What follows is a letter to the Editors of The New Criterion from Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Assistant Professor of Classics at Princeton University, written in response to Solveig Lucia Gold’s July 13 online article, “The colorblind bard.” A response from Gold follows Professor Padilla’s letter.
To the Editors:
Once when we went to Europe, a rich old lady asked:
Have you no language of your own
no way of doing things
did you spend all those holidays
at England’s apron strings?
And coming down the Bellevueplatz
a bow-legged workman
said: This country’s getting pretty flat
with negres en Switzerland.
K. Braithwaite, “The emigrants” (1969)
On first looking into “The colorblind bard,” I felt like some watcher of the skies when an old planet swims into his ken. Heavier than the moodiness that settled over me as I saw myself turned into a signifying monkey was the tedium of having heard arguments of this style before—from proselytizers for “Western” culture and the “Western” canon who pretend that they do not see race, only ideas, even as their speech and discourse repeatedly betray them. A few months ago, at an end-of-year banquet for Princeton’s Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows, I mentioned to my audience that one deception frequently practiced on all academics, but especially those from underrepresented groups, is that professional accomplishment ultimately rides on individual merit and that this merit is adjudicated by dispassionately objective peers and elders. I should have added that another trap awaiting them was the fantasy of a “colorblind” world as the noblest ideal for humanistic learning and exchange.
I want my colleagues and students to see color because then, and only then, will they have a fighting chance of confronting with rigor and honesty the cruelties of historical effacement that have molded the discipline of Classics. This habit of effacement is, regrettably, very much on display in Solveig Lucia Gold’s essay, which sets the scene by describing a departmental town hall at which several participants “began to apologize for our discipline…” The tendency to label as an “apology” any effort to grapple, sincerely and bluntly, with the complicity of the humanities in forms of systemic oppression is a well-worn discursive gesture of the conservative commentariat, which has made a habit of mocking as snowflakes teachers and students for their refusal to embrace what by its reckoning should be considered sources of pride.
I take issue with Gold’s representation of the meeting and its participants as engaging in ritualized apologies (to whom, exactly?) because it distorts the far more searching dialogue about responsibility that animated the evening’s conversation: given the demographics of the field, the historical imbrications of Classics with forms of structural violence, and neo-Nazi/fascistic appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity, what new questions need to be posed and what new commitments need to be shouldered? Not a hint of this conversation about responsibility can be gleaned from Gold’s reminiscences of the town hall. That she perceived it as one sustained exercise in apologies speaks to her pre-existing ideological commitments. It’s fine to have such commitments (I have my own, obviously), but it is important to spell them out.
Absent from Gold’s profession of faith in the universality of Classics is even the most cursory historical introspection. This is a universality whose beneficent value is taken for granted, whose capacity for good is played up even as its history of human degradation and destruction is occluded—a familiar sight on Princeton’s campus, where a contrapposto bronze statue of the university’s sixth president that was installed in 2001 references his educational reforms by having his back leg lean against a stack of books (topped by a Cicero tome!) but studiously avoids any mention or allusion to his ownership of slaves in the accompanying inscriptional apparatus. “The colorblind bard” sells its readers on an imperial universality, consistent with those many other exhortations to humanistic learning under the sign of domination that pepper the historical record—and that gave juice to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. “We have, at times, failed miserably,” Gold writes, “committing grave evils that limit the ability of non-white and non-Christian men and women to partake in that striving.” The possibility that Gold does not acknowledge, that is ruled out entirely from her horizon of hermeneutic possibility, is that the relationship of the classical humanities to centuries of racialized violence might be more than merely epiphenomenal. On this issue I would encourage readers to spend a few afternoons with Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason.
How does it feel to be enumerated among the chosen host? A favorite phrase from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark sliced through my mind as I processed Gold’s essay: “the parasitical nature of white freedom.” And what keeps intriguing me is the degree to which such freedom cloaks itself in the language of universality even as it executes some very precise identifying gestures: imperium sine fine, always tracking its devictae gentes. Of course the person responsible for raising some of the most searing and challenging questions at the town hall had to be interpellated as Korean-American. Of course the person who confers upon the Princeton Classics department its credentializing aura of inclusivity had to be interpellated as a black Dominican.
