Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics

Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics

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by Martin Bernal

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This book is Bernal’s response to criticisms to his 1987 book, BLACK ATHENA, which argued for an Afro-Asiatic origin for Greek civilization.See more details below


This book is Bernal’s response to criticisms to his 1987 book, BLACK ATHENA, which argued for an Afro-Asiatic origin for Greek civilization.

Editorial Reviews

Vanessa Bush
Black Athena Writes Back will garner wide readership and spark interest in [Bernal's] previous books.
Margaret Drabble
Named one of The Independent's Books of the Year. I follow with continuing fascination the astonishing academic debate on deep history in Martin Bernal's Black Athena Writes Backone of the strangest intellectual confrontations of our time.
The Independent (UK)
Publishers Weekly
In 1987, Bernal published Black Athena, in which he argued that many of the cultural accomplishments traditionally attributed to the ancient Greeks originated, in fact, in Africa, especially among the Egyptians. Bernal also argues that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars of ancient Greece purposefully ignored or distorted evidence of the Afro-Asiatic roots of Greek achievement. He further argues that, because many of these scholars were overt racists and anti-Semites, they wanted those features that are considered to be the cornerstones of Western civilization to be the work of white people, and particularly Aryans. This controversial thesis attracted a great deal of popular media attention. Unsurprisingly, it met also with withering criticism from prominent scholars of archeology, linguistics and literature, the primary disciplines from which Bernal, who teaches government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell, collected his evidence. In this new volume, Bernal makes point-by-point retorts to, for instance, Egyptologist David O'Connor, who argues that Bernal is far too trusting of ancient literary sources; Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist and one of his most persistent critics, who finds very little of value in his work; and Emily Vermeule, an Aegean Bronze Age specialist, who questions Bernal's archaeological methodology. In response to Vermeule's allegations of "exaggerated sensitivity" (Bernal's words), he returns to passages from studies that he quoted in Black Athena as examples of scholarly racism. Many of the pieces here are previously published articles, essays and book reviews, and thus involve and reiterate aspects of his original book. 15 illus. (Oct.) Forecast: Aconsiderable audience of nonspecialists will be curious about the current state of the 15-year-old controversy, but sales are likely to be limited to academics. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Times Higher Education Supplement
Bernal's material is fascinating, his mind sharp and his analyses often convincing. --Richard Jenkins
[Black Athena Writes Back] will garner wide readership and spark interest in [Bernal's] previous books.--Vanessa Bush
From the Publisher
Black Athena must be the most discussed book on the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Bible. . . . [It] enjoys such continued attention because it raises important scholarly questions, and because it makes a difficult subject available to a large audience.”—Mario Liverani, in Black Athena Revisited

“A fascinating and important debate. As a lay reader I find both the scholarly arguments and the human differences very gripping. Bernal tells the story of the process of academic diffusion very vividly and gives us the kind of background we don't usually discover.”—Margaret Drabble

“[F]ew books published about the ancient world since World War II have provoked as much interest both inside and outside the discipline of classics as has Black Athena.”—Guy MacLean Rogers, in Black Athena Revisited

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Duke University Press
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Chapter One

Can We Be Fair?


John Baines is not only professor of Egyptology at Oxford, more recently working at Harvard, but he had previously written two substantial essays on Black Athena II. The first of these appeared in the New York Times and the second was originally scheduled for a volume proposed as a publication for the American Research Center in Egypt on the basis of a session on Black Athena at the center's annual meeting in Berkeley in April 1990. The volume, however, was scrapped at a late stage, and the editor, Antonio Loprieno, offered the papers responding to my work—though not my replies, which he also possessed—to Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers for BAR. They accepted those by Baines and O'Connor.

    Baines's chapter in BAR is closely based on his second review. In his notes to the chapter, he scrupulously apologizes for reviewing the same book twice but justifies it by treating aspects of my work that he did not discuss in the earlier review. I must confess that I find this piece far more thoughtful and thought-provoking than the one in the New York Times. I am particularly impressed by the close attention to my work that this review shows. I shall respond to what I believe to be his main challenges in the order in which he raises them.

Baines's Introduction

In his introduction, Baines suggests that rather than attributing the apotheosis or idealization of the Ancient Greeks at the beginning of the nineteenth century to racism, one should attribute it to other factors. In general, as he puts it,"the emergence of Greece as an ideal was part of the incipient secularization of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism" (p. 28). In point of fact, I do not claim that racism was the sole factor in the downplaying of Egypt and the elevation of Greece in the early nineteenth century. I only maintain that it was one of many causes. I do, however, see racism as a significant initial factor and one that remained important until 1945. Furthermore, as I have stated in many places elsewhere, I believe that another of the initial factors was the revival of Christianity after 1815, which is precisely the opposite of the secularization that Baines proposes.

