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November 1, 2022

When Sarah Derbew and I join our bi-coastal Zoom call to discuss her recent book, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity, she is in her office in Stanford, where she is Assistant Professor of Classics, and I am in my new apartment in Brooklyn, where she grew up. In fact, I tell her, I am walking distance from the Brooklyn Museum where the artwork she chose for the cover of the book, Fred Wilson’s Grey Area (Brown version), is housed. Some people might be surprised to find this image on the cover for a book about Greek antiquity, because it depicts Egyptian art. I ask her why she chose it and what it means to her.

“The question you posed is the same question Fred Wilson posed,” she says. “I told him, and I’ll tell you: I wanted an image that could speak to broader communities because of how illegible Greek antiquity can be to people who are not in the field.”

She does also talk about Egyptian blackness in the book, but is “less interested in whether Nefertiti is white or black, but more what people see when they look at it. The gradation [of the artwork] is a useful way to think about how we see ourselves and how much it is an object of our creation and not what’s in front of us.”

The book cover of "Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity." Above the title is a photo of five of the same Egyptian busts in a row, each an increasingly darker shade of brown.
Figure 1: The cover of Sarah Derbew's book, "Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity."

Before we get into the book itself, I take her back to the origins of her ideas about race in antiquity. She says she became interested in these issues at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, where she went before her Ph.D. at Yale. There she “met so many people from different backgrounds who cared deeply about ancient languages and ancient cultures.”

She also valued the importance of seeing non-white educators of the Classics. “A lot of my classmates were teaching in public schools, so I really got to start seeing educators look very different from what I was used to in college or high school, when I was learning Latin.” She herself spent time volunteering at the Brooklyn Latin School.

Despite CUNY’s role in shaping her as a scholar, she says she’s “noticed that when some people introduce me, they elide the CUNY and focus on the Yale, the Harvard, the Stanford. Beyond graduate school, my undergraduate institution, Haverford College, also did a lot of the formative work of my personhood.”

At CUNY she met Gail Smith, who became a key mentor during her time there. Another way our lives overlapped is that I recently took a class with Gail. I ask what her relationships with older generations of classicists of color have meant to her, as she thanks many of them in her acknowledgements. “I don’t like namedropping. I almost wish I had used initials instead, or some kind of code name! But I do appreciate the opportunity to be able to thank them publicly, and I’m glad that the work they do behind the scenes is being recognized. But I also know how much can be put on their plates, and how unfair it is that we ask so much of so few.” Smith was crucial to the early stages of her thinking during an independent study on classica Africana.

She also mentions another of Smith’s former students, Patrice Rankine, as an important figure. They met at a Frank Snowden, Jr., Lecture in DC: “I was an eager grad student who just got on a bus. I figured out a way to get a discount bus ticket and managed to make it a $40 trip in one day. He was very kind to me and told me to look him up. I managed to meet up with him, get recommendations, and start to build a professional rapport.”

She gives me networking advice. “Start writing to people whose work you admire and tell them why. In my excitement, I would sometimes write to authors and something beautiful would come out of it.”

This is how she ended up at that lecture in DC. “I saw a sign for Michele Valerie Ronnick’s book on William Sanders Scarborough in the Mina Rees library at CUNY Graduate Center. I wrote to her, and she invited me to a lecture she was giving at Howard University. I started looking at bus tickets immediately after I received her email and went to DC for her talk.”

Looking to the future, she is excited by the work being done by the next generation. “I like the interdisciplinary links I’m seeing more and more, and people who are really straddling different subfields and making it legible to both. It excites me that people are building careers around communities or places that have not always been highlighted.”

That brings us nicely to the book, which builds off her dissertation project. During her Ph.D., after reading passages of Herodotus on the Ethiopians, she told her future advisor, “I want to write a dissertation about Herodotus and the Ethiopians. Period.” She was gently told that there was not enough material.

“From there I started thinking thematically. My advisor gave me recommendations; I was going to people in the Center for African studies and the African American Studies department, thinking about theory and primary sources, and I continued pulling together these threads as I worked on writing in my fourth, fifth, and sixth years.”

Now we turn to my hometown of London, UK, where Prof. Derbew spent time at University College London during her fifth year in grad school. “It was useful, because I could go to the British Museum every day and use the same literary skills I’d built reading Greek and Latin to read and study a museum, thinking about what exhibits are next to each other, how objects are described, geographically where they are located in relation to each other, and the layout—which exhibit is near the bathroom and smells like toilet water, which one smells really good because it’s near the bakery, which is near the gift shop. I remember speaking to a professor when I got back about how uncanny it is that you can look from the gift shop to the Rosetta Stone, into the Parthenon Sculptures room, and he said, ‘This is a corridor of the British Empire.’ It was such a pointed way to think about this capitalist project.”

I’ve spent many an afternoon wandering the British Museum, and I’ve had similar observations, but I’ve not thought about the commercial aspect like that before. The fact that replicas of objects acquired through imperialism are sold right next to them really makes clear the connection between capitalism and imperialism in a physical way.

