The reaction to this frightful scene by its first viewers is clouded by the subsequent history of the black experience in the Western world. Today one may think particularly in terms of victimization, and it seems natural to recall the depredation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The ancient Greeks, however, would have responded differently, perhaps with a certain sense of pathos combined with a fascination with the picturesque, foreign subject.
As Frank Snowden has argued, blacks in antiquity did not suffer from the same type of endemic racial prejudice as their descendants. Though capable of being enslaved, as were all other people during this time, blacks played many roles in the ancient world. They had come to the attention of the Greeks not too long before the time of Sotades as a result of the new trading colony of Naukratis on the Egyptian coast, and even as part of the invading Persian army during the early fifth century B.C. Well before 500 B.C., blacks were appearing on vases, often in striking juxtaposition with more familiar facial types.
Some scholars have found in groups like this a real sense of the parodic, and even the spitefully humorous, exacerbated perhaps by the race of the victim. Otherwise, interpretations of the struggle between the youth and the crocodile have ranged from high-minded mythological exegesis to the more mundane evocation of exotic locales.
In the first case, the black youth is being snatched to heaven and waiting immortality by a god in disguise. In the other he is simply the unfortunate victim of an all-too-common occurrence along the dangerous banks of the Nile. Both views could be supported by the evidence of an inscription found on one of Sotades’ original pieces, which reads, ho krokodilos erasth(eis), or “the crocodile in love.” As conflicting as these concepts may be, they have the virtue of revealing the potential reception of the black in classical Greece.
Surely the most disturbing latter-day comparison with the vase is the avalanche of patently racist postcards, figurines and other imagery avidly collected by the American public during the Jim Crow era. In these, monstrously caricatured black people are represented as objects of ridicule and contempt, as mere alligator bait. This sort of corrosive kitsch stands in stark contrast to the relative degree of acceptance accorded black people in the time of the ancient Greeks.
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.