i've been thinking a great deal about the two academic loves of my life: greco-roman mythology and black american oral and literary tradition. many think that a course of study that addresses their relationship would be bizarre and overreaching at best, and mired in self-hatred at worst.
here's a link to such a conversation with a former professor.
after that exchange, i decided to decompress by articulating my intentions to a friend. this is what transpired.
the ideologue: '...and i told him what i tell everyone - that i intend to study the influence of greco-roman mythology and the classic tradition on certain aspects of our black narrative in the states. at this point, his expression reads a bit of confusion - but that's perfectly normal. very few people would juxtapose greek columns with the slave shacks of the antebellum and reconstruction years - i can see how that would require a leap.
i wanted to pose this to you because i need to bounce these ideas off someone...i am incredibly partial to the 'great-greats' of the western canon. i'd be remiss if i simply fell in love with them, like some sort of cultural stockholm syndrome, and so this canon also merits my critique - but i love them all the same. i've found many black americans' stance on cultural discovery quite similar to the charge that christians are given in the bible: 'be in this world, but not of this world'...it's as if black people [both through oppression rendered legitimate by law and the self-policing that resulted] feel compelled to acknowledge that we are, simply put, only ourselves, separate and unrelated to the common cultural fabric of this country. and so anyone who posits that we've been stewing in the same vat - well, it's blasphemous to say that. and to take things a step further, i believe that if we were to stop random black americans on the street, we'd find that they recognize the scales of justice, that they know that a cherub with golden locks and shiny bows is a symbol for love, that hades refers to the netherworld - even if none of them might've studied the classics. unfortunately, we are far more familiar with the canon under which we live than the ones we've been separated from. i think many people would be reluctant to admit that they are able to speak the 'language of oppressors' more than their 'mother tongue'.
i go on to tell the professor that for all its symbolism, gendered ideology, and gore, i loved how incredibly humanizing the stories are. i told him about a childhood on the south side of chicago filled with children's books of sanitized mythology, chock full of sassy medusas and braniac athenas instead of the misandry and bloodlust they actually embodied.
our exchange sounded very civil, there was no shouting, but conceptually, he was attempting to tear me apart. out of respect for an elder, i tried to rein in my defensiveness, but it was incredibly difficult. i'm used to people chipping away at the subject itself because we give very little weight to homer, sophocles, and plato outside the ivory tower. here's the critical difference: he began attacking me for my interest. that's what i found unacceptable. we are all moved by different things - math has never been my ministry; i'm not an accomplished musician; i wanted to be an organic chemist as a child, then i started reading myths. and that became my new language.
i didn't want anyone to chastise me for pursuing a field that i believe could explain away the world. that's what this professor was doing - i feel he was condemning me for seeking my face in a tradition that wasn't 'intended for us' as a people. but here's what many black americans fail to realize: those myths are some of the most moving stories you will ever read. it may take some time to undergo a shift in language - it can be alienating, but you'll soon find that if you read aeschuylus' prometheus bound, a story of a hero chained to a rock for stealing fire and sharing it with humanity, you'll find frederick douglass attempting to cast off his shackles. you'll read sophocles' antigone, the story of a young girl that saw the garish space between so-called 'justice' and 'rightness', named it, and appropriately buried her fallen brother in the process - and you'll see harriet tubman, shotgun in hand, conducting her siblings to freedom on an underground railroad in the face of a institution that deemed it unfit. especially for a woman.
your cultural eyes will undergo a critical change and the concept of justice will conjure images of human beings warming their hands around stolen fire, it will elicit the image of a young girl defying a king's edict to sprinkle dirt over her brother's corpse - and those images will move you.
i hate that the professor attempted to bastardize that alchemy by calling it an exercise in self-hatred. he claimed it was offensive because he believes there's no way to pursue this in an academically-minded and culturally competent way; that this undertaking cannot be pursued without giving more weight to white supremacy and the centrality of the western canon.
and this couldn't be more unfair. we've been here since the mid-1400s. we've been a captive audience since the beginning of [the land that would become] the united states' presence in the transatlantic slave trade - we've literally been a captive audience. we have been just as influenced by the other traditions that funneled into this 'grand experiment in democracy' as any of them have been influenced by us. it is never an exercise in self-hatred to seek one's own face and try to unravel the course of events that conspired to build your identity. i've said it before and i'll say it again: blackness was never the end game; it was always humanity. blackness, fragmented though it may be, was / is our coping mechanism. we conjure an ability to cope in the face of institutions engineered to undo us - that is incredibly human, not black. and i find it just as offensive when black people tell me to be limited as i do when the message come from 'outside'. we rob ourselves of our full identity when we do that.
dynamic as he was, i don't fully agree with el-hajj malik el-shabazz [malcolm x] - we're not africans living in america. we're black americans, our ancestors uprooted in the largest forced migration in human history, yes, but products of that event nonetheless. admitting that we speak the language, that yes, even our subcultural columns [music, food, vernacular / literature] are written in the 'language of oppressors' does not mean that we're happy with the state of affairs; it simply means that we are doing the necessary work to see ourselves fully -
and that renders us more capable of coming to terms with who we are, integrating that history into our consciousness, and moving forward. and no matter what language you speak, that is a human story.
we shouldn't want a mythology riddled with holes and based on lies.
i want to do the very best i can to prevent systems of oppression from continuing to manifest themselves. i believe the only way to do that is by figuring out the 'why' behind this jacked up society. it's our only safeguard. many people claim that it's the nature of humanity to oppress and destroy - that we're fallen, but i believe something different. i believe that we're clay by nature, that the broken parts of culture can only operate within the spaces we grant them -
and that we inherit our inclination to make space.
and we'd know that if we read south korean creation myths about brothers who set off in different directions and grew teeth [symbolic of aggression and consumption] because of distance that alienated them from one another. we'd know that if read plato's symposium [that zora neale hurston ultimately exhumed and painted 'black american' and 'southern'] that painted a picture of the first human beings with two heads, four arms and four legs, with a love for itself so pure and sufficient that the gods got jealous and split them in two, leaving them to roam the earth in search of restoration.
these myths tell us that distance and alienation breed contempt, and that seeking one's face is the highest calling there is.
and so for all their misandry, their bloodlust and chasms, mythology presents to us an opportunity to be fully human; it grants us the possibility of a humanity steeped in romance and fullness; it compels us to loftier ambitions with wings held by wax, it invites us to sit with eros just outside the city gates as it longs for aphrodite to pass, it warns us of pomegranate seeds and reprimands us with winter when we do not heed its words -
in short, myths give us what we need.