Interview: Eric Ashley Hairston
Welcome to our new interview series, Eos Luminaries, featuring conversations with scholars and teachers of Africana classical receptions. Our first installment comes from Eric Ashley Hairston, Associate Professor of English and of Law and Humanities at Elon University, Director of the Law and Humanities Center at Elon, and member of the Eos advisory board.
Now this is a long story, and I allude to it in the preface to The Ebony Column. I was blessed early on with two exceptional libraries, my grandmother’s four-shelf bookcase with books from United Methodist discipline to high school English textbooks to various poetry texts. My favorite was a collection of drama that included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida among others. I was fascinated by the classical world and its intrigue, and I wanted to learn more.
The same can be said of my parents’ larger library, which merged both sides of the family’s deep humanities and STEM backgrounds. Many of those books came from the segregated African American high school that my father attended. The story is that upon discerning that it could not escape integration, the county began discarding and burning many of the books from the African American high school’s library. My father and others got frantic phone calls about the burning and drove to the school to rescue as many books as they could. Among them were some of the great classics of African American literature, as well as a host of American and European humanities texts.
The worst thing that those who ordered the burning could have done was try to destroy that library, because it forced those books off the shelves and directly into the houses of the people, and I have enjoyed every minute of using that same knowledge to correct and intervene in the telling of our shared cultural and intellectual history.
So, as a child, when I put together Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid, Aesop’s Fables, Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and Shakespeare’s plays with Frederick Douglass’ speeches, Christian theological commentaries, Phillis Wheatley’s poems and various references to Africa, Africans, and classical figures between and among those texts, I knew something was up. There were too many connections for them to be accidental.
Early on, I was just reading the cool battle scenes in Homer and Virgil, which were just as exciting to me as reading who King David or Joshua happened to be laying low in Sunday School class and church. I spent many afternoons imbibing those stories.
When Memnon showed up for battle on the plains of Troy, Aeneas dallied in Carthage, Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian battled it out in Egypt, when Poseidon partied with the dark Ethiopians who were split between East and West, or when Wheatley compared her lyric to that of Homer and Virgil, that was the sort of literary magic that intrigued a little African American boy surprised to see himself seemingly represented in these old works or at least made him feel justified in exploring them.
The impetus for study that I don’t address in the book is more diffuse and harder to pin down. That was the stunning propensity for people of the black community in Piedmont North Carolina, where I am from, to deploy the most heavily classicized language that I have ever heard.
I found it difficult to imagine how people in that era seemed to have so many Greek and Latin phrases, names, and references embedded in their conversations. They dropped from lips that spoke formal English and reflected academic degrees as well as various dialects of the rural black South. They came from lifelong farmers and mothers, grandmothers, and aunts canning vegetables for the winter. They were almost as common as religious references, even from those allegedly without a complete grade school education.
The more I burrowed in, the more I understood how much early education that emphasized recitation and memorization and used big C and little c “classical” modes of oratory and texts infused the classics into the community. Additionally, the South’s propensity for imagining itself as a classical outpost reinforced the cultural circulation of the classics.
So, as a child, about the 20th time your desire for an expensive item is met with “you must think I’m King Midas!” or the minute you hear a flamboyant dresser read from the front porch with “Look at Helen of Troy going yonder,” you get the sense that something is up. That was always in the back of my mind as something I just had to get to the bottom of.
So, I took all of this cultural history and personal love of the subject matter to Wake Forest University and ran into Allen Mandelbaum, the storied translator and, more importantly for me, a life-changing and mind-expanding teacher and mentor. Under his tutelage many of the pieces of this complex world of classical influence began to fall into place, and I started to become a scholar of the realm of work that would become Africana receptions.
Graduate school at the University of Virginia deepened my understanding in literary theory and the complexity of literary history, while increasing my ability to discern the currents of influence and craft the critical arguments suited for professional scholarship. Law school at the University of North Carolina allowed me to see, among other things, both how many historic African American figures pursuing justice, equity, and civil rights were trained in the classics and linked with my understanding of how many writers were trained in the law.
That unique, composite perspective across African Americans’ intellectual history and political and legal trajectory sealed my fate, so to speak.
What I enjoy the most, as a humanist, is demonstrating how these ancient texts, which built civilizations and chronicled their rise and demise, contributed to building African American civilization as well. Without reigniting old culture war era discussions about textual origins, I will say that I found it poetic that stories and ideas that hailed from the world before the intentional denigration of Africa and Africans came back around to revive and energize the intellectual and cultural lives of Africans in America and in part helped fuel resistance.
Equally enjoyable to me is my long-term research goal of recovering and explicating classical influences in the body of African American literary production that we have lost sight of and revealing the even more profound richness of African-American literary history.
