After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana

After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana – includes bibliography

Michele Valerie Ronnick

by Michele Valerie Ronnick Associate Professor, Department of Classics, Greek, and Latin Wayne State University

It is time for scholars and educators to look beyond the personalized and specific focus of the Martin Bernal-Mary Lefkowitz debate, and turn toward additional types of research in this area of African studies.(1) One of these new approaches should rightly be called Classica Africana, a name I have patterned upon the pioneering book by Meyer Reinhold entitled Classica Americana (1984) concerning the impact of the classics upon 18th and 19th century America. The new subfield of Classica Africana sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the classical tradition of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and examines 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.(2) A recent panel presented at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association (APA) used this approach to examine the work of five African Americans who used their knowledge of classics in their creative and/or professional lives.

The widespread, yet rudimentary, acquaintance among the reading public with certain aspects of the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate attests to the fact that the work of these scholars has stimulated a strong, and perhaps a truly enduring interest in the question of classical antiquity, classical studies and people of African descent. If cultivated with care by students, teachers and educated lay persons, this interest should generate in the next few years the production of other sorts of original scholarship. There are, in fact, a number of other questions to be asked and other methodologies to be applied.(3)

I here offer a brief selection of ideas that merit further investigation on both the high school and university level. They vary in scope, some are rather comprehensive, some less so. Some involve reassessment of old material in the light of modern theory and new approaches like cultural studies. Others demand the skills of historians, archivists, and biographers. All revolve around the interrelationship between the classics and people of African descent. I hope they stimulate you to begin, continue or extend your interest in this terra incognita of intellectual inquiry.

The Latin Learning of Two Figures from Europe

Here gathered is a trio of men whose work falls into the area known as Neo-Latin: Latin written after the classical period, specifically that of the Renaissance through modern times, or the 14th-20th centuries.

Juan Latino, Fifteenth Century Celebrity (1516- c.1606)(4)

Juan was born in 1516 probably in Guinea, and came to Spain at the age of 12. His mother served the daughter of a famous general, Gonzalo Fernandez, in Cordoba. In 1530 when Juan was 14 they moved to Granada and he became the attendant of the six-year-old Duke of Sessa. He carried the Duke’s books and studied with him in classes in the cathedral school and then later at the newly founded University of Granada.

From the start he showed promise in Latin–hence his name Latino–and became known throughout the city not only for his learning, but also for his skills as a musician and for his wit and graceful ways. He took his B.A. in 1546 at Granada and his M.A. in 1556. During this time he was charged with giving Latin lessons to the daughter of the duke’s estate manager, Dona Ana, and the pair fell in love. Out of this incident sprang instant celebrity. Lope de Vega described it in his play La Dama Boba (Act 2, scene 21). Similarly moved by the situation, Diego Jimenez de Enciso wrote in 1652 an entire play entitled La Famosa Comedia de Juan Latino, and Cervantes mocked his Latin learning in one of the dedicatory poems in the preface to Don Quixote. The couple did in fact wed and had a total of four children.

In 1565 Juan was given the very high honor of addressing in Latin the members of the university at the opening exercises of its academic year. His extant work includes: Carmen Austrias, an epic poem describing Don John of Austria’s victory over the Turks at Lepanto; de translatione, a 600-line poem to King Philip that describes the establishment of a new family crypt at El Escorial and the transference of various royal bodies thereto; a 12-page poem on the burial of Gonzalo Fernandez, his mother’s master; and a transcription of the Latin epitaph he wrote for the stone marker over his and his wife’s grave.

Anthony William Amo, University Man (1703- c. 1760)(5)

The second figure Antony William Amo was born on the coast of Guinea about 1703, and was brought to Amsterdam in 1707. Thanks to aristocratic patronage he was allowed to study there. In 1727 he began work at Halle University and graduated in 1729 with training in the law. The essay he wrote in Latin for his doctorate in 1730 de jure Maurorum in Europa is now lost.

In 1733 he led the students’ procession in honor of Augustus the Strong, Elector and King of Poland. In 1734 Amo had his work de humanae mentis apatheia published in Wittenburg. He returned to Halle in 1736 as a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg. There he played a part in German enlightenment philosophy, and published, in 1738, a metaphysical essay Tractatus de arte sobrie et accurate philosophandi. In 1739 Amo moved on to Jena University, and thereafter back to his birthplace. Final mention of him is found in the memoirs of David Henry Gallandat who visited Amo in 1753.

Writers, Preachers, and Artists in America

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) and the Classics(6)

Born with the name of Countee Leroy, Cullen lived most of his early life in New York City with Elizabeth Porter, who may have been his maternal grandmother. At age fifteen he was taken in by the Reverend and Mrs. Frederick Cullen who gave him their name and every advantage they could. He attended De Witt Clinton High School, which was at that time one of the best public schools in the city, where the future poet flourished socially and academically. He was elected to the school’s honor society, Arista, and received special honors at his graduation in 1922 for his performance in a number of subjects including Latin.

Among his mature writings are some classically based poems, Cordium, Endymion, Medusa and a verse adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. This classical connection has been ignored by critics in general, and by classicists entirely until now. In a paper presented at the American Philological Association’s annual meeting at the end of 1996, Professor Edmund P. Cueva of Xavier University presented the preliminary results of his study of Cullen’s play. (7) Cullen’s drama according to Cueva reveals his sense of exile and artistic alienation, a theme that Arthur P. Davis says pervades both Cullen’s work, and that of the Harlem Renaissance in general, as well as Cullen’s feelings about his bitter divorce from the daughter of one of the leading intellectuals of his day, W.E.B. Du Bois.(8)

Graeco-Roman Word Patterns in the Writing of Reverend Lemuel B. Haynes (1753-1833)(9)

Lemuel B. Haynes was born of mixed ancestry in 1753. He was virtually abandoned and never knew who in fact gave him his name. At the age of 21 at the end of his indentureship in 1774 he enlisted as a minute man. Upon his discharge in 1779 he began serious study of Greek and Latin at the hand of a pastor for whom he labored in exchange for lessons. In 1804 he received from Middlebury College the first honorary Master of Arts degree bestowed upon an African American.

Haynes’ prodigious memory and penchant for long oral recitation carried him through his studies; he became a pastor in Connecticut in 1785. His powerful sermons, a number of which are extant, further brought him fame. The scholar Janheinz Jahn said about Haynes’ work in 1968 that “it would be a useful task to try and find all the Africanisms in the `Negro Sermon’ of that era.”(10) I here suggest that one might also find it useful in the light of Haynes background to look for Grecisms and Latinisms as well.

Classical Style in the Sculpture of Mary Edmonia Lewis, (c. 1843-c. 1913)(11)

Born in 1843 in Albany, NY of Chippewa and African American descent, Mary Edmonia Lewis spent her youth with her mother’s tribe. In 1859 her brother enrolled her in the liberal arts program at Oberlin College. After two and a half years there, she left in 1862 under a cloud of unproven accusations that she was a poisoner and a thief. The single drawing we have from the period is The Muse Urania which she did as a wedding present for a classmate, and shows early her interest in the antique female form.

She spent the years 1862-1864 in Boston and made the acquaintance of William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist. Barely out of her teens, she then journeyed to Rome and supported herself sculpting pieces in the classical style at her studio near the Piazza Barberini. Harriet Hosmer, the neo-classical sculptor, welcomed her during her stay.

The artist Lewis is credited with banging a fresh approach to neo-classical sculpture by treating the theme of universal human rights. Among her works are Poor Cupid done in 1876 and The Death of Cleopatra in 1876. Both the date and place of Lewis’ death are unknown. Although a number of her pieces have been lost or exist yet unidentified, some of them can be viewed at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.

Scholars and Teachers in the United States

Classics in the Curriculum of the Major Black Schools and Colleges during the Nineteenth Century

Fierce debate developed in post civil war America over the issue of education for the newly freed slaves. While many educators followed the goals of teaching practical and technical skills that Booker T. Washington advocated, a large and vocal number disagreed and fought vigorously in support of a full liberal arts curriculum that included the study of Greek and Latin.(12) Looming large among the schools that championed the study of classics from an early date are Oberlin founded in 1833; Wilberforce College founded in 1856; Morehouse College founded in 1867 as the Augusta Baptist Institute; Fisk founded in 1866;(13) Howard University founded in 1867; and Atlanta University founded in 1867 and merged in 1988 with Clark College, a liberal arts school founded in 1869.(14) An examination of the position and the persons involved in classical studies at each of these institutions treated. either separately or synthesized into a larger whole, is needed.

Both women’s colleges and secondary schools faced the same schism between the practical and liberal arts curriculum; the question remained an uncertain and volatile one for a number of years. In 1852, for example, the Society of Friends set up in Philadelphia the first coeducational classical high school, the Institute for Colored Youth. On the other hand, as the founders of Spelman opened the school in 1881, they never agonized over the need to offer their black female students a classical education. Their primary aim was to provide training for teachers, missionaries, church workers and homemakers.

