Black History Month is not racist.

I am compelled to say this because racism, as with so much else in America today, has entered its Orwellian moment. You see, white people are the real victims of discriminatory systems and practices. Donald Trump is the ideological heir of Martin Luther King.

On a slightly different note, I learned something yesterday while reading a pair of essays by the memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn. Contrary to what you may hear all month long (“if we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it”), humans are bound to repeat the past whether we know about it or not. And we’re bound to do what we will, despite signs that may portend our fates.

“Since the end of the first century AD, people have been playing a game with a certain book,” Mendelsohn wrote in a 2018 essay, “Epic Fail?”

“In the game, you open the book to a random spot and place your finger on the text; the passage you select will, it is thought, predict your future.”

The game is called the sortes vergilianae. “Sortes” is Latin for “lots,” as in “drawing lots,” a reference, Mendelsohn teaches, to the game’s element of chance. The latter word is the Latin adjective that means having to do with the famous Roman poet Virgil. The book that “was a magnet for the figures of the great and powerful” who played the sortes vergilianae was Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous epic about the founding of Rome.

The first person known to play the game was an elite Roman worried about whether he’d ever be chosen emperor. He reportedly opened the Aeneid and put his fingers on the following passage: “I recognize that he is that king of Rome, gray headed, gray bearded, who will formulate the laws for the early city …” The Roman’s name was Hadrian, emperor from 117 to 138 AD.

Charles I is said to have played the game during the English Civil War and “was alarmed to find that he’d placed his finger on a passage that concluded, “But let him die before his time, and lie / Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.” Of course, Charles I lost not only his kingdom, but his head.

Here’s the thing, though, did reading that passage and knowing the game’s predictive powers stop Charles’ fatal war with Parliament?   

Similarly, there’s a cottage industry built on the weirdly suicidal obsession America has with Rome’s fall, as if we already know how this “experiment in democracy” ends. Indeed, the ending was baked into the beginning.

Mendelsohn points out that “from the moment it appeared,” Virgil’s Aeneid “was the paradigmatic classic in Western art and education,” influencing everyone from Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to John Adams and his son John Quincy, who apparently translated the entire epic.

But if Founding Fathers, would-be presidents, and political statesmen considered Virgil’s poem a lesson in “the inevitability of imperial dominance, the responsibilities of authoritarian rule, the importance of duty and self-abnegation in the service to the state,” in an era of imperial decline, the poem has become an “embarrassment,” Mendelsohn writes.

Scholars now find in the Aeneid “a tale of nationalistic arrogance whose plot is an all-too-familiar-handbook for repressive violence: once Aeneas and his fellow Trojans arrive on the coast of Italy, they find that they must fight a series of wars with an indigenous population that, eventually, they brutally subjugate.”

Speaking of wars. One of the most ironic aspects of our current culture wars is just how negligible culture’s role seems to be in the fighting. I challenge you to identify someone who stridently believes that Western culture and values are disappearing from our schools, only to be replaced by Critical Race Theory, and ask that person if they can remember a single line from the Aeneid. What book in the Western literary cannon have they read in the last decade? Do they know the difference between Homer and Virgil?

In the same vein, ask a strident multiculturalist, who (rightly) demands, for instance, that schools incorporate more minority authors into their curricula, if they’ve read The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week (now Black History Month).

For those who may have a predisposition to yelling “reverse racism!” in response to anything that doesn’t center whiteness, ask them if they know that Black History Month was, from its inception, an exercise in racial reconciliation, in radical inclusion, but (and here’s the kicker) on Black people’s terms.

Woodson chose February for his commemoration because it was the month in which Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born. But it wasn’t supposed to be a month dedicated merely to celebrating great individuals. Woodson knew that Lincoln didn’t end slavery all by himself. Groups of people, especially Black people, fought to bring down that evil institution.

Woodson also understood the importance of Black people building institutions of our own. Before the “1619 Project,” there was The Journal of Negro History, established in 1916 by Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which was formed the previous year and still exists (it’s now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History).

The association “set a theme for the annual celebration, and provided study materials — pictures, lessons for teachers, plays for historical performances, and posters of important dates and people. Provisioned with a steady flow of knowledge, high schools in progressive communities formed Negro History Clubs,” the Zinn Education Project reminds us. Even some white schools adopted the study materials.

And you know who else memorized the Aeneid? Successive generations of Black people, particularly Black leaders like Woodson, who despite being educated in the largely segregated 19th and early 20th centuries were steeped in the study of the classical rhetoricians.

Scholars Kenneth Goings and Eugene O’Connor have shown that, for many Blacks, “a classical, liberal arts education provided tools of empowerment.”

In fact, Woodson, the founder of Negro History Month and the second Black person to earn a PhD in history from Harvard (W.E.B. DuBois was the first) most certainly had an intellectual intimacy and familiarity with classical Western culture.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, Angela Davis, Greg Carr, Maulana Karenga, Lani Guinier, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Toni Morrison. All of these people helped push colleges and universities and other cultural institutions to incorporate Black culture. They helped form the basis of (actual) Critical Race Theory and founded holidays like Kwanzaa.

They also studied classical literature. Many of them learned Greek and Latin. Most whites may remember Davis (if they remember her at all) from her FBI wanted poster. They forget she studied French at Brandeis and philosophy in Germany. These so-called radical Blacks are familiar with Western culture in a way that many people arguing about its disappearance and advocating against CRT are not.

I don’t think we’re doomed to repeat the past because we’re ignorant about it. I think hubris dooms us. Americans throughout the years have read Aeneid and wanted to be Aeneas, the Trojan hero. That tendency has given us leaders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Just about every American knows deep down that there is nothing to stop this empire’s decline and fall. So we do what we can: we relish the ending. Unfortunately, our days of relishing with grace are gone.

In another essay, “JFK, Tragedy, Myth,” Mendelsohn recalls the moment in April 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning in a poor Black neighborhood in Indianapolis, broke the news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Kennedy said, before reciting a passage of Oresteia: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Tragically, Kennedy himself, like his brother before him, would be assassinated just two months later, and his words to that Indianapolis audience (“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world”) would be the epitaph etched on his tombstone.

“And so the present keeps replaying the past, repeating those old stories, the narratives that lurk behind the plays and myths, tales and characters so hardwired into our cultural circuitry that we can forget why we knew them in the first place,” Mendelsohn writes. “But when they reappear, we recognize them.”

Or not. We’ve become a country in which the classics no longer console or instruct — a point Mendelsohn inadvertently makes in “Epic Fail?” Many years after RFK’s graceful Greek-infused soliloquy, a quotation from the Aeneid was etched into the Memorial Hall of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

Readers today have “a very strange relationship” to Virgil, a work “we feel we should embrace but often keep at arm’s length. Take the quote in the 9/11 Museum: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time.’

“Whoever came up with the idea of using it was clearly ignorant of the context: these high-minded words are addressed to a pair of nighttime marauders whose bloody ambush of a group of unsuspecting targets suggests that they have far more in common with the September 11 terrorists than with their victims. A century ago, many a college undergrad could have caught the gaffe; today, it was enough to have an impressive-sounding quote from an unacknowledged classic.”

How do we reconcile a classic like the Aeneid, a virtual paean for authoritarians, with the better angels of our nature? How can the classics again console and instruct?

This Black History Month, read up on how classical education empowered people who, at one point or another, this white, Western world has considered radical Black separatists — people like King, Woodson, DuBois, Davis, Karenga, Morrison, Carr, Wright, Gates and West.

They can show us the way.


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