The Myth of Medea in African American Literature

W.E.B. Du Bois's Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911)

Michele Valerie Ronnick
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

Intended Audience: Undergraduate students


The study of Greek and Latin formed a key element in the rise of literacy among people of African descent in the U.S. For many centuries Greek and Latin was the backbone of school curricula throughout the West, and thousands of students studied these ancient languages with an eye towards teaching the languages themselves or as preparation for a future profession in fields such as law, medicine, art, and science. For generations, liberal arts education was almost wholly devoted to classical studies. However, most disenfranchised people, like those of African descent, were rarely given the chance to study Greek and Latin. And many people–such as David Hume and John C. Calhoun–did not think a black person had the capacity to learn the classical languages. This could not be farther from the truth. There is a rich and vital history to be seen in the study of classical influences upon the creative and professional lives of people of African descent.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was trained in Greek and Latin. In his high school years in Great Barrington, MA, principal Frank Hosmer encouraged Du Bois to study ancient languages as college preparatory work. Later at Fisk University, under the tutelage of Professor Adam K. Spence for Greek and Professor Helen Clarissa Morgan for Latin, he learned enough to satisfy the admission requirements in Greek and Latin at Harvard University. While attending Fisk University, he based a summer school course on Cicero's Pro Archia, which he taught to underprivileged students in 1886. Between 1894 and 1896, Du Bois filled the shoes of William Sanders Scarborough (1852-1926), our nation's first professional classicist of African descent, who was teaching New Testament Greek at Payne Theological Seminary. Du Bois also taught ancient Greek at Wilberforce University.

Du Bois's works are dotted with classical references, small and large. He phrased the dedication of his book Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (1920) to his wife, Nina Gomer, in Latin: "Ad Ninam" ("To Nina"). For more about the Classical influence on Du Bois's work, see Carrie Cowherd's essay "The Wings of Atalanta: Classical Influences in The Souls of Black Folk," in The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later, edited by Dolan Hubbard.


The specific goal of this lesson plan is to trace the ancient myth of Medea in W.E.B. Du Bois's first novel, Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), specifically and, more broadly, to demonstrate that classical influences upon Du Bois form a larger theme in the educational and cultural contributions of other people of African descent.

This lesson plan is designed for college and university students, but could be used for special teacher/instructor training programs, as well. It uses details from history and literature which should be of interest to students from both disciplines, and it relies on many sources that are provided online by the Oxford African American Studies Center. Students should come away with a thorough understanding of the high value placed upon learning Latin and Greek during the late nineteenth century by anyone, black or white, who wished to be considered learned.

Scope and Sequence

The structure of this lesson plan is tripartite. It consists of an introduction to the myth of Medea in Greco-Roman times, an excursus on black classicism, and then case studies of Margaret Garner and W.E.B. Du Bois. The time devoted to each section is up to the instructor. The materials will work for an intense three or four day workshop, a three to four week mini-seminar, or an entire semester.

Part One: Who is Medea?
An introduction to the myth of Medea in Graeco-Roman times

a) READ: Any translation of Euripides's 5th century B.C. play Medea, which is the standard source. David Kovach's edition is available at no cost at the Perseus Digital Library. For additional Classical perspectives of the tragedy, students can also read The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c. 240 B.C.) and Seneca's Medea (c. 60 A.D.).


  1. Describe Medea's life and personality.
  2. Who are her parents?
  3. How did she get involved with Jason?
  4. Why did he come to her country, Colchis? What is he looking for?
  5. Why does their relationship fail? Who suffers when this happens?


Part Two: What is black classicism?
An excursus on its history


a) READ online at the Oxford African American Studies Center:



  1. How and where did students of African descent study?
  2. Who helped them?
  3. What happened to them?
  4. With which classical authors was Phillis Wheately familiar?
  5. For whom did the Jamaican neo-Latinist Francis Williams write a Latin poem?
  6. When was the American Missionary Association doing its work in the southern states?
  7. Was Alexander Crummell an advocate of classical studies?



a) READ online at the Oxford African American Studies Center:


Each student should read three (or more, if there is time) of the brief profiles listed above. The instructor should make sure that each biography has at least one reader in order to facilitate interactive discussions.


  1. Utilitarian/Industrial Training vs. Liberal Arts Education: Is the goal of education to create a docile labor force or an engaged citizenry? What is the effect upon students, teachers, colleges and society at large when these approaches are placed in opposition to each other?
  2. With these questions in mind, ask the students for their reactions to the biographies.


Part Three: Case Studies

A. Margaret Garner

a) READ online at the Oxford African American Studies Center:


Students may also consult:

  1. Steven Weisenburger, Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child Murder in the Old South (Hill and Wang, 1998).
  2. Mark Reinhardt, Who Speaks For Margaret Garner? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
  3. Leslie Furth, "The Modern Medea and Race Matters: Thomas Satterwhite Noble's Margaret Garner," American Art 12 (1998). This article concerns Noble's rendering of Garner in Harper's Weekly (18 May 1867) that was given the title "The Modern Medea" in 1868.


Have students find Noble's engraving online and describe it.

  • How do you think readers of Harper's Weekly reacted to this image? How do you feel about it?


