Finding Black People in Antiquity: Talking the Future of Classics with Sarah Derbew

“It feels insensitive or dishonest to not acknowledge the ways in which our work is a part of a greater narrative.”

When I first met Professor Sarah Derbew, we bonded over our mutual love of music. Coincidentally, we had both spent our mornings looping “Boogie Wonderland” to get in the right headspace for the day. The headspace in question: tranquility, friendly conversations, impromptu dance parties. It’s all in service of speaking truth to our communities and teaching folks like us that it is possible to think capaciously in all disciplines from our perspectives.

In speaking about her monograph, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge University Press, 2022), Derbew eschews superlatives, focusing more on her experience as a writer and human being in the 21st century. In contrast, classics Twitter has—rightfully—hyped her book for months, calling it “the most important book of the year.”

Professor Derbew and I spoke over Zoom in February about her new book, being a writer, and, of course, dancing.

Stephanie Wong (SW): Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity gives all folks who have an interest in classics a chance to critically engage with constructions of race in antiquity and modernity alike. The book examines representations of black people in ancient Greek literature and art, while critiquing contemporary prejudicial thinking about Greek antiquity.

I read your manuscript, and I thought, Holy shit. Maybe I would have stayed a classicist if I had read this book five years ago.


Sarah Derbew (SD): That’s high praise. Thank you.


SW: I see your intellectual mission as a call also to the British Museum, which is an institution that features heavily in one of these chapters, to fully confront its history as a tool of imperialism. Will you tell me about museums and how they relate to your book’s broader project?


SD: When I was an undergraduate studying abroad at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome, I started paying attention to where objects were and how they were displayed in museums. I remember one trip to a museum in southern Italy… it might have been Caserta. I spent the whole day looking for Black people.

I ended up finding one squire in a corner, who was a part of a mural, and he wasn’t even the central figure. And I thought, This is so depressing. I’m in a country where they don’t really talk about race. I’m in a program where I made great friends but it is not lost on me that I’m the only Black person. I’m in a museum where there are no representations that speak to me.

That day in Italy made me start paying more and more attention to the ways in which blackness was displayed in museums. During later museum trips, I began muttering questions to myself, such as, Why is the Egyptian wing so far away from the African wing? Why is “classical” used to describe some cultures and “primitive” others? So that was perhaps the kernel of the beginnings of me thinking about museums as places that need to be scrutinized.

Still, it wasn’t until I conducted research in London as a graduate student that I really started seeing this topic as a viable subject of research. When I sent my museum chapter to my advisor, she said, This chapter is exciting. She suggested that I build further on my interest in museums and free myself from feeling like I need to only study the actual corpus of Greek and Latin texts. She encouraged me to think about the museum as a site that can also be read.

At that point, I started investigating the ancient Egypt and Sudanese collections at the British Museum. And that’s something that I want to keep doing. I’m curious to know: In the region that is currently in Sudan and Egypt—areas that would have been ancient Nubia—how do people in those countries describe their own artifacts?

I was fortunate enough to travel to Sudan in January of 2020, right before the pandemic picked up full steam. What a delightful trip. During my visit to the city of Meroe, I was so tickled when I asked one of the tour guides about a particular excavated object, a bronze bust of the Roman emperor Augustus (currently in the British Museum), that the British had taken out of Sudan in 1911. This object was found in Meroe, and my guide was so flippant about its current location; she didn’t even seem to remember the name of the museum where it was currently held. She just referred to it as being “somewhere in England.” This was such a beautiful subverting of norms. Who cares where it is in England? It’s in one of those foreign museums elsewhere—what’s important is that it’s not here.

And I thought, There’s so much more to be done here. Specifically, in the regions where objects were taken from, how do these people display their own ancient civilizations?


SW: Yes, provincialize Europe!


SD: Absolutely. What metropole? If we treat England as one of “European tribes,” to use Caryl Phillips’ language, England morphs from a powerful empire into one of many squabbling nations.

Questions about repatriation have always been relevant. But it does seem like that restitution of objects is becoming more and more on the forefront of museums’ mindsets. These developments have been exciting to witness as museums think more seriously about how to rebalance out the aftermath of the colonial project.

For example, think about the opening of Black Panther, where Erik Killmonger races into… it’s called something like the Museum of Great Britain. It’s not called the British Museum, but the parallels are striking. He breaks in; he steals one of the objects and says, This is made of Vibranium and belongs to my people.

Barring the violence, these acts are incredibly long overdue; getting your objects back has been something that African nations have been clamoring for, for a long time.


SW: Now you have this Sudanese woman who pretends or maybe honestly does not know or care where this missing artifact is.


