Aesop: Black, as Fabled?

Image of the Week: This 1755 British statue of the famed Greek is one of many that depict him as African.

Great Britain, Chelsea Porcelain Factory. Aesop, circa 1755. Cambridge, U.K.; Fitzwilliam Museum.

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist, is seen here in an animated pose, apparently in the act of telling one of his famous stories. He is dressed in a fanciful outfit typical of the Rococo period, which may also reflect the exotic and colorful livery worn by black servants in aristocratic European households. The figure’s purpose is essentially decorative, and it served as a centerpiece for formal dining tables. References to Aesop go back to the sixth century B.C., but little is known of his origins and identity. From an early date, however, he was characterized as an outsider, ugly in appearance, as well as a slave.

Black Africans were certainly known to the ancient Greeks. In the case of Aesop this is exemplified by the story often attributed to him of “washing the Ethiopian white.”

Only in the medieval period, however, in a biography by the Byzantine scholar Planudes was Aesop actually described as black. There his name is falsely conflated with Aethiops, an early term for African people meaning “burned face.” The association stuck, however, but several more centuries were to pass before Aesop was actually represented as a black person. This process began when Planudes’ work was translated into English and published by Francis Barlow as Aesops Fables With His Life, first published in 1687, with a later edition of 1703.

Responding to an inquiry from a potential buyer, Aesop stated: “I am a Negro.” Yet in the accompanying illustrations he is not clearly black. The unambiguous representation of Aesop as a black occurs when the modelers of the Chelsea porcelain factory elaborated on this image as the basis for their ceramic figurine of Aesop. Its appearance in the mid-18th century on the dining tables of wealthy English homes therefore presented a truly novel, vibrant image of the ancient sage.

With the medieval concept of Aesop’s African origins now in wider currency, a powerful symbol of black agency was introduced into the European consciousness. The genre of the animal fable, as instructive as it is highly entertaining, has a more recent counterpart in the African-American stories of the trickster Br’er Rabbit, originally part of the oral tradition of African-American slaves and later published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1880). In a sense, the black slave Aesop plays a similar role as the spokesperson for an entire underclass, mocking and reproving his social betters.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.