Gregory Nagy is the Francis Jones professor of Classical Greek Literature (and professor of Comparative Literature) at Harvard University, and the Director for the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington DC.
Rayshauna: Professor, what would you say to someone who claims that classics are irrelevant?
Professor Gregory Nagy: Well, they are relevant to life! And it's only people who have a very restrictive view of life that may question its relevance.
R: Have you encountered many people who claim that's the case?
GN: All my life. All my academic life, sure - but it doesn't bother me.
R: Hmph. well, alright [chuckles]. I recently interviewed Thomas Forrest Kelly in the music department here at Harvard -
GN: He's a very bright person.
R: Oh, you know him! So, I attended one of his Gregorian chant sessions and he said something so poignant. He said that there's something essentially human about singing one's story. So, as someone in the field [of story by song], how would you build on that? Do you feel there's something essentially human about carrying narratives?
GN: well, I try to favor anthropological approaches. and anthropological approaches to song - I think makes song a very organic part of society, especially in traditional societies. And the easiest way to answer that is this: I have a book called 'Pindar's Homer', which was published in 1990 - and which is available for free online by way of Johns Hopkins university press. In the first chapter, I just build a whole model on the organic relationship of song [that includes dance] with society. I've thought a lot about that and i'd like for you to engage with it.
And you have have to pay to engage with it - open source!
R: As a Black Chicagoan who grew up with southern grandparents, I'm very close to my oral and vernacular traditions. I often meet folks who say that you can't do our vernacular traditions justice by making it distinct from the larger american story - but I feel that for as long as we've been singing, dancing, and writing, we've had a dual narrative, both the face that we show the larger society and the full identity we keep for ourselves.
GN: Yes, I like the way you said that...
R: Is that considered a 'comparative literature'?
GN: To me, yeah. I can't speak for all of academia, but that sounds like something you can study in a very systematic and empirical way - and it's important.
R: I feel like I speak two cultural languages - only one's not considered legitimate.
GN: Exactly, but there are some people like Toni Morrison who've made it part of their craft, who've sort of traveled from one register to the next.
R: [gestures] So this is the Norton anthology of African American lit.
GN: Who edits that?
R: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He's so charming. Sometimes I sit across from him during lectures at the Du Bois center - he seems pretty hilarious.
GN: Oh, Skip Gates! Isn't he charming? I like him a lot.
R: He seems like a character, and encountering this book for the first time was something else! For the first time in my life, I thumbed through a text and was able to say 'okay, no George Washington, no Thomas Jefferson...' - it was as if I'd seen my own face for the first time. When the package arrived, I immediately knew what it was. This tome, thousands of pages [and two CDs, as our tradition's beginnings were incredibly oral] in the making was just - it was like coming home to myself.
GN: That's beautiful.
R: I'm always concerned that mythologies that are respected and truly considered have creation stories, but Black America's young in the scope of things - we're only a couple hundred years old. And so even though we have ways of taking and unpacking these 'peculiar institutions' in an event to explain away the world that was laid out for us, it just feels young.
I'm trying to get a handle on what I'm dealing with here: is this a mythology or a folklore?
GN: I think we're talking a bout a folklore - 'cause folklore doesn't make any presuppositions. A folklore isn't gonna say 'you've got to have a creation myth'. Folklore studies what's there and frankly, the Black American experience is a modern experience - a very sad one in many ways. There are so many historical contingencies that it's hard to universalize.
R: ...just like the people and places that crafted it. I appreciate you and your time, professor. This was great.