SD: Her mind was filled with other important topics. There was no space for the name of the British Museum.

Why is the Egyptian wing so far away from the African wing?

SW: When I was reading, I was thinking about how it is a joy to read your writing. These days, it’s got to go down easy, and I felt like I was able to read and learn so much so easily from your book. Do you like writing?


SD: That’s the hardest part of the process. For me, it’s probably the part that I enjoyed the least because of how hard it is. I really have to push myself to get in front of the computer.

The reading part—that’s been my friend since I was a kid. I always had a library card and was maxing out the amount of books I could take out and was always excited to talk about what I was reading with friends, family, or even fellow travelers on public transportation.

In graduate school, I found myself getting really lost when I would read academic literature, because of the dense theoretical prose. It almost felt like I just had to figure out what other people thought about it to unlock its value. Sometimes these texts felt impenetrable.

So I tried to write in a way that satisfies people like me: people who really enjoy reading and enjoy beautiful prose, but also enjoy not saying something in a page when you could have done it in a paragraph.

In terms of actually doing the writing, that’s the part where I sometimes have to eat a piece of chocolate or get a really tasty smoothie to get my spirits ready to do it.


SW: I relate to that so much. You have to be in a really good headspace.


SD: It can be hard, because sometimes I’m not in a great mood but I have a deadline. And I have to write, because I’m very strict with my self-imposed deadlines. I will write, but it doesn’t always feel good.

But I had a physical education teacher in high school who used to tell us that the best workout is the one you do when you don’t feel like doing it. So I will say, the sense of accomplishment when I’m done after a cranky writing session is high. I don’t feel happy. But I feel accomplished.


SW: At least the PE teacher had endorphins.


SD: That’s real. Maybe I can do push-ups afterward.

Dance breaks are good too. I try to do dance breaks when I write. That can really reset me.


SW: What do you like dancing to?


SD: Afrobeats. I listen to my West African tunes, my Nigerian and my Kenyan music, shake a tail feather and then get back to work. Soca music also gets me in the zone.


SW: They know what’s up. I feel like many equatorial music cultures really know how to send a signal to your brain.


SD: Is it something ancestral? It’s primordial, something deep. I just want to tell people, I dare you not to move your foot. How can you not move your foot? Especially if it’s loud.

But my office is right next to a classroom and other offices, so I can’t blast it too loud. Unless I have my headphones in. That’s a game changer.


SW: I like this idea of incorporating movement into your writing practice. I can’t just sit down and work for six hours and come up with my newest brainchild.

Now that I’m in Mexico City, I hear music too much. I cannot avoid it. It took a long time for me to adapt and truly incorporate it into my daily life.


SD: Do you need noise to do work or do you like to work in silence?


SW: I prefer not listening to music while I’m working. I don’t mind ambient noise; it’s just that it was so jarring to go from the sound of a bus driving by to a two-and-a-half-hour Zumba class happening in the park across the street.


SD: You have a lot of discipline. I would have been tempted to join in. Then you could get the endorphins that my PE teacher spoke about. And then your fingers would flow!


SW: This is the problem-slash-blessing!


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SW: Moment to moment, who or what are your muses? I know that we share this mutual love of music. What gets you going? What makes you want to make more art?


SD: When I was in elementary school, I remember my principal telling us that if you have a role model, it has to be a role model that you see every day. Your role model can’t be Destiny’s Child, it can’t be Oprah, can’t be someone you only see one side of. Your role model needs to be someone you can see different sides of and still appreciate them.

I was only 11 when she told me that. But I’ve thought about it a lot as I’ve gotten older. Lately, I’ve been thinking, Whom do I admire, whose work do I admire? But also whose style of advising do I admire, whose rhetoric do I admire, whose spirit do I admire, whose equanimity do I admire?

I was fortunate to have a great advisor in graduate school. I still write as if I’m going to submit something to her. I think, Wow, this is someone whose writing I admire, whose teaching I admire, whose ethos I admire, whose calls for diversity I admire, whose advocacy I admire. So I try to channel her constructive feedback into my own work. I ask myself, What would she say in response to this paragraph? She would tell me I need to back up my argument and better articulate my thesis. Then, I go back to my writing and make those corrections.

If we’re going to go the other route and disobey my principal and include people I don’t know whose work I really admire—I find Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s prose so beautiful. There’s another Ethiopian writer, Rebecca Fisseha, who writes like water. I don’t really know how to describe it. But once I started reading her novel Daughters of Silence, I was hooked. I needed to keep going; I lost sense of time. I had to write her a “reader’s appreciation” email because she needed to know how fabulous her novel was.

So there are a lot of fiction writers who inspire me in terms of creating really incisive, lustrous prose that ends up transporting the reader, if only for a moment.


