In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Black Classicism in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Examples of Black Classicism in Europe and Africa
  • Examples of Black Classicism in the Western Hemisphere in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
  • Black Classicism after the Civil War and the Impetus to Study Greek and Latin
  • Textbooks for Learning Greek and Latin Written by People of African Descent
  • Some Noteworthy Translations
  • Primary Sources
  • Biography
  • Background to Some Recent Developments
  • Single-Authored Books
  • Individual Articles
  • Feminism and Critical Race Theory

African American Studies Black Classicism in the United States
by
Michele Valerie Ronnick
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0134

Introduction

First defined by Michele Valerie Ronnick in the second edition of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and online at Oxford African American Studies Center, Black classicism (also known as Afro-Classicism or Classica Africana) is the history and analysis of the influence of Greco-Roman civilization upon the professional and creative lives of people of African descent. It is a division of a larger field known as classical reception, which examines the influence of Greco-Roman culture on people and places throughout the world after the end of antiquity. For hundreds of years, any person who wished to be considered educated and/or be part of the institutions of the Western world had training in Greek and Latin. This was true for many people of African descent as well as those of Mediterranean and European descent. A broad range of disparate material archived and/or published over many years in journals, newspapers, books, school catalogues, encyclopedias, and various handbooks provides vital evidence with which to understand the achievements made by people of African descent vis-à-vis classical studies. Using this evidence, scholars are now documenting this important and multifaceted dynamic. Although a comprehensive, full-blown academic study has yet to be made, it is clear that the history and culture of Greece and Rome have had an important impact upon people of African descent and can be seen in contemporary Afro-diasporic studies and Afro-European literatures.

Examples of Black Classicism in Europe and Africa

The three men discussed in this section—Juan Latino, Anthony Amo, and James Capitein—are foundational figures in the field. Each gained fame for his accomplishments in neo-Latin prose and poetry. In Spain we have Juan Latino (b. 1516–d. c. 1606), who learned Latin while enslaved to the young Don Gonzalo Fernández, the third Duke of Sessa. In 1546 Latino graduated from the University of Granada. He then became a professor of Latin grammar and served as such until 1586. Gates and Wolff 1998 explores Latino’s major work, the Austriad, which was a neo-Latin epic poem of over 1,700 lines that celebrated Don John of Austria’s victory over the Turkish forces at Lepanto in 1571. Wright 2016 gives us a full-length study of Latino’s life and times. Taken from the Gold Coast of Africa as a child and brought to Germany, Anthony William Amo (b. 1703–d. c. 1760), graduated in law from Halle University in 1729 with a treatise written in neo-Latin, De Jure Maurorum in Europa. He then earned a doctorate in philosophy, making him the first African to earn an advanced degree in philosophy from a European institution. He held a professorship at Wittenberg University and published another Latin treatise, Tractatus de Arte Sobrie et Accurate Philosophandi, in 1738. Bess 1989, relying on the pioneering work of Hill 1955, done decades before, sees Amo as a founding figure among Black scholars, and Nwala 1990 takes a close look at one of Amo’s Latin treatises. Abducted as a child from the Gold Coast of Africa as a child, James Eliza John Capitein (b. c. 1717–d. 1747) was educated in Amsterdam. He wrote a defense of slavery, Dissertatio de Servitute, which was published in neo-Latin and Dutch in 1742. Parker 2001 and Prah 1992 provide the first modern examinations of Capitein.

  • Bess, Reginald. “A. W. Amo: First Great Black Man of Letters.” Journal of Black Studies 19 (1989): 387–393.

    DOI: 10.1177/002193478901900401

    The author (who is a scholar of German and Spanish) profiles Amo’s intellectual achievement from his abduction from Africa to his education in Germany.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Maria Wolff. “An Overview of Sources on the Life and Work of Juan Latino, the ‘Ethiopian Humanist.’” Research in African Literatures 29 (Winter 1998): 14–51.

    The authors have brought together the scholarship on Latino, including the work of the early Afro-Hispanist Dr. Valuras Burwell Spratlin (b. 1898–d. 1961) written in the 1930s. They argue that Latino was the first person from sub-Saharan Africa to publish a poem in a European language.

  • Hill, Charles Leander. “William Ladd, the Black Philosopher from Guinea: A Critical Analysis of His Dissertation on Apathy.” A.M.E. Church Review 72 (October/December 1955): 20–36.

    Hill made important efforts to locate Amo’s manuscripts at the University of Berlin in 1931–1932, which stimulated study of Amo’s Latin writings.

  • Nwala, T. Uzodinma, ed. Treatise on the Art of Philosophising Soberly and Accurately, with Commentaries. Nsukka: William Amo Centre for African Philosophy, University of Nigeria, 1990.

    The author, the first student to graduate in philosophy from the University of Nigeria (1967) and founder of the William Amo Centre at the University of Nigeria, has pioneered the study of African philosophy as an academic discipline; this is his 162-page interpretation of Amo’s philosophy.

  • Parker, Grant. The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717–1747. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001.

    The author has made a thorough study of Capitein’s ideas about slavery and provides the reader with an introduction, a translation, and a learned commentary. The hardcover edition contains a facsimile of the original neo-Latin text.

  • Prah, Kwesi Kwaa. Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, 1717–1747: A Critical Study of an Eighteenth Century African. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1992.

    This is a close look at the life and times of Capitein, who became famous (and to many infamous) for his defense of slavery.

  • Wright, Elizabeth. The Epic of Juan Latino: Dilemmas of Race and Religion in Renaissance Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442625549

    The author drew upon a wide arrange of sources within and without Granada, the capital city of Islamic al-Andalus, where many people of various faiths religions interacted, to prepare this full examination of the life of Latino and the creation of his major work, the Austriad.

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