Mathias Hanses

Faculty Fall 2020: Mathias Hanses

Black Cicero: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Ancient Romans, and the Future of Classical Scholarship

Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies (CAMS)

My project explores W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1868-1963) repeated returns to and shifting views of, the life and works of the ancient Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE). In putting the two thinkers in intertextual conversation, I hope to present fresh insights into both of their oeuvres and to elucidate important aspects of how Du Bois activated ancient literature in his life-long fight against White supremacy, anti-Blackness, and other manifestations of racism both personal and systemic. In particular, I aim to tell the story of Du Bois’s repeated self-presentations as a modern Cicero and to trace within his writings the solidification of a view of the ancient orator’s works as the joint intellectual possession of all people and peoples across the globe. That view is of key significance to the twenty-first century’s ongoing reevaluation of scholarship relating to the Greeks and Romans as the purview of all who find meaning in such study, and certainly not just of the descendants of White Europeans.

In this context, the study’s title foregrounds that Du Bois was a Black writer embracing and yet transcending the ideas of Cicero at a time when most readers would have erroneously and anachronistically perceived the ancient Romans as White. The phrase Black Cicero also nods to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization of 1987-2006. I will be arguing that Du Bois anticipated important aspects of Bernal’s work by presenting ancient Roman culture as contingent upon, as well as in perpetual exchange with, societies across Africa, Europe, and the ancient Near East. In doing so, Du Bois built upon the groundwork not only of early Pan-Africanists but also of the United States’ first generation of Black professional classicists to enter upon their careers after the abolition of slavery. These men and women’s life stories have recently been recovered, but their writings’ and teachings’ place in the history of ideas still awaits a full evaluation.