When Howard University announced it would be shuttering its classics department this past April, it reignited a longstanding debate about the role of classical texts in Black education. Anika T. Prather, who earned her B.A. from Howard University in elementary education and returned to the school to teach a course focused on “Blacks in Classical Studies,” was one of the voices arguing against the closure, suggesting in an op-ed for USA Today that it was important for Howard to help students “see the canon differently than what centuries of racism have taught us to believe about them.” In addition to teaching at Howard, Prather is the founder of the Living Water School, a Christian school for Black students that combines elements of classical education with the Sudbury Model, located in southern Maryland. This summer Dr. Prather, who comes from a family of educators, spoke with me about her experiences teaching the classics to Black elementary, high school and college students, the role the classics have played in past struggles for racial equality, and how the classics can be taught so that students of all backgrounds see their experience reflected in them.
Jon Baskin: Your parents started a classical school for Black kids in Maryland when you were growing up. And you’ve mentioned being skeptical about it at first and questioning your parents about why Black kids would need to engage with this tradition.
Anika Prather: I was just about finished with one of my master’s degrees, my music education degree at Howard, when they decided to start a classical school. And I thought they were crazy. I felt, like most people do today, that this is not relevant to Black people. I had no idea of the Black classical tradition or anything like that. But they were very headstrong about it. They’re in their eighties, so they were educated before desegregation—and they went to schools that were classically inspired, as many of the early Black schools were. So they started this classical school, and they kept asking me to leave public school to come work for them. I kept saying, No, we need to be teaching our kids about our people, our history, our literature. Long story short, they talked me into it because I love them. And that’s the only reason I went. I said, Well, I will only teach music and drama. I had a master’s in theater from NYU and a master’s in music from Howard, and had just started a Ph.D. program at University of Maryland, in theater and literacy education, where I was going to show how the arts can be used to help kids read difficult literature.
I started teaching music and drama, and I just happened to be walking down the hallway when I saw the great books class. The teacher was teaching six Black male students, all in high school, all about six feet tall, and she’s like five feet. She’s trying to get them to engage with her and the literature, and I see her frustration. And I say, “Can I help you?” She says, “You know, I appreciate your parents. But I don’t know why they feel this literature is relevant to Black students, I think they’ve got to read things that are connected to who they are.” And even though I didn’t disagree, I don’t like other people disagreeing with my parents. “Well, let’s just see if I can help you,” I said. “I’ll use theater and music to see if I can help them connect to it. Give me the books.” It was totally a setup, totally a trick from God, or whoever you believe in. I said, Lemme take these books and read them and I’ll come up with some creative lessons to help them engage. And I’m not kidding—I was instantly a fan of reading the canon after that.
JB: What kind of books were these?
AP: I remember doing lessons on the Peloponnesian War, lessons on one of the dialogues and Socrates. I remember doing lessons on The Great Gatsby, the Bacchae and other Greek tragedies. They were reading lots of Aristotle, Shakespeare. And it was a Christian school, so we also read some St. Augustine. Reading those texts, it wasn’t about Black and white. I didn’t realize that. And I think that’s a mistake a lot of people are making who aren’t reading them. They’re believing what people are saying about them. And what’s happening is people who have read them, and have looked at the history of the texts being used to oppress or to set up class levels, we’ve bought into that, as opposed to thinking, well, maybe it’s not the text, or maybe the text has been misused, which is what I came to realize when I began to read and prepare my arts-based lessons around the texts.
JB: How did the students respond?
AP: There was an immediate connection. Like, one of the statements was, “They’re going through what we’re going through.” A real turning point came for me when we were reading the Bacchae, because this student was not from the greatest home. I don’t want to give a lot of detail, but there were drugs in a home, it was a rough situation. He felt that he didn’t need to do school because his father didn’t finish seventh grade. He had really checked out. But when I began to teach the text, even with an attitude, I could tell he was listening, and then he began writing and engaging. We had just finished reading the Bacchae, and we were arguing about why Dionysus was angry. Different students had given different reasons. And this student says, “He’s mad because they weren’t honoring him.” He said it with an attitude like, I’m not going to show I’m interested. But he couldn’t take it. And he says this and even I was curious, like, Why was Dionysus mad? I said, Why do you say that? And he took us to the part of the book that said, “Because my name is not being honored in Thebes.”
That’s when I was like, I gotta change my whole research interest. That was a light bulb moment for me. If these texts can get through this… if you look at him, you would look at him as the stereotypical angry Black male. I mean, because he really was angry. He was angry at his home life, angry that his dad was more interested in drugs than him. He’s mad that his mother put him in this private school, and he couldn’t hang out with his friends in a public school. He was just angry all the way around. And if I can get this literature that people say is irrelevant through to his hard heart, it was possible to get through to anyone.
JB: So the school, though, ultimately gets shut down. What happened?
AP: Those of us who like classical studies or reading the canon are kind of in our own world, and we don’t understand why people on the outside world don’t always get it. That’s how my parents were: they just thought, This is the best for our community. But they didn’t take time to explain it. The school was attached to a church, and, sadly, board members didn’t understand the value of it. We were getting less and less students, people were leaving. There were a lot of questions from Blacks and whites of why, and that’s what makes this battle of the classics very difficult. With all the division that’s going on, this is the one thing Blacks and whites agree on. They don’t want classics.
JB: When you say Black and white people both don’t want classics, would you say the thing that unites them is a sense that it’s not useful for their kids?
AP: The reasons are different. Black people, we recognize the racist history surrounding the works of the canon, and we don’t want anything to do with them. Like, we were forced to learn their story. We don’t want to do that anymore. No one took the time to teach what Herodotus wrote about the Ethiopians, which was very beautiful wording, how he describes them. You know, the way those texts were always taught excludes ancient African civilizations, even though they’re in there.
With white people, they’re kind of split. There are white people who’ve become what they call woke—they have become aware of the oppression that their ancestors have unleashed on Black people, and they want to distance themselves from anything that was a part of that process. So they’re partnering with Blacks and saying, you’re right, it is irrelevant. But then you have white people who are like, this is our tradition, our narrative, you know, this keeps us at a certain level. Du Bois talks about this veil, and he recognized that having access to the canon and access to classical learning got him above the veil—that color line, that line that shows who’s superior, who’s inferior. He said, I’m going to get this information. Frederick Douglass recognized that this gets me above that. Well, there are many white people that don’t want that equality.
JB: So they don’t want the classical tradition being taught to other kids, kids of other races.
AP: Other races, Blacks. Why? Because they like being the keepers of this tradition. So there’s this battle where everybody wants to fight it, but they’re all doing it for different reasons. Also, classical study unifies us, and Black people may not necessarily want to be unified with those who used to enslave them. I’m just being real. Then white people were like, we’re very happy with the color line.
JB: There’s a case against unification on both sides.
AP: Yes, and no actual stories. You have some people who don’t want to know that Kush at one point was a great conquering civilization, they want us to believe that Egyptians look like Arab people, and the only way that Egypt is accepted is if they don’t look fully chocolate. But you read the ancient texts, the Egyptians were truly African people. The civilization of Kush, which is also Ethiopia, the civilization of Egyptians and so on—a lot of times people say, well, that’s North Africa, that’s [not] sub-Saharan Africa. So there’s a color line there that people have put on Africa, when the ancient historians don’t see Africa that way.
JB: The Living Water School, which you run now, calls itself a “classically inspired school for independent learners in a global community.” Can you say what that means to you, and how it manifests in the education?
AP: Starting a school, even being a principal of a school, was not a career dream. I was happy being a kindergarten teacher until I died. But our oldest son, he’s eleven now, and when this journey started he was about four. I was in the second semester of his pre-K year, and I knew that he was not going to do well with anybody’s traditional school program. I knew that as a Black male, with his creative artistic output, his way of being, he was going to have some challenges, including in the traditional classical schools. So I began to look for schools for him that mixed in freedom along with classical learning.
As I researched this more, I began to feel a liberated educational experience was necessary for Black kids. Education, since we came out of slavery, has often been, I feel, another form of a plantation for Black students. So it’s important to be in a liberated space, in a democratic space where they vote, where students are making decisions for the good of the school community, as opposed to just doing what I tell them we should do. For Black people, education has traditionally been done to survive. They haven’t had the freedom to think and to wonder.
If you look at Aristotle’s Parts of Animals—he does this in all his writings but this is an example I always talk about—you get a picture of Aristotle looking at something and just wondering about it. And before long he’s unfolded and uncovered all these interesting aspects of that thing, whatever that is. Black people have not had the freedom to do that. A lot of times, we will choose degrees and pathways that are not even connected to our passion, because we need to find the thing that makes us the most money or gets us to climb a ladder so that we can feel equal in society. My school is built on the idea that all people have the right to be whoever they want to be, to choose their path, to study the things that interest them, to learn about the things that interest them, to choose a career connected to what interests them.
JB: Is there anything you learned from your parents’ experience doing classically inspired education that you’ve applied at the Living Water School?
AP: One of the mistakes that my family made is they did not educate parents on why we do this philosophy. So one thing I’ve always done with my school is, from the moment you say, “I want to come to your school,” I do these one-on-one meetings where I explain everything: research I’ve done, examples of people who’ve been successful, historic background that has been helpful to my families valuing what I do.
