I began this class the moment I left my room on the first day. I believe the walk to class counts as a part of the experience. On a first Monday, you don’t know what to expect. You are about to plunge into a class that will completely define your life for the next three weeks. It’s a daunting commitment, and at times grueling. My point is that on the block plan, first impressions really do matter. I walked through the grand old doors of Palmer Hall, built in 1904. The basement and the first floor of Palmer are both pulsing hubs of student activity, housing major departments such as Business, Sociology, and Geology. The sandstone walls and stairs of this dignified old building have been worn down through their constant use. As I walk up to the second floor, all human activity seems to disappear. Pushing the door in and stepping onto the creaky hardwood floor, I know I’m about to meet the people who I’ll be deeply related with for the next short period of my life. I’m brought some relief when the face greeting me is the smiling, kindly face of our professor Ted.
I am one of four students in our class. The name of the class (the abridged version) is “Culture under colonialism in Ancient North Africa.” What we are studying is the way in which culture and society changed throughout North Africa — generally concentrating on the Hellenistic period. For those of you who aren’t Classics majors, the Hellenistic period refers to the three hundred years before the turn of the era. The way we explored the topics of the class was by meeting for three hours in the morning, every day.
During the first week of class, and even on the first day, we got into some pretty heavy and uncomfortable topics. It’s difficult to discuss the region of the ancient Mediterranean without also considering what the problematic cultural values were; deeply founded racism, mistreatment of women, blatant exoticization of people groups, and exploitation of the land, to name a few. On the first day, we discussed the definitions of ethnicity and race, and where we found overlaps and exclusive areas between the two. Along with the uncomfortable topics, we also had some uncomfortable sources. In terms of the sources we read for class, many of them are in fact from historians and geographers in antiquity. These ancient scholars lived in ancient times — understandably, they held the same antiquated cultural values of those times. This leads to some interesting phrases and representations of people. But it isn’t simply the ancient scholars who assign problematic labels. It is currently common practice within modern Classics departments to refer to indigenous North Africans as “Berbers.” Through a line of tracing people to their origins, it isn’t hard to figure out that “Berber” means barbarian, which is a deeply racialized implication.
Although talking about issues like this can cause real discomfort, that represents, in many ways, the beauty of CC. In order to truly learn and develop knowledge surrounding any subject, you also have to be willing to accept unpleasant truths about that subject. We grappled with this idea for several days.