Mourning Howard Classics

Anika Prather

On 20 April, 2021, the Washington Post reported that Howard University would be dissolving its Classics department. Adjunct Professor Anika Prather offers the following reflection on Antigone:

I sit here in a state of mourning over possibly losing the Classics department of Howard University here in Washington, D.C. I am grappling with why this matters so much to me: out of a love for my people, I want others to experience what I did. When I was a freshman at Howard University, I discovered Terentius Afer: Terence the African. I was coming into Howard from a predominately White Christian school where there was some exposure to Classical literature, but I was never taught that these texts had anything to do with me as a Black person. So, when my professor at Howard introduced the class to Terence the African, I became acutely aware of the African presence in the ancient world. I was not a Classics major, and yet my entire four years at Howard were influenced by the value the University placed on the Classics. I was introduced to Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and so many others of the ancient world.

When I started teaching three sections of “Humanities 1” at Howard this past school year, and as I talked with Howard students, I found that their experience was the same as mine. Most of them had to study Classics in some form, including its literature and art history, as they made their way through their program of study. Howard has a long tradition of exposing its students to the works of the ancient world: when the University was founded in 1867, the Classics department was among its original institutions. I think many of us took this opportunity for granted, and little did we realize how our minds were being cultivated. We learned to appreciate our Black and African heritage, but not as a segregated concept: we learned to appreciate our unique place in the larger world. As Socrates said, “I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.”

Portrait of Terence from a 9th-century manuscript (Vat. Lat. 3868, 2r), perhaps copied from an ancient original that preserved his likeness.

The mission of Howard talks about cultivating scholars who can bring change to global problems. Howard infuses its students’ learning experiences with constant exposure to people, places, cultures, literature, and perspectives outside the Black narrative and then guides the students into connecting these narratives to the Black experience. I came to Howard as a very insecure young woman and left full of self-love and a passion to make a difference in the world. And I found this past year that my students at Howard – I had the honor and privilege to teach almost 200 of them – were inspired in the same way.

I remember that when I was an undergraduate, my student-teacher supervisor suggested that I teach students in a predominately White district. I took her advice, and it was a wonderful experience. After encountering so much racism in my K12 Christian school experience, some healing needed to happen in me, and Howard pushed me to face that pain by serving children in a school district where many times I, the teacher, was the only Black person in the room. 

The author (in sunglasses) on her graduation from HU in 1995.

When I was about to graduate, I remember telling my professor that I wanted to get all of my degrees at Howard, but she pushed me to pursue graduate study at universities that were not Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I took her advice, and that has served me well, too – although one of my master’s degrees is from Howard.  I was constantly pushed to build a bridge from myself to the “other.”

Howard’s Classics department is a testament to the University’s mission to expose students to all of the global experiences that are often kept away from Black students. Whether White or Black, most of the professors of Howard’s Classics department have been committed to presenting the Classics in such a way that students of color come to see that this body of knowledge is equally for every human being. For over a century, Howard has provided a safe and nurturing place where its students can study Classics without feeling inferior or oppressed. From the late Frank Snowden showing the African presence in Ancient Greece and Rome, to the beloved Molly Levine, whose students see her not only as a Latin teacher but as a mentor who takes a special interest in their success in studying Classics. Classics has been a safe haven for intellectual engagement for so many years.

Frank M. Snowden Jr (1911-2007), who was a member of Howard faculty from 1940 to 1990, and who retained a close connection for the rest of his life.

There are many more examples of faculty members in the Classics department who have been dedicated to the work of being an available resource for those students who wanted to take this unique learning journey. They have been so committed that even though there were no majors, they provided general-education (“gen-ed”) courses and minors so that all of Howard’s students could come through the department and engage in intellectual discourse outside their own life experiences.

I mourn the possible closing of Howard’s Classics department as the loss of a national treasure. I know the University’s leadership tires of hearing me whine about it, and I worry that my constant crying out is viewed as a form of disrespect. In all of my years of passionate love for the University, I have never disagreed with Howard. I have idolized the institution since I was a child, seeing it as a magical place and source of healing for me.  Even before I graduated high school, I would walk the campus and attend its homecomings: having Howard in my life contributed to my developing a stronger self-esteem while still an awkward teenager.

My educational experiences as an undergraduate and in graduate school were transformative, and all of my memories there are enveloped by these touches of the Classical experience. Studying and engaging with Classics at Howard helped me cultivate a more universal perspective on how to live in the world. Now that it may close, even with classes taught here and there, that “space” will be lost forever, and the experience will necessarily be diluted.

Toni Morrison on her graduation from Howard (posted by the HU Facebook page).

The memories of how authors such as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston were inspired by Classics at Howard will just be something someone may mention in passing now and then. I yearn somehow, at least, to memorialize the memory of Classics at Howard, its influence on Howard’s history, and how experiences in Howard’s Classics classrooms have touched the world.

The department’s existence, I feel, holds the key to healing the racial challenges in Classics today, because for over a hundred years it has successfully brought Classics to a diverse population. To me, Howard provides a comprehensive voice on diversifying the field while remaining pure in how Classics is presented. From 1867 until 2021, Howard has been able to teach Classics without “making it Black”, without changing its name to something like “Ancient Studies”, and without the subject losing its relevance to the student body.

The students of Howard have been on the frontlines to keep the Classics department open, and to me that reveals the power of the department’s faculty and educational experience. It makes me think: what could the entire field of Classics learn from this department about how to win the battle for Classics that goes on today? What were the skills used to connect predominately Black students to a field that has often been dominated by the White narrative? Somehow, a connection was made, whether the professor was Black or White.  A treasure trove of answers can be found in that little department at Howard University — answers that could help the field of Classics preserve its existence and reestablish its respect for many years to come.

Anika Prather has been Professor of Classics at Howard University. Her first piece for Antigone can be read here.