Because so many Black people are in survival mode, even still, sadly, it’s hard to get the parents to the place where they can value this type of education. I have to first show them how it can help. Other parents do this who aren’t Black, but I know Black parents will always ask a child who says, “I wanna be an artist”: “Well, how will you make money with that?” First question they’ll ask. And if you go back into Black education history, the reason why some of their early careers were teaching, preaching, [is that] certain jobs that Black people were trained for were jobs that they knew they could get a good job and make a decent living. Not just “this is my passion.”
JB: You’ve been describing a shift you underwent, where, at the beginning as an educator, the thing you realize is the classics could appeal to Black kids, that they could read Shakespeare and the tradition wasn’t impenetrable to those students. But then it seems like in your career, you started to think more about how, actually, the classics also are intertwined, that there is this Black classical tradition. And it’s not some kind of translation exercise. There’s a tradition that’s there. And that’s very much part of the classics, but it’s not often taught in that way. Is that accurate?
AP: Yeah. And the thing about it is one thing Black people don’t understand: classics really helped—I didn’t say it did—but it helped—to liberate them. Because one of the ancient texts that the slave masters would let Black people have access to was the Bible. They weren’t allowed to read, but they could listen to it. And they could learn through eavesdropping on their masters’ children’s lessons how to read a map. So when they hear about the Bible story of Egypt, and the pharaohs, they came to realize: we’re not just slaves. Africa isn’t just this uncivilized, backwards place, because my ancestors could be powerful enough to be slave-owners. So there are stories like Phillis Wheatley. She’s there in 1776, writing letters to George Washington as a formerly enslaved woman. And she’s referencing ancient Africa. Well, she learned that because her master was a Christian. So she’s learning about the Bible.
A lot of people don’t realize even that the slave reading any ancient texts such as the Bible, for example, they came to get back in touch with their Black heritage, their African heritage, and to learn the truth about their heritage. And then when they began to learn to read for themselves, they began to read other ancient texts, and began to see all these stories about Africa. And when they learned about Terence—back then people didn’t teach that he was from Africa. But his plays were used by many of the founders as a perfect example of how to learn Latin, because he wrote such beautiful Latin. When Phillis Wheatley gets a hold of that she’s like, You mean he’s a brother? Like he’s Black? Can you imagine what that does to a lowly slave? Why did we become so fascinated with the ancient world in these early years? Because they’re the ones that told us we’re not slaves. They helped us, because we were delivered in our minds. We’re not animals. We’re not from this horrible uncivilized place. You know? And I can see the pharaohs, I can see Kush, I can see Hannibal, I can see Terence. That’s where that Black classical tradition began. And yes, you’re right. That came after I began to connect with a text from just basic humanity. I’m like Indiana Jones in the lost city, I was uncovering this trail that leads all the way up.
JB: Fast forwarding a little bit, you returned to Howard recently, where you went to university. And you mentioned how when you came out of Howard, you were somewhat hostile to what your parents were doing with their Black classical school. So I’m curious, now that you brought your different perspective and pedagogy back to Howard, what the reaction of the current students was. Was there some skepticism?
AP: Howard up until now has always required students to have some type of experience in the classical tradition, as a part of your gen-ed courses. Mine was called “Blacks and Classical Studies.” I started off in ancient Africa and went all the way up into America to the present day showing the role classics has played in the Black community.
At the beginning of the class, I ask a question: Why are you taking this class? There’s always, “Well it’s for my GE courses, to fulfill my GE courses.” And then another question I’ll ask is, What has your experience been with classical studies? “It’s racist, it’s white-supremacist.” “I never saw myself.” Those were always the answers, never a connection. And I don’t argue with them on that. I say, I want to ask this question again when we’re done, and I’d love to see what you say. And we always go through this transformation, where they come to see it as, “This is mine.”
This one student tells a story from Howard. I had assigned Herodotus, I think it was book five, to them to read. They had to read that along with Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.” I said, I want you to see what Thomas Jefferson feels about you, and I want you to see what Herodotus feels about you. Both of them are white. And I want to know what you feel about that. Thomas Jefferson talks about the inferiority of Blacks, not just physically but intellectually, in “Notes on the State of Virginia.” But then Herodotus talks about the bravery and the beauty of the Ethiopian people, and he calls us the beautiful and long-lived Ethiopians. And the student talks about reading book five of the Herodotus in the airport headed home for Christmas or Thanksgiving, and he says he got teary. He was like, Here’s this Greek, talking about Africa: Why didn’t anybody ever show me this?
