In their memo ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’ from 1968, the lecturers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (then known as James Ngũgĩ), Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong spearheaded an educational revolution at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Eager to sweep out the vestiges of British colonialism from the university’s English Department, they proposed abolishing it, to be replaced with ‘a Department of African Literature and Languages’. They also suggested a revised curriculum that emphasised the centrality of Africa via the study of its oral and written literature, art and drama.
Building on this manifesto for literary emancipation, Ngũgĩ later drew attention to the immense significance of the written language in his essay collection Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature(1986). Here, the Kenyan scholar bid farewell to the English language as his literary medium and vowed to write all future works in Swahili and his native Gĩkũyũ. Instead of espousing colonial languages on the African continent, Ngũgĩ urged fellow African writers to develop literature in their mother tongues.
Snapshots from Ngũgĩ’s career underline the real-life stakes of liberation work. After Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, Ngũgĩ worked with Kenyan farmers at the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre to create plays that interrogated unchecked political control in their country. Soon after the 1977 performance of Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want, 1977) – a play co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, about a crumbling love affair between a poor woman and the son of her wealthy landlord – Kenyan government officials arrested Ngũgĩ. Following his release from prison and protracted exile, he returned to Nairobi and survived a violent assault.
These glimpses into Ngũgĩ’s life lay bare the challenging position in which writers who seek to revamp lopsided archives find themselves. These archives are, to quote Saidiya Hartman in ‘Venus in Two Acts’ (2008), ‘asterisk[s] in the grand narrative of history’, and writers-cum-archivists determine their parameters. Those who are not invested in liberation work may believe that they can produce impartial and authoritative additions to these archives, but it is reckless to presume that writers’ lived experiences do not affect their output. Writers cannot step outside of their historical present any more than they can step outside of their bodies.
Ngũgĩ’s work highlights the benefits of identifying biases and rectifying gaps in imbalanced archives. Nonetheless, there are consequences associated with such initiatives. For instance, while recent scholars such as Donna Zuckerberg and Sarah Bond have received praise for calling to task racist ideologies masquerading as relics of Greco-Roman antiquity, they have also had death threats in response to Zuckerberg’s book on white supremacist receptions of Roman imperial history and Bond’s research on polychromy on ancient Greek sculptures. Such vitriol reminds invested parties that there remains a need for a vast community of thinkers who are willing to apply precision and equity to their research. Only those who examine their convictions to ensure that they are not perpetuating prejudices can help move the needle forward.
For the field of ancient Greek and Roman studies, unchecked subjective biases can all too easily lead to literary colonialism, as is the case in Grace Hadley Beardsley’s The Negro in Greek and Roman Civilization: A Study of the Ethiopian Type (1929). Corrosive ideology has also entered the public sphere, as is apparent in the appropriation of ancient Greek and Roman history by hate groups. Intent on countering these mishandlings of the past, I have elsewhere spoken and written about diverse representations of blackness in Greek antiquity. Continuing to channel Ngũgĩ’s liberation work, I explore ancient portrayals of black people from a variety of locations. The subsequent tracing of blackness in ancient Crete, ancient Nubia and ancient Greece unsettles the hierarchy that tends to emerge in discussions of the past. In particular, the privileging of some histories (read: European) over others (read: African) in the academic and public spheres have unfairly monopolised the parameters of ‘antiquity’.
Geopolitical renderings of blackness that overlay ancient countries onto modern maps with no regard for historical context promote neocolonial narratives. Moving away from these subjective hierarchies, I champion an examination of ancient blackness based on themes, such military might and travel. This approach offers alternative ways of looking at skin colour that does not reproduce the virulent narrative of anti-Black racism. As part of my interrogation of my own historical context, I have also thought carefully about the orthography of blackness I use in this piece. I have adopted a referential practice in which I shift between lowercase ‘black’ and uppercase ‘Black’. Lowercase ‘black’ denotes people with black skin colour and phenotypic features including full lips, curly hair and a broad nose in ancient art, while uppercase ‘Black’ refers to a modern, socially constructed group of people whose melanin is merely one of its distinguishing traits.
One of the earliest known depictions of black people outside of Africa appears on the wall of the ancient royal palace of Knossos in Crete. Under the auspices of King Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete whose name eventually became the label for an entire community, the mythical architect Daedalus is said to have constructed the earliest iteration of Knossos. A 20th-century reconstruction of this palace, which flourished in various forms between 1,700 BCE and 1,400 BCE, features the ‘Captain of the Blacks’ fresco, as it is popularly known, depicting three figures in flight. From left to right, three men run in close succession. They bear almost complete resemblance to each other, except for skin colour and height: the two men in the rear have black skin and are taller than the leader of the trio, who has brown skin. These bare-chested men wear skirts with a striped trim and two bands around each ankle. The shorter man in the scene holds two long, narrow objects in his right hand, and wears a feather in his hair. […]
Edited bySam Dresser
Continue reading: How does an ancient Greek cup challenge anti-Black racism? | Aeon Essays