The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature
By Angel Adams Parham and Anika Prather. 
Classical Academic Press, 2022. 
Hardcover, 272 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Sean C. Hadley.

Classical Education finds itself at the heart of a serious educational moment in the United States in the post-COVID era. In 2021, the New York Times asked if “whiteness” was ruining the classics. Two years later, public discussions about who “is” and who “is not” in the Canon of a classical pedagogy entered a very messy public debate, again igniting accusations of inborn racism and hate. Most recently, The New Yorker ran a long piece about the state of Classical Education that attempted to discuss the topic fairly, though the typical handwringing about possible racist ties lingered in the background. With all this concern that somehow reading the classics serves as a gateway drug to disparaging other races, it is a wonder that there has not been more public discussion of 2022’s The Black Intellectual Tradition. Written by Angel Adams Parham and Anika Prather, two Black female scholars, the book’s primary aim is to encourage engagement with Black authors who are part of the Great Conversation. However, as the book progresses, it becomes evident that a secondary goal is to put to bed the idea that the Classical Tradition is a solely white inheritance. As Adams and Prather make plain, the Tradition has something to offer everyone.

The book has the tone of both authors, each one writing different portions of the book. The first part is written by Angel Adams Parham, a Sociology professor at the University of Virginia who works with organizations such as the Society for Classical Learning. It chronicles her personal journey as she began educating her own children in the Classical Tradition. Parham would go on to co-found a Classical Christian after-school program, where predominantly Black students were exposed to the classics, which was a first for many of them. She then goes on to explore how Black American authors have been shaped by the Great Conversation, as well as offering thoughts on how to incorporate some of those authors into the Canon of Great Books in the classroom. Parham’s analysis shows her own deep understanding of “enduring texts,” which provide “a life-giving fount that refreshes and energizes.” This crash course in African American literature centers on the three transcendentals of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, encouraging her readers to “learn well from the past—a message that sits squarely within the classical tradition of learning and living well.” With every Black writer she looks at in her chapters, she makes a compelling case that they were liberated from oppressive situations in part from their Christian heritage and in part from their classical education. She concludes with a lengthy analysis of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, seeing the novel as “a parable” of “promise.” 

Jumping immediately into Anika Prather’s section, the same pattern emerges. Prather, who studied at St. John’s College and has also worked with the Society for Classical Learning, came to classical education from a different route than Parham. Prather’s parents opened a classical Christian school in 2002, at a time when such schools were still few in number. This second half of the book focuses exclusively on the life and philosophy of Anna Julia Cooper, who served as a model for Prather’s own doctoral studies and was the subject of her dissertation. Prather digs deep into Cooper’s writings, offering substantive analysis of her thoughts on classical education and its importance to the Black community. Prather’s section is shorter than Parham’s, but it fills out when supplemented with the Appendices. While Prather only analyzes portions of Cooper’s writing, some of the latter’s larger essays have been included in the back to provide a fuller picture of precisely what Cooper was doing in her arguments. Cooper is likely the least well-known of the authors covered in the book. Prather argues that the classics offered Cooper “emancipation,” causing her to rethink the notion that the Classical Tradition belonged to “an elitist realm in society.” Parham follows up Prather’s section with a short epilogue, inviting readers to “study the works of the canon and all see ourselves in it and connect to each other.”

Where the book is strongest is in its survey of how the classics have been woven into the fabric of the Black American experience since the earliest colonial days. Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Toni Morrison receive the greatest treatment from the authors, though Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin make appearances as well. Parham shows a deft hand at interpretation, compellingly making the case that more students, regardless of racial background, should read writers like Wheatley and Douglass. Prather’s dive into Cooper’s philosophy of education likewise makes a strong case for rethinking the notion of classical education and the socio-economic divide, something that organizations like the Great Hearts charter schools take seriously.

Where the book is weakest is in the moments that seem to lack a sense of self-awareness. These are few but stand out given the overarching claim of the book is that the Classics enable self-awareness for everyone. After Parham describes her co-founding of Nyansa Classical Community, she relates a story in which the teachers decided to portray the Greek gods and goddesses as “Black and Brown” because the characters were “imagined beings who even in their stories can often shift in appearance.” And this is done so that the students might “enter even more enthusiastically into the stories.” The reader is left to wonder if present-day Greek students would take offense or label the decision as cultural appropriation, or if Southern white students need those same kinds of accommodations. Do they need to see Zeus in a Make Greece Great Again hat to feel connected to the story? Additionally, there is the somewhat trite browbeating of Booker T. Washington regarding his support for the normal schools, where practical skills took precedence over philosophy and theology. The fact that Washington made attempts to start theological schools goes unmentioned and Washington’s financial support of W. E. B. Du Bois, despite their public disagreements about segregation, makes no appearance. Still, these are minor quibbles. The book stands as a powerful argument that the Classical Tradition has been essential to the lived Black experience in the United States for four centuries. And consequently, the book asserts that any attempts to deny such a connection severs Black Americans from a heritage to which they owe much and from which they will find a treasure trove of wisdom.

Parham and Prather put together a compelling case study of how Classical Education has always belonged to Black Americans, and to students of every race and creed. Their suggestions for bringing Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley to the classroom will meet with few objections, as many schools already cover these authors to some degree. And their survey of Anna Julia Cooper’s pedagogy will encourage many through her perseverance and tenacity to bring a classical education even as other educators opposed her. But will their stated claim, namely that more Black authors should be engaged even if that means cutting some of the longstanding texts, be as persuasive to the classical educator? That remains to be seen. Those who agree and disagree can both find a guide in Parham’s opening of the book:

I too have seen the disappointing results of unreflective and superficial mixing in of “diverse” authors, which results in a kind of box checking for diversity . . . Is our commitment as classical educators primarily to the pursuit and cultivation of truth, goodness, and beauty in our students?

How readers answer that question will likely determine how they understand The Black Intellectual Tradition’s meaning for the Classical classroom.

Correction: This review originally stated that Prather, rather than Parham, founded Nyansa Classical Community.

Sean C. Hadley is a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2017) and Faulkner University’s Great Books program (PhD, 2023). His writings have been published in outlets such as The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone magazine, and The Hemingway Review. He has given conference talks in a variety of settings, such as the annual Repairing the Ruins education conference and the annual Spring conference of the Ciceronian Society. For the previous fifteen years, he taught in the classical Christian classroom. Currently, Sean is the inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow with the Classical Education Research Lab.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated