Revisiting Rent-A-Roman: An Interview With Jermaine Bryant About Junior Classical League Slave Auctions
Princeton PhD student and former Georgia JCL president Jermaine Bryant looks back on the Rent-A-Roman slave auctions he helped ban in his state.
The National Junior Classical League held slave auctions for fundraisers and entertainment at their events for high school students long after fraternity houses on college campuses stopped the practice. Rebranded as Rent-A-Roman in 1990 after Indiana University of Pennsylvania disallowed them on their campus in 1989, the American Classical League recently “recognized the resemblance of this activity to slave auctions” (maybe because they were slave auctions) and condemned the practice.
I recently spoke with Jermaine Bryant, who worked to ban slave auctions at his state’s convention as president of the Georgia Junior Classical League in 2014–2015. Now finishing his first year as a Classics PhD student at Princeton, Bryant described what it was like to attend these events as a high school student and what it is like looking back on them now.
What comes to mind when you think of the “Rent-a-Roman” tradition?
I think looking back, it is more unsettling than it was in the moment. I think that when you’re 14 or 15 and there aren’t many people around you who have an objection to it, it is easy to go along with the flow, regardless of your background. It silences the little nagging doubts in your head. I think I had a few “This isn’t quite right” moments. Everyone was always into it, and I think the crowd mentality silences that voice. When the crowd is into it and having a good time, you’re more inclined to get into it too, regardless of background.
Can you say a bit more about the way the composition of the audience informs reactions to events like the slave auction?
[A slave auction skit at a JCL event in Illinois went viral in 2016. One of the delegations to the event was from a school that was predominately African American.]
Most of the time, crowds that assemble for Classics are white. In Illinois I think a case of having a predominantly black group within the audience made a big difference in terms of people really speaking up. I am assuming they would have been talking amongst themselves about how messed up it is. It is easier for the idea that “this is wrong” to gain traction that way. Otherwise, people who might be uncomfortable can dismiss those fears because people around them are enjoying it. Individuals tamp down their anxieties when they are on their own.
When I look at it, I wonder, “How did anyone ever think this was OK? Especially the adults.” You’re having this play slave auction, and, yeah, oh my gosh… the stick… and… it is shocking really.
What was that like for you in Georgia before the ban?
I had a nagging “This is wrong. This might be a little wrong,” but I would have a good time and cheer. And, I would get excited when officers would get big bids and set records for how much money people were putting down for them. I wonder if there were not enough black people in JCL for there to be a collective discomfort around these things.
Something changed, though, your junior year.
The GJCL vice president was African American and participated in the auction in two different roles. He was making a lot of jokes about being a slave. And pretty explicitly. “This is a slave auction. I am a slave being vended.” He was also the auctioneer. He brought race into it in a more overt way. Watching that was too uncomfortable. We’d crossed some threshold and suddenly it felt wrong. And, I think a lot of people felt that way as well.
What is it like thinking about it now?
[While we were talking, Bryant found a picture from 2014, his junior year, that included the black participant looking towards the ground as a white student playing the role of the auctioneer yells. After our conversation, he contacted the person who had posted the picture and asked that it be removed. “This picture is the kind of thing that ruins careers,” he told me.]
Wow, this picture is jarring. If you showed this picture to anyone who is not completely overtly white supremacist, they would be like “Yeah, that is wrong.” It is also very crazy because if you see the the auctioneer in this picture without any context, you would think this guy is a some racist fraternity brother, but he is the most leftist, progressive person you ever met. This picture is just, wow.
I think this image was so powerful because this is the image that made everyone say “This isn’t right.” You can see how it would be a wake up call. I wish you could see the demographic of the crowd. I am sure there were not many black people in it. That was the last Rent-a-Roman that Georgia ever did and you can see why. Exactly why.
Just because nobody is complaining about it, doesn’t mean it is not wrong.
[Update: After this article was published, Bryant blurred out the faces on the pictures and gave me permission to share it here.]
Aside from the passage of time and the absence of the crowd-effect, what has made you look at the auctions differently?
I think I know more now. And I think my political consciousness is at a different place than it was, but when I look at it, I wonder, “How did anyone ever think this was OK? Especially the adults.” You’re having this play slave auction, and, yeah, oh my gosh… the stick… and… it is shocking really. It is really just shocking. There is no other word for it. I actually have very few words to describe that picture. I just look at it and I go “wow.”
A lot of adults involved in NJCL and the American Classical League (ACL) tend to say, “Everybody has fun. Everyone is supported here.” What would you want them to know?
I really do want to briefly touch upon how much I loved JCL and how much good it did for me. For a while I needed a community and needed direction. JCL gave me those things. Teachers like Neal David (my own), Randy Fields, Liz Bouis, Jaime Claymore, and Lindsey Lovette were all absolutely instrumental in my development as a leader and person. JCL connected me with lifelong friends across the country, some of whom are training to be professional classicists alongside me, and it’s really amazing. I loved it. I wouldn’t be the same person without it. If I were a high school teacher with Latin program, I’d join. But it has some problems it needs to address. Some of them, like this one, are easily addressed.
