Classic Learning in Black History: Part III

By Dr. Anika Tene' Prather

The Great Books were among the instruments by which liberation began for the Black community in America.

In this three-part series, Dr. Prather shares the journey that took her from looking askance at classic learning to becoming its fervent advocate. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.

Eventually, I decided to find a new adviser for my dissertation, one who would support this journey. I am grateful to the handful of faculty at the university who did support it; without them I would not have been able to move forward in my program. I began to write ferociously. Every assignment was written to take me deeper into the history of Classical education in the Black community, and to create a mental data base (which I am working on making a physical one) of all the Black literature that cites a volume from the Great Books. Raisin In the Sun references Prometheus Bound; Huey P. Newton taught himself to read by reading Plato’s Republic; Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail is based on St. Thomas Aquinas. Henry David Thoreau, although white, was an abolitionist willing to stay in jail instead of supporting our racist system, and in learning about him, I discovered Martin Luther King’s love for the text Civil Disobedience. I discovered that schools before desegregation provided a primarily Classical education to Black students, and how desegregation killed that. I learned that Frederick Douglass loved Cicero and was first introduced to the Classics when he bought The Columbian Orator as a twelve-year-old enslaved boy—the same book Harriet Beecher Stowe had to read as a child in school. I discovered that President Barack Obama formed his worldview by reading the thoughts of many of the great philosophers and thinkers. My most recent discovery has been that Toni Morrison minored in Classics at Howard University, which is the only historically Black college with a Classics department. Ta-Nehisi Coates also cites Prometheus Bound in his book Between the World and Me, and makes the powerful statement: “Black Diaspora was not just our own world, but in so many ways the Western World itself.”

I am still met with much resistance from both the Black and white communities with regards to this topic, but it is my hope that, as I continue this journey of digging out the history of Classical education in the Black community and as I continue to nurture my love affair with Classical studies, I can show the importance of reading these texts. Within them lies a deeper understanding of the Black authors, leaders, and philosophers that we hold dear. They loved these books, and to ignore them is to dilute our understanding of their writings and mentality. In reading these texts, we connect with our ancestors, from the slaves who created the Negro spirituals (based on the classic text of the Bible), to Toni Morrison’s Sula (with its allusions to Greek mythology), to Coleson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (take special note of the library scene). These texts are foundational to almost every book we as a Black community love and honor.

In order to fully understand African American literature, we must read the texts our ancestors used to free themselves from slavery, oppression, and white supremacy.

We often refer to Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol from Ghana meaning “Go back and get it.” When people refer to this, they often refer to reclaiming our African heritage—but we cannot skip over the early time where our people were seeking to gain their education here in America. To me, Sankofa includes me “going back to get” what my ancestors held during and after enslavement: to truly know the meanings of the canon of African American literature, we must read the texts our ancestors relied on to liberate their minds from the chains of slavery, oppression, and white supremacy. These books are a part of our story. By not reading them, we skip over a period in the timeline of Black history. We rightly go back to Africa to reclaim our heritage, but then, moving forward, we skip over that time period where we were establishing our literacy after enslavement had kept literacy from us. We fought for literacy, and the canon was our greatest weapon. This harrowing story needs to be known and embraced in its fullness.

It is this understanding that held my love strong for the texts when it seemed everyone was against me. This understanding held fast my love, when I had to find a new adviser and committee who would stand with me (if you are reading this, I am forever grateful to you for supporting my journey to graduation May 2017!). It held fast my love during the difficult journey of founding The Living Water School, where we freely study these texts (and the school has continued to thrive and grow over these five years). This understanding held fast my love when, no matter how much I yelled at the top of my lungs that these books are indeed relevant to Black people, it seemed as if no one heard me. It was the ancestors that read these books, taught these books, wrote about these books, and held a dialogue with these books, that kept my love for them strong; and no matter what obstacles may come to me that seek to squelch this love, my love for them will never die.

I conclude with a quote from James Baldwin, who reveals an interesting perspective on why he engaged with the Great Books:

I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.


Dr. Anika Tene’ Prather has degrees from Howard University, NYU, the University of Maryland at College Park, and St. John’s College here in Annapolis. She currently teaches in the Classics Department at Howard University, and is the founder of The Living Water school, which she was inspired to start by her three creative and curious children.

Cover art of an Adinkra image associated with Sankofa.

If you enjoyed this series, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this one on the work of Mary Shelley or this one on the concept of oligarchy. You might also like our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate interviews leading intellectuals like Dr. Prather for their thoughts on education and culture.

Published on 7th August, 2020.

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