“Black classicism” is the study of black scholars, writers, and artists who deliberately engage with and extend the classical tradition, as well as the creative and intellectual production by those scholars and writers. Michelle Valerie Ronnick coined the term Classica Africana in 1996 to describe, in short, “the influence of classical studies on people of African descent.” Classica Africana includes those in the nineteenth century who studied and read classical literatures and languages, Greek and Latin, the students of standard formal American education as influenced by the British liberal arts system, neoclassical or black classicist writing, and, to a lesser degree, the traces of classical literatures common to popular memory.
This course introduces the long history of Black Classicist literatures. Since Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the very first publication by an African American in the United States, black writers have engaged with classical works by Greek and Roman authors. During this class, we will read selections from Black Classicist writers and the referent texts (in translation). We will explore the variety of fiction and poetry from Phillis Wheatley, Ovid, Pauline E. Hopkins, Charles Chesnutt, Euripides, as well as more recent work by Toni Morrison, Donika Kelly, and Kwame Dawes & Matthew Shenoda. As a class, we will create our own set of unique inquiries and explore the answers to, at least, the following questions: How do “the classics” inform the stories by African American authors? What kinds of capital do classical themes, plotlines, and symbolism create for black classicist writers? What assumptions can we make about black authors who rewrite classical works? In what ways are those assumptions affirmed and exploded through our semester-long literary inquiry? In what ways does black classicism alter the way we understand the classical texts to which it refers?