Listen on YouTube or read about the 2005 opera "Margaret Garner," with music by Richard Danielpour and a libretto by Toni Morrison, at

  • Aristotle, in the first book of his Politics, discusses slaves and slavery. He describes slaves as "barbarians" and "living tools" who are suited by their less rational nature to lives of subservience. Consider the fate of Margaret Garner as narrated in the opera in this light. Captured after running away and killing one of her children, Margaret is charged with theft of her owner's property, i.e. her children. Why wasn't she charged with murder?
  • After her trial, the real-life Margaret Garner was sold downriver to work on a plantation in Tennessee Landing, Mississippi where she died in 1858. In the fictive recreation of her trial in the opera, she turns from her owner who says he can have her sentence commuted if she admits guilt, and instead walks willingly to her death on the gallows. Neither her life, nor her children's lives, for that matter, was hers to claim. Can an escape by suicide or death be claimed as an act of free will and freedom?


B. W.E.B. Du Bois

The focus of the remainder of this study can be based solely upon a close reading of W.E.B. Du Bois's Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) whose text is available online at no cost from Project Gutenberg.

a) READ online at the Oxford African American Studies Center:



  1. Ask the students to find the elements of Medea's myth in the novel.
  2. Why is Du Bois's fleece silver and not golden, as was the fleece Jason took from the tree in Colchis?
  3. Do the planters, Cresswell father and son, represent Jason?
  4. Is Zora, the 'elf-girl,' Medea?
  5. Does Zora's mother, Elspeth, symbolize the dragon that guarded the golden fleece?
  6. Compare the images of the Black Sea which brought Jason to Medea with the so-called Black Belt which contains Tooms County, Alabama, where Du Bois's characters live.
  7. Is the school's founder, the New Englander Miss Sarah Smith, modeled upon Du Bois's own Latin teacher at Fisk University, Miss Helen Clarissa Morgan (1845- 1914)? (Or other white teachers such as Sarah Ann Dickey (1832-1904), who opened the Mount Hermon Female Seminary (1875-1924) for black women in Mississippi?)
  8. Does the northern businessman, John Taylor, who is only interested in profit, symbolize Jason?
  9. What does Taylor mean when he orders his sister, Mary, who teaches at Miss Smith's school to 'Give 'em your Greek–and study Cotton?'


To learn about Miss Morgan and others like her, the students should read: Michele Valerie Ronnick, "Saintly Souls:" White Teachers' Instruction of Greek and Latin to African American Freedmen," in Free At Last! The Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire, eds. Teresa Ramsby and Sinclair Bell (Routledge, 2011, pp. 177-195).

The instructor with more time can easily expand the classwork to include an invigorating study of the following works in which Medea looms large:

  1. Countee Cullen, The Medea, and Some Poems (1935). (A translation of Euripides's play.)
  2. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987). (Novel)
  3. Percival Everett, For Her Dark Skin (1990). (Novel)
  4. Jessmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones (2011). (Novel)


Paper Topics


  1. Following Aristotle's ideas about slaves as human tools (Politics, 1.4-7), is W.E.B. Du Bois's novel suggesting that a capitalist economic system demands firm control over any work force, whether enslaved in antebellum America or employed afterwards?
  2. Did the money of the northern philanthropists move the slaves off of the cotton field and into the factories of industrialized America?
  3. Are Miss Smith's educational goals misguided? Will her students be any better off after working with her?
  4. How does Bles's interest in the story of Jason and Medea, as told to him by Miss Mary Taylor in chapter three, shape the rest of the novel's plot?


Additional Resources

Students interested in the theater should consult:

  1. Kevin Wetmore, Athenian Sun in an African Sky: Modern African Adaptation of Classical Greek Tragedy (McFarland, 2001) and Black Dionysus: Greek Tragedy and African American Theatre (McFarland, 2003).
  2. They may also be interested in actress Phylicia Rashad's performance as Medea in a production of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta (1998), and playwright Silas Jones's American Medea (1995).


Students interested in learning Greek and Latin from scholars of African descent can consult:

  • William Sanders Scarborough, First Lessons in Greek. A.S. Barnes: 1881.
  • Helen M. Chesnutt, Martha Whittier Olivenbaum and Nellie Price Rosebaugh, (ed.) E.B. de Sauzé, The Road to Latin: A First Year Latin Book. John Winston, 1932.
  • James I.A. Eezzudeumhoi, (ed.) Glenn Storey, A Fundamental Greek Course. University Press of America, 2009.


Further Reading

James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

William W. Cook and James Tatum, African American Writers and Classical Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Patrice Rankine, Ulysses in Black: Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature. University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Michele Valerie Ronnick, (ed.), The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship, forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Michele Valerie Ronnick, (ed.), The Works of William Sanders Scarborough: Black Classicist and Race Leader, forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Tracey L. Walters, African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Michele Valerie Ronnick is Professor in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Wayne State University. She is, most recently, a recipient of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South's Committee for the Promotion of Latin's Award For Outstanding Promotional Activity In The Schools. This award recognizes Professor Ronnick's work with a student to present a public discussion of the role of the myth of Medea in the award-winning contemporary novel Salvage the Bones.