people of African descent who used their knowledge of classical studies in their creative and/or professional lives. This terra incognita of intellectual inquiry is worthy of attention today and tomorrow.

William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926) was America’s first professional classicist of African descent. His First Lessons in Greek was published in 1881.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907) one of the first women of African descent to serve on a college faculty, and was made preceptress of English and Latin at Wilberforce University in 1865.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) taught Cicero’s Pro Archia to students in rural Tennessee in 1886, and served as chair of the classics department at Wilberforce University from 1894 to 1896.

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) American poet, received special honors in Latin at New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School in 1922.

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) an early American poet, learned Latin, and translated portions of the poet Ovid.

Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) in her book Dust Tracks on the Road, described how she first drew attention to herself in grade school by reading the story of Pluto and Persephone aloud with zest and accuracy.

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) before his career as a novelist and businessman, taught himself to read Latin. His daughter, Helen M. Chesnutt, was a Latin teacher in Cleveland, Ohio.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) an American poet, says that he was inspired by his high school Latin teacher.

Sarah "Sadie" Delany (1889-1999) studied Greek at Saint Augustine’s School in North Carolina with Professor Charles Boyer.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) tutored the son of his football coach at Rutgers, G. Foster Sanford Jr., in Latin and set the stage for Sanford’s excellent record in Latin at the University of Pennsylvania.

This note is a reprinting of a pamphlet of the same name recently issued by the National Committee for Latin and Greek.

1. On which cf. Stanley Burstein, "The Debate Over Black Athena," Scholia 5 (1996) 3-16. The works are: M. Bernal, Black Athena, 2 vols., (New Brunswick, NJ, 1981-1991) and M. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa (New York, 1996) and Black Athena Revisited , eds. M. Lefkowitz and G. Rogers (Chapel Hill, 1996).

Further bibliography: Joy King, "Dr. Ruth Cave Flowers," Classical Outlook 74 (Winter, 1996) 59-60; Michele Valerie Ronnick , "Three Nineteenth-Century Classicists of African Descent," Scholia 6 (1997) 11-18; Michele Valerie Ronnick, "William Sanders Scarborough: The First Professional Classicist of African Descent," The Negro Educational Review 47 (1996) 162-168; Judith de Luce, "Classics in Historically Black Colleges and Universities," American Classical League Newsletter 21 (Winter, 1999) 10-12.

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