The Edward Said of the ancient world

Heresy in the University - Afrocentrism

February 18, 2000

Martin Bernal need have no worries about the rate at which he produces his Black Athena (volume one appeared in 1987 and volume two in 1991, with three and four still to come). The momentum of the controversy that surrounds his contention that western civilisation is black African in origin is more than capable of filling the intervals between volumes. The first of these two books is a direct contribution to that debate, which impinges more tangentially on the second.

Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Judaic studies, makes a scrupulously honest and thorough attempt to assess the implications of Bernal's project for American academe. Given its multi-disciplinary nature, this is no easy undertaking: in a few places, the strain of operating in unfamiliar territory shows through. Berlinerblau does not discriminate enough between the content and reception of volume one and two. Many acknowledged (if reluctantly) the former as containing an extremely intelligent and overdue expose of hidden prejudice in the early modern intellectual history of classics and its sister disciplines, temporarily promoting its author to the status of a kind of Edward Said of the ancient world. The latter, by contrast, was received in professional circles with something akin to embarrassment, because its approach and method seemed outdated.

Once Bernal had shrunk from questioning the whole "Indo-European hypothesis", he was reduced to a mass of particularist details of doubtful significance.

As the subtitle of Berlinerblau's book concedes, the impact of Bernal's work outside America passes him by. In Britain, Bernal's country of origin and where his book was initially published, that impact was much slighter than in America and diminished markedly after the appearance of volume two. In Germany, the country that furnished much of the subject matter of scholarly distortion in volume one, the work has been virtually ignored. Berlinerblau devotes just 15 lines to Bernal's formative years, up to the time when he moved to America (at the age of 35).

One of the disciplines most deeply implicated in Bernal's findings is Mediterranean archaeology, as Berlinerblau realises. Thus there are some sensible pages on diffusionism and its critics, but Berlinerblau is not at ease in this territory. Had he taken wider soundings, he might have been interested to find that, for many archaeologists of the early Mediterranean, the response to Bernal is less outright opposition to his claims than being professionally entirely unaffected by them - partly because Bernal has been persistently vague as to the mechanisms of his Egyptian and Phoenician "contact", "influence" or "colonisation" in Greece and elsewhere. Suppose that it all happened as he claims, did it change anything? Did it produce, even fleetingly or locally, a culture that faintly resembled those of its alleged originators? Does it offer any new orientations for the study of prehistoric Europe?

The relation of Bernal's work to the Afrocentrists is, by contrast, one of the points Berlinerblau gets right. The truth seems to be that Bernal strayed innocently into a minefield, of whose existence he was only partly aware. One sign of this was the fury he aroused in Afrocentrist circles by omitting from his bibliography in volume one the texts of their founding fathers; another was his own abrupt shift of emphasis, in volume two, away from western Asia and towards Egypt.

The descriptive aridity of modern Egyptology is one reason why ancient Egypt has for so long acted as an irresistible magnet for anti-intellectual movements of all kinds; but never so forcefully as with modern Afro-

centrism. The sterile, misdirected debate about the skin colour of the ancient Egyptians exemplifies the level of discussion. The first point to make about Stephen Howe's admirable book is that probably no American publisher would have dared issue it. Howe, a social scientist studying a movement that, as he rightly insists, should be addressing socio-economic issues but refuses to do so, has set himself a tricky task. After an altogether excellent introductory chapter he moves, by a mainly prosopographical route, through the landscape of studied and increasing irrationality that Afrocentrism has become. Cheikh Anta Diop and (rather surprisingly) Martin Bernal, in his central chapters, come across as dispassionate thinkers compared with the blood-curdling racism purveyed by some of the other writers.

If a single common message emerges from both books under review, it is that the debates raised by both Black Athena and Afrocentrism are so quintessentially American that they almost succeed in making the issue of colour secondary to that of nationality. One lasting image for Howe's readers is that of the Gambian official who, after a showing of the film of Alex Haley's Roots, remarked: "We don't want to see any more dressed-up Americans pretending to be Mandinkas." Likewise, if you are inclined to question Berlinerblau's description of Brooklyn as "New York's - if not the world's -most relevant borough", then his book is probably not for you.

Anthony Snodgrass is professor of classical archaeology, University of Cambridge.

Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals

Author - Jacques Berlinerblau
ISBN - 0 8135 2587 X and 2588 8
Publisher - Rutgers University Press
Price - £41.50 and £16.50
Pages - 288

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