By Anika T. Prather
“I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
Flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
—Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
African Americans have always dreamed of another world. We have always dreamed of a distant place, a magical place where our souls were free. I often wonder why we dreamed. Who planted those dreams in our hearts and in our minds? Why didn’t we forget our home and our place in our world? Why didn’t the centuries of slavery and oppression erase the memory from our ancestors’ minds? How did those dreams get into our minds?
I think we whispered it in the ears of our people, from generation to generation. I think of Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly and how Toby would go around whispering the words of Africa into the ears of those suffering under the Overseer’s whip, and when the words were said the slave would fly to freedom. These were our dreams, lifting the enslaved people from the lowness of the field and the whip.
There are many slave narratives that speak of the enslaved people “whispering” to each other about dreams of Africa and our place of freedom and royalty there. They were not taught geography. They were not “told” by those who enslaved them of their roots. It is said that the slaves taken from Africa were most times the royalty of a particular tribe, sometimes captured by a rival tribe or kidnapped by White slave catchers, and then sold into slavery. It was hard for them to forget their place. Even though their names may have been changed from their African roots to something Western and even though every single representation of their identity had been stripped from them, no one could erase their memory of Africa. Forever, they would dream of Africa and whisper those dreams to the next generation, so that they would never forget.
For centuries these dreams remained whispers, shadows of a time long gone, until one day a man by the name of Frank Snowden decided to go on a journey to uncover the African roots of ancient Greece and Rome. He went beyond writing about it from a historical or theoretical or even philosophical perspective. He dug up the tangible—artifacts that we could see, feel, and touch. There were pieces of art that clearly showed our African features, found in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome. There were texts he discovered where Greek and Roman historians spoke of these magical dark people with the wooly hair, full lips, and wide-spread nose. He discovered them, and then he took over a decade to catalog each discovery as hard evidence of who we were before the Middle Passage. He revealed how we were explorers, scholars, warriors, rulers, conquerors, and a people greatly feared and respected. He showed us beyond the boundaries of Africa and revealed the African people intermingling with the Western World. So many times we misunderstand our heritage and think it is only on the continent of Africa, but Snowden pushed that boundary and revealed how far-reaching is our heritage.
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.”
Frank Snowden was able to take us beyond the African continent because his parents took him beyond there as a young child. In doing that, a passion for Western culture was birthed in him. Although he was born in the South (Hampton, Virginia), his father moved his family to Boston to give his children more educational opportunities. From eleven years old until he graduated, he attended the Boston Latin School. During his time there he fell in love with Classics, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek. He continued his studies through graduate school at Harvard, focusing on his study of Classics. While writing his dissertation on slavery in Pompeii, he discovered the African presence in ancient Italy, which led him to an almost fifty-year journey to uncover the presence of Africa in ancient Greece and Rome. At the end of it all he gives a powerful conclusion: “One point, however, is certain. The onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed on the shoulders of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans.”
What he discovered was something our time did not understand, which is that cultures, races, and ethnicities intersected. The people of the ancient world rode the Euphrates and swam the Nile together. All shades of brown, cream, and black dwelled together in that magical world our ancestors dreamed about. Humankind was free from the color line and knew little of boundaries when it came to race. In their minds, everyone was simply part of the human race. Snowden did more than just tell us of this fact: his travels and archeological work proved it to be so. He showed us art and writings that documented the racial unity of humanity in the ancient world.
There are many who take up the study of Classics and are accused that this “privilege” is used somehow to forget their African ancestry. Frank Snowden was unique because upon obtaining his graduate degrees, he went on to teach what he was discovering in HBCUs across the country, finally landing at Howard University in 1940 and becoming the head of the Classics department. Snowden saw how study of the ancient world was relevant to Black people and all of humanity. There was excitement over his teaching on Africa in the ancient world because it awakened in the students the dreams of the ancestors. Africans ruled with, played with, and worked with the very people they were told to be inferior to. His work dispelled the White supremacist lies told to slave mothers and fathers, where Blacks were made to believe that reading about Odysseus was too far above the African, created to be the slave of the White man. Snowden’s work pointed Black people to the Bible, where he would draw out verses depicting the Black presence in the ancient biblical world. His work upended all of what the American history books tried to teach, revealing truths like the blackness of Cleopatra.
“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.”
Frank Snowden did more than read about the African presence in the ancient world; he made it his personal mission to go to the source of knowledge, touching the evidence that would reveal the world of the African in ancient civilization. He began to see the story of our existence and presence and then sought to tell it to us. Like a mother bird who finds something good to feed her children, he had such a love for his people that whatever he discovered, he tried to give it back to his own people. Over his fifty years at Howard University he found such joy and excitement in revealing this truth to the Black community and then watching delight blossom in his students. The world was his office. He traveled all over Europe and Africa to discover and teach all that was being revealed to him.
