Thursday, June 20, 2013

On teaching about black people

In 1970 Frank Snowden published a pioneering work “Blacks in Antiquity”, examining the presence and lives of dark skinned people in Greek and Roman times. I began my degree in classics at Cambridge in 1970, and sailed (well, plodded) through the entire degree without ever being made aware of Snowden's work, or of any of his successors. I am not sure what to make of that now, apart form it being an interesting snippet of history. But there may be more to it, in the sense that I can remember learning that Roman historians tended to concentrate on Rome and on the doings of great men. (I am pretty sure I was not even aware at the time of the gender limitations implicit in the word “men”.) What seems apparent to me now is that the syllabus, though providing that critique of Tacitus' limitations, reflected it. Black people did not get a look in, any more than did women, slaves or indigenous peasants. And of course that was true of much of our teaching about the world at that point. The turn to oral traditions and of history from below has done much to widen perceptions, which I am thankful for. I am sure we are as much culture and time centric as we used to be, but today, I think, there is no excuse for not being aware of that fact.


Jacque B said...

I think there are still many circumstances and pieces of writing that assume that the white middle class cultural perspective is the norm. It never fails to surprise my delegates when I begin my sessions with : I am a white middle class woman..there's nothing I can and should do about this but you should be aware of it because that's my cultural perspective. Then we get a very productive debate about the assumptions that are made by others; particularly when teaching

Rob Parsons said...

Very true. I occasionally note to my students that, as a white, middle aged, middle class, Anglican, able bodied, heterosexual, British man, I am on the upside of just about every binary there is. But my status as such is usually invisible to them until I point it out.