Grappling with the classics: Elitist or universal?

Should colleges ditch the classics to make room for more diverse literature? To Anika Prather, these ancient works are vital to understanding Black history.

Courtesy of Dr. Anika Prather
Dr. Anika Prather argues that the classics are relevant today because they include the language to fight for equality

Should colleges teach the classics? To some, the Greek and Roman canon is for elitists whose idea of small talk is to quote Pliny the Younger in Latin. 

But for Anika Prather, these ancient works are vital to understanding Black history. That’s why she’s dismayed that Howard University, where she teaches, is dissolving its classics department. The historically Black university in Washington, D.C., says it’s resetting priorities as student demands shift. At the same time, some worry that the texts are an intellectual bulwark for white supremacy.

“The issue is not classics,” Dr. Prather says. “The issue is how people teach them.”

Her course, Blacks in Classical Studies, reveals that diversity was always in the original texts – from Terence, the Roman African playwright, to the multicultural influence of Ethiopians and Egyptians on Plutarch and Herodotus. 

At one time, Dr. Prather’s attitude toward the classics might have been to say, “It’s all Greek to me.” That changed when she came across “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois. In one of the book’s essays, the civil rights leader talks about summoning Aristotle and Aurelius.

“I was like, ‘Wait – he reads classics,’” she recalls. “I began to see a constant pattern of Black activists, writers, abolitionists reading classics.”

Dr. Prather’s course traces how the canon influenced the likes of Nat Turner, Anna J. Cooper, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The professor recalls taking a class of students to tour Frederick Douglass’ house and discovering a bust of Cicero in the parlor. Douglass’ autobiography includes a treatise on the influence of the ancient philosophers. “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder,” wrote the famous abolitionist.

Dr. Prather says her students understood the power of the canon once they realized that their ancestors read the classics to fight for their freedom. Far from being elitist, the texts remain relevant today because they include the language to fight for equality. 

Anyone can claim that the classics are about them, she adds. But that misses the broader view: The classics encompass all of us. The search for beauty, truth, and virtue isn’t elitist – it’s universal.

When Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” it made him want to free Black people, Dr. Prather says. But then she goes even further: “We all need to be set free. White people, Black people. I want us all to come out of our caves and look at each other in the light and see our common humanity.”

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