In 1987, a historian of modern China wrote a book that was way outside of his field – a historiographical work about the classical world, which argued that a racist and imperialist Europe had written Egyptian and Phoenician origins out of Greek history — essentially whitewashing the African roots of Western civilization. The book caused a firestorm within the field of Classics, launching a series of rebuttals and re-rebuttals. Today’s episode is about the thesis that Bernal posed in his Black Athena, but it is also a peek behind the curtain of the academic world. It might get a little weird – because our discussion will be about the evidence Bernal used to support his assertion that Egyptian and Levantine civilizations significantly shaped ancient Greek civilization, but we will also dive into the backlash against Bernal’s work, and what that says about our profession, and how even historians are human and thus susceptible to the world in which we live. Join Averill and Sarah to learn more about Black Athena – and how the historical sausage gets made.
Show Notes & Further Reading
Note: Post contains Amazon affiliate links.
“Antenor Firmin, The ‘Egyptian Question,’ and Afrocentric Imagination,” The Journal of Pan-African Studies 7 (August 2014).
Belucci, Nina, Sri Bellucci, Kevin Hofelmann, “The Black Athena Controversy: Introduction”
Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume III. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987)
Bowersock, Glenn. Rescuing the Greeks. The New York Times, February 25, 1995.
Herodotus, The Histories.
Kastor, Caroline. “African Athena: Discussions Surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena,” PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas, 2016.
Keita, Meghan. “Blackness in Ancient History: Criticism and Critique,” Race and the Writing of History: Riddling the Sphinx (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Lefkowitz, Mary. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became An Excuse to Teach Myth As History (New York: BasicBooks, 1996)
“Martin Bernal: Historian Best Known for Hist Controversial ‘Black Athena” Books,” The Independent, August 28, 2013.
Warren, Sam. “Martin Bernal Revisits ‘Black Athena’ Controversy in Lecture,” Cornell Chronicle, October 18, 2007.
Black Athena Controversy: Battle of Historians
Produced by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins
Written and Edited by Averill Earls
Transcribed by Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Averill: In 1987, a scholar by the name of Martin Bernal published a historiographical work that argued a racist and imperialist Europe had written Egyptian and Phoenician origins out of Greek history — thereby whitewashing the classical roots of Western civilization. This theory was not without immediate and harsh critics. The initial publication – the first of an eventual three volumes dealing with his hypothesis, and a fourth that was entirely a refutation of criticism – was titled Black Athena: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985. It was unapologetically combative. In his own words, Bernal asserted that “The political purpose of Black Athena is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.”
Sarah: Though problematic, as his critics so helpfully pointed out, Bernal’s thesis is an interesting one. Just as interesting, though, is the controversy that erupted around this middle class, highly educated, white British man (who lived in America at the time) and his Afrocentric assertion. His privilege gave authority to an issue that African American scholars had been resisting for decades. Those who reacted did so as much (if not more) because of who he was as because of the idea he codified in his trilogy. In later years he reflected that he knew the idea gained traction in the mostly white community of ancient history scholars because he was a white man, and a big personality who could drum up popular support for the idea. He also recognized that, though they appreciated the attention to the thesis, his co-opting of this significant issue was frustrating to the community of black scholars who’d been saying the same thing for years.
Averill: Today’s episode is about the thesis that Bernal posed in his Black Athena, but it is also a peek behind the curtain of the academic world. It might get a little weird here – because our discussion will be about the evidence Bernal used to support his assertion that Egyptian and Levantine civilizations significantly shaped the ancient Greek civilization, but we will also dive into the backlash against Bernal’s work, and what that says about our profession, and how even historians are human and thus susceptible to the world in which we live. But it’s definitely a story worth telling, worth hearing, and so we’re glad you’re joining us for it.
And I’m Sarah
Sarah: The ancient world is a fascinating period to study. Some colleges and universities (like ours) separate those who study the ancient world from the History Departments. Our understanding of any historical period is limited by the sources. When it comes to studying the ancient world, sometimes we are so far removed from that period that even the evidence we do have is circumstantial, subject to educated guesses from those who interpret it. When a carved stone structure is uncovered at an archaeological dig site in the river valley of Mesopotamia (in modern day Iraq), there is no user manual to accompany it. So scholars have to use context and circumstance to develop an understanding of the structure. This is not to suggest that there is not valid or substantial work coming out of the efforts of ancient world scholars. But, as in every period of history, whenever new discoveries of source material are made, this scholarship that is constantly evolving today to incorporate new evidence, or older evidence reinterpreted. In part, this is why studying the ancient world is so fascinating – it is so far in the past, but our understanding of it could change significantly at any moment.
Averill: When Bernal insinuated himself into this conversation about the roots of Greek culture, he inevitably ruffled feathers. He was not the first to challenge what he and his circle considered the Eurocentrist production of knowledge, and a whole host of Black scholars had been protesting the whitewashing of history for decades before Bernal. Cheikh A. Diop, Frank Snowden Jr, St. Clair Drake, WEB DuBois, William Leo Hansberry, and Carter Woodson, to name a few, wrote on this subject and sought recognition of (or a rewriting of history to include) the African roots of civilization in their fields. Joel Rogers wrote in “World’s Great Men of Color” (1946) and George G. M. James wrote “Stolen Legacy” (1954) sort of titles that communicate their dissatisfaction with the scholarship…
Averill: And they had made similar assertions to what Bernal says in his text half a century ago. There was a burgeoning field making this assertion in the 1980s – which went well beyond what Bernal argued in Black Athena, and made some interesting claims – um and we’ll explain later why interesting is the friendly way I’m going to describe it here – by selectively and creatively making connections between African heritage and culture and Western civilization, with titles like Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan (the lecturer at Wellesley) in “African Origins of the Major ‘Western Religions’ ” (1970) and Molefi Kete Asante’s “Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge” (1990).
Sarah: Martin Bernal was born in 1937 in London. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at King’s College London, Peking University, and Cambridge University, where he studied Chinese history and language. His doctoral dissertation was titled Chinese Socialism to 1913. In 1972, Bernal moved to the United States, and took a post at Cornell University, where he remained until he retired in 