Book examines the influence of the classics on leading black authors

Associate Professor Eric Ashley Hairston's latest project takes a deeper look at the way antiquity shaped the ideas of early African-American scholars & writers whose works challenged whites' justification of slavery and disparagement.

Associate Professor Eric Ashley Hairston
Scholars have long studied how ideas first put forward by ancient writers and philosophers can be found in classic American poetry and literature, whose authors often shaped public knowledge and perception. The problem, however, is that most existing research only focuses on white authors.

Very little has been written about the classical influence on black American writers, and an Elon University professor is helping to fill that gap with a new book exploring the words of four prominent African-American scholars and writers: Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Anna Julia Cooper.

“The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization, and the African American Reclamation of the West” by Associate Professor Eric Ashley Hairston was published this summer by the University of Tennessee Press. It serves as the inaugural volume of the press’s new Classicism in American Culture series.

In the nation’s younger years, politicians like Thomas Jefferson, as well as scholars of classics, philosophy and literature, ignored or dismissed the study of black authors because of stereotyping and racism. Hairston contends that such oversight was necessary for whites, who saw classical training as the highest sign of intellectual ability. Should the influence of antiquity be acknowledged in the works of African-Americans, it would have shown that blacks were just as intellectually capable as whites and that black writers were just as steeped in knowledge central to the idea of Western civilization.

“The classics, when deployed by African-Americans, really disrupted the American alchemy of race,” Hairston said of a time in American history when a perceived lower intellect was used to justify slavery and the inferior treatment of blacks.  “It was exceptionally inconvenient for an allegedly uncivilized race to object to their enslavement using Virgil, Terence, or Ovid, or worse, remind whites of the multiethnic Mediterranean ancient world.”

But even in the 20th and 21st centuries scholars have overlooked or shown little interest in studying the classical influence on top African-American writers. “We’re running the risk of losing an understanding of how African-Americans used the classical tradition, and why they were using it,” Hairston said. “In some ways, this book is the story of how it all fits together – the literature, the philosophy and the history central to the African-American intellectual tradition and part of the broader American tradition.”

Hairston’s book demonstrates how the myths, cultures and ideals of antiquity, crafted in a time before Euro-American racism, helped African Americans re-conceive their role and value in a white culture that was determined to make them commodities and symbols of moral and intellectual decay.

Hairston is the founding director of the Center for Law and Humanities at Elon University and regularly teaches undergraduate courses in American literature, African-American literature, classical literature, law and literature, Asian-American literature and Southern literature. He has also taught courses in the Western literary tradition.

At the graduate and professional level, he also teaches law and humanities at the Elon University School of Law. His research areas include intersections of classical literature and American literature, especially classical influences on African American and Southern writers, as well as the interdisciplinary study of law, literature, and the humanities.

Hairston has regularly presented his work at professional conferences and has served as a panelist and commentator on issues of law, politics and policy. He will lead a panel on literature and law at the 2014 Modern Language Association conference. His next research projects will detail further considerations of classical influences on contemporary African-American literature and examine the challenges and opportunities for traditional American legal principles posed by Western and global humanities traditions.

Hairston earned his bachelor’s degree in English and politics from Wake Forest University before attending the University of Virginia for his master’s and doctorate in English language and literature. Hairston also earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law.