    Furthermore, I do not accept the idea that many thinkers of the Enlightenment idealized Greece. Indeed, several of them preferred Egypt. Love of Greece was very largely a romantic preserve. For some Romantics, like Shelley, this passion was linked to atheism, but for most eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Philhellenes, love of pagan Greece was paradoxically associated with passions for Europe as the Christian continent. With the general secularization from the end of the 1850s, Philhellenism became more detached from religion. Even after that period, Christian beliefs and a love of pagan Greece were quite compatible, as, for instance, in the English public schools (BA I: 320).

    What I did underestimate was the appeal of a Greece of city states over the Roman and Egyptian "empires" to the progressive Northern European bourgeoisie; this appeal is epitomized by the work of George Grote. However, here too one cannot dismiss the effect of romanticism and revived Christianity on the new historiography, not to mention the increasingly pervasive and systematic racism, which was particularly strong among the Northern European bourgeoisie.

The Argument of Black Athena, Volume 2

Immediately after his introduction, Baines sets out what he sees as the main points of BA II. Simplification is, of course, inevitable, but I find his restatement of some of my arguments too bald. For instance, I do not claim that "Egyptian temples were dedicated at Mycenae," I only refer to "possible foundations" (BA II: 478-479). Turning to another issue, he states, "In contrast with general practice, Bernal introduces authors with their ethnicity and often a sort of academic genealogy, and he frequently mobilizes these factors ... in explaining, approving, or dismissing what they say. This quirk ..." (p. 30). In point of fact, it is quite normal for historiographers to refer to a scholar's country of origin. John Baines himself is no exception. Take, for example, the three instances of this practice on a single page of his and Jaromir Málek's admirable Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Presumably, these identifications are not merely mnemonic devices but are meant to convey something about the scholar concerned. It is also relatively common to refer to scholars' academic backgrounds. Indeed, most disciplines, including Egyptology, have biographical dictionaries in which nationality, academic formation, and the links among scholars are rightly emphasized.

    Where I go beyond the convention of Egyptology and Classics (though not that of other fields) is in stating publicly that I see the writing of history and other forms of scholarship as an intricate dialectic between the subjective predispositions of the scholar and the configuration of the object of study. Therefore, I believe one should attempt to take both into account. Naturally, I accept that my own situation and motives should also be scrutinized, and I have attempted to help in this analysis by making my conscious preferences clear. For example, I expressed my unhappiness at my conclusion that speakers of Hurrian and possibly even Indo-Aryan were present among the Hyksos when they conquered Egypt.

Methods and Theories

Baines shares the widespread uncertainty as to whether I believe contemporary classicists to be racist. I had thought that I had made my position clear on this point. For instance, in BA I, I wrote, "Muhly was undoubtedly right ... to point out that the majority of modern Classicists do not share the racism and anti-Semitism endemic among their teachers and their teachers' teachers" (p. 422).

    Baines raises the issue of the strategy, used by both conservatives and innovators, of legitimation through real or imagined ancestors. I certainly accept that some myths of origins are complete fictions (p. 31). I would agree, for instance, that it is unlikely that the Trojan prince Brutus sailed to South Devon and landed at Totnes, especially as the event was recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth more than two thousand years after the alleged arrival. Other such myths, however, may contain genuine historical information. In the Eastern Mediterranean, given the relatively short distances involved together with the archaeological and, I would argue, linguistic evidence of contact, the stories of Hyksos settlements in Greece would seem plausible.

    Many scholars today maintain that attempting to distinguish fact from fiction in myth is both futile and uninteresting. They are concerned with the structure and contemporary function of myths. I do not challenge the significance of such concerns, but they are not mine. Given the unreliability and patchiness of other sources of information on the Bronze Age Aegean, I believe that one should use those elements of myths and legends with plausible historicity as aids in setting up working hypotheses to be tested in other ways. Obviously, I am not the first to do this. In the Cambridge Ancient History, for instance, Frank Stubbings uses precisely such a conjunction of tradition and archaeological evidence to set out his interpretation of the early Shaft Graves and the beginnings of the Mycenaean Period as the results of Hyksos conquests and settlements.