The most challenging thing about this work is the resistance of minds, inside and outside academe, dedicated to imagining the classical world and this idea of the “West” as the exclusive cultural property and legacy of Europeans and Euro-Americans, all facts and evidence aside. This manifests itself in the raised eyebrows of colleagues who wonder if Africana receptions is some kind of “identity politics in academe” scam. It is in those who wonder why you won’t stop researching and just be happy to teach some “black courses.”
There are many others who chafe at hearing of classical illusions in a non-white text, a rereading, an origin tracing, or a philological retranslation of a passage that upsets comfortable assumptions about the classical world and who it belongs to. This is sometimes a function of racism, and many people have commented on that problem, but it is also an issue for some African Americans, who may wish to see black authenticity as excluding what they see as such thoroughly Western or white elements and thereby jettisoning whole galaxies within the universe of blackness.
By ignoring or rejecting the classics, we lose just about all of Wheatley and whole chunks of Douglass, Du Bois, Cooper, Toomer, Larsen, Hurston, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett and on and on. That doesn’t even count artists like Aaron Douglas or Edmonia Lewis or Meta Warwick Fuller.
So this means that in an African-American literature course or an American literature course, all parties can often be somewhat invested in a black voice that begins with plantation violence and the protesting call of a black man in a slave narrative and not, with all “beginnings” understood to be artificial, with a young, gifted and black colonial slave woman who has a knack for Latin, access to some amazing texts, a wonderfully inconvenient commentary on liberty, a wickedly talented lyric pen, and the cheek to write poetic lines to King George III and George Washington.
I have come to love teaching The Odyssey, both in classical literature courses and in those specifically dedicated to Africana receptions. My students in my last classical literature class asked me this same question, and I responded that understandings of texts evolve for us all, and that early on in my career and early on in my experience with the classics, I was fascinated with the battle epics, the wars, the quest for virtue and for empire.
Then as the gray hair stole over my head and life imparted some additional wisdom, I began to appreciate battered Odysseus far more and see the influence of the Odyssey resonating more in the works I studied and taught. This is part of journeying within the changing and challenging world of 20th and 21st century academe so long as well. As one student quipped “ah, ‘the old campaigner.’”
In the words of my childhood piano teacher after I finished a piece for her with what I thought was perfect execution and understanding . . . “Again!”
Read everything . . . again.
I would also say to read with a broader idea of the classics, including what we might call the global humanities. Even if you are focused on the Africana receptions of Greece and Rome, be aware that black writers and artists and other thinkers certainly didn’t stop at the borders of the empire.
It is worthwhile, if not essential, to consider the epics, philosophy, political treatises, mythologies and pantheon of the broader world. Returning to Mediterranean realm reception after broader exploration always sharpens my vision and refreshes my thinking about texts and themes.
Well, when I began to work seriously on reception in graduate school, it was very lonely. Now it isn’t that there weren’t some people out there who had been doing this work for a while. Clearly there were some, but there was no network that I could find as a newcomer. It wasn’t always as easy as typing in classica africana or Africana receptions into a search engine.
One sought insight and guidance from anyone who loved the classics or loved African American literature and hoped not to offend either the traditional classical philologists or the African Americanists who might prefer you wrote on a more popular theme.
The network of people that is growing and the body of scholarship that is developing represent a boon to developing scholars in this area and to this interdisciplinary field as a whole that cannot be underestimated. One must have mentors and competing voices that make you say “Oh, I didn’t see that!” and “Have you ever thought about this?”
That was the great benefit my relationship with the late John C. Shields, that we challenged each other and read for each other and even disagreed with each other, in person and at least once in print. He made me more aggressive in my arguments and I filed off the razor sharp edges of some of his prose. He introduced me to people and I introduced others to him.
And, those moments don’t have to be long-term or complex. They can be brief but meaningful exchanges of knowledge that are organic and free of some of our profession’s pretense and distance. I’ll never forget Cornel West taking time on a visit to UVA to let me as a grad student briefly walk with him and discuss Lucretius (and Richard Pryor), nor Houston Baker sitting down in a Durham, N.C. coffeeshop to reflect on the impact of an old teacher of his who was committed to the classics.
We all need that collegial challenge and exchange, and those who are newer to the field need the great-hearted, and I emphasize that, great-hearted mentorship and relationship with those who have experience – in the discipline(s) and in the broader challenge of living an academic life and career.
Of the many voices that need to be heard on this question, I will offer my individual suggestion that we need to meet together regularly, share knowledge, shepherd new voices and advance our colleagues’ work, get that work out into forums for our interdisciplinary field and into conversation in existing disciplinary forums and try to do so with a spirit that deepens and sustains our field of study and enriches all related fields of study by intellectually and practically diversifying scholarly research, pedagogy and practice.