SW: That’s wonderful. I find that, as someone who’s trained to write for the academy in a traditional way, so many of us don’t take inspiration from folks who are creating beautiful sentences for a living.


SD: There’s a short story at the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing around Your Neck: “The Headstrong Historian.” It’s all about this young woman who’s learning more and more about her community. Meanwhile, her father has decided to turn away from the home villages, language, and education; instead, he has really adopted this European Western mindset.

So it’s not the father but the daughter who ends up going back to her grandmother’s village and eventually telling her grandmother’s history to the world. This young woman becomes personally and professionally invested in using the skills that she’s gained from the West, and applying them to the Global South.

This has always been my ethos. I’m not yet at a stage where I know exactly how I’m going to merge the two worlds. But I am feeling more and more invested. And I have found more and more spaces in which to take the advantages and the privileges that I have here, and try to speak to or speak alongside—not speaking for—communities that are not always included or deemed worthy of inclusion into the academy.


SW: What a powerful lifelong goal. That’s something that I’m really excited for, to see you do this, and to see other people do this as creatively as possible.


SD: I recognize I stand on the shoulders of many. My paternal grandfather didn’t read or write in English, yet he was a successful businessman and merchant who spoke four languages; my paternal grandmother only spoke Amharic, yet people clamored to be in her presence throughout her life.

There’s so many different educational backgrounds that come in my family. There are people who have degrees, there are people who don’t. There are people for whom English is really difficult as a language to communicate and others who are fluent.

I also recognize that growing up awash in languages and cultures rather than money has meant that I’ve learned from a young age that money doesn’t equate to intelligence, or intelligence doesn’t equate to kindness, or that Americanness doesn’t equate to all of the above.


SW: Believe it or not, we people of color contain multitudes.


SD: Who would have thought?

SW: People these days see writers of color, and an unspoken judgment that’s cast upon us is, Oh, we’re just taking advantage of the moment, we’re just riding the wave. What are your thoughts about the wave?


SD: When I started working on the topic of the book, I didn’t know it was going to be my dissertation. But I started working on what became one of the chapters around 2010. So this is not a trend that I hopped on as a gruesome way to benefit off media attention surrounding the murder of George Floyd or any other victims of police violence.

I decided it had to be a book, as critical race theory was getting more and more integral into my project. If anything, it seems like the timeliness—or the being able to speak to the particular moment—just shows how sometimes history can be cyclical. And I do find that contemporary examples are really useful for bringing in broad audiences. For instance, the recent release of the movie Passing, based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen of the same name, brings to light the complicated ways in which skin color continues to preoccupy the 20th- and 21st-century imagination.

But it is also important to temper such contemporary connections with recognizing that we’re not only talking about a singular moment. This is not only timely. In fact, this is something that has reverberated throughout history; we’re just seeing a current instantiation.

It’s such a privilege to be able to step back and say, This is timely. It feels insensitive or dishonest to not acknowledge the ways in which our work is a part of a greater narrative. There’s a beautiful way in which we can acknowledge what’s going on in the present without making it the focus. There’s spaces and ways in which there can be intersections. And this is an invitation for them to build off it.


SW: I have one last question: What’s something you’re looking forward to?


SD: In the short term, I’m looking forward to the pandemic being over so I can visit more family, and go back to places that are my happy places, in terms of traveling.

I’m also looking forward to really, really, really being done with this book, all the publicity and promo complete. Looking ahead even further, I’m looking forward to knowing that this book is part of my legacy that will remain on this planet when I depart in 2080, or whenever the spirits decide to call me home.

I’m also looking forward to teaching more, to getting to know more students and feeding off their energy. And I’m looking forward to building collaborations with people on the African continent, with communities in Sudan and Ethiopia, and figuring out ways to build sustainable partnerships that don’t just end up draining resources from the continent, but helping to bolster them.


SW: Infusing resources into the continent!


SD: Shirley Chisholm (shout-out to Brooklyn!) said, “Service is the rent we pay for living on this earth.” And that’s true. It’s unfortunate that sometimes when we—people who are the global majority, but the minority in academic spaces—seem to receive more responsibility on our shoulders.

So I do want to always encourage and urge white colleagues, white students, white friends, and white strangers to see themselves as being really important in this work, too. Because if it’s only the people of color who do it, we only have so much power and energy.

For my readers of color, I recognize that simply surviving requires work. That being said, capacity willing, it is really helpful to push the boundaries of who’s expected to be the one to make change. And to leave space for others to do it.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


This article was commissioned by Stephanie Wong and Sarah E. Bond. icon

Featured Image: Photograph of Sarah Derbew by Navdeep Singh.