One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
What topic do you research?
I am never quite sure whether to call myself a literary scholar with a strong interest in social history, or a social historian with a literature problem. I suppose one of the nice things about classics is that we’re able to blend our interests in such a way that we never really have to choose. I have a couple of interests that are occupying most of my attention right now:
I am writing a dissertation on Roman trauma in the literature following the Triumviral civil wars. I am interested in how societies come apart and come back together, and I take as my starting point the fact that many of the authors writing during and after the civil wars have to reckon with an overwhelming legacy of violence. Do they center it? Do they talk around it? How do they talk about themselves as victims of or witnesses to it? A lot of people have worked on cultural memory and the civil wars, but I am trying to see what we can gain from trying to understand the impact as a great social trauma.
I also have strong interests in reception and comparative work, particularly Black or African diaspora receptions, with a particular fondness for hip-hop and poetics of resistance. I am working on an article about a poem written by Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, who wrote an “Elegy of Carthage” where he uses figures from the ancient North African past that appear in Roman history to convince the first president of Tunisia to politically organize with Africans, rather than Europeans, as a part of the Pan-Africanist movement.
What sources or data do you use?
For my dissertation research, I use a variety of texts from the Augustan period, both poetry and prose. The early elegists—Propertius and Tibullus in particular—have a fascinating perspective on how literary production relates to the politics of the era, and one can see elegy more generally as a genre that resists Augustan moral ideals and moral legislation and reckons with the legacy of civil war violence. A newer interest of mine is the declamations of Seneca the Elder. Declamation is essentially a rhetorical training exercise where the orator gives a speech in-character, either reckoning with an imagined ethical problem or giving advice to a historical or mythic figure. Seneca’s declamations, although often seen as “imperial” literature, record (or purport to record) the exercises of rhetoricians from the Augustan period.
This body of evidence is extremely useful for examining Roman attitudes in the period, as the Romans used rhetorical exercises to work through problems of dangerous political speech and various forms of social fragmentation and reintegration. You also have some of the other usual suspects: Vergil (especially the Eclogues and Georgics) Livy, Horace, all those guys. In terms of secondary literature that is guiding the project, I am inspired by the work of Cathy Caruth and the scholars who write after her on trauma, as well as some of the scholars who write on Fanon and postcolonial trauma, and Marianne Hirsch on “postmemory.”
My black poetics and reception work has some affinities with my Latin work, specifically regarding societal traumas and the poetics of resistance that are born from them. Hip-hop and Roman elegy, I believe, are very similar in this regard. I have written about this and intend to write more about it in the future. As for my work on Senghor’s poetics, there is much less written about this when compared to Augustan literature, so I have been doing quite a bit of digging in newspapers and other announcements from the immediate postcolonial period in North Africa to get a sense of the politics of the time, as well as learning more about the history of postcolonial Africa. Reception studies are most powerful when one pays equal attention to the receiving culture and the culture received. It is a daunting task, but learning new things is always exciting.
How does this research shed light on real people in the past?
Some of my dissertation authors, of course, wrote some of the “most canonical” works of Latin literature. Vergil and Livy are some of the first authors one traditionally reads in Latin literature education. So many things—really it seems almost everything—has already been said about them. In my wildest dreams, I hope that my project grants a new way of looking at this body of literature and encourages others to think of the political power of making art from traumatic experience. This way of looking at the politics of the early Augustan period does not necessarily view Augustus’ accession to power as an entirely or necessarily bad thing, but one that simultaneously allows for feelings of relief at the end of the violence, mixed with a remembrance of his days as the “kid butcher.” These feelings can coexist.
Still, I think a view of the complex politics of the period that centers Augustus is limiting. Perhaps more central to the authors is the mass death and witnessing what can be seen as a complete societal unraveling. No one was untouched by the horrors of the war, regardless of side. Some areas (like Umbria, Propertius’ homeland) were hit harder by the violence than others, and the land redistributions certainly created lasting social tensions within communities, as you now have members of those communities whose presence is inextricably linked to the violence of the war.
My hip-hop and pan-African reception work is less concerned with the people in the ancient past, and instead invites us to look at how the recent past (and the past being created every day!) shapes who we are and our outlooks on the world. I, frankly, do not care if my hip-hop work ever has anything to say to classics proper. I love classics because I hate borders: classics’ suppleness in both methodologies and content is the reason I stuck with it. And I am increasingly convinced that the humanities are most useful for increasing many kinds of literacy when moving through the world. My literary, historical, and (albeit more limited) art historical training continually inform my ability to analyze all sorts of media. I try to bring these skills to my work on hip-hop, and I do not hope that my primary audience is classicists, even if they do decide to pay attention to it. There’s a certain energy to this work that I find compelling.
I have recently been reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s work on black performance and his history/memoir/love letter to A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain: it is really inspiring the way he mixes personal experience with history, literary criticism, and epistolography to breathe life into his reflection on a group of musicians, even if the form of a book deprives the reader of their music. His connection to the material, as a Black man in the 90s who was following their careers in real time, sheds light on the very real, very political power of hip-hop to illustrate the concerns of a community, as well as influence that community.
As for my Senghor work, the legacies of colonialism are still with us. Classics is tied up in that legacy. What speaks to me about Senghor’s work is that he knew that Bourguiba (the president of Tunisia to whom the poet is dedicated) would immediately recognize the characters and stories from the Roman texts he alludes to. This familiarity is the direct product of the colonial past that Senghor calls for Bourguiba to cast off. In this way, he doubly underscores the violence of canon: there is violence that Dido, Hannibal, and Jugurtha experience at the hands of white Europeans (in Senghor’s view), alongside the violence that puts the canon in the minds of colonized subjects.
Classicists often like to point to the meanings that “diverse” receivers of classical texts derive from those texts (I am thinking specifically of classicists’ fondness of—I’d maybe even say fetishistic obsession with—W.E.B. Du Bois and Derek Walcott), and there is value in that, but often they gloss over the fact that the reason those receivers use Greco-Roman texts is because their educations did not value other bodies of work. I hope my Senghor work makes this fact impossible to ignore.
Abdurraqib, Hanif. Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019.
Cailler, Bernadette. Carthage ou la flamme du brasier. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Felman, Shoshana., and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing In Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
Senghor, L. S. “Africa, the Middle East and South Africa,” Africa Report 20.5: 18, 1975.
Senghor, L. S. Élégies Majeures: Suivi De Dialogue Sur La Poésie Francophone. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979.
Shelby, Tommie. “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth.” Forthcoming in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, ed. Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Stakes Is High: Roman Elegy, Hip-Hop, and the Ovid Movie https://medium.com/corona-borealis/stakes-is-high-roman-elegy-hip-hop-and-the-ovid-movie-1cb9aa43fd4
Center and Margins: Recruiting, Anxiety, and the Power of Reaching Out (from SCS Presidential panel) https://medium.com/@jermainebryant/center-and-margins-recruiting-anxiety-and-the-power-of-reaching-out-a9775c1e946f
Conversation on hip-hop and classics for the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Color https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pko77qV2ZXo
Jermaine Bryant is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics at Princeton University. He received his BA in Classics from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019. He is interested in Roman literature and history of all periods, and is working on a dissertation about Civic Trauma and Reconciliation in Triumviral and Augustan literature. He is also interested in Black media and receptions. A great believer in the power of public engagement, he co-operates the Ship of Theses twitter account (@postclassics) with Ben Serraille, Vanessa Stovall, Nicolette D’Angelo, and Theo Motzkin. When not actively researching and teaching, he can be found cooking, playing his instruments, or listening to too loud music.