Rethinking the Classics

Through the combined resources of the Mudge Family Fund for the enrichment of the classics and the Equity and Inclusion Speaker Series, Middlesex welcomed distinguished scholar Dan-el Padilla Peralta to campus on April 2. An assistant professor of classics at Princeton University – where he earned his undergraduate degree – Professor Padilla Peralta spoke in Assembly about his personal and academic journey and the need for questioning commonly held  beliefs about the ancient world that are often drawn from a single, Western perspective. “What I propose,” he said, “is that classics is a capacious, expansive resource for a more equitable future.”

Born in the Dominican Republic, Professor Padilla Peralta moved to New York City with his family in 1989. His father’s return to the Caribbean led to the family being evicted and living in a homeless shelter, where eight-year-old Dan-el spent much of his time in the library. While there were “curiously not many books that mentioned the Dominican Republic or only mentioned it in passing,” he was drawn to the volume, How People Lived in Greece and Rome, which started his trajectory toward classics. From Princeton, he went on to earn an M.Phil. in Greek and Roman history at Oxford and a Ph.D. in classics at Stanford. In 2015, he chronicled this path in his memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.

In classics, he had hoped to find “a place where I was from many different places” as well as a “vocabulary for fleshing out and articulating” his sense of alienation. But just as the Dominican Republic was largely absent from history books, he noted, “It was a fact that with every step I took, folks with my background were not represented in the classics.” As an Afro-Latino immigrant – and frequently the only person of color in his discipline – he recognizes now how a traditional curriculum and style of teaching left him with “no resources for thinking about his racial or immigrant self.”

With examples of paintings and political cartoons, he showed how biases about race, colonization, and immigration have been depicted, sometimes subtly and often offensively. Given that “understandings of classics are shot through with race,” he said, “All of us who enter this area have the responsibility to reexamine critically the discipline.”