    On the issue of "blackness," Baines finds my attempts to establish the "paternity or maternity" of specific individuals distasteful, especially as this issue was of no concern to the Ancient Egyptians themselves. As I have written before, I am sympathetic to this view, especially because I too do not believe in the biological utility of the concept of "race." As a social phenomenon, however, "race" is of overriding importance to anyone living at the turn of the twenty-first century. In particular, "blacks" are constantly being told explicitly or implicitly that "they" have never created a civilization and that, therefore, unless they accept European culture, they never will partake in civilization. Although I agree with Baines that Pharaonic Egypt was only one of a number of African civilizations, given the touted and real hegemony of European and Western civilization today, the role of Egypt in the formation of Ancient Greece gives Ancient Egypt a special significance. This fact is one reason why many American and British blacks are so eager to claim identification with Ancient Egypt. I believe that they are right to be indignant at the double standards applied to them and to the Ancient Egyptians. In the United States and Western Europe, "one drop of black blood" is enough to label someone a "black." However, when Ancient Egypt is viewed, no one is considered "black" unless he or she conforms to the European stereotype of a West African. Very few Ancient Egyptians would have been labeled "white" in nineteenth- or twentieth-century Britain or America.

    I should have preferred this series of works to have been called "African Athena" because for Europeans and Euro-Americans, the word "black" conjures up a stereotype that is not appropriate for Egyptians. This, however, does not make them any less "African." Hence, I accept that the title Black Athena is in some ways misleading. I do not, however, concede the same for my claim that the rulers of the Eleventh Dynasty were "black." The famous cult statue of Mentuhotpe II of that dynasty could have been painted black for many reasons. It could well have been to represent Osiris and the color of immortality, but that possibility does not rule out other factors. Before the rulers of the Eleventh Dynasty became pharaohs, the family had ruled the Theban nome or district in the south of Upper Egypt. As nomarchs or local rulers, the family had close relations with Nubia, and it is interesting to note that some of Mentuhotpe's wives are also represented as having black skin. Thus, one cannot assume that the blackness of the pharaoh's miniature statue was purely the result of religious symbolism.

    Baines's main question, however, is why I should have stressed the "blackness" of these pharaohs. I did it to counterbalance early-twentieth-century Egyptologists' emphasis on the image of Ancient Egyptians and their rulers as real or imagined northerners or "whites," and the continuing influence this image has in popular representations of Egyptians. Take, for example, the straight-nosed sphinx at Las Vegas. At another level, there are the illustrations of the children's book Gods and Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology by David O'Connor (not the Egyptologist of that name) with text by the Egyptologist Geraldine Harris, which consistently portray Egyptians as made-up Europeans. Indeed, its striking cover and frontispiece is of a pharaoh with blue eyes and the features of the evangelist Billy Graham! The cover of the sophisticated board game Civilization, which was clearly developed in close consultation with archaeologists, features pyramids, a palm-fringed river with a felucca, the Acropolis, and Vesuvius. The center is dominated by the face of a bearded Greek Zeus/philosopher. Behind him to one side is a blond, blue-eyed Roman, and on the other side a gray-eyed, auburn-haired Cleopatra figure who makes Elizabeth Taylor look Mediterranean! In such a cultural environment, I believe it is useful to emphasize that the Ancient Egyptians were African.

    Baines points out that my earlier work on China shows that I am extremely interested in some non-European civilizations for their own sake and not simply for their contributions to the development of "Western" civilization. In general, I do not see why concern with the Egyptian and Phoenician roles in the emergence and flowering of Ancient Greece should be seen as diminishing respect for other African cultures. My books are not world histories; they are treatments of one particular historical theme. I concede that my choice of this theme is Eurocentric. Given the hegemonic position of European culture in the world today, I am convinced that this choice is a particularly important one.

    Baines writes that I have "little to prove" and that "few will deny" that the Aegean was part of a wider cultural and economic Eastern Mediterranean region. I completely agree that recent archaeological discoveries are making denial of this position increasingly untenable. However, the isolationism of archaeologists and historians of the Ancient Aegean is deep-rooted and remarkably impervious to contrary evidence. The disgraceful treatment of the work of Gordon, Astour, and Bass on Semitic influences on the Aegean did not end in the 1960s. Nevertheless, since the mid-1980s a movement, in which Black Athena has played a role, has opened up the possibility of substantial contacts around the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. The one area where the old isolationist faith persists is that of language. If few now deny that Egypt and the Levant had close relations with the Aegean, the obdurate refusal to consider the possibility of substantial linguistic borrowing from Egyptian and West Semitic into Greek, seen clearly in the BAR chapter by Jasanoff and Nussbaum, becomes increasingly anomalous.

