Modern race relations in Classics? A follow-up

Corrective Warning: The contents of this post are in part based on a segment on This American Life, which was based on an article in the journal Science. The journal has since retracted the article due to misrepresentations in the article. For more on this retraction, see this article in the Los Angeles Times.


The riots in Baltimore make this post a little more timely than I had anticipated.  As suggested by a comment, I planned to use my lesson plan to try and discuss modern race issues through ancient slavery at some point this semester.  However, so days delayed it until last week.  It was an interesting class, and I think the discussion was very good and an interesting way to go through the material.  During the discussion, I found myself attempting to guide my students’ thoughts and tease out their developing ideas rather than to express my own thoughts.  I was happy to do this, as I had just heard a wonderful This American Life on NPR about how people change their minds by talking through things and making connections in their own life.

The biggest lesson that I learned from the discussion was that “social death” may be a useful way to understand slavery, but it is not necessarily a particularly useful way to understand “freedmen” or the social position of blacks today.  One of my students suggested another concept: historical trauma.  “Historical trauma is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma” ( This definition sounds very appealing.  However, as I read more on wikipedia: a response to historical trauma “often includes other types of self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions.”  I am not well informed enough to know how much this applies to blacks today, but I hesitate about relying entirely on the idea of historical trauma because it does not account for the systemic discrimination against people of color.

So, how would I change the lesson plan if I were to repeat the experience?

  • First, I would probably not do it in a Latin class, but in a class for which I am asking students to write a research paper.  I think this discussion–including the parts where we see if “social death” and “historical trauma” are useful theories and ideas to help us understand social issues, like modern race issues–is incredibly helpful to show students how you start with one idea, see if it applies, and move on to a new idea as you keep researching.  This is one of the lessons that I attempted to draw from the class discussion for my students.  Indeed, this modeling of good research and critical thinking (including finding a useful theory as background for you research) is an incredibly helpful task, especially if the students are planning on going to graduate school.
  • Similarly, I like how the discussion brought up the idea that not all historical analogies are appropriate or useful.  I don’t remember if it was explicitly stated, but it was another useful issue that this discussion can raise.
  • I am unsure about how helpful the discussion was for my students in terms of making more sense of racial issues.  Mainly, I question this because of the This American Life episode that suggested that making personal connections are key to helping people change their mind.  In my discussion, I purposefully asked students to talk in a more abstract way about the system rather than about individuals so that it might be more comfortable and less emotional.  Yet, those personal and emotional parts are what can persuade people to change their minds, so I will ask my students to be more empathetic in the future: try putting themselves in the position of the slaves, freedmen, or descendants of freedmen in the passages under discussion.  Perhaps this Salon article would help in that quest.
  • Additionally, while most of the class said something at some point in the discussion, I realize that will not always happen with every group of students.  Therefore, I would make sure to make the students free write before or even during the discussion.  I had refrained from it with this group because we had not done in-class writing of this sort before during the semester, so I suspected that it would not achieve my goals.

Overall, I am not sure how much the discussion helped us all make more sense of the modern world–and I am glad I told my students that I’m trying to make sense of it too–but I am very glad that I tried to make sense of it.  I do believe that history, Classics, and the humanities in general have this great gift: helping us better understand life and the world.

I would love to hear from others who have attempted this or similar lesson plans to see what ways you think it could be improved too.


3 thoughts on “Modern race relations in Classics? A follow-up

  1. “Here is a list of selected readings that educators can use to broach conversations in the classroom about the horrendous events that unfolded in Charleston, South Carolina this week. These readings provide valuable information about the history of racial violence in this country and contextualize the history of race relations in South Carolina and the United States in general. They also offer insights on race, racial identities, global white supremacy and black resistance. All readings are arranged by date of publication. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; please check out the #Charlestonsyllabus hashtag and the Goodreads List for additional readings.”


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