Interview: Denise Eileen McCoskey

 In Eos Luminaries

Eos Luminaries is an interview series featuring conversations with scholars and teachers of classics and classical receptions. Today’s installment comes from Denise Eileen McCoskey, who is Professor of Classics and Affiliate in Black World Studies at Miami University (Ohio).

Like many classicists, I have taught and done research on a wide range of authors and topics over the years. My dissertation was actually on gender and narrative in Propertius (still my favorite ancient author) and I have a deep affinity for Greek tragedy; every time I teach tragedy I am blown away by my students’ responses to it and especially their fearlessness in grappling with its terrors and complexity.

The most significant research area for me has been around the concept of race in antiquity. My book Race: Antiquity and its Legacy (2012) makes the case for the necessity of using the concept of race in ancient studies. The book itself was the culmination of a lot of ideas and teaching experiences I’d had over the years, and I’m still working to answer some of the questions it posed. My interest in race in antiquity has led me more recently to do some writing for online venues like Eidolon that speak to audiences beyond academia, and that has been tremendously satisfying.

I found myself telling my mom recently that my greatest wish was that my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Mitchell, could see my race book and know how much of an impact he had on me. I had no idea I felt that way until I said it out loud!

In graduate school, I had the unbelievable luck of becoming part of an interdisciplinary group of graduate students at Duke who were deeply involved in various projects related to race, power and identity in their home departments. This was at the time when critical race theory was emerging, and all the late-night conversations with these friends exploded my sense of the kinds of questions we could and should be asking about the classical world. So, even as I loved working on Propertius from a feminist perspective, I emerged from graduate school with a whole set of questions about race that I knew I wanted to place at the center of my practice as a scholar.

I wish we did more to demystify the process of academic publishing, so I just want to add that, even though I knew I wanted to integrate questions about race into my teaching and research, it took me a long time—a lot of reading and a lot of hits and misses—to work out effective approaches for doing that. In that way, I was very lucky that the opportunity to write a book about race came at the right time for me, and not any earlier, when I don’t think I would have been ready for the challenge. I remain eternally grateful to the people who made that book possible, especially the series editor Phiroze Vasunia and those who supported it with their comments and advice during the review stage. By far the hardest part for me in writing the book was working out its structure, figuring out how to bring together cogently all the questions and case-studies I’d been accumulating over the years. So when I had finally sketched out a plan for laying it all out, it was like I could breathe again—but then I actually had to do all the work to fill it in.

This answer changes all the time (!), but one text I have been particularly struck by this year is Cicero’s Pro Fonteio. I teach it in my race and ethnicity class, and one of the central arguments made by Cicero (to paraphrase: we can’t trust witnesses from Gaul to tell the truth in Roman courts because we have committed so much systemic violence against them) provoked a lot of comment from my students given current conversations about race, authority and the American justice system.

I have to say that I also love teaching the Iliad and especially the character of Achilles to introductory classics students. Achilles is so not what students, especially male students, expect of a “Greek warrior” (or “killing machine,” as they often imagine him coming into the class). I find it extremely moving to hear them process critically yet compassionately not only the difficult and often problematic things Achilles does, but also the broad emotional terrain he traverses in such a painfully exposed way. I always wonder if this will be the year my students remain only “meh” about Achilles—but it never is. It amazes me how much they care about him, and they like him even better when they see how the poem actually portrays him. Their responses to him become even richer and more personal, moreover, when followed later in the class by discussion of Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.

There’s a lot going on right now that inspires me, but I would have to single out the work of Sarah Derbew. Sarah is not only working to map the important and evolving role of ancient Aithiopians in ancient Greek ideology, but is doing so by bringing together a breathtaking range of ancient and modern texts. One of the things that has seemed increasingly essential to me (especially given my own encounters with interdisciplinarity) is identifying the wide range of structures of thought and practice we might use as classical historians in trying to make sense of the ancient Mediterranean in all its diversity. Anthropology and comparative ethnography, of course, have long had an important role in classical studies, but Sarah’s ability to weave together the insights of critical race theory, African literature and art, African American history, and ancient Greek textuality is truly eye-opening.

For a long time, the standard response to my work was simply “we don’t use the terminology of ‘race’ in classics.” There were lots of reasons for this, including widespread adoption of the label “ethnicity.” But the notion that race was (and, by implication, always had been) irrelevant to the study of antiquity really grated on me, and the more it was said, the more I adhered to the terminology of race in my own work. At the same time, even though I was convinced there was something deeper going on that needed to be exposed, I wasn’t sure that I personally wanted to undertake in-depth research in the history of classical scholarship, especially since Martin Bernal’s Black Athena had already provided a preliminary sketch of some of the ways ideas about race and racism had informed the rise of classics as a professional discipline. (The cause-effect relationship between Bernal’s work and the repression of the word “race” in classical studies is a much larger story.)

Eventually, when a whole range of exciting scholarship, especially in the area of classical reception, began demonstrating in even greater detail and nuance the complex engagement of classics and classicism with the concept of race, I thought it would let me off the hook. But I found I couldn’t really let go of the feeling that I needed myself to help connect the dots and so I have recently taken up a long-deferred project on the role of eugenics in early 20th century American classical scholarship.

I think the most important advice I can give, especially when it comes to white students and scholars, is to listen carefully and be open to criticism, including when it comes to how you are framing ideas and especially when it comes from a place of insight and instruction. I know from personal experience that it can be absolutely excruciating to hear, for example, that you have expressed something in thoughtless or even racist ways when you feel your intention is deeply anti-racist. But it’s so important not to make that moment about you: don’t argue or try to explain what you “meant,” just shut up and listen. Then take that feedback to heart and make the changes that will help strengthen your teaching and research and make you a better advocate not only for the study of race, but also for greater equity and inclusion in the field of classics itself.

The other thing I would say is that allies come in all shapes and sizes, and they can constantly surprise you. Be open to it. My dissertation adviser, Lawrence Richardson, jr was one of the smartest, kindest and most decent people I have ever known. Although he never conducted research on race per se, he never, ever policed how I was supposed to think “as a classicist”—and that freedom and the trust he had in me made all sorts of things possible.

I think classics has become much more open to re-thinking what is “worth” studying or asking about the ancient world since I received my degree. I have to admit that over the years I have often felt quite alienated from classics as a discipline (in fact, I often preface my opinions about the ancient world to colleagues in other departments with the caveat that “I’m not really a ‘proper classicist’”). I am very fortunate that I had, from the beginning, an affiliation with Black World Studies at my home university, and it is no exaggeration to say that those colleagues played a major role in helping me survive the early years, not least by inspiring me to stay true to the work I wanted to do. I should add, as well, that I received strong support from my own department for my early publishing in interdisciplinary venues—a stance I’m not sure many other classics departments would have been willing to take at the time.

So it is extremely heartening to see how much the lines have shifted since then, meaning not just that rising scholars are doing amazing work in areas like identity studies and classical reception (two of the most marginalized areas previously), but also that such work is increasingly being valued and, indeed, acknowledged as critical to the survival of classics.

I’m especially gratified by the ways scholars in these areas are staking out intellectual communities and making more visible the networks that support and sustain them (like Eos!). I was recently at a panel celebrating the groundbreaking work of Emily Greenwood, and she made the point that intellectual work, especially for those who feel devalued or isolated, is made possible in large part by those key moments when you find other people who share your preoccupations and questions, people you can’t wait to speak back to and learn more from. She also underlined (I’m paraphrasing here!) that it’s those encounters that make you want to raise your game in all the best ways. So it’s important not just to find people you are comfortable with and gain support from, but to use those relationships as a challenge and grounds for thinking “how can I do this work even better?”

Finally, I want to acknowledge that, as with most other fields in the humanities, we in classics are facing a truly daunting task in trying to reshape what we do in terms of disciplinary practice even as the university itself is radically shifting in the roles it assigns faculty and its understanding of its larger social and economic purpose. I don’t really have a clear answer on what all that will mean, but it’s crucial, I think, to recognize the enormous intellectual and emotional labor that will take. I sincerely hope that my generation will be able to get the process started well, but we need to acknowledge as a field that much of the burden will fall on junior scholars, contingent faculty, and current graduate students. I hope we find ways to give them the foundations and support they will need so that they can thrive and feel part of something they are proud of.

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