On the topic of museums in London, Prof. Derbew wants to draw attention to the Horniman Museum. “There’s something to be said about museums that think about geography and themes together. There is also something beautiful about recognizing” Africa’s cosmopolitan and sparse landscapes, such as the Horniman’s exhibit, which paired the bustling megacity Lagos (Nigeria) with the Western Sahara.

I ask her if she has visited the new installations in New York on ancient Africa, The African Origins of Civilization at the Met and African Ancestors of Egypt and Nubia: From the Green Sahara to the Nile at the Brooklyn Museum.

“I like the Met exhibition because the title comes from Cheikh Anta Diop’s book,” she says. “I’m saddened that we have so little space for these scholars who have thought critically about what Africa represents in the past; whether we agree with their conclusions should not preclude our engagement with their work. I appreciate that nod to him and the juxtaposition of time in the exhibition to build longevity. Egypt being treated as part of Africa is also very meaningful. I liked the timeline that runs around the room because it reminds you that African history predates colonialism.” She has not yet seen the Brooklyn Museum one, so we make plans to go next time she is in New York.

Back to the book: in the introduction, Prof. Derbew explicitly states that this is an “antiracist study.” I ask her why. “It was as a way to say, ‘Don’t bother googling me, you can know I’m Black by me saying this.’ I was also thinking about other fields and how jargon can be difficult if you’re not in the field, so it was a way to flag to colleagues in African studies, and other fields, that it won’t be a waste of time.”

Recalling a training on antiracist academic practices, she adds, “This was a way to signal to students who are looking for allyship, mentorship, camaraderie, that you don’t have to figure out where I stand—I’m here, I’m invested in voices that have been historically erased, overlooked and marginalized.”

I then ask what impact she hopes her book has on the field of Classics. “I hope that it pulls Black Studies closer to Classics. That’s my most ardent wish. Free classicists from only looking at European theorists and philosophers to think more broadly about thinkers from the Global South.” She emphasizes that “there’s a responsibility for those of us who are not students, who don’t have to pass exams and jump through hoops, to really push this forward. I think the higher up you are in the hierarchy of the academy, the larger your responsibility is.”

She is also against making people of color do all the work, because “surviving is a huge task. What we do is a lot in terms of going to work every day, standing in front of the classroom, giving talks. The future of Classics will benefit from having more and more advocates who do not look like us—where neither you nor I need to be in a conversation on race and Classics, and we don’t feel like we need to safeguard so no one ends up being disrespectful or lazy.”

I tell her that’s often the main reason I end up involved. “Imagine how freeing it would be, though, Lylaah, if you could just walk into a conference room, attend a talk about race and Classics, everyone on the panel is incredibly into the material but don’t have backgrounds like you and me, and thinking, ‘Wow, I learnt something!’” It would be great, I admit.

What about the study of ancient Africa? Is it compatible with “Classics,” or do we need a new framework? “If we use the word ‘Classics’ simply to mean ancient civilizations, then absolutely it does fit.”

However, she thinks Classics “needs to make more space for thinking about Nubia, Great Zimbabwe, or even later civilizations, and the different peoples of western Africa who have rich histories and are engaging with their neighbors in meaningful ways. Ethiopia is another huge region that is understudied in Classics, but there’s so much going on, especially with the Kingdom of Aksum.

“The decision to not focus on these different touchpoints because of presumed lack of scholarship — or the lack of focus on ancient Greece or Rome — is a lazy one. In the humanities, we can write a book about a word. It’s not about lack of resources.” She proposes that, “because of the resources Classics can marshal, it could really help this sort of subfield move forward if every university was to adopt a particular part of the African continent and say, ‘In 10 years, we want to be specialists on this part of the world.’”

Our time is nearly up, so I ask Prof. Derbew if there is anything she’s currently working on that she can tell us about. She chuckles. “You make me feel like a movie star, to ask if I can talk about it. It makes me think of all those celebrity interviews — ‘No, I can’t tell you what season 2 will be!’ But I do not have those sorts of restrictions, nor am I a movie star.”

She is currently working on an edited volume with Daniel Orrells and Phiroze Vasunia titled Classics and Race: A Historical Reader. She is also writing about satire as a bridge for thinking about literary sophistication in Greek and Ethiopian texts. “This sort of project, where I bring Africa and Greece into conversation, is part of how I want my work to move forward in the future: to de-center Greece and center Africa, giving it more time in the classroom, on paper, and in the academy.”


Lylaah L Bhalerao is a second year PhD student at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, where is she currently President of the Student Council. She received her BA and MPhil from the University of Cambridge before moving to the USA as a Fulbright scholar. She is interested in the decolonial display of Greek art and the presentation of race in the ancient Mediterranean in museum spaces, as well as the idea of the “Black Mediterranean” in antiquity.