Race, America, and Ancient Greece
April 7, 2022 @ 7:00 pm EDT Eastern Time
360 Concord Street
Charleston, SC 29401 United States
Sponsored by: Archaeological Institute of America
AIA Society: South Carolina (Charleston)
Lecturer: Christopher Stedman Parmenter
Few concepts loom as large in contemporary American life as race. Emphatically called “neither a stable nor consistent” construct by the sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the last few years have nonetheless seen race reimagined as an explanatory and even autonomous fixture of public-facing historiography, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning (2016) or Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project (2019). Race is an essential part of our national narrative, and from this angle it is not surprising that scholars have turned to ancient Greece in search of its prehistory. The greatest monuments of this approach are a series of monographs published by the great African American classicist Frank M. Snowden, Jr. in the 1970-80s, who argued that ancient Greeks had very similar ideas of race as contemporary Americans—but crucially lacked any feelings of racism.
This talk explores how scholars have located the origin of America’s racial consciousness in antiquity over the past century. I focus particularly on Snowden, who over his very long career bridged the gap between the white supremacist scholarship of the early twentieth century and the emergence of Afrocentrism in the 1970-80s. Along the way, we will approach several fundamental questions: did the Greeks have anything like a concept of ‘race’ on their own? Is it possible to understand Greek ideas of race outside the lens of American racial history? And to what extent are our own narratives of race in antiquity shaped by contemporary experiences of racism, capitalism, and empire?