Summoning people of color as proof that Classics is colorblind is as objectionable as it is vacuous, and not only because it smacks of the “I have black friends” defense. In addition to glossing over the complexities of negotiation and encounter between the field and the people whose communities have historically been denied access to its study—and whose communities have been on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by those drawing their inspiration from such study—this rhetorical strategy trivializes the pressures faced by people of color in Classics and related disciplines to validate themselves and their research in the face of persistent undermining. Not long ago, I was angered but unsurprised to hear a senior classicist deem the target-of-opportunity/diversity protocol that had been employed to hire me at Princeton inferior to a regular search: the latter, this classicist opined, gave a far richer sense of the field and of the excellent work being done in it. Second-guessing one of the few tools available to universities that hope to diversify their faculties (and by implication second-guessing the qualifications of those who are hired through this tool’s application) is another variation on that charming game—which would be risible if it weren’t so corrosive—of pitting the corpus mysticum of “excellence” against diversity.
This glib dichotomy is catnip for those professional gatekeepers whose ministrations at the altar of objectivized and depersonalized knowledge have blinded them to the importance of embodied perspectives. Last fall, in response to a short piece I wrote for the New York Times on the importance of incorporating immigration studies into high school curricula, a Breitbart article went up alleging that I was hell-bent on indoctrination. If only I could be serenely confident that I have been practicing this successfully: my students say the darndest things, many of which are completely at variance with the interpretive approaches I prefer or the situational-knowledge philosophy that underpins them… In any event, I bring up the Breitbart article not to hammer away at its (unintentionally hilarious) mischaracterizations but to flag a post left behind in the comment-den of threat-mongers and paranoiacs—one voice to my defense!
“He is a good classicist, but his social and cultural opinions, always stated with a broad brush, are somewhat different than his academic work and are considered peripheral to the field of classics, not a part of it.”
This post gave me the giggles (“always stated with a broad brush” had me laughing for days). What I want more than anything else is to slay the idea that one can be a “good classicist” in a hermetic container, and to shove into the deepest precincts of Hades the fantasy that Classics can be practiced at a comfortable remove from social and cultural situatedness. Donna Zuckerberg has sounded the clarion-call to be a good classicist under a bad emperor. Heeding that call, I see as the culmination of my work in the field a full-bodied ethics of recognition, premised on the belief that our raced and gendered and classed selves are forever entwined with the production of knowledge; that these selves (and the force fields of power through which they are calibrated and fine-tuned) cannot be wished or willed away but ought instead to be centered and acknowledged; and that any project seeking to subsume these variegated identities under a monolithic universalism is to be resisted at all costs.
* * *
This response was essentially complete when the events in Charlottesville forced me to re-open the file and make a few modifications. Still reeling from the death-dealing toxicity of the neo-Nazis who assembled at Charlottesville—and from the succor provided to them by a president whose white-supremacist enthusiasms are now as glaring as day—I have grown even more uncompromising in my opposition to any vision of Classics as “universal” or “colorblind.” The “universal” designation I reject for the simple reason that there are some interpreters of Classics I want absolutely nothing to do with. While neo-Nazi appropriations of the fasces and other iconographic signifiers of Greco-Roman antiquity should be documented and studied (as students of reception are now doing), the practitioners of this species of appropriation must be categorically and unequivocally denounced. Moving forward, we must insist on the principle that not all appropriations of the Classics carry equal hermeneutic or moral weight. It must become a bedrock tenet of responsible inclusion to deny interpretive legitimacy and standing to those who by word and deed refuse to acknowledge the humanity of others.
