→ 06 Dec 13 at 3 am
Aryballos in the Form of Head of an African
Greek, ca. 480-430 BC (Classical)
Photo Courtesy and located at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland
There’s still heavy debate about whether these types of images (specifically those related to symposia, or drinking parties) are meant to be racial caricatures. What’s more difficult is that pottery was mass-produced, so a certain cartoonish effect is to be expected and is reflected in all subjects.
(I think it’s evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of Greek society. In the Iliad and Odyssey, the Ethiopians are mentioned repeatedly as being reverent of the gods and outside of city-state rivalry, the closest thing to racism that I’ve seen is anti-Persian sentiment as a result of the Persian War. I’m far more inclined to view this as a symbol of inclusion into a symposium, even if it seems ham-handed by modern standards.)
The problem with the “debate” as you say, is that it doesn’t make it’s way into your average art history classroom. As outlined by Gerviks and Rusaks, finding relevant information in the digital age causes its own set of challenges to Art History instruction, but that’s no excuse for:
1. These works never making into most classrooms in the first place
2. If they do, the reason for their existence and the Greek’s attitudes toward them being explained as more or less”they put white people on pottery because they thought they were beautiful, and put black people on them because they thought they were ugly.”
3. Never mentioning the fact that there are literally thousands of these kind of containers, as you’ve said.
The only in-depth and hard-hitting work on Black Greeks in Classical times I’ve been able to access has been a rather antiquated work itself: Snowden’s piece FROM 1948 [i have left the original language intact for accuracy but these are not acceptable terms in 2013] that combines linguistics, primary literary sources and artworks to provide a multifaceted conclusion regarding the Greek depiction and attitudes toward Black people as we would conceive of them today (p. 35):
Although Greek writers in only a few instances state specifically that Negroes were on Greek soil, the numerous references to Negroes in certain passages, together with the many representations of Negroes in Greek art, seem to furnish evidence of a racial type that was taken for granted by the average Greek.
It goes on to conclude (p. 37):
The available evidence supports the general statements of Zimmern that the Greeks show no trace of color-prejudice, and of Westermann that Greek society had no color line.But in my opinion, the most revelatory portion of Snowden’s work is the direct and blatant calling out of academic racism, with proper citation (p. 38):A passage in Menander is of importance in determining the Greek attitude toward the Negro. Persons of no account, says Menander, attempt to compensate for their worthlessness by reciting their pedigree. But, insists the comic poet, pedigree is unimportant, for:The man whose natural bent is good,He, mother, he, though Aethiop, is nobly born."A Scyth,"you say? Pest! Anacharsis was a Scyth!In other words, it makes no difference whether one is an Ethiopian or a Scythian; it is natural bent, not race, that determines nobility. Allinson translates lines 11-12 as follows: “The man whose natural bent is good, he, mother, though Aethiop is nobly born.”’Some scholars, however, translate this line in a manner which indicates that they have approached the subject with fixations which derive from certain modern attitudes toward the Negro. Waddell, for example, has the following note on “contemptuously, like ‘blackamoor,’ ‘n****r’;the proverb (wash an Ethiopian white) and Dacus et Aethiops.Waddell’s explanation is not supported by the evidence. Nor do his suggested comparisons with [greek characters] and [greek characters] prove his point.The proverb appears in a passage in Lucian, in which the author is illustrating the futility of advice to the ignorant book-collector on the proper use of books, i.e., advice has been wasted, or, in the words of the proverb, efforts are as futile as an attempt to wash an Ethiopian white. There is nothing contemptuous in the proverb.As for what the Greeks themselves wrote:Modern scholars have at times suggested that the Greeks regarded the Negro’s physical appearance as ugly and that the Greeks saw something comic in many artistic representations of the Negro type. Nothing in Greek literature, however, warrants such an assumption. Philostratus, for example, writes of the Ethiopian’s color as follows:Charming Ethiopians with their strange color…Sextus Empiricus, as stated above, says that beauty is relative and that standards vary from nation to nation, i.e.:…beauty is relative, the Negroes preferring the blackest and the most flat-nosed and the Persians approving the whitest and the most hook-nosed.And from primary sources on Black Greeks themselves:Crossings between Negro and whites in ancient Greece were not uncommon. Aristotle mentions a woman of Elis whose daughter by a Negro was not Negroid but whose grandson was. Plutarch relates a similar story about a Greek woman whose black baby caused her to be accused of adultery, [but] an investigation of her lineage revealed that she was the great granddaughter of an Ethiopian.The many racist academics lambasted here by Snowden, unfortunately, are still making an impact on education today. In Tate’s Critical Race Theory and Education, a general outline emerges (p. 199):Although many scholars have called for a change in the way educational research is conducted in communities of color, the influence of past research is persistent (e.g., Lomawaima,1995;Moran& Hakuta,1995). Carter and Goodwin (1994) stated:The conventional belief in the intellectual inferiority of visible racial/ethnic individuals has had a powerful impact on educational policy and curriculum development since before the 1800s.Because differences in achievement between White and non-White students were assumed to be genetically based, the inferiority paradigm allowed slavery to be condoned, which resulted in racial/ethnic groups, especially Blacks and Indians, considered uneducable and barred from formal or particularly being adequate schooling… The inferiority paradigm continues to manifest itself in the quality of education offered non-White children. 296)And that is why there a supposed “debate” about whether these vases were meant to mock racial differences, or celebrate them.Works Cited:Art and Archaeology of the African Diaspora: New Challenges in Art History InstructionThe Negro in Ancient Greece
Frank M. Snowden, Jr.
American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 50, No. 1, Part 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1948), pp. 31-44
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Article Stable URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/663949