I was only two years old when I first encountered Yale’s Classics Department — entirely by accident. My parents, recent immigrants to Newark, Connecticut from Taiwan, stumbled across Yale’s campus one autumn afternoon while taking me out for a walk. Enthralled by the panoply of striking Gothic architecture and completely unaware that they were standing in the middle of an Ivy League institution, they decided to take a picture in front of the most impressive edifice they found there. The result was an inexplicably prescient photo of my parents proudly lifting me in their arms before the imposing shape of Phelps Hall, as if offering their baby to the Classics Department.
Now that I am a Yale undergraduate pursuing a major in the Classics (and surrendering my body, soul and sanity to the department), that photo, showing my parents so excited in the country they’d made their new home, has taken on new meaning. After six years of studying the Classics, certain things cannot escape my notice — the absence of women and people of color in antiquity from “great works” canons, the frustrating elusiveness of women in primary-source texts about Classical civilization, the mere fragments of Sappho which are all that survive of a female Classical literary voice. I have been made aware of the history of Classical scholarship, which has long been dominated by white men, and of Classical reception, which has long been designated to reinforce conservative politics.
As often as I hear the familiar refrain that the Classics are “dead,” I hear women and people of color denouncing Classics as irredeemably “old,” “white” and “male.” To the modern mainstream, the civilizations of Greece and Rome exist as a distant monolith peopled by ancient white men whose outdated values are reproduced today on the lips of sexists, racists and elitists asserting their intellectual superiority. Many modern leftists reject the works of Cicero and Herodotus, conceiving of them as part of a Western discipline that inherently discriminates against the marginalized.
Sometimes, I still feel like an immigrant in the Classics.
Perhaps the greatest crime of the Western critical tradition is the political whitewashing it has applied to the Classics. Because conservatism in the West has traditionally identified itself closely with the Classics, those with different political standpoints have accordingly adopted a hostile attitude to Classical texts. But there is an important distinction to be made between the Classics and the constructs of antiquity developed by its scholarship. We forget that these constructs are not static and infallible, that they should be critiqued and questioned just like any other academic subject. We forget that the Hellenic and Roman worlds consciously coexisted with Asia and Africa. We forget the ancient presence of women and “people of color” who have been abandoned for so long by the political interests of the Western critical tradition and now again by the left.
I cannot describe the shiver of excitement I felt when I first read Euripides’s tragedy “Andromache” and realized that the titular character was, too, a female Asian immigrant. In Homer’s Iliad, she appears as the wife of the Trojan Hector. This play explores her disorientation — in all senses of the word — and enslavement after the Trojan War. Geographical differences between Taiwan and Asian Thebes notwithstanding, I felt an intuitive affinity with Andromache, a transcendent sympathy for her plight as a woman displaced from her native country and constantly stigmatized because of her ethnicity. “I will help you — even though you are a daughter of Asia,” the Chorus tells her. Another character furiously accuses Andromache of seducing her husband, saying, “Asian women are experts at such evil things!” Throughout it all, Andromache heartbreakingly yearns for her native land, “brightest gem in all of Asia.” Across a gulf of two millennia, those words continue to resonate with me and the alienation and exoticization I have experienced as a native-born Taiwanese woman in America.
The character of Andromache reflects how I sometimes feel about being a woman of color in the Classics — the sensation of entering a space that is not mine. However, it is also Andromache who causes me to realize that my political beliefs and alliances have implications for my scholarship. Classics is a discipline that needs the perspectives that women and people of color can bring to it, especially in light of its highly politicized history. In truth, women of color abound in the Classics: The sorceress Medea, for example, of the famous Euripidean tragedy “Medea,” is an Ethiopian woman. But scholarship that engages with them must embrace the perspectives and motivations that have been excluded from the critical tradition. Far from being harmful or anachronistic, diversity in the Classics — and the subversion it brings — can only further the discipline’s intellectual mission.
We for antiquity do, in fact, exist.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .