On a cold but sunny February Friday I returned to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to perform the Odyssey for a myth class.
I wrote about a previous performance at NIU almost two years ago and it holds up as a nice read.
I like playing NIU because (a lot like my shows at UIC which I wrote about here) the students tend to be racially diverse.
Because the meaning of my song (and any story) depends on how it is refracted through my audience, the more diverse the make up of the audience (age, race, religion, gender, sexual identity), the more complex, more interesting, and ultimately better the meaning of my song is.
I believe this phenomenon also applies to the field of Classics as a whole: the more diverse the make up of those teaching and studying Classics, the better it is.
It's not particularly revolutionary or controversial or threatening to suggest that the vast majority of scholarship around the Classics has been created and curated by white men.
I should add: I am a white male and beyond self-loathing I hold no particular animus towards white men (this very well might be an Odyssean lie).
I should also add that the more you dig into the Classics (and really, any similar discipline) the smaller the pile of things that can be considered objective truths gets. Everyone brings a bias to the material and there's nothing wrong with that as long as you are aware of it. Most of what we consider in Classics is by definition subjective because it's being filtered through a subject (a human being that is). And there's nothing wrong with that... as long as you acknowledge it.
But when you understand that the discipline has been largely filtered through one lens (or a number of similar lenses), I find it hard to not come to the conclusion that we should be actively encouraging and embracing diversity in every level of the Classics ecosystem. More diversity leads to more view points leads ultimately to more creative and better scholarship, which makes our discipline stronger and more interesting to more potential students.
Again, I have a hard time understanding why anyone would find this notion threatening unless he or she were insecure about his or her own abilities and ideas.
To demonstrate the value of applying different perspectives to Classics, let me tell a story about a show I played at the Hartford Classical Magnet School.
Hartford Classical Magnet School is 80% minority (so, majority minority) with most of that 80% being African American.
I performed there in 2014.
I will admit to some discomfort at being a white upper class male standing in front of a room of largely black lower income students. (My black friends are all laughing at me and saying "Haha! See how it feels?!!")
The show was really good. Afterwards I began leading a discussion with my normal prompts and fielding questions.
The first question, from an African-American 8th grader, was "Why did Poseidon keep Odysseus from getting home?"
I answered "Well he was punishing Odysseus for blinding Polyphemus the Cyclops."
The student responded: "He wasn't punishing Odysseus."
I had already turned to take another question but I stopped, turned back to him and stammered "Uh... what... what do you mean?"
The student calmly answered: "Poseidon isn't punishing Odysseus by keeping him from home: he's punishing his family."
The audience nodded almost in unison to the student's answer.
I felt the hair go up on the back of my neck. I pride myself in getting to the emotional core of the characters in the Odyssey, understanding how they might feel, and then helping modern audiences connect to these universal experiences... but this student and audience, by virtue of how the African-American experience in the United States has been entwined with mass incarceration, clearly had emotional insight into how punishing one family member punishes the whole family that I couldn't access until their reaction showed it to me, enriched the story even further for me, someone with a Classics degree who has read the poem dozens of times.
So when I step into a classroom like the one at NIU and see diversity in the audience, I know it's going to be a particularly rich show.
When I read about some of the folks I admire most in Classics taking a beating online and in the press for their courageous commitment to diversity, I think about how small-minded, insecure, and weak their critics are.
I think about how right now we should all be pulling in the same direction to strengthen our Classics community, we should be writing and thinking about Classics in new and creative ways (as we always have... for fuck's sake are we still studying Homer the same way we did in 1900?), engaging minds in the subject material in interesting ways, recruiting the incredible high school students at NJCL into college-level Greek 101 and other Classics classes... and instead of that we have to confront fear, narrow-mindedness, and outright racism and sexism and spend our precious energy repelling ignorance and bigotry.
I wish everyone in the Classics field could have experiences like I had at Hartford Classical Magnet: they are fulfilling but more than that they are humbling. They teach you that the material doesn't belong to you or anyone: it belongs to everyone and it always has.
And I hope in my lifetime I see Classics made available to as many people from as many places as possible because I know the discipline will be stronger for it.