And that’s a question I would have teaching at Howard. Because a lot of them were freshmen and some of them were coming from private or Christian schools, and they said, I did not realize that Ethiopia was in the Odyssey, like they don’t realize that Africa is referenced throughout the ancient texts. And why do they skip over it? Why don’t they tell us? These students are from all over the United States. So you can’t say to me, “Well, that’s just one” or “You’re just making that up just because you’ve heard a few.” I taught two hundred students at Howard by the time I finished that year, I taught three sections of Humanities I. And I cannot remember one student saying that in their experience with the canon, anyone ever showed them the diversity in the works. That’s sad to me, and it really goes along with Padilla’s article. A lot of people got, I guess, offended or were troubled by his article. I thought it’s helped my work.
JB: You’re referring to the essay from the New York Times Magazine about the Princeton classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta?
AP: Padilla talks about coming here as a child. He talks about getting that scholarship to go to that private school for high school. It was a classically inspired school and he ends up going into classics. But he talks about how in that high school and into studying classics in college, he was made to feel ashamed of his heritage. But the study of classics should not make anyone feel ashamed because Asia intersects there, India intersects there, Africa intersects there, the Middle East intersects there. The ancient writers don’t try to hide that so much as we do. When you hear about all the different diverse people that intersect there, we should all feel proud, we should all feel we are a part of this human narrative. We played a role in this!
JB: It’s not just about like teaching them, oh, you can relate to this. It’s that it’s yours!
AP: It’s yours, it’s yours. We were reading about Cyrus the Great at Howard. And I said, Everyone close your eyes. When you think of him, Cyrus the Great, what do you see? They all said some white man, some blond-haired, blue-eyed man. I said, Let’s look at where he’s from. He’s from the Middle East, my friends. “Are you serious?” Yes! And Thomas Jefferson claims Cyrus the Great as being one of his greatest heroes. He wanted to liken himself to Cyrus the Great, and he didn’t realize he was connected to someone from the Middle East. We don’t teach that, right? So an Arab person should be able to read the classics, and say, Listen, someone from my heritage was one of the greatest world rulers of all time.
JB: Soon after you finished with your year at Howard, they made this announcement that they were closing classics as an independent department. Is it still part of the general education requirement?
AP: The last definitive word is that the classics department has not been saved. So…
JB: But do they still have to take a classics course as part of the general education?
AP: They might read some of those texts, but it’ll just be a regular literature course. Or ancient studies course. There will be no department like we’ve done it before.
JB: I know you got involved in some of the debates with that, you wrote an op-ed for USA Today. What do you think Howard students will be missing out on if it does really go through and get closed?
AP: Let me go back a little bit. The classics department at Howard has been threatened to be closed for years before now. I think my first recollection is 2010. But if you go back and even read about Frank Snowden—he was back in the early to mid-1900s—there’s always been this misunderstanding of the classics department at Howard. There’s always been a struggle to keep it going, even as Frank Snowden was doing research on ancient African civilization. But because he wasn’t as on board with Afrocentricity there was this accusation that you’re trying to promote a white narrative, right? So there’s always been this threat, then in 2010 it came up to be closed. They were able to hang on. Here we are in 2021. So when I was hired, I knew that there were talks about closing it. But it’s Howard. So I gave it my heart and soul. Then as it really began—it was announced in our faculty meeting that they were definitely closing it—I still wasn’t going to do anything, I just felt like it was way over my head. But the students of Howard University, anyone who had taken classes at Howard, they were writing letters, they were creating petitions. When I saw that, the students valuing the classics, it was very eye-opening. It should have been eye-opening to the whole community that the students don’t feel like it’s taking them away from their heritage, they find it’s a part of their heritage.
For Howard, though, the classics department hasn’t offered a major since 2010, and it wasn’t, I don’t want to say the word profitable, but it wasn’t, maybe, good business. I feel sensitive to this, because I have a school and I have had to cut programs to save the school. As a leader of an organization, you are constantly looking at what program can we really afford. In this case I feel the weakness [in enrollments] is what caused them to close it in conjunction with maybe not knowing the importance of this story.
But Howard has always been the keeper of the Black classical tradition. All the great Black classicists came through Howard at some point, and Frank Snowden was really the first person to uncover the Black classical tradition by showing us the ancient civilizations that are mentioned in the texts we’ve been reading for years, you know. Blacks and Antiquity and Before Color Prejudice, these works teach us that. Anna Julia Cooper, who was one of the first Black women to get her Ph.D., was a classicist. Alain Locke was a literary giant, but rooted in the canon and the classics as well. On campus you’ve got Douglass Hall across the way from Locke Hall, where we know Frederick Douglass is rooted in classics. So we see signs all around Howard of how classics was integral to fighting for our liberation. But people haven’t been telling this story enough. I’m not even going to blame the current people who are making the decisions today. We have to keep telling these stories. Because if you don’t keep telling the story, eventually, its value in the eyes of its people is lost, right?
Image credit: Relief attributed to Petamenophis (Late Period, Kushite; ca. 710-640 BC)