2023-2024 Catalog

LATN 350 Passages: African American writers and Greco-Roman literature

This course investigates select African American engagements with the literatures produced by ancient Greeks and Romans. It is motivated by the conviction that we do interpretive justice to the accomplishments of African American writers when we attempt to understand the tradition(s) they conceive their work to be intervening in.

African American literature was born with the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. The book evinces a deep knowledge of Latin and Latin literature, which it turns to its own emancipatory end. Indeed, Wheatley secured her freedom on the strength of the book.

Engagement with classical texts offered Wheatley and other African American writers of every era an opportunity to access, deploy, and transform a widely shared treasury of meanings, ideas, images, tropes, genres, and styles in order to create unique works of great artistic power, capable of opening up newly imagined ways of being for themselves and their readers. In addition to Wheatley, we shall explore the classical interactions of poets such as James M. Bell, Mary Livermore, Frances Ellen Watkins, and Robert Hayden and prose writers such as David Walker, William Sanders Scarborough, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

To experience the artistic power of these works as their authors intended, we must understand the aesthetic and literary contexts and tradition(s) in which they worked, for context and tradition are the foundation of a work’s meaning. To this end, we shall read alongside African American literary creations some of the Greek and Roman literary works to which they respond. For when we see clearly how a poem by, for example, Phillis Wheatley, responds to an ode by the Roman poet Horace—himself the son of a freedman—we grasp more fully the unique aesthetic, moral, and intellectual power of her poem. To see how Horace’s poetry could communicate to Wheatley is to see how Wheatley’s poetry can communicate its emancipatory power and promise to us in our own time.    


5 units


LATN 201

Core Requirements Met

  • United States Diversity
  • Pre-1800