Why we need to worry more about the cultural appropriation of the classics

Amid the general horror and distress of last fall’s Charlottesville Nazi rallies, I found one extra source of revulsion. In the background of one video clip of “alt-right” marchers, I heard the unmistakeable sound of bagpipes. I later read a tweet about one of protesters: “Jimmy Marr is known for hanging racist banners from highway overpasses in Oregon. He is here to play bagpipes. Threw up a Nazi salute.” Now, as you might guess from my name, I am partial to bagpipes. I am (or was) perfectly willing to admit my somewhat romanticized attachment to a part of my ancestry. The idea that Nazis could co-opt the sound of the highland clans seemed both ludicrous and unfair. But of course these kind of culture wars have happened before; literature and culture have often been co-opted by racist and ethnocentric narratives. This semester I am teaching the granddaddy of such material, a course in Greek & Roman literature. Never before have I felt so acutely the need to draw attention to and break the link between this material and any Euro-centric supremacists who may want to claim it as property. But it’s not an easy job.

Thanks to my mentor and predecessor, Charles Crupi, I have always begun this class with an exercise reminding students of the dangerous legacy of the term “classical,” which often implies a value judgement and its ethnocentric corollary: “our culture is better” (along with the duplicity of claiming ancient Mediterranean cultures as unambiguously “European”). This semester I am thinking hard about how to disentangle these toxic ideas from all the valuable, exciting, and engaging parts this material. The trouble is that one reason we still read this material is that it has been so frequently appropriated. It has in fact proved tremendously influential for Western literature and culture. And some ancient ideas certainly deserve to be valued rather than just studied. Take, for example, the famous phrase “Know thyself,” reputedly inscribed at Delphi. Yes, it may privilege autonomy, and it is certainly epistemologically naive, but it still seems like a good idea. Wouldn’t we all benefit from knowing ourselves better (our faults as well as our talents)?

Usually, however, things are much more messy. Recently my students had a conversation about the “golden hair” of the goddess Demeter. We mentioned the naturalistic argument that a grain goddess should be golden and also that a goddess of life and nurture should be “light,” especially since her daughter ends up as the consort of the god of death, imagined as dark and underworldly. But one student suggested that there’s an implicit racial argument. Others chimed in, saying that in an ancient world full of olive-skinned, dark haired people, Demeter’s golden hair was more supernatural than racial. And I could point out that although the ancient Greeks were capable of a high degree of xenophobia, they don’t seem to have engaged in a lot of skin-color-based racism. So the Hymn to Demeter was certainly not part of a racial narrative when it was created. But simply dismissing these concerns may not be the best idea, especially given our current climate. After all, we know that in Western history the value judgments innocently attached to lightness and darkness in early mythology do eventually play a part in the (much) later history of racism. It’s important, especially given our current climate, to take notice of the ways that the ideas and attitudes of ancient literature have been continually and often unconsciously re-appropriated, sometimes for good and sometimes not.

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