AAITI black and white initials
Frederick Douglass image with blue paint stroke embellishments
Toni Morrison photo with red and orange paint stroke embellishments
W. E. B. Du Bois image with yellow brush stroke embellishment

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” — W.E.B. DuBois

“I am interested in… this process of entering what one is estranged from.” — Toni Morrison

The African American Intellectual Traditions Initiative explores how African American intellectual and artistic work has related to, embraced or discarded the texts of classical education; these Black classical engagements hold incredible lessons about art, African American experience, American history, and what it means to belong in this nation and to the human community. Launched in Fall 2021, AAITI celebrates and focuses our intellectual energies on this rich creative tapestry.

We lead workshopsclassesspecial events, and a public-facing podcast called Old-School that launched in June of 2023.

AAITI champions civility and creates vibrant and safe spaces for robust intellectual exchange. It challenges the reflexes to dismiss or reject important aspects of the scholarly past. And its programming challenges students to practice intellectual charity and scholarly discernment by making the perceived oppositions between classical and African American intellectual and creative traditions themselves objects of study. Such as:

  • Phillis Wheatley’s 1770s poems about the Bible and Greek mythology
  • the forceful 1860s petitions of newly-emancipated students at the Penn School in rural Florida wanting to study Latin alongside agriculture and domestic science
  • Harlem Renaissance stagings of Shakespeare’s plays
  • Ralph Ellison’s deep engagement with Dante, Homer, and Zora Neale Hurston in Invisible Man
  • Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1960s rejection of European poetic forms
  • Romare Bearden’s 1977 Black Odyssey paintings and the numerous contemporary poems about them
  • Yusef Komunyakaa’s deeply Homeric poetry about the Vietnam War
  • Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s literary reconfigurations of Milton and the Beatitudes
  • Donika Kelly’s Greek myth-inflected 2021 book The Renunciations
  • and so much more!

AAITI is co-led by Chiyuma Elliott (Associate Professor of African American Studies) and Dena Fehrenbacher (UC Berkeley alum and director of our community partner, the Berkeley Institute). Our core faculty include Chad Hegelmeyer (Lecturer, English, NYU and UC Berkeley alum), Steven Justice (Professor Emeritus, English, UC Berkeley), Katie Peterson (Professor, English and Creative Writing, UC Davis), and Matthew X. Vernon (Associate Professor, English, UC Davis).

For questions about the initiative, please contact Professor Elliott: chiyuma@berkeley.edu

AAITI is sponsored by gifts from Boyd and Jill Smith and the Foundation for Excellence in Higher Education.

AAITI tagline logo: "Black + Classics"