Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks
Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience
By Frank Snowden
Professor Emeritus, Department of Classics
Here's two books published by Harvard University Press to raise the spirits of anyone of African descent who feels that he or she has nothing to do with the making of Western civilization. A must for your personal library. These books are highly recommended. Buy new or used to fit your budget.
According to Professor Emeritus Frank M. Snowden Jr., (AB, AM, Ph.D., ) Howard University Classicist Department --- reading of the sources, the Ethiopians "pioneered" religion, and were key to the origin and propagation of many of the customs which existed in Egypt. The Egyptians, it was argued, were descendants of the Ethiopians. Snowden states that the term Kushites, Nubians, or Ethiopians is to used in much the same way as the modern term "colored", "black, or Negro". "The experiences of Africans who reached the alien shores of Greece and Italy constituted an important chapter in the history of classical antiquity," he writes. "Using evidence from terra cotta figures, paintings, and classical sources like Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, Snowden proves, contrary to our modern assumptions, that Greco-Romans did not view Africans with racial contempt. Many Africans worked in the Roman Empire as musicians, artisans, scholars, and generals as well as slaves, and they were noted as much for their virtue as for their appearance of having a "burnt face" (from which came the Greek name Ethiopian)."
The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume One: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire
by Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, Jean Vercoutter, Jean Leclant, Frank M. Snowden,
Jehan Desanges, Ladislas Bugner
During the fifteenth century BC, the pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty established an empire extending from the Euphrates to the Fourth Cataract (Nubia). The southern conquests brought Egyptians into direct contact with black populations who continued to resist and counterattack. In the previous millennium black warriors and captives had occasionally appeared in the art of Egypt, Crete, and Cyprus. The Image of the Black in Western Art shows us, from the mid-fifteenth century to Tutankhamun's painted box depicting blacks in Egyptian art increasingly portrayed realistic and unmistakable Negroes.
Professor Frank Martin Snowden Jr. (July 17, 1911- February 18, 2007)
Frank M. Snowden Jr., was a Howard University classicist for almost 50 years whose research into blacks in ancient Greece and Rome opened a new field of study,.
2003 Side Note: President Bush announced one of the 2003 Humanities medal to Frank M. Snowden Jr. (Washington, D.C.), one of the foremost scholars on blacks in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Italy, is Professor Emeritus of Classics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Harvard, Snowden has served as a member of the U.S. delegation to UNESCO in Paris and as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Rome. As a U.S. specialist lecturer for the Department of State, Snowden delivered lectures in Africa, Egypt, Italy, Austria, Greece, India, and Brazil. His many books on blacks in the ancient Mediterranean world include Blacks in Antiquity (1970), The Image of the Black in Western Art I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, which he co-authored (1976), and Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (1983). Snowden’s nominator writes, “Howard students will remember him for his dramatic classroom recitations in ancient Greek and Latin from memory and his plea for the beauty and universality of great literature.”
In his second major book, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Harvard University Press, 1983), the late Harvard-trained Dr. Frank M. Snowden Jr. who taught classics at Howard University, tried to render a comprehensive study of the image of dark-skinned persons of African descent (blacks) in the mind of ancient Mediterraneans. His seminal Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970) was a remarkably successful endeavor that yielded an accurate picture of blacks in ancient times. Mining mostly, archaeological, literary, and artistic sources, Snowden devoted his academic career to achieving his ambition. Before Color Prejudice must be compared with Blacks in Antiquity, not simply because the two works are framed in the same epoch, but because they are to a very noticeable degree, similar in content.
In the preface of Before Color Prejudice the author tells us: “The aim of this book is twofold: through the study of the iconographical and written sources, to trace the image of blacks as seen by whites from Egyptian to Roman times, and to explore the rationale for attitudes toward blacks during the period.” From this we might infer that something novel was to be discussed or that a previously underdeveloped theme would undergo rigorous analysis. Snowden proceeded to characterize the extent and quality of the interaction between black Africans and lighter-skinned Mediterraneans which he traced from the middle of the third millennium BCE in Egypt to the seventh century CE in Rome.
Demonstrating an impressive command of his sources, Snowden averred that blacks were hardly a rare sight in the ancient world, particularly in the role of soldier and mercenary, but also as merchant, diplomat, slave and servant. Blacks (most commonly referred to then as Ethiopians) were not viewed by white majority nonblacks as inferior, he pointed out, since they were not thought of solely as slaves or the descendants of a servile race---the rise of capitalism, European colonialism, and pseudo-scientific dogmas would implant this notion centuries later. Snowden reiterated this assertion throughout the book, thereby buttressing its most important conclusion: that there was no anti-black prejudice in the region during antiquity. He reminds us that the philosopher Xenophanes in the fifth century BCE was the first European to attempt to describe blacks in terms other than skin color though there is undisputed iconographical evidence of blacks on the Greek island of Crete as early as the second millennium BCE. Herodotus, the revered “Father of History,” opined that Ethiopians were “the most handsome of all men.” Other evidence used to support the idea of a pre-racist world devoid of negative black stereotypes include examples of intermarriage; allusions to the positive characterization of blacks in Greek mythology: the then widely accepted environmental explanation of man’s physical diversity; and the early Christians’ insistence upon the equality of blacks and whites; and the symbolic use of blacks to dramatize the universal nature of Christianity.
The prose in Before Color Prejudice is as succinct and lucid as in the lengthier Blacks in Antiquity. The reader is shown numerous illustrations (75 plates displaying blacks in mosaics, sculpture, terracotta pottery, and paintings, and 3 maps). It is doubtful, however, that Snowden’s effort would satisfy those who disagree with his conclusions based upon his interpretations of evidence. Most difficult for them to embrace is the thesis that there was virtually no anti-black prejudice in the ancient Mediterranean. There is also the matter of the generally negative connotation of the color black in Western culture starting in antiquity. To his credit, Snowden constructed a formidable argument challenging the white “somatic norm image” of the Greco-Romans, contending that even grotesque or comical portrayals of blacks in classical art and literature has been misconstrued by modern observers who have erroneously linked current virulent racism to the distant past. The most disappointing aspect of the book is that it is essentially a shorter version of its superior predecessor, Blacks in Antiquity, despite the author’s statement in the preface to the effect that his approach has been enhanced by “pertinent findings in the social sciences. . . and the examination of the image of blacks in later societies . . . .” A fresh perspective promised by the author is not altogether apparent, though the book has obviously benefited from studies written in the thirteen years following the publication of Blacks in Antiquity, most notably The Image of the Black in Western Art, I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire by Jean Vercoutter et al. (New York: Morrow, 1976). The topic of color prejudice in the ancient world is admirably dissected, but too much of what is offered, especially the background material, will give many informed readers the uneasy sensation of déjà vu.