Inasmuch as it participates in an analogous dialectic of refusal and denial, the ideal of colorblindness has no place in any conversation about the obligations of the humanities to racial justice. Next year will mark the 40th year of Justice Blackmun’s opinion in California v. Bakke, known best for the line “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race.” To the students of color who have confided to me their concerns about not seeing themselves in the field, I would never tell them that Classics is colorblind—because it is not. Gold’s call for a colorblind Classics simultaneously overlooks the discipline’s historical contributions to racial injustice and turns a blind eye to the contemporary configurations of racial power and (under)representation in the field.
What then must we do? We can do better than merely indulging white supremacists when they cite free speech as their cover for the insulting and debasing words through which they seek to reassert “the right to maintain subordination.” It is necessary, but not sufficient, to rally to the side of those who have argued for a multi-ethnic conception of classical antiquity, as many scholars did when Professor Mary Beard was recently hounded on Twitter. Simply dismissing alt-right interpretations of Greco-Roman texts as the equivalent of a few bad apples in an otherwise wholesome harvest will get us nowhere. There are centuries of whitewashing to rectify, and a multi-dimensional record of structural violence threading through Classics and the humanities to confront directly. The responsibility that falls on the shoulders of each and every person who has taken up the teaching or learning of Classics is to race the discipline. Here are a few guiding questions, intended as prompts for reflection and self-assessment:
What steps am I taking—in mentoring, teaching, and writing—to communicate a vigorously polyvocal and pluralistic conception of Greco-Roman antiquity?
What steps am I taking to ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds see themselves in Classics and its sister disciplines?
What steps am I taking to promote productive and meaningful dialogue between academic classicists and advocates for a fully inclusive vision of social justice? And to enable academic classicists to be advocates for social justice?
What steps am I taking to counter and reverse forms of appropriation that hitch Greco-Roman antiquity to claims about white supremacy?
On strategy and tactics alike there can and should be disagreement. But one thing I know for sure. I would never for a moment think of entrusting the promotion of an ambivalent, fraught, and rich Greco-Roman legacy to a presidency that has so far married an anti-intellectualism far exceeding Richard Hofstadter’s worst nightmares with the unapologetic implementation of a white-nationalist agenda.
Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Princeton, New Jersey
Solveig Gold replies:
When Dan-el Padilla Peralta proposed writing a response to “The colorblind bard,” my essay on the universality of Classics, I looked forward to engaging in a healthy debate with my former professor, a fellow New York private-school kid and Princeton Classics alum. I hoped that our in-person camaraderie and on-paper dissent would produce a compelling exchange—a model of friendly, rational discourse in an age when unapologetically left-leaning publications like the Classics journal Eidolon are actively discouraging online debate.
How disappointing, then, to read Padilla’s predictable, jargon-heavy diatribe, which is concerned far more with indulging his usual leftwing academic audience than with taking on the arguments actually presented in my article. Indeed, so extreme is his rhetoric that one may well wonder whether Padilla really read “The colorblind bard” at all.
Claiming that I have turned him into a “signifying monkey,” he writes, “Summoning people of color as proof that Classics is colorblind is as objectionable as it is vacuous, and not only because it smacks of the ‘I have black friends’ defense.” Really? I neither advocated a colorblind Classics nor cited Padilla as proof of said colorblindness. The word “colorblind” appears exactly once in “The colorblind bard”: the title. It is, I like to think, a catchy title that speaks to the way we must read the poetry of the “blind bard” Homer, whose identity (racial and otherwise) is entirely unknown to us—that is, color-blindly; it is not, however, an argument.
There are two separate but related arguments at play in “The colorblind bard”: Classics is not about white people and Classics does not belong to white people. The first is a question of how we read, the second, of who does the reading.
Classics is not about white people because the authors in our canon do not purport to be writing about white people. They and most of their characters may be white, but their stated goal is never to offer an account of the “white race,” an identity that would have meant nothing to them: it is to raise questions and tell stories that, they hope, grasp at truths transcending one place, period, or people.
Classics does not, in turn, belong to white people because those Classical authors succeeded in crafting texts with universal appeal: their questions and stories have moved and engaged readers of different colors well beyond Ancient Greece and Rome. To speak of universal appeal is to take note of those different colors—that is, not to be “colorblind”—and it is specifically in this context that I invoked Padilla’s name: he, a black, Dominican immigrant, evidently recognizes the appeal of the Classics as much as anyone.
