This summer Brilla teachers and staff spent several weeks preparing for the school year. On our opening day of onboarding, Dr. Anika T. Prather delivered a keynote address entitled, “A Narrative of Hope.” We share highlights from this address below.
Dr. Anika T. Prather is the co-author of The Black Intellectual Tradition (with Dr. Angel Parham). She teaches in the English department at Howard University, serves as Director of High Quality Curriculum and Instruction at Johns Hopkins University, and is the founder of The Living Water School in Southern Maryland. She earned her B.A. from Howard University in elementary education, has graduate degrees in education from New York University and Howard University, a Masters in liberal arts from St. John’s College (Annapolis) and a Ph.D. in English, Theater and Literacy Education from the University of Maryland (College Park). Learn more about Dr. Prather on her website here.
Dr. Prather recounted to us the story of how a number of Black Americans were classically educated in the U.S., and this enabled them to make meaningful contributions to American history. She spoke about how her own ancestors’ were taught in a classical tradition, and she also highlighted the fact that classical traditions exist in Middle Eastern, Muslim, Jewish and other cultures as well. Dr. Prather made a strong case for the universality and power of classical education, “Together we will present to the world this really diverse beautiful tapestry of humanity that has connected and been inspired by this tradition.”
Dr. Prather began her talk by introducing us to Terence, an Ethiopian who lived during the time of the Ancient Roman Republic. He was taken from Africa and enslaved by a man in Rome. Despite his enslavement, he became a master of Latin and wrote plays modeled after the classical Greek tragedies. Hundreds of years later, his plays found their place in early American schools and were used to educate early Americans. In fact, the president John Adams wrote in a letter to his son, John Quincy Adams, that if he wanted to know Latin, the best source was to study the plays of Terence. President Adams writes, “Terence is remarkable, for good Morals, good Taste and good Latin—his Language has a Simplicity and an elegance, that makes him proper to be accurately studied, as A Model.” His plays are considered by some to exemplify the most beautifully articulated Latin ever written. Dr. Prather argues through this example that, “we [Africans] played an equal part in this journey, and the classical education is our history.”
Dr. Prather also spoke to us about Phyllis Wheatley, a girl from Gambia, Africa who was enslaved in early America. The Wheatleys, who enslaved her, were homeschooling their children in the classical tradition, and decided to give Phyllis a classical education as well. In eighteen months, Phyllis became fluent in Latin and Greek and started to write her own works inspired by the classics. After her poems started to become popular, she wrote a letter to President George Washington, who wrote back to her in February 1776 and told her that she had been “favored by the muses.” The Wheatley’s eventually gave Phyllis her freedom and helped her get her poems published. Dr. Prather notes that, “this story does not hide the negative things that have happened to Black people, but it shows us who our heroes really should be… We tell all of history: the good, the bad, and the ugly…. But our actual heroes should have some values that we elevate.”
The next person in Dr. Prather’s “Narrative of Hope” was Frederick Douglas. As many know, he was born into slavery and was taken away from his mother soon after his birth. After long days of work, his mother walked 10 miles to the plantation where her son, Douglas, was sent in order to put him to sleep. Dr. Prather explained that his mother, Harriet Bailey, was the only Black person in the area who could read, and, like any loving mother, must have “filled his heart and mind with affirming words,” and “planted seeds inside of him” for literacy and education. When Douglas was a boy, he cherished the Columbian Orator, a collection of classical texts that was used in schools at the time. Douglas wrote in his autobiography that “these classical works spoke light and hope into [his] life.” Douglas was particularly impacted by the essay “Dialogue Between a Master and Slave,” which inspired him to use rhetoric to convince White people to set their slaves free. Thanks in large part to his education in the classics, Douglas eventually met President Abraham Lincoln and played a major role in the emancipation of American slaves. Dr. Prather explains that “this is the power of classics,” and “this is the story we should be telling our students of color, so that they can see that their ancestors played a role in American democracy.”
After the Civil War, President Lincoln set up the Freedmen’s Bureau, and he chose Oliver Howard, founder of Howard University, to set up classical schools in the South to provide education to the newly freed people. “During that brief time,” Dr. Prather says, “we began to see Black people become elected officials. We began to see America be what it was supposed to be.” Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln was murdered and the next president, Andrew Johnson, closed down the Freedman’s Bureau. “The slow process to take classical education out of Black schools and eventually all schools starts with that moment,” explains Dr. Prather.
“This is why Brilla is so important,” Dr. Prather exclaims. “You are picking up the mantle where Lincoln left off. [Classical education] is the kind of education that Martin Luther King Jr. had and his parents before him had. This is the same education that got him into Morehouse at 16 and inspired him to write about civil disobedience at 17 years of age. Dr. King writes in his autobiography that the classical canon formed the foundation for the Civil Rights movement.” Empowered by his classical education, Dr. King led the Civil Rights movement and inspired the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dr. Prather ended her talk by saying, “This is our narrative of hope. This isn’t a black story or a white story. This is our story. And we are connected through this beautiful tradition that we call classics or the Western Canon.” We are thankful to Dr. Anika Prather for speaking to us about inspiring and courageous people who were able to use their classical education to liberate themselves and others.