Howard University had a treasure in him. When he got to Howard, he was the only faculty member of the Classics department. He grew the department to nine full-time faculty. His classes were so popular that he sometimes was teaching more than one hundred students at a time. He reminds me of the lowly feelings of the slaves in The People Could Fly and how once they heard the words of truth about their heritage in Africa, their eyes lifted and they sprouted wings and flew away. For a time, Snowden’s revelations were liberating. They were liberating because his evidence revealed more than African kings and queens, it revealed explorers and warriors that also conquered lands outside of Africa. It revealed that we were part of a history that at one time we were told was not for or about us. It revealed our presence in all of history, and our presence as also foundational to humanity.
When Snowden mentions Ethiopia or Egypt a person may visualize Middle Eastern characteristics, but his research reveals more of the empire of these civilizations, which covered much of the continent. It reveals the presence of North, South, East, and West Africa. The artifacts show truly Black features with the characteristic thick lips, wide nose, and wooly hair. Some of the pictures even reveal what appears to be long locks flowing under the helmet of a warrior. His work is published in his book Blacks in Antiquity and will fill each reader with a sense of awe and wonder as the diverse nature of the ancient world is brought to light. Snowden’s research reveals the reality that it is possible for diverse people to live together in some form of harmony and coexistence.
His subsequent text, Before Color Prejudice, confirms what we begin to discover in the first book, that the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans was nothing like the times we have lived in since America’s founding. In studying the work of Frank Snowden, you come to realize that the classical world holds a possible key to what is tearing us apart in America today. How do we get back to how it was in the ancient world, where Terence the African was an honored playwright whose plays were used as a model for perfect Latin? How do we get back to that place, where the color line did not divide us or make us question the humanity of another person?
“My Soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Frank Snowden invites us to go deeper. To flow deeper and deeper with the story of the past, into the ancient mysterious world where humanity was not determined by the color of a person’s skin. Even now the treasure of his work seems hidden. Over fifty years of brushing off the dust of ancient artifacts, thumbing through the pages of ancient texts, and writing and cataloguing every single discovery seem to somehow be covered once more in new dust of our bitterness and anger that America still has a “color line.”
Was his work for nothing? When he passed away, did he realize how important his work was? He says, “Even if I had received no encouragement, I would have pursued my research. Once started I realized that the investigation had to continue and that it would be necessary for me to conduct the type of fifty-year inquiry required to collect the relevant materials … I enjoyed seeing the wide student interest in the classics grow at Howard.” Yet somehow toward the end of his tenure at Howard student interest started to wane as the Black Power movement gained traction. It is hard to understand why the Black Power movement would be at odds with what Snowden was discovering. He was in no way advocating for White supremacist ideals. He sought to undo myths that had been told about the African presence and influence in the ancient world. Shouldn’t this be something to be celebrated?
The struggle of those with a more Afrocentric mentality to embrace Snowden’s research was connected to Snowden’s resistance to Afrocentricity. He felt that Afrocentricity sought to erase the connection between African and European history. He did not want merely to celebrate African history without an acknowledgement of humanity’s connection to each other, and his research revealed well-founded evidence of these intersections taking place. To educate Black people without revealing that intersection was not totally truthful. He says, “If you’re white and you criticize Afrocentrism, you’re a Eurocentrist racist … If you’re black and criticize it, you’re a black duped by white scholarship.” Afrocentrism reads “twentieth-century biases back into antiquity … by seeing color prejudice where none existed.” His thinking on this created such a disdain for his work that angry students hung an effigy of him on campus, and soon after he resigned as the dean of arts and sciences.
There has always been a struggle for Americans to embrace the celebration of diversity and the intersections of humanity throughout history. The color line stands as a seemingly impenetrable wall meant to drive humanity apart, but Snowden’s research started the work of showing how to break down that wall with the truth of the human relationships of ancient times. There are some who felt that he held too much of an idealistic view of race relations during that time, but he is unique in that he walked the footprints of the ancients on their land, and he saw the depictions in the art and he read the words where ancient historians like Herodotus explained otherwise. Frank Snowden is no longer with us, but the breadth of his work flows deep. Through his discovery of Africa’s place in the ancient world and the absence or weakness of a divisive color line, the evidence is too extensive to believe that the ancient world was any different than what he proved it to be.
Dr. Anika T. Prather teaches in the Classics department at Howard University and is the founder of The Living Water School. Her website is drprather.com.