Tuesday, March 13, 2007


At the beginning of my career in academia, I worked as an adjunct in the department of English at Howard University. My office was on the second floor of Locke Hall, overlooking the historic quad. It was an office I shared with poet Calvin Forbes, and we used to joke that the department had lodged the poets in the room at the farthest remove from the chair's office. But it was a great place to work and I relished the fact that I was located in the building named for the legendary Alain Locke.
One day early in my time at Howard, as I walked down the stairs to class, I noticed a huge crowd of students gathered around the door of the large lecture hall just off the entrance. I was used to such sights at the beginning of the semester, as freshmen and sophomores hustled to get into oversubscribed lower division courses, but this was well into the semester and, as I quickly discovered, many of the students standing in the doorway and along the aisles of the lecture hall weren't even registered in this course; they simply wanted to hear the lecture.
I had witnessed something like this in my own undergraduate days at Federal City College, when each day of C.L.R. James's classes in the department of history brought a new group of visitors who just wanted to be able to hear James speak.
So I stuck my own head into this packed lecture hall at Howard to see what was up. As soon as I saw who was lecturing, I understood. It was Frank Snowden.
This was a course in the department of Classics. Frank Snowden remains to this day the only professor of classics I've known of who routinely drew such crowds to his courses. At a time when enrollments in classics were in steep decline, here was one faculty member who consistently drew crowds. And it was entirely because of his work as a scholar.

I had first become aware of Snowden when I was a student. In a bookstore one day, I came across his volume BLACKS IN ANTIQUITY. It was on a shelf with other volumes that were making a stir at the time, by authors like Ivan Van Sertima (THEY CAME BEFORE COLUMBUS) and Chancellor Williams (THE DESTRUCTION OF BLACK CIVILIZATION). Snowden's book soon became a constant presence on my coffee table. (I didn't actually drink coffee at home, but that's what everybody always called the table in front of the sofa, which was largely a holding area for books in my house.)

Long before such publications as Martin Bernal's BLACK ATHENA, Snowden's book was already doing the valuable work of correcting the damage done by what DuBois had termed "a venal" cabal of scholars who had assiduously gone about the business of occluding African history from view. What Snowden did was on the face of it an obvious and simple idea. It was just something that most historians had been too racist to contemplate. Snowden had combed through the extant record of the classics, bringing to the fore all those texts and art works that demonstrated conclusively the central role of African peoples in antiquity.
It was a life's work, and Snowden devoted his life to bringing his studies to successive generations of students and new scholars. He was an excellent lecturer, a demanding professor, and a tremndous encourager of talented youth. Howard was lucky to have him, and to keep him.
Frank Snowden finally retired some years ago, after teaching at Howard for five decades. In 2003 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. He died last month, in his 95th year. His books are still in wide circulation, and now, as when I first came across the book, the place to start is with a careful reading of BLACKS IN ANTIQUITY.

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