By Talley Murphy, PhD candidate in performance studies at Brown University.
You’ve heard, maybe, about the wine-dark sea.
It’s how we translate Homer nowadays —oínopa pónton — closer to “wine-like” than wine-dark, but it’s wine-dark that strikes us. As Odysseus journeys home in The Odyssey, he is tossed and propelled and sunk by the sea. The Aegean Sea is a clear blue, almost aquamarine. But it was maybe three centuries after Homer before the Greeks ever used “blue” for water. How could Greek writers have seen something so different?
Maybe because they didn’t see it, or care about what they saw. The sea was dark: purpley, blistered, black and white, a channel towards survival, deathly, dangerous. They knew the sea was wine-dark or wine-like because that was how it felt, all capricious and drunk and in-between. The sea was a path to the gods, dangerous and holy. They felt this, and so they knew.
Now the sea is alive with black ancestors. This isn’t a metaphor, although it’s not something you can see with your eyes. When kidnapped Africans jumped from slave ships, their bodies sunk into the ocean. As Édouard Glissant writes in Poetics of Relation: “straight from the belly of the slave ship into the violet belly of the ocean depths they went.” The (violet) ocean you swim in. Everything in the (wine-dark) sea touches everything else, and matter never disappears.
In her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, black studies scholar Christina Sharpe considers “the precarities of the afterlives of slavery.” She writes with, alongside, and in response to black death, which she situates “in the wake.” Wakes like burials, wakes like waking up, wakes like ocean waves, wakes like what happens after history. Black lives are lived in the wake of slavery and in the wake of the traumas of history.
Enlightenment scholarship wrote ancient black contributions out of history. In his radical reframing of Greek histories in Black Athena, Martin Bernal tracks direct cultural and linguistic developments from Egypt to Greece. Just as the Romans remade Greek religion and society, the Greeks adopted Egyptian culture. Homer references over and over “the language of the gods” — Bernal makes the case that he meant Egyptian.
These writers ask us to consider truths and ways of life away from Enlightenment — away from the ways in which we have written out Egypt, and away from the ways in which Homer has been misread as validating that erasure.
It’s worth remembering that the Nazi Party appropriated ancient Greece to validate white supremacy. Nazis performed Greek plays, and their Olympic Games propaganda featured white, German athletes posing as Greek sculptures on a background of marble ruins. Ancient Greek culture and art has been (wrongly) used by violent white supremacists to justify their ideology. White Greece is a contemporary myth: the historical record proves that many ancient Greeks were black and brown. A black Odyssey, then, does not only recenter Egypt and black ancients, but it also refuses to allow Greek art/philosophy to be a tool for white supremacy.
After all, this is not history. Contemporary neo-Nazis and white supremacists point to ancient Greece as proof of white culture superiority. Even as social studies curriculum around the country has expanded to include Middle Eastern, African, and indigenous early cultures, politicians often call ancient Greece the true birthplace of civilization. The first Google autofill option for “were ancient” is “were ancient Greeks white.”
Even the wine-dark sea is not history. We watch muddied waters flood cities on hurricane paths. We hear families who can’t afford to flee interviewed on news reports, and we wonder why they just won’t leave! Don’t they know they should leave? Hurricane Katrina split a city on racial and economic lines. In Miami, Haitians are being forced out of the highest-elevation neighborhood in the city. Cities run out of gas while oil spills into their seas. Water turns geography into fate and money into survival. Storms are racial justice issues.
Knowing the sea as wine-dark means knowing past seeing. But by the time Aristotle wrote of science, Greek thought had changed. Knowing was becoming synonymous with seeing, and it mattered less how something felt or how it was than what it looked like. The sea is blue. I know that because I see it. But as Glissant writes, the abyss of the sea gives us “not just a specific knowledge” like seeing, but a way of feeling in relation to each other, a “shared knowledge.” This is the promise of the wine-dark sea.