As a result of colleges and universities like those mentioned above, strong teachers were produced and among them emerged certain powerful women who provided leadership on the secondary school level in various places in the country. One such place was Washington, DC. District women such as Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), Mary Church Terrell (18631954), and Francis Jackson Coppin (1837-1913) have been the subject of research by Professor Shelley Haley at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Others have, however, gone unsung. Compiled below are a few women whose lives and careers lie silently unrevealed amid archival materials.

Teachers at the Palmer Memorial Institute, Sedalia NC, and the Classics(16)

The founder of the Institute, Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883-1961) was approached as a young girl in Cambridge Massachusetts, while pushing a baby carriage and juggling a copy of Virgil by Alice Freeman Palmer, a friend of one of Charlotte’s mentors. Wife of the Harvard professor George Herbert Palmer, Alice Freeman Palmer was the second president of Wellesley. She helped Charlotte gain admission and find tuition to pay for classes at Salem Normal School. But Charlotte, who had wanted to attend Radcliffe, was unhappy there. And so at the age of 19, she moved to North Carolina and began teaching for the American Missionary Association.

There she set up the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, and for 50 years as headmistress was a stickler for proper behavior. Her book The Correct Thing to Do to Say and to Wear, first published in 1941, was reissued as part of a new book of her collected works. On her staff for some years was Hilda Andrea Davis (1905-n.d.) who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree -magna cum laude- in English and Latin at Howard University in 1925, an M.A. Radcliffe in 1932, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Human Development. She was the director of girls activities. and a teacher of English and Latin from 1925 to 1931 before joining the faculty of Shaw University.

Sarah Jane Woodson Early, University Professor (1825-1907) (17)

Born in Ohio in 1825. Sarah Early earned her B.A. at Oberlin in 1856 and became one of the first African American women to obtain a college degree. Three years later she set another record when she was hired by Wilberforce University, thereby becoming the first African American woman on the faculty of an American university. During this same period she taught in secondary schools in the area. In 1865 she was appointed as the Preceptress of English and Latin at Wilberforce, a post she held until to 1868. That year she left Ohio with her husband, the Reverend Jordan Early, for a new life in the South: part of which she detailed in her 1894 book The Life and Labors of Rev. J. W. Early.

Biography of William S. Scarborough (1852-1926)(18)

Among the members of the APA in the latter half of the 19th century were several men of African American descent. One of these, William S. Scarborough, was the first to successfully pursue a lifetime career in the classics according to the standards recognized today, namely affiliation on the national level, attendance at meetings and an active publication record. For other African Americans were teaching Greek and Latin at the university level with success, but their activities were confined to the classroom. Men such as W.H. Crogman (1841-1931) at Clark and Wiley Lane (n.d.-1885) at Howard had university careers and students who remembered them.(19)

Scarborough was born in 1852 with the status of a slave in Macon, Georgia to a woman owned by the household of Colonel William de Graffereid whose humane values allowed her to marry and live independently in her own home. As a boy, Scarborough was encouraged to study both the practical and liberal arts, but he preferred the liberal. After the Civil War with B.A. and M.A. degrees in hand from Atlanta University and Oberlin College, respectively, Scarborough began teaching Greek and Latin at Wilberforce University. From 1877-1892, he rose to distinction by publishing First Lessons in Greek, a text that according to his obituary in the New York Times made him “the first member of his race to prepare a Greek textbook suitable for university use.”

During this period he contributed over twenty pieces to Transactions of the American Philological Association, the official publication of the organization. Many of these were summaries of papers he had presented at meetings of the APA. Five years before his death in 1921, he represented the APA in England at the Classical Association Meeting in Cambridge University. He also worked tirelessly to advance the cause of liberal arts especially Greek and Latin in African American education. In 1894 academic politics drove him from Wilberforce for two years. W.E.B. Du Bois was hired to take Scarborough’s place. Du Bois’ strong background in classics, one that dated back to his high school days in Massachusetts, equipped him to serve as professor of Greek and chair of the department from 1894 to 1896 at which time Scarborough returned, and remained until his death.

The Career of John Hope (1868-1936)(21)

Hope was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1868, the son of a woman whose own mother had been emancipated and a man of Scottish descent, James Hope. Enrolled in the local school system, Hope fell under the sway of the educator Lucy Craft Laney who inspired him with his first love of the classics. Later at Worcester Academy he joyfully studied Greek and Latin with the principal Mr. Abercrombie.