I did not, however, invoke Padilla’s name in order to prove that, because Princeton’s Classics department has a black professor, the discipline of Classics is somehow colorblind or impermeable to racism—what Padilla calls the “‘I have black friends’ defense.” The discipline—that is, the teaching, reading, and/or interpreting of Classical texts—indisputably has a complicated history with racism and fascism, and I have never argued, as Padilla suggests, that we should sit “in a hermetic container” and pretend otherwise.
Indeed, the one pretending is Padilla, who thinks he can wish away the universality of Classics by denouncing certain readers, such as neo-Nazis, who have regrettably taken an interest in the subject: “The ‘universal’ designation I reject for the simple reason that there are some interpreters of Classics I want absolutely nothing to do with.” Never mind that the simultaneous interest of both neo-Nazis and social justice warriors in the Classics is itself proof of the ancient texts’ universality—Padilla does not want to engage in rational discourse with neo-Nazis, so he rejects their claim to the Classics under the banner of universality outright. Why we cannot denounce neo-Nazi interpretations and acknowledge Classics’ universality at the same time, Padilla does not say.
Perhaps it has something to do with his own, confused relationship with their interpretations. Padilla rejects my arguments that Classics is neither about nor belongs to white people. But who, traditionally, has claimed that Classics is about and belongs to white people? Nazis and antebellum slaveholders—precisely the “interpreters of Classics” whom Padilla says he wants “absolutely nothing to do with.” Does Padilla realize that, by denying the universality of Classics, he is, in fact, embracing and perpetuating the rhetoric of the interpreters he denounces?
Consumed by his self-described “moodiness” and “tedium,” Padilla has, it seems, lost sight of logic and, in so doing, entirely missed the point of “The colorblind bard.” I may not speak in social justice jargon, but I—supposedly an agent of the “conservative commentariat” complicit “in forms of systemic oppression”—am fundamentally engaged in the same task as Padilla: that is, I am taking steps “to ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds see themselves in Classics and its sister disciplines.”
I do so by rejecting the view that Classics, and Western Civilization more broadly, is white. Let me be clear: I am not trying to “whitewash” the discipline’s history—I believe that we, as scholars, should unhesitatingly confront the racial injustices tied to Classical reception; unlike Padilla, however, I do not think that those injustices should be what we first teach to prospective students of Classics. Students cannot confront the problems of Classical reception until they know what the Classical texts actually say, and they will not know what the texts actually say unless they read them. To entice students to partake in the Classical world, we should emphasize not the injustices, but the texts, which have a proven track record of appealing to readers of every background; once we have let the texts speak for themselves, then we can explore the darker side of Classical reception—the darker consequences of our subject’s universal appeal. Classics departments are small enough as is: if we believe that what we study is important, then we should focus on filling seats in our seminars so that more students may have the opportunity to see themselves in—and confront the legacy of—Classics.
Padilla’s strategy, by contrast, seems designed to drive students from underrepresented backgrounds away from Classics classes—what some might call raising the drawbridge after he has claimed the castle for himself. He, an Ivy League professor who writes for the New York Times, tells them, before they’ve even mastered the first declension, that Classics is a white subject and that they cannot possibly engage with it unless they do so qua systemically oppressed minority students. (They can, by the way: I’ve seen it firsthand with my own students in the South Bronx.) Just how, then, are these students ever to see themselves in the texts?
Perhaps Padilla’s rejection of universality is self-fulfilling: students from underrepresented backgrounds who otherwise would experience the universal appeal of Classics will instead find themselves wrongly oppressed by texts that were written not to oppress, but to set free—the texts of the artes liberales, “arts worthy of a free person.” The irony, which Padilla fails to see, is that this will not be a victory for the social justice warriors; this will be a victory for the white supremacists and for all those who would seek to keep Classics white.