    I agree with Baines (p. 41) that the "special relationship" between Byblos and Egypt indicates that Egyptian relations with other parts of Syro-Palestine were not equally close. I would maintain, however, that part of the difference lies in the length and continuity of the Byblian connection, whereas that between Egypt and other Canaanite cities was more episodic. When discussing the New Kingdom, we might differ on the semantic field of the word "colonial," but I would find it appropriate for the situation presupposed in the Amarna Letters as well as from evidence produced by excavations in Gaza, Aphek, Beth Shan, and elsewhere. Intense contact is also indicated linguistically by the Egyptian influence on Canaanite and vice versa.

    Although the situation in the Levant during the Middle Kingdom is less clear-cut, Baines states that most scholars now see more Egyptian influence there in this period "than would have been envisaged a generation ago" (p. 33). Naturally, I welcome this retreat from minimalism, but Baines is quite right to suppose that I find even the new cautious approach inadequate. It seems to me not only that Giveon's and Posener's maximalist views on Middle Kingdom influence in Syro-Palestine are plausible in themselves but also that, as the previous minimalist the late Wolfgang Helck generously conceded, their arguments have been powerfully reinforced by the Mit Rahineh inscription. I do not, however, see a "colonial" situation at this stage; rather, I see a "zone of influence" within which some places such as Byblos and Sinai were under Egyptian administration but where most cities and districts were relatively independent, merely accepting Egyptian suzerainty. This position is not far from Baines's perception of "cultural dominance" (p. 33).

    Incidentally, I do not understand why, in the absence of political or historical documents, Baines should maintain (p. 29) that it is reprehensible to seek information from contemporary fiction. In this case, I have referred to the well-known Story of Sinuhe, which, though fictional and unusual, resembles an official autobiography in form and contains at least some verifiable historical facts. As the Egyptologist and translator Miriam Lichtheim puts it, "It is the story of a life as it could have been lived. In fact it may be a true story.... Whether or not it relates the actual experience of an individual, the story reflects a true historical situation."

    I accept what Baines says about the relative fluidity of Mesopotamian cultural boundaries as compared to those of Egypt, but he goes too far when he links this to a belief that Mesopotamia "was much more generally influential in the ancient Near East" (p. 34). Mesopotamian influence was certainly strong in Anatolia and in some parts of the Levant. We should not forget, however, that most of our information from the Levant in the second millennium comes from Ugarit and the Israelite tradition, the two corners of the Levant with the least Egyptian influence. The cities on the coast, especially Byblos, were much more heavily Egyptianized. It was for this reason the Israelites saw them and the Canaanites as sons of Ham (Genesis 10). The Egyptianized cities of the central Levant are particularly significant for my project because it was from, or through, them that most contact was made between the Aegean and the Near East.

    I do not agree with Baines that as a partial consequence of Egyptian stability and homogeneity "many Egyptian cultural traits did not travel well" (p. 34). For most of its history, Chinese civilization has had a similar homogeneity and self-absorption. These characteristics, however, have not inhibited the spread of its culture to surrounding countries and, in some respects, around the world. It is also generally acknowledged that Egyptian culture spread south to Nubia and Meroe. The linguistic influence of Egyptian on the development of Canaanite was mentioned above. In later periods, it is universally agreed that such things as the calendar and Egyptian religion spread around the Mediterranean and beyond. Evidence of Egyptian cultural diffusion in the Bronze Age is also generally accepted. Few doubt that Egyptian influences on Minoan architecture and painting and later influences on Archaic and Classical Greek sculpture were substantial. Widely recognized Egyptian sources for significant Greek literary themes, notably the Trojan Horse and the blessings of Pandora, are discussed in chapter 14 below.

    Furthermore, abundant Greek testimony specifies Egypt, rather than Mesopotamia, as the source of religion, justice, and knowledge. Though other factors have been involved, I believe that the most important reason for the de-emphasis of the Egyptian cultural effects on Greece in nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship comes from the sociology of knowledge. Babylonia has had its academic champions, especially since the discovery of the non-Semitic-speaking Sumerians (BA I: 354-366). Egypt, in contrast, apart from a flurry over Akhenaten, has not. Paradoxically, the very fact that Classical and Hellenistic Greeks emphasized the importance of Egypt in the formation of their culture has lessened credibility among modern scholars for whom Besserwisserei or "knowing better" than the Ancients has become a touchstone of their "scientific" status.