Having gone on to Brown University, Hope kept up his classical studies under the eye of Albert Harkness and John Larkin Lincoln. There he met fellow student John Wesley Gilbert who had just returned from a fellowship year in Greece. Gilbert’s M.A. thesis entitled “The Demes of Attica” marked him out as the first African American to have earned a master’s degree at Brown. Upon Hope’s graduation in 1894, he accepted a post at Roger Williams University in Nashville to teach Greek, Latin and natural sciences. There he proved himself to be a brilliant teacher.

He moved on to the Atlanta Baptist College and continued teaching the classical languages. One of Hope’s former students later said about his Greek classes that he “taught everything from Homer to table manners,” for Hope was known for seeing language and literature as vital substances.

In 1906 he became the school’s president and remained in place when the school reorganized as Morehouse College in 1913. In 1929 he became president of Atlanta University and ran both schools until 1931. His love of the classics pervaded his life. On a trip to Europe during which he visited cities such as Rome, Pompeii and Athens, he likened his journey to Troy through the Hellespont “to a home-coming to one of the oldest countries of my mind which from boyhood I had scanned with my mind’s eyes.”(22)

The Advent of Classical Scholarship by or about African Americans

I close with a final idea that involves the commitment to perform a good deal of reading in sources such as the catalog of the Schomburg collection or indices such as Jean Fagin Yellen produced for the Crisis. This is the examination and subsequent establishment of a bibliography that covers scholarship by or about classics and people of African descent in both classical and non-classical journals.(23) A glimpse of this approach can be seen in the work of Ben Azikizwe (1934) and David Dorsey (1946) which examined Greek mythology from an African point of view.(24)

My own preliminary investigation has located the numerous philological articles of William Scarborough published in TAPA, noting in particular his “The Negro Element in Fiction,” TAPA 21 (1890) 42-44 and “Notes on the Function of Modern Languages in Africa,” TAPA 27(1896) 47-49, as well as work in nonclassical serials and newspapers such as The Methodist Review, The Educator, The American Negro Academy, The London Times, The AME Review, The Manchester Guardian, The Forum, The Arena and Current History.(25)

A thorough study of this topic clarifying the who, what, where, when, and whys would allow us to distinguish important patterns and trends in this new area called Classica Africana, and further establish that the classical heritage is a significant part of the black experience in America and the western world.


(1.) See Martin Bernal, Black Athena, 2 vols. (New Brunswick: New Jersey, 1987-1991); Mary Leflkowitz, Not Out of Africa (New York: Basic Books, 1996); and Black Athena Revisited, eds. Mary R. Leflkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1996). The publications that have resulted from the debate sparked by these two scholars is enormous. Among the most recent are Martin Bernal, “The Afrocentric Interpretation of History: Bernal Replies to Leffkowitz,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 11 (Spring, 1996): 86-94; Jasper Griffin, “Anxieties of Influence,” New York Review of Books 43 (Jun. 20, 1996); 67-73; and R.S. Boynton, “The Bernaliad: A Portrait of Martin Bernal,” Lingua Franca 7 (Nov., 1996): 42-50.

(2.) See for example Michele Valerie Ronnick, “The Latin Quotations in the Correspondence of Edward Wilmot Blyden,” Negro Educational Review 46 (1994): 101-106.

(3.) The panel, “Classica Africana: The Graeco-Roman Heritage and People of African- American Descent,” consisted of five papers presented in this order: Denise McCoskey, “`An Inclination for the Latin Tongue’: The Classical Education of Phillis Wheatley;” Shelley Haley, “A Peculiar Triangle” Nineteenth Century Black American Women, `The Gentelman’s Course,’ and the Civic Ideal;” Edmund Cueva, “The Medea of Countee Cullen;” Michele Valerie Ronnick, “William Sanders Scarborough: The First Professional Classicist of Afro-American Descent;” and Joy King, “`An Incurably Perennial Student’: Ruth Cave Flowers (Fairview H.S., Boulder, CO, “American Philological Association, Abstracts of the One Hundred Twenty Eighth Annual Meeting, December 27-30, 1996, New York City, New York (Worcester, MA: American Philological Association, 1996), 252-256.

(4.) V.B. Spratlin, Juan Latino, Slave and Humanist (New York: Spinner Press, 1938), 1-35; O.R. Dathorne, “Two Black Latin Poets,” Black Orpheus 21 (1967): 53-56; Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 30-34.

(5.) Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature, 3839; Burchard Brentjes, E. Thaler, R. Benersdorff eds., Antonius Guilelmus Amo Afte Aus Axim in Ghana, (Halle, Saale: Martin Luther Universitat Halle-Wittenburg, 1968).

(6.) Arthur P. Davis, “Countee Cullen,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography, eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (New York: Norton, 1982), 148-151; Twentieth Century American Literature, gen. ed. Alan Bloom (New York: Chelsea, 1985), 2. 896-902.

