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Why study the Greeks

Aside from Shakespeare and the Bible, the books that have helped me the most to understand the world and my place in it were nearly all written by three kinds of people: serious Christians, black Americans and the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks make the list for three reasons:

  1. Along with the Bible they are what the West was built on.
  2. The Greeks valued the truth. They questioned things and took nothing at face value. It was not enough for an answer to sound good or be respectable – it had to make sense and stand on its own.
  3. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, the Greeks are universal: you can read them and they sound like they are writing about people you know, about your time and place.

An excellent example is Thucydides. He wrote a history of a war between Athens and Sparta. Reading about a forgotten war sounds like a waste of time – and it probably would have been if Thucydides wrote it like a White American: full of self-serving lies, concerned more in making himself and his country look good than in the truth.

But he did not. Instead he wrote it like he lived in the very same crappy part of New York that I lived in. Yes. A place which none of the American schoolbooks or television shows helped me to understand – but which Thucydides did.

He could do that because he stuck to the truth, particularly the truth of human nature and the nature of power. He knew full well that in a hundred years no one would care about the war, and yet he knew people would still be reading his book – because people are the same all down through history.

If I lived in China I would read the oldest Chinese books I could find. Because they would lie at the root of what makes China China. But I live in the West, so I read its oldest books instead: the Bible and the Greeks.

Some dismiss the Greeks as DWEMs – Dead White European Males – while others use them to prove how great white people are.

The Greeks did not think of themselves as white. They divided the world not by race but language: if you spoke Greek you were Greek, if not you were barbarian. Racism is not as “natural” as racists like to think. All these white people who try to claim the Greeks for the glory of the white race are, yes, barbarians. It is pretty laughable – and sad. Especially since Greek “whiteness” seems to be less than 200 years old – but that is another post.

Further, Greek achievement was built mainly on top of thousands of years of Egyptian achievement. We are taught not to notice how culturally Egyptian they were.

On the other hand, just because they were “white” and “male” that does not mean they were incapable of true greatness. That would be just as racist as saying people of colour are no good. The truth is both are equally human.

Thanks to Macon D of Stuff White People Do for kind of suggesting this topic.

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When I was younger there were certain Americans authors that I just loved, while I had little patience for the others who were supposed to be so much better according to my English teachers.

Here are the ones I read the most: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Ntozake Shange, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Naylor, Erich Fromm, Edward Said, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lewis Mumford.

Half are black, half are white. Two are foreign-born. But there is something that 10 of the 14 have in common: early in their lives they all lived in the same bit of America: Uptown Manhattan, Manhattan north of 110th Street in New York. Like me.

As far as I know Thoreau, Chomsky, Sinclair Lewis and Alice Walker have never lived there. But the other ten have, either in Harlem or at one of the universities next to it (or both):

  • Harlem: Baldwin, Naylor, Hurston, Jordan, Baraka
  • Barnard: Jordan, Shange, Hurston
  • Columbia: Baraka, Kerouac, Fromm, Said
  • City College: Mumford

Themes and ideas that keep coming up in these authors, whether they are black or white:

  • Many of the things you hear about America are self-serving lies.
  • If you are not careful, American society will make you into a soulless machine.
  • Most Americans are cut off from their own true feelings.
  • A hollow falseness lies at the heart of mainstream America.
  • American society has injustice built right into it.
  • America is split down the middle by race.
  • See things as they are, not as everyone says they are or wish they were.
  • Money and progress are not necessarily always good things.
  • In the end it all comes down to power.

Of course, some of these are things you can know just by being black anywhere in America.

Manhattan north of 110th Street is not part of apple-pie America. The image of Harlem becomes burned into your mind forever. The poverty. The rank injustice of race. It is so overpowering that it can cut through the blindness of even white people. At least some of them.

So even if you have money, even if you have white skin, even if you have had the best that America has to offer, it is hard to live there and believe that America is anywhere near as wonderful as it seems on television or in the history books. Not if you are honest. Not if you value the truth. Not if you see with your own two eyes.

The big smile that has been pasted over America comes to seem like the big lie.

And the angry things that Michelle Obama says make complete sense to you. The Southside of Chicago seems to be the same sort of place. And you start to wonder if Barack Obama, who once went to Columbia and has lived in the Southside all these years, you wonder if he truly means everything he says or if he is just kissing up to the mainstream.

But at least you know he knows. You do not know if John McCain knows.

Postscript (2014): Obama is kissing up to the mainstream all the way. Sickeningly so. 

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