Frank M. Snowden Jr., who pioneered in the study of blacks i the ancient world, began his career debunking the sometimes racist interpretations of white scholars. Now, at 81, he has turned to disputing claims made by the largely black advocates of Afrocentrism.
Dr. Snowden, a Howard University professor emeritus of classics, will be the main speaker at today's commencement for 4,800 graduates of the University of Maryland at College Park. The ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. at Cole Student Activities Building.
The black scholar is quick to discount some tenets of Afrocentrism, which in the academic world is the view that black Africa was the source of the glories of Greece and that white scholars conspired to cover up blacks' seminal role in Western civilization.
Neither Cleopatra nor Socrates was black, and ancient Egypt was not a black civilization, says Dr. Snowden, a Harvard-trained classicist. "There is no question that the history of blacks has been distorted or misrepresented," he says. "But as a black, what I want is truth. I don't give a damn whether [Cleopatra] was black or not. She wasn't."
Ironically, the same man who now criticizes the Afrocentric view spent his career combing through Greek and Latin texts and haunting museums all over the world to build a case that blacks played a significant role in antiquity.
What he found was that the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations were truly multicultural, and that black Nubians from the Nile Valley south of Egypt were an established presence in the ancient world.
As early as 2600 B.C., a limestone head from Giza depicted the black wife of an Egyptian prince from the court of Memphis. Blacks appear in many other roles in ancient art -- as soldiers, archers, captives, slaves and just everyday people.
Dr. Snowden's key contention is that racial prejudice did not exist in antiquity. The vast majority of slaves were white, and "the identification of blackness with slavery" had yet to occur, he wrote in his 1983 book, "Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks."
'A pioneer scholar'
"He is really a pioneer scholar," says James H. Lesher, a philosophy professor at College Park who chaired the faculty committee on awarding honorary degrees that recommended him.
Dr. Snowden, who will receive the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters, was chosen to speak by university President William E. Kirwan.
"It's the quality of his research that the awarding of this degree represents," Dr. Lesher says. "It does not make any political statement, unless it is a statement about excellence."
The Afrocentrism debate has not been heated on campus, said Sharon Harley, a historian who chairs the Afro-American Studies Program at College Park. She did not think Dr. Snowden's appearance would be controversial.
"He was doing his work for decades before anyone coined the term Afrocentrism," Dr. Harley said.
50 years at Howard
Dr. Snowden, a teacher, author and diplomat who ended a 50-year career at Howard in 1990 and has since been a visiting professor at Georgetown University and Vassar College, came to the classics early.
As only the 12th black to graduate from the prestigious Boston Latin School, he studied six years of Latin, four years of Greek and four years of French before entering Harvard College in 1928. He fell in love with the classics while reading Homer in the Greek.
He earned his doctorate in classics from Harvard with a dissertation written in Latin on slaves and freedmen at Pompeii -- a topic he chose before he realized there were any blacks in the Roman world.
So began a lifelong study of blacks -- known variously in ancient texts as Kushites, Nubians and Ethiopians -- in antiquity.
The ancient history of blacks has been neglected, Dr. Snowden says, but he argues that Afrocentrists have gone too far in trying to portray ancient Egypt as a black civilization.
By assuming that the words "African" and "black" meant the same thing in antiquity that they do today, the scholar says, Afrocentrists have falsely concluded that Egyptians were black -- and that the foundations of Western civilization were stolen from ancient black cultures.
Afrocentrists "condemn their critics as Eurocentric racists, if they are white -- and as duped by white scholarship, if they are black," Dr. Snowden complains. Were the notion of race as absent today as it was in antiquity, the scholar says, the world would be a better place.