(7.) See Cueva’s abstract, “The Medea of Countee Cullen” (note 3 above), 255.

(8.) See Alan Shucard, “Countee Cullen,” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Writers before the Harlem Renaissance, vol. 51, ed. Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research, 1987), 37.

(9.) Rayford W. Logan, “Haynes, Lemuel,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography (note 7 above), 300-301; Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author in America (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1964), 117-126.

(10.) Hahn, Neo-African Literature (note 5 above), 129.

(11.) Linda Roscoe Hartigan, “Lewis, Mary Edmonia,” Black Women in America, 2 vols., eds. Darleen Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Bloomington: Indiana State UP, 1993), vol. 1, 716-719; Stephen May, “Succeeding Against the Odds: Recognition at Last for Edmonia Lewis,” Sculpture Review 44 (1995): 6-12.

(12.) See Michele Valerie Ronnick, “`A Pick Instead of Greek and Latin:’ The African-American Quest for Useful Knowledge, 1881-1920,” Negro Educational Review 47 (1996): 60-73.

(13.) Hellenist Adam K. Spence who left the University of Michigan in 1870 to head Fisk helped set up the curriculum at Fisk.

(14.) John Fairchild, Oberlin: The Colony and the College, 1833-1883 (New York: Garland, 1984); Addie Butler, The Distinctive Black College (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1927); Joe Richardson, A History of Fisk College (University: University of Alabama, 1980); Rayford W. Logan, Howard University, the First Hundred Years, 1867-1967 (New York: New York University, 1969); Clarence Bacote, The Story of Atlanta University (Atlanta: Atlanta University, 1969).

(15.) “Cooper, Anna Julia Haywood,” Leona C. Gabel, From Slavery to the Sorbonne and Beyond: The Life and Writings of Anna J. Cooper, Smith College Studies in History, no. 49 (Northampton, MA, Department of History of Smith College, 1982); Linda M. Perkins, “Coppin, Fanny Jackson,” Black Women in America, (note 11 above), vol. 1, 281-283; Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World, (Washington, DC: Ransdell, 1940) passim.

(16.) Sadie Iola Daniel, “Charlotte Brown Hawkins,” Women Builders, Rev. Charles H. Wesley and Thelma D. Perry (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1970), 137-167; Kathleen Thompson, “Brown, Charlotte Hawkins,” Black Women in America (note 11 above), vol. 1, 172-174; Charlotte Brown Hawkins, Mammy, An Appeal to the Heart of the South, The Correct Thing to Do and the Correct Thing to Say (New York: G.K. Hall, 1995); Patricia Bell-Scott, “Davis, Hilda,” Black Women in America (note 11 above), vol. 1, 309-311.

(17.) Ellen Lawson and Marlene Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women (New York: E. Mellen, 1984); Catherine Johnson, “Early, Sarah Jane Woodson,” Black Women in America (note 11 above), vol.1, 377.

(18.) Harry G. Villard, “Scarborough, William Saunders,” Dictionary of American Biography, 22 vole., ed. Dumas Malone, (New York: Scribner, 1946) vol. 8.409-410; Francis P. Weisenburger, “William Sanders Scarborough: Early Life and Years at Wilberforce,” Ohio History 71 (1961): 203-226; and “William Sanders Scarborough: Scholarship, The Negro, Religion and Politics,” Ohio History 72 (1962): 25-80; 8587; New York Times (Sept. 12, 1926).

(19.) For information on Howard University see Rayford W. Logan, Howard University, the First Hundred Years, 1867-1967 (note 13 above), 37-38; 95; 581.

(20.) John William Spaeth, Jr., Index. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vols. 1-100, 1870-1969 (London: William Clowes, 1971), 87.

(21.) Ridgely Torrence, The Story of John Hope (New York: Macmillan, 1948) passim; Rayford W. Logan, “Hope, John,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography (note 6 above), 321-325.

(22.) Torrence (see note 21 above), 267.

(23.) Dictionary of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History, 4 vols. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1972); and Jean Fagin Yellen, “An Index of Literary Materials in The Crisis, 1910-1934: Articles, Belles Lettres, and Book Reviews,” CLA Journal 14 (1971) 452-465.

(24.) Ben N. Azikizwe, “The Negro Element in Greek Mythology, Crisis 41 (1934): 65ff; and David F. Dorsey Jr., “Countee Cullen’s Use of Greek Mythology,” CLA Journal 73 (1969):

(25.) See the abstract on Scarborough (note 3 above) 254.

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