Agendas and Methods of Ancient Near East Specialists

I find this section of John Baines's essay sensitive and thoughtful. Naturally, I agree with him that whether they are conscious of it or not, all scholars have preferences or "agendas." In this, of course, Baines's views are diametrically opposed to those of Lefkowitz and Rogers. I am also convinced that, on the whole, such preferences should be made explicit. I do not accept the contrary argument that the claim of objectivity and detachment and the need to keep up appearances on these fronts can help one move toward them. The losses from the basic falsehood of this latter position are greater than the gains, though the debate on this issue is not entirely one-sided.

    Baines criticizes works by Edward Said and me for our treatment of earlier scholars and a tendency "to suffer from not adopting rules of interpretation that would normally apply to the study of alien periods or cultural contexts: that the interpreter should seek to comprehend evidence in context and to identify positive aspects of what the material under study was meant to achieve. Instead these works are often exercises in putting people from contexts other than those of today in the dock and judging them by anachronistic criteria" (p. 35).

    To begin with a lesser point, I do not think it fair to accuse me of failing to appreciate the great achievements of earlier scholars, for I have spoken of my admiration for them in this volume and throughout my work. On the major issue, I think I can speak for both Said and myself when I insist that we are both acutely concerned with the historical, social, and political contexts of the earlier scholars. Indeed, as mentioned above, Baines has criticized me for overemphasizing such contexts. Said and I agree entirely with Baines's description of these scholars as belonging to "alien periods or cultural contexts." It is in fact precisely this issue that we try to bring out against the defenders of the traditional disciplines who want to portray the earlier scholars as dispassionate authorities who should be accepted as such in the contemporary world.

    Despite this fundamental agreement with Said, there are also important differences between our approaches. In the first place, his work is literary and allusive, whereas mine is historical and pedestrian. More important, I do not accept his view that Orientalism, or, for that matter, ancient history, is almost entirely self-referential. As I stated above, although I believe in the critical importance of the sociology of knowledge, I am not a complete relativist. I do believe that there are objective constraints on what can be plausibly maintained, though I am convinced that the Aryan model has stretched such constraints to their utmost limits.

    Baines suggests that I should not discriminate between the subjectivity of archaeologists and the observations of natural scientists on the issue of chronology. I am sorry that I did not make myself clear on this issue. The "naïve open-mindedness" I referred to applied only to the scientists' chronological conclusions. My impression is that the natural scientists are not very interested in the large stakes archaeologists and historians place on particular chronologies. I have no doubt that they are fighting their own methodological and technical battles with passions and prejudices equal to those of the archaeologists. They are, however, more detached about the resulting chronologies, which are not central to their concerns.

    I concede that if I were to pronounce on the dating of the Middle Kingdom, I should have gone into the technicalities of the arguments between Krauss and Parker. Any cynical reader will have gathered my reasons for preferring the earlier chronology: I wanted a longer Second Intermediate Period. My general observation that the dates found by radiocarbon, dendrochronology, and other "scientific" measures generally tend to be "higher" or earlier than the conventional ones reinforced this desire. Baines dislikes my view that twentieth-century scholars feel pressure "to down-date" (p. 36). I developed the idea of a "minimalist ratchet," in which I saw scholars competing with each other to be more cautious and skeptical than their predecessors. This was to explain why the new datings from the natural sciences tend to correspond more closely with the chronologies set out at the beginning of the twentieth century than they do with those in fashion eighty years later. Therefore, I stand by my statement:

Since the First World War, archaeologists and ancient historians have intensified their struggle to achieve "scientific" status. Their drive can be expressed as the desire to be "sounder than thou." Cautious and conservative scholars became terrified above all of the accusation of being speculative. At the same time, they were expected to be innovative. In this situation, the only room for innovation was to be hypercritical of every form of evidence but particularly of that from ancient documentary sources. Thus, they have tended to limit all ancient claims in both space and time. (BA II: p. 208)


Excerpted from Black Athena Writes Back by Martin Bernal. Copyright © 2001 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Maverick's Progress

By James Thomas Flexner


Copyright © 1996 James Thomas Flexner. All rights reserved.

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What People are saying about this

Guy MacLean Rogers
[F]ew books published about the ancient world since World War II have provoked as much interest both inside and outside the discipline of classics as has Black Athena.--Guy MacLean Rogers, in Black Athena Revisited
Margaret Drabble
A fascinating and important debate. As a lay reader I find both the scholarly arguments and the human differences very gripping. Bernal tells the story of the process of academic diffusion very vividly and gives us the kind of background we don't usually discover.--Margaret Drabble
Mario Liverani
Black Athena must be the most discussed book on the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Bible. . . . [It] enjoys such continued attention because it raises important scholarly questions, and because it makes a difficult subject available to a large audience.--Mario Liverani, in Black Athena Revisited

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