Although Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s recent Clarke Forum, “Bodega Poetics: Classics and Caribbean Diaspora” raised some interesting points about the study of classics and its resonance with modern diasporic communities, the presentation was largely inaccessible and did not seem to take into account certain work that is already underway within the discipline.
He compared the struggles of modern diaspora communities to themes of ancient literature and poetry, including the experience of displaced migrants in Central America to the Aeneid (in which the titular Aeneas leads his surviving people from Troy razed across the world to finally found Rome). These comparisons were very interesting and relevant, demonstrating the relevance of the Classics to contemporary global issues that are not exclusive to the Mediterranean.
He also read several contemporary poems and book excerpts about modern-day immigrants and diasporic peoples, and emphasized the indomitability of those who were forcibly displaced. Like the violent colonialism imposed by Rome – and indeed this is how Rome became an empire – the peoples of the Caribbean have also historically suffered from a lack of autonomy. Specifically, Peralta referred to the Monroe Doctrine as practiced by U.S. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt over the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which completely violated the sovereignty of those countries.
Peralta’s speech largely revolved around the principle that classics should be reorganized as a subject to be more expansive and inclusive, removing the idea that ancient Greece and Rome are the ultimate foundation of white Western civilization and that their legacy is totally positive. A.
Peralta spoke of his own experience as a child reading about antiquity as leaving such a legacy behind and taking this perspective into account while simultaneously living, as a Dominican immigrant in New York, in a systemically violent institution built on these ideals.
The story of his own struggle with the study of the classics was an illuminating perspective, but the arguments he drew from personal experience do not seem to recognize that relevant discussions were already taking place within the discipline in this regard . He argued for a “radical reorganization of the study of antiquity” that recognizes all important cultures and their significant contributions to modern society. Elevating some ancient texts and dismissing others as lesser supports the problematic principles of racism and colonialism.
For a long time, scholars in the field of classics have pondered these same points. Ancient Greece and Rome were not monolithic cultures. At its greatest extent, the Roman Empire stretched from present-day Britain to the Middle East, encompassing the entire Mediterranean. The Roman Empire included dozens, if not hundreds, of ethnicities, languages, and cultures. The study of the Classics is also the study of these peoples, and it seemed reductive to the field as a whole to present the study of ancient Greece and Rome as not already interested in such events.
In part, Peralta also spoke to the idea that classics as a subject might not be salvageable at all and must be completely overhauled in order to continue as a discipline. This, too, is misleading: the classical sciences are already among the least funded and least supported academic disciplines across the country. Budgets for classics departments – and other humanities – are being rapidly reduced at various high schools and universities, including Dickinson. In past centuries, the classics were able to dominate education, this is no longer the case today: the classics are not an enemy of progress and equity, and discipline is in fact necessary to be able to understand the whole extent of humanity; exactly as Peralta pointed out when comparing ancient texts to the modern Caribbean diaspora. Although he explored these contradictory points, he did not reach a resolution in his speech.
Although Peralta advocated that the Classics should encompass and relate to many different ancient cultures, not just Greece and Rome, and should be as accessible to as many people as possible, he also undermined this point through nature even speech.
I hope I correctly represented the points he made, but Peralta’s use of academic language in his speech was almost unintelligible. He did not define the discipline-specific jargon he used repeatedly, and even I, as a classics student, was perplexed myself. His complex academic jargon ended up undermining the main point of his speech, namely the need for the classics to be more expansive and more accessible. Although Peralta’s arguments were good, his representation of his arguments was sometimes confusing and he did not share his examples in a way that his audience could understand.