After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: Research Opportunities in Classica Africana

By Ronnick, Michele Valerie | Negro History Bulletin, April-June 1997 | Go to article overview

After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: Research Opportunities in Classica Africana


Ronnick, Michele Valerie, Negro History Bulletin


by Michele Valerie Ronnick Associate Professor, Department of Classics, Greek, and Latin Wayne State University

It is time for scholars and educators to look beyond the personalized and specific focus of the Martin Bernal-Mary Lefkowitz debate, and turn toward additional types of research in this area of African studies.(1) One of these new approaches should rightly be called Classica Africana, a name I have patterned upon the pioneering book by Meyer Reinhold entitled Classica Americana (1984) concerning the impact of the classics upon 18th and 19th century America. The new subfield of Classica Africana sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the classical tradition of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and examines the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, that this heritage has had upon people of African descent not only in America, but also in the western world.(2) A recent panel presented at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association (APA) used this approach to examine the work of five African Americans who used their knowledge of classics in their creative and/or professional lives.

The widespread, yet rudimentary, acquaintance among the reading public with certain aspects of the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate attests to the fact that the work of these scholars has stimulated a strong, and perhaps a truly enduring interest in the question of classical antiquity, classical studies and people of African descent. If cultivated with care by students, teachers and educated lay persons, this interest should generate in the next few years the production of other sorts of original scholarship. There are, in fact, a number of other questions to be asked and other methodologies to be applied.(3)

I here offer a brief selection of ideas that merit further investigation on both the high school and university level. They vary in scope, some are rather comprehensive, some less so. Some involve reassessment of old material in the light of modern theory and new approaches like cultural studies. Others demand the skills of historians, archivists, and biographers. All revolve around the interrelationship between the classics and people of African descent. I hope they stimulate you to begin, continue or extend your interest in this terra incognita of intellectual inquiry.

The Latin Learning of Two Figures from Europe

Here gathered is a trio of men whose work falls into the area known as Neo-Latin: Latin written after the classical period, specifically that of the Renaissance through modern times, or the 14th-20th centuries.

Juan Latino, Fifteenth Century Celebrity (1516- c.1606)(4)

Juan was born in 1516 probably in Guinea, and came to Spain at the age of 12. His mother served the daughter of a famous general, Gonzalo Fernandez, in Cordoba. In 1530 when Juan was 14 they moved to Granada and he became the attendant of the six-year-old Duke of Sessa. He carried the Duke's books and studied with him in classes in the cathedral school and then later at the newly founded University of Granada.

From the start he showed promise in Latin--hence his name Latino--and became known throughout the city not only for his learning, but also for his skills as a musician and for his wit and graceful ways. He took his B.A. in 1546 at Granada and his M.A. in 1556. During this time he was charged with giving Latin lessons to the daughter of the duke's estate manager, Dona Ana, and the pair fell in love. Out of this incident sprang instant celebrity. Lope de Vega described it in his play La Dama Boba (Act 2, scene 21). Similarly moved by the situation, Diego Jimenez de Enciso wrote in 1652 an entire play entitled La Famosa Comedia de Juan Latino, and Cervantes mocked his Latin learning in one of the dedicatory poems in the preface to Don Quixote. The couple did in fact wed and had a total of four children.

In 1565 Juan was given the very high honor of addressing in Latin the members of the university at the opening exercises of its academic year. …

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