Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 106-110
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Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics. By Martin Bernal, edited by David Chioni Moore. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2001. 640 pp. $84.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
Undoubtedly, Martin Bernal is an exceptional in the international world of contemporary historical writing. His historiographical enterprise is deservedly termed "epoch making." The first two volumes of his monumental work—Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985, (London: Free Association Books, 1987); and II: The Archaeological and DocumentaryEvidence (NewBrunswick,N.J.: RutgersUniversityPress,1991) —spawned an unprecedented quantity of responses in the media and in professional journals (some of which dedicated an entire issue to the subject), academic conferences, on-line deliberation, studies, debates, and so forth. 1 The responders came from myriad academic disciplines: classicists, archeologists and Egyptologists, specialists in the history of science, the intellectual history of nineteenth-century Europe, African American studies, and others. These are broad fields of knowledge, and distant from one another, indicating the wide scope of Bernal's inquiry and his unique knowledge and erudition. As if this were not enough, instead of conceding to his critics Bernal's Black Athena indeed "never sleeps" but rebuffs almost every point of criticism. Black Athena Writes Back is only the first volume of Bernal's counterattack (Debating Black Athena is set to appear), and reflects underlying power struggles within academia. It should be noted to Bernal's credit that his responses are mainly pertinent.
This book is intended for readers familiar with at least some of the criticism, primarily that in the book edited by Lefkowitz and Rogers (see note 1), while others will have trouble following the complicated discourse. Needless to say, not many readers are equipped with knowledge of the relevant topics sufficient to assess the merits and validity of the claims and counterclaims. In any event, the book provides fascinating and informative reading, whether as a study of historical evidences and their interpretation, a methodological study, or an intellectual and cultural event. [End Page 106]
Precisely what it was in Black Athena that provoked such a deluge of reactions is an issue in itself. Surely it was not only the challenge posed to the paradigm prevailing, in Bernal's opinion, in the study of the ancient Near East and particularly the study of Greek history. According to this paradigm, Greek culture—the alma mater of Western culture—was patently a product of that unique development known as the "Greek miracle" or an offspring of Indo-European culture. Were these the underlying reasons, we could have expected the debate to remain within the boundaries of academia. Rather, the principal source of the outburst of opinion is that Bernal's monumental books joined the inundation of books attacking Eurocentrism, that is, the approach portraying the history of mankind from a European point of view, assuming a sense of superiority on one hand and ignoring the role of non-European civilizations in the development of human culture—even refuting this role—on the other hand. In this respect Bernal's book resembles Edward Said's Orientalism, 2 which also aroused great response and generated many offshoots. The fundamental difference between the two is that Said is concerned with the link between the image of the "Orient" in Western culture and European (British and French) imperialism. Said addresses the influence this image has on attitudes toward living cultures and on Middle Eastern politics of the last two centuries. Bernal, on the other hand, focuses on attitudes toward dead cultures—although some of their cultural legacy remains active—and the link between these attitudes and the racial and anti-Semitic ideologies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe.
Criticism of Bernal's work necessitates knowledge commensurate with his own, yet one would be hard pressed to find a candidate able to meet this requirement in all areas of research. As a result, each responder chose an aspect of Bernal's multifarious work...