If I could say anything to the people who say that students don’t mind: It is a real mistake to think that a student who has an issue with a practice of an organization in which they feel they have no power would necessarily come up to you and complain, especially if they do not have a certain level of trust with you. I think that is a big part of it. Also, just because nobody is complaining about it, doesn’t mean it is not wrong. I would say before my junior year, I did not have a serious problem with the practice. I think that scene from the picture, which I experienced in real time back then, just woke me up to it and flipped a switch. It was a wake up call that was what I needed to realize that this practice was very problematic and was not something that we should allow at all from anyone — let alone have the board endorse and actively create a space for, participate in, and collect money from.
After you became president of JCL your senior year, how did the decision to end the slave auctions come about?
When I came into office, it was not the first thing that we did, but as the convention was approaching the next year (2015), we said, “We should not do Rent-a-Roman this year. Or any year.” Because people were really into it, I would see the more prominent officers who had a sort of “cult following” go for a lot. There were times when I saw them go for over $100 to $200. People would group up together and pool money to get an officer. They would rent the officer as a group.
Did you get any resistance when you talked about cutting Rent-a-Roman?
There was no resistance from the board. They all seemed to be on the same page about it, and I am thankful for that. I do think that they really did believe that this practice was wrong regardless of who was in the audience. I think 2014 was a wake-up moment. Basically, that speaks to the sort of people who were on the Georgia board at the time. They were generally a very supportive and really solid group. I am really happy that I had them. I didn’t face a lot of resistance for things like this.
I think the reason that there was more resistance to the idea of getting rid of it from the rest of the country is that there haven’t been that many black officers. I feel like if there were more and if they saw what we essentially did, they would immediately feel uncomfortable, just like we did in Georgia.
How did your teacher handle topics like enslavement in his classroom?
My teacher made very clear that we were not supposed to translate the word “servus” as “servant.” We had to translate it as “slave.” I’m glad he did not give us that out that some people give. And he clarified some of the differences between Roman slavery and American slavery. He made clear that it was not a racial thing. I do think that sometimes people use that as apologism for ancient slavery: “They weren’t racist, they were just imperialist.” He did a very good job of using the distinction to illustrate that any of us could have been a slave in ancient times, and most of us are probably descended from slaves. I think white students in the classroom have a tendency to identify with dominant cultural powers, and he was very resistant to that. I’ll always appreciate that.
I liked Latin a lot because it was a place where I could have real conversations about a variety of issues that I was not having elsewhere because the nature of the material lent itself to these kinds of discussions.
At one point there was a lazy slave trope, and my teacher made clear that the slave wasn’t lazy. He explained it this way: “Why would you want to work for someone who wasn’t compensating you in any way?” He made that clear, which I really appreciated. When we were doing Caesar, he made sure we acknowledged that we knew this was genocide. I don’t think he would have styled himself as a super-progressive, very liberal guy, but he did seem attuned to these issues and did approach them with care.
At that time, I’m not sure it would have made a huge difference to me if he hadn’t, which I am ashamed to say. I think my racial consciousness was a long time developing and I think pretty early in high school I was so enamored with the material that I don’t think I was thinking about it as critically as I should have at the beginning.
When did that start to change?
I think that the more I read, the more critically I started looking at the material, although it did not decrease my love for it. I think this is a trap that a lot of teachers fall into. Some people think that approaching the material critically will scare students away. But I liked Latin a lot because it was a place where I could have real conversations about a variety of issues that I was not having elsewhere because the nature of the material lent itself to these kinds of discussions. You’re living in a slave society. You’re living in an unapologetically imperialist society and then you get all of the baggage that comes with that.
I think the Classical world was romanticized by JCL. When I think about the songs — “Searching the realms of the golden past, we follow the Classics truths that last”— wow. I know that my teacher has made clear that any of us could have been a slave. Most of us are descended from people the Romans did enslave, including the white students. I think it is very easy for white students and white people in general have a tendency to associate themselves with whatever dominant cultural power they are studying at any given time. If the Spanish are out conquering, despite being German-descended, they align with the Spaniards. I think that happens with the Romans a lot. There is a tendency to identify exclusively with the dominant group. I think that is what happens with JCL, and it needs to be looked at more critically.
What do you think of a common response that slave auctions and similar problems are insensitive and culturally offensive?
Part of me wants to say this is true. A different part of me wants to say that the practice of trivializing the complete dehumanization of someone and completely separating them from their agency is plain wrong. By calling it ‘culturally insensitive,’ it feels like they are saying ‘we need to protect the black people.’ I don’t want to be culturally protected. It is wrong and it is making a farce of something extraordinarily serious, disturbing, and harmful for everyone. When something is wrong, it is just wrong.
Jermaine Bryant is a PhD Student at Princeton University working on Latin Poetry and Roman History. He has a B.A. in Classics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 2014 to 2015, he served as president of the Georgia Junior Classical League.