Posted on February 8, 2021

He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?

Rachel Poser, New York Times, February 2, 2021

In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as “the incident.” Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of “Western civilization,” the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline “Every month is white history month.”

Padilla, a leading historian of Rome who teaches at Princeton and was born in the Dominican Republic, was one of the panelists that day. For several years, he has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms. Classics was a discipline around which the modern Western university grew, and Padilla believes that it has sown racism through the entirety of higher education. Last summer, after Princeton decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs, Padilla was a co-author of an open letter that pushed the university to do more. “We call upon the university to amplify its commitment to Black people,” it read, “and to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.” Surveying the damage done by people who lay claim to the classical tradition, Padilla argues, one can only conclude that classics has been instrumental to the invention of “whiteness” and its continued domination.

In recent years, like-minded classicists have come together to dispel harmful myths about antiquity. On social media and in journal articles and blog posts, they have clarified that contrary to right-wing propaganda, the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves “white,” and their marble sculptures, whose pale flesh has been fetishized since the 18th century, would often have been painted in antiquity. They have noted that in fifth-century-B.C. Athens, which has been celebrated as the birthplace of democracy, participation in politics was restricted to male citizens; thousands of enslaved people worked and died in silver mines south of the city, and custom dictated that upper-class women could not leave the house unless they were veiled and accompanied by a male relative. They have shown that the concept of Western civilization emerged as a euphemism for “white civilization” in the writing of men like Lothrop Stoddard, a Klansman and eugenicist. Some classicists have come around to the idea that their discipline forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy — a traumatic process one described to me as “reverse red-pilling” — but they are also starting to see an opportunity in their position. Because classics played a role in constructing whiteness, they believed, perhaps the field also had a role to play in its dismantling.

On the morning of the panel, Padilla stood out among his colleagues, as he always did. He sat in a crisp white shirt at the front of a large conference hall at a San Diego Marriott, where most of the attendees wore muted shades of gray. Over the course of 10 minutes, Padilla laid out an indictment of his field. “If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color,” he said, “one could not do better than what classics has done.” Padilla’s vision of classics’ complicity in systemic injustice is uncompromising, even by the standards of some of his allies. He has condemned the field as “equal parts vampire and cannibal” — a dangerous force that has been used to murder, enslave and subjugate. “He’s on record as saying that he’s not sure the discipline deserves a future,” Denis Feeney, a Latinist at Princeton, told me. Padilla believes that classics is so entangled with white supremacy as to be inseparable from it. “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity,” he has written, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.”

When Padilla ended his talk, the audience was invited to ask questions. Williams, an independent scholar from California, was one of the first to speak. She rose from her seat in the front row and adjusted a standing microphone that had been placed in the center of the room. “I’ll probably offend all of you,” she began. Rather than kowtowing to criticism, Williams said, “maybe we should start defending our discipline.” She protested that it was imperative to stand up for the classics as the political, literary and philosophical foundation of European and American culture: “It’s Western civilization. It matters because it’s the West.” Hadn’t classics given us the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy?

One panelist tried to interject, but Williams pressed on, her voice becoming harsh and staccato as the tide in the room moved against her. “I believe in merit. I don’t look at the color of the author.” She pointed a finger in Padilla’s direction. “You may have got your job because you’re Black,” Williams said, “but I would prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”

Discordant sounds went up from the crowd. Several people stood up from their seats and hovered around Williams at the microphone, seemingly unsure of whether or how to intervene. Padilla was smiling; it was the grimace of someone who, as he told me later, had been expecting something like this all along. At last, Williams ceded the microphone, and Padilla was able to speak. “Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”


After graduating as Princeton’s 2006 salutatorian, Padilla earned a master’s degree from Oxford and a doctorate from Stanford. By then, more scholars than ever were seeking to understand not only the elite men who had written the surviving works of Greek and Latin literature, but also the ancient people whose voices were mostly silent in the written record: women, the lower classes, enslaved people and immigrants. Courses on gender and race in antiquity were becoming common and proving popular with students, but it wasn’t yet clear whether their imprint on the discipline would last. “There are some in the field,” Ian Morris, an adviser of Padilla’s at Stanford, told me, “who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” Reformers had learned from the old debates around “Black Athena” — Martin Bernal’s trilogy positing African and Semitic influence on ancient Greek culture — just how resistant some of their colleagues were to acknowledging the field’s role in whitewashing antiquity. {snip}

Thinking of his family’s own history, Padilla became interested in Roman slavery. {snip}

By 2015, when Padilla arrived at the Columbia Society of Fellows as a postdoctoral researcher, classicists were no longer apologists for ancient slavery, but many doubted that the inner worlds of enslaved people were recoverable, because no firsthand account of slavery had survived the centuries. That answer did not satisfy Padilla. He had begun to study the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had shaped his mother’s mystical brand of Catholicism. María Elena moved through a world that was haunted by spirits, numinous presences who could give comfort and advice or demand sacrifice and appeasement. For a while, when Padilla was in high school, his mother invited a santero and his family to live with them at their Section 8 apartment in Harlem, where the man would conjure spirits that seethed at Padilla for his bad behavior. Padilla realized that his mother’s conception of the dead reminded him of the Romans’, which gave him an idea. In 2017, he published a paper in the journal Classical Antiquity that compared evidence from antiquity and the Black Atlantic to draw a more coherent picture of the religious life of the Roman enslaved. “It will not do merely to adopt a pose of ‘righteous indignation’ at the distortions and gaps in the archive,” he wrote. “There are tools available for the effective recovery of the religious experiences of the enslaved, provided we work with these tools carefully and honestly.”

Padilla began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition. As James Baldwin observed 35 years before, there was a price to the ticket. His earlier work on the Roman senatorial classes, which earned him a reputation as one of the best Roman historians of his generation, no longer moved him in the same way. Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and “Western civilization” had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he told me. {snip}


Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. {snip}Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.

To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether. {snip}


How these two old civilizations became central to American intellectual life is a story that begins not in antiquity, and not even in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment. Classics as we know it today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, as European universities emancipated themselves from the control of the church, the study of Greece and Rome gave the Continent its new, secular origin story. Greek and Latin writings emerged as a competitor to the Bible’s moral authority, which lent them a liberatory power. {snip}


Historians stress that such ideas cannot be separated from the discourses of nationalism, colorism and progress that were taking shape during the modern colonial period, as Europeans came into contact with other peoples and their traditions. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” Winkelmann wrote. While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below. {snip}


Over the centuries, thinkers as disparate as John Adams and Simone Weil have likened classical antiquity to a mirror. {snip}

To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” But if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up. “I would get rid of classics altogether,” Walter Scheidel, another of Padilla’s former advisers at Stanford, told me. “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”

One way to get rid of classics would be to dissolve its faculties and reassign their members to history, archaeology and language departments. But many classicists are advocating softer approaches to reforming the discipline, placing the emphasis on expanding its borders. Schools including Howard and Emory have integrated classics with Ancient Mediterranean studies, turning to look across the sea at Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa. The change is a declaration of purpose: to leave behind the hierarchies of the Enlightenment and to move back toward the Renaissance model of the ancient world as a place of diversity and mixture. “There’s a more interesting story to be told about the history of what we call the West, the history of humanity, without valorizing particular cultures in it,” said Josephine Quinn, a professor of ancient history at Oxford. “It seems to me the really crucial mover in history is always the relationship between people, between cultures.” Ian Morris put it more bluntly. “Classics is a Euro-American foundation myth,” Morris said to me. “Do we really want that sort of thing?”


Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”