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NOT OUT OF AFRICA, by Mary Lefkowitz
BLACK ATHENA REVISITED, Mary Lefkowitz and Guy M. Rogers, editors

by Caitlin Burke

Buy Not Out of Africa
Buy Black Athena Revisited

Material from the Black Athena debate is available at Basic Books.

Martin Bernal has planned a four-volume revisionist history called Black Athena, of which two volumes have thus far been published, the first in 1987 and the second in 1991. In these volumes, Bernal sought to demonstrate that the highest achievements of Greek culture -- the very civilization of the Greek people themselves -- derived directly from Phoenician and, especially, Egyptian sources by way of colonization and conquest. He asserts that this "Ancient Model" was current until about 200 years ago, when white European historians, feeling that cultural indebtedness to blacks was "intolerable," began to revise history in a deliberate attempt to give priority to purely white origins of European greatness in a model he calls the "Aryan Model." He has since offered a "Revised Ancient Model" that acknowledges Indo-European influence, but he continues to privilege the Phoenician and, even more so, the Egyptian. His arguments and methodology have been the subjects of nearly 70 reviews or discussions of his book and at least at least one conference, all offered by "mainstream" specialists in relevant fields.

Bernal adduces literary, archaeological, and linguistic evidence (more to follow in volume three, we are told) to demonstrate ancient Greece's overwhelming debt to what he calls "Black" (oh, and some Semitic) civilization. Bernal stated his goal: to offer a "plausibly competitive" history of the development of Greece and of European attitudes about the Greeks and "to lessen European arrogance." Black Athena has been hailed by Afrocentrists as a brilliant contribution to their work, a comprehensive and irrefutable work. There's just one problem: Bernal's argument seems to cover an impossibly wide range of academic disciplines whose major contributions and methodologies Bernal either ignores, devalues or misrepresents.

Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa is a rebuttal of the Afrocentrist argument that Greece is directly descended from Black Egypt, an expansion of her article on the topic written for The New Republic. Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Wellesley College, is obviously stung by the implication that she is a handmaiden of dead white European males, and her book is somewhat polemical, but her argument is clear and convincing. She knows her territory, and she frames her issues carefully: Myth is not equal to history; academic freedom is not identical with free speech; and no brand of racism should be privileged above any other, but all should be condemned equally. Lefkowitz has gone on to edit, with Guy MacLean Rogers, an associate professor of Greek and Latin history also at Wellesley, Black Athena Revisited, a collection of twenty essays from Near Eastern, Greek and European specialists of archaeology, linguistics and history that neatly dissect Bernal's arguments, detail by detail.

In a way, that's the full story. A tenured professor of political science, Bernal, got interested in some questions outside his specialty, which is China. He had a mid-life crisis, he read a lot of books, he formed a lot of facile arguments, and he published them. Many people over the course of several years wrote critical responses from their specialties. And eventually some of those responses were collected into a book, Black Athena Revisited.

Black Athena Revisited takes on some weighty issues: What critical tools should be applied to documents from the past? What does archaeological evidence mean? What is race? What is language? Who is in a position to answer these questions, and what biases do they bring with them when they do? The scholars collected in Black Athena Revisited seem to grapple carefully and successfully with these issues and to demonstrate many ways in which Bernal tars himself with his own brush, repeatedly.

Black Athena Revisited does not present a united front of racist white historians so much as a group of specialists in overlapping disciplines who are very much aware of the extent and the limit of their knowledge, specialists who read widely and apply methodology carefully and who are already aware of and concerned about the issues that Bernal contends have tainted historiography for two centuries. Of particular concern to most of the scholars of Black Athena Revisited is the use of the terms "race" and "black," terms that have tremendous connotations for us today but virtually no relevance for the ancient peoples under discussion. An additional concern is Bernal's need to represent the Egyptians as Black Africans, when the term "Africa," too, denotes more a modern construct that a geographic location.

Of particularly poignant concern is Bernal's almost complete inattention to the Kush people of Nubia, a real live black civilization from sub-Saharan Africa that, in fact, posed a substantial threat to Egypt and even ruled over it for about a century. In reference to his argument about European historians, several specialists argue quite eloquently that Bernal seems either not to have read or to have deliberately misconstrued some of the major figures of the academic world of modern Europe.

The arguments against Bernal's revision of the past are simple and numerous. Even the Revised Ancient Model fails because it is not consistent with the evidence -- which supports truly multicultural influences on Greek civilization, influences almost entirely from friendly, mutual contact such as trade, rather than conquest and colonization. As a way to raise the consciousness of African-Americans, the model fails because it is inconsistent with the evidence in addition to failing to acknowledge the power and achievement of other civilizations that arose on the continent of Africa. As a way to return glory to Egypt, the model fails, because it values Egypt (and Phoenicia) entirely in terms of contributions to Western civilization, without valuing it on its own terms. As a way to lessen European arrogance, the model fails, not least because it assumes that the best way to prop up black self-esteem is to offer a piece of Western civilization's pie. Perhaps what makes the near-600 pages of argument contained in Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited most worth reading is the careful and elegant way that twenty thoughtful scholars have uncovered ironies wrapped in ironies and served on a bed of politics.

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