Black Athena Revisited edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy Maclean Rogers. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. xxii + 522. ISBN 0-8078-2246-9. US$55.00.
Toby A.H. Wilkinson
Christ's College, Cambridge.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, no other book on the ancient world has created as much of a storm as Martin Bernal's Black Athena.[] Since the publication of the first volume in 1987, nearly seventy reviews, articles and films have appeared discussing the book, its goals, methods and hypotheses. Responses to Bernal's second volume published in 1991 (two more are promised), have added to the enormous literature surrounding the work.
Black Athena Revisited represents a collection of scholarly responses to Bernal's first two volumes. Some of the contributions have already appeared elsewhere as review articles, others were specially written for this volume. Between an introductory paper by Mary Lefkowitz and a summarising conclusion by Guy MacLean Rogers, the volume comprises eighteen papers by experts from the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. As befits a book as wide-ranging in its scope as Black Athena, the contributors to Black Athena Revisited are drawn from an impressive variety of academic fields. The papers are arranged in seven broad categories, each addressing a particular aspect of Bernal's work: Egypt, race, the Near East, linguistics, science, Greece and historiography. It is a testament to the impact of Black Athena that so many distinguished contributors have combined to review the work and its implications for past and present scholarship of the ancient Mediterranean world.
In her introduction, 'Ancient history, modern myths' (pp. 3- 23), Mary Lefkowitz examines both the history of western Classical scholarship and the ancient Greeks' own myths about their origins. Bernal's central charges in Black Athena are: (1) that ancient Greek civilisation was massively influenced by Egypt and Phoenicia, and (2) that eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars deliberately obscured the Afro-Asiatic roots of Classical civilisation for reasons of racism and anti-Semitism. Equally, perhaps more controversial, is Bernal's claim that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans, a theory which gives Black Athena its title and which has made the book a cause ce/le\bre amongst Afrocentric ancient historians. These important questions are tackled head-on by the individual papers which form the body of Black Athena Revisited. Lefkowitz casts her own severe doubts - 'to speak of the ancient (or modern) Egyptians as "black" is misleading in the extreme' (p. 21) - but also makes the crucial point, echoed by other contributors: that Afrocentrists, 'in the process of claiming Greek history as their own ... will miss an opportunity to learn about real Africa and its own achievements and civilizations' (p. 21).
John Baines offers an Egyptologist's perspective in his paper 'On the aims and methods of Black Athena' (pp. 27-48). Bernal's insistence on the significance of Egypt for the development of Greek civilization means that his limited use of the Egyptological evidence seriously weakens his argument. In this and other areas, and in common with the other contributors to the volume, Baines expresses grave reservations about Bernal's scholarly methods. Two quotations will suffice to illustrate the point: 'Bernal's reluctance to engage with ancient Near Eastern civilizations on their own terms leads to bizarre interpretations' (p. 45); 'his concern with race also leads him to adopt models of ancient ethnicity that are both inappropriate to the materials studied and ethically somewhat distasteful' (p. 46). A second Egyptologist of renown, David O'Connor, takes a more conciliatory tone towards Bernal, but is no less critical in his conclusions. 'Egypt and Greece: the Bronze Age evidence' (pp. 49- 61) concentrates on the textual evidence for relations between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean during Egypt's Middle and New Kingdoms. Middle Kingdom connections with the Aegean seem to have been rather loose and sporadic; the New Kingdom data, although suggesting a degree of contact, 'do not imply the substantial cultural impact of Egypt upon the Aegean required by Bernal's theory' (p. 60). O'Connor points out that years of fieldwork in the Aegean have failed to produce any evidence for an Egyptian colonisation. In conclusion, Bernal's arguments are 'unpersuasive, so far as the Egyptian evidence ... is concerned' (p. 61). Frank Yurco provides a broad but detailed assessment of the Egyptian evidence so central to Bernal's theories ('Black Athena: an Egyptological review', pp. 62-100). In his downplaying of the role of Mesopotamian cultural influences in the formation of Egyptian civilization, Yurco is out of step with the most recent Egyptological opinion. Likewise, Yurco's statement that the Middle Kingdom Mit Rahina inscription 'does attest an Egyptian-ruled Asiatic empire' (p. 73) contradicts the usual interpretation of this important monument (as given by O'Connor, p. 54). Yurco also accepts rather more of Bernal's arguments, describing his claims for Egyptian influence on the Greek world as 'in essence reasonable' (p. 95). Nonetheless, Yurco is keen to emphasise the difference between trade and rule: the presence of Egyptian and Hyksos artefacts on Crete attests to the former, not the latter.
For the Afrocentrists who have seized upon Black Athena, the issue of race - more particularly, the race of the ancient Egyptians - lies at the heart of Bernal's work. Black Athena Revisited includes three papers on this subject: 'Ancient Egyptians and the issue of race' by Kathryn Bard (pp. 103- 111); 'Bernal's "Blacks" and the Afrocentrists' by Frank Snowden (pp. 112-128); and the contribution by C. Loring Brace et al., 'Clines and clusters versus "race": a test in ancient Egypt and the case of a death on the Nile' (pp. 129- 164). Bard assesses the representational and linguistic evidence from ancient Egypt, both of which distinguish the Egyptians from their southern sub- Saharan neighbours. Bard stresses that 'Egyptians were ... neither black nor white as races are conceived of today' (p. 104). Moreover, 'to state categorically that ancient Egypt was either a black - or a white - civilization is to promote a misconception with racist undertones' (p. 111). This aspect of Bernal's argument is picked up by many of the contributors to Black Athena Revisited, and emerges as one of the central criticisms of his work. Indeed, in the conclusion to the volume, the editors call upon Bernal 'to reject publicly, explicitly, and unambiguously any theories of history which conflate race and culture' (p. 453). Snowden accuses Bernal of misusing the ancient evidence relating to ethnic or colour terminology. He warns 'substituting fiction for fact is a disservice to blacks' (p. 127). Echoing Lefkowitz's opening remarks, he points to the important achievements of Nubia, 'a black African culture of enormous influence and power' (p. 121), ironically neglected by Afrocentrists in their emphasis on ancient Egypt. C. Loring Brace et al. present the results of a detailed scientific examination of ancient Egyptian cranial material. Comparisons between the cranial morphology of Egyptians and other populations indicate that the former have 'nothing whatsoever in common with Sub- Saharan Africans' (p. 145). Although their evidence refutes Bernal's identification of the Egyptians as black Africans, the authors deplore the very attempt to categorise the ancient Egyptians by modern concepts of race. Not only did the race concept not exist in ancient Egypt, 'it has neither biological nor social justification' (p. 162).
Particular scorn is poured upon Bernal and his 'unscholarly methods' (p. 167) in 'The Legacy of Black Athena', by the ancient Near Eastern specialist Sarah Morris (pp. 167-174). She deplores Black Athena's 'cumbersome detours ... and ... labored misunderstandings' (p. 167), and regrets that Bernal has 'only contributed to an avalanche of radical propaganda without basis in fact' (p. 174). In particular, Morris argues, Bernal's emphasis on ancient Egypt has blinded him to the strong connections between Crete and the Levant, connections which were 'more critical to long-term developments' (p. 169). Echoing the concerns of Lefkowitz and Snowden, Morris asks 'Why does African America need Egypt, more than it does the magnificent cultures of the West African coast, to legitimize its past and present?' (p. 171).
A central plank of Bernal's argument is his assertion that the Greek language shows massive Egyptian and Semitic borrowing. In their detailed yet highly readable paper, 'Word Games' (pp. 177- 205), Jay Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum expose the vast majority of Bernal's proposed etymologies as false. Thus, two leading authorities on Greek language demonstrate the emptiness of Black Athena's linguistic arguments, adding that 'in relation to Bernal's overall project, the linguistic evidence is worse than unhelpful' (p. 201).
The longest contribution to Black Athena Revisited is Robert Palter's 'Black Athena, Afrocentrism, and the history of science' (pp. 209-266). This examines the scientific achievements of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Comparison of the three civilizations shows Babylonian astronomy to have been far more advanced than Egyptian, whilst in the field of mathematics 'it is difficult to see how the peak Egyptian achievements ... could ever have led to Greek mathematics' (p. 255). Finally, a number of fundamental differences between Egyptian and Greek medicine lead Palter to question the proposed influence of Egypt on Greece in this field too. The conclusion must be that Greek science probably owed as much, if not more, to Babylon as it did to Egypt.
The claims of Black Athena have shaken three fields of study in particular: Egyptology, Classics and historiography. The final two collections of papers in Black Athena Revisited represent the response of the last two disciplines to Bernal's arguments. The Greek perspective is expressed in three papers by Emily Vermeule ('The world turned upside down', pp. 269- 279), John Coleman ('Did Egypt shape the glory that was Greece?', pp. 280-302) and Lawrence Tritle ('Black Athena: vision or dream of Greek origins?', pp. 303-330). Arguing that 'no one has ever doubted the Greek debt to Egypt and the East' (p. 272), Vermeule's paper has the character of a polemic against Bernal. She criticises 'the constant perversion of facts in Bernal's second volume' (p. 273), and lambasts the work as 'a whirling confusion of half-digested reading, bold linguistic supposition, and preconceived dogma' (p. 277). Coleman provides a calmer assessment of the evidence for Greek origins; his conclusions are no less dismissive of Bernal's claims. There is not a shred of historical, archaeological or linguistic evidence for a Hyksos invasion and colonisation of Greece in the second millennium BC, whilst Bernal's uncritical interpretation of Greek myth as historical fact ignores 'the generally accepted tenets of rational analysis' (p. 292). Tritle castigates Bernal for his 'simplistic' use of ancient sources, and points to a serious weakness in his 'Revised Ancient Model': although Black Athena argues for massive Egyptian influence on early Greek civilization, 'Bernal never pauses to consider the essentially isolationist nature of the ancient Egyptians' (p. 320). As Baines has already pointed out, Bernal's misunderstandings of Egyptian civilization do great damage to his argument.
Perhaps Black Athena's gravest contention is that Classicists and ancient historians in the West deliberately obscured the Afro-Asiatic origins of Greek civilization, driven by motives of racism and anti-Semitism. This is an immensely damaging accusation for western scholarship as a whole, and no fewer than six papers reply to Bernal's withering criticism of western historiography. Edith Hall - in the volume's most charitable response to Black Athena ('When is a myth not a myth?: Bernal's "Ancient Model"', pp. 333-348) - believes that 'we ... cannot dismiss Bernal's book out of hand' (p. 335). However, she argues that Black Athena demonstrates an unsophisticated approach to myth, and confuses subjective and objective ethnicity: 'there is a world of difference between saying that the Greeks were descendants of Egyptians and Phoenicians, and saying that the Greeks thought that they were descended from Egyptians and Phoenicians' (p. 336). In his second contribution to Black Athena Revisited, 'Eighteenth-century historiography in Black Athena' (pp. 349-402), Robert Palter points to 'fundamental errors in [Bernal's] understanding of eighteenth-century political, social, and cultural history' (p. 350). Bernal is charged with wilfully mis-reading eighteenth-century writers, labelling them all as racists, and ignoring the ambivalence and variety in their attitudes towards Greece and Egypt. Palter, then, accuses Bernal of deliberate selectivity in his scholarship, citing his 'all too frequent failure to mention crucial facts whose existence would be embarrassing or inconvenient for him to acknowledge' (pp. 389-390). Bernal's methodology comes under further attack (if further were needed) from Mario Liverani ('The bathwater and the baby', pp. 421-427), who characterises Black Athena as 'politically disruptive and historically regressive' (p. 424). Robert Norton offers a specialist paper, 'The tyranny of Germany over Greece?: Bernal, Herder, and the German appropriation of Greece' (pp. 403-410), in which he discusses the views of the German writer Herder. Once again, Bernal is charged with mis-representation. Richard Jenkyns assesses nineteenth-century scholarship in 'Bernal and the nineteenth century' (pp. 411-420): classicists and historians of the period were certainly not blameless in their hidden political agendas, but neither were they as uniformly racist as Bernal paints them. This is also the conclusion of Guy MacLean Rogers in the last paper of the volume, 'Multiculturalism and the foundations of western civilization' (pp. 428-443). In the greatest of ironies, Black Athena's emphasis upon race and ethnic origins unwittingly returns 'to the nineteenth-century style of "race"-bound and ethnocentric historiography that Bernal himself ... has so rightly questioned' (p. 440).
If two points, of sadness and hope, emerge most clearly from the critical responses to Black Athena contained in this book, they are the following: on the one hand, the self- defeating argument of Bernal's work, which 'succumbs to exactly the Eurocentrism it was written to combat' (p. 452); on the other hand, the forceful belief that 'the ancient cultures of Africa and the Near East do not need to be the founders of the West to be worthy of global interest and study; they are intrinsically interesting' (p. 442).
Black Athena Revisited is an immensely stimulating volume, offering a collection of insightful articles by experts from a diversity of disciplines. In this respect, Bernal has undoubtedly done archaeologists and ancient historians a great service, forcing 'would-be critics to expand their horizons far beyond their areas of expertise' (p. 294). Bernal's central hypotheses are universally rejected, although the papers in Black Athena Revisited vary in tone from the polemical to the constructively critical. Whilst one or two come across as little more than extended attacks on Bernal and his methods - perilously approaching character assassination in one instance - other papers are veritable gold-mines of the best of contemporary scholarship. All contributors agree on the fundamental shortcomings of Bernal's work, yet all have seen the need to respond to one of the most controversial and challenging academic enterprises of this century. With parts three and four of Bernal's magnum opus promised in the near future, one thing is certain: Black Athena will be revisited many more times before the debate subsides.
[] Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afro- Asiatic roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The fabrication of ancient Greece 1785-1985. (London 1987); Vol. II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (New Brunswick 1991).