Monday, 28 August 2017

Coopting the Classics at Charlottesville

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article posted on The Public Medievalist site which discussed how white supremacists have appropriated the concept of the medieval past for themselves. The piece entitled 'Leaving "Medieval" Charlottesville' focussed on the use of medieval emblems on flags and shields carried by the white supremacists while going on to discuss the presence of such people within the medieval reenactment community.
While I am an ancient historian, I am also an artist who adores the aesthetics of symbols and heraldry, especially those of the medieval period. I am not reenactor so I don't often wear things which feature these designs, but I always keep my eye open for beautifully designed emblems relevant to the classical world.
So imagine my shock and horror today when I spotted this photograph illustrating a Wired article about Charlottesville.
Screenshot of Wired articleAs I said, I keep an eye out for classical emblems. In case you can't see it, take a closer look:  

Close up screenshot showing patch featuring helmet and swords

A patch featuring a Greek helmet (I'm not sure if it's Spartan or Corinthian) and crossed swords (maybe gladii)

I am not naive. I have watched Sarah Bond receive death threats for pointing out the nature of polychromy in the classical world and how the stereotype of white marble statues became a later aesthetic movement with attached racial issues. I've also seen the abuse she received for pointing out racial diversity in the extant art of the past on Twitter. I don't think there is an ancient historian or classicist with a social media account in the world who did not witness how right-wing trolls completely lost their minds when the BBC produced a children's cartoon which illustrated non-white members of Roman society in Roman Britain.
The modern perception of the racial past is very much on topic at the moment.
The Public Medievalist's Race, Racism and the Middle Ages series has done a great job in introducing to a wide audience some of the historiography surrounding this issue; approaches which can in some cases be adapted for use in earlier history. I especially found Matthew Chalmer's article 'Anti-Semitism Before Semites' particularly illuminating in this manner. 
Yet the sight of this photograph today shook me. This beautifully designed emblem is the sort of insignia I would normally love to have on a badge, or shirt, or a tote to illustrate my love for the ancient world. I could have unwittingly purchased such a patch online and proudly carried it, believing that it identified me as a lover of the classical world. For all I know, this white nationalist might describe himself similarly. But for me, he has perverted his love for the past. 
In his article on Charlottesville, Paul B. Sturtevant wrote as a member of a medieval reenactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, but I am writing as an ancient historian and a consumer. This perversion of classical imagery has made me fearful of buying items which represent my passion because I do not want to accidentally imply that I think I am better than anyone else because of the colour of my skin. When the past is manipulated in such a way, is it little wonder that there a Facebook groups devoted to multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity in classics which devotes most of its efforts to discussing how to make people from diverse backgrounds interested in classics?
So to anyone who deludes themselves into thinking that the classical world was strictly white, guess what? You are wrong!
Multiculturalism existed in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Sure, it wasn't as apparent as it is today, but people of colour could be found in the great cities and they were definitely represented in art (check this out from The Met, for example).
Your use of classical imagery to illustrate your bigotry also serves to illustrate your ignorance - given that these are hardly mutually exclusive, this is not really a shock. 
But that said, this consumer now feels she needs to double check every possible meaning attributed to such designs (I haven't actually been able to see if this is officially used as the insignia for a specific hate group), because the only thing that sickens me more than a white supremacist is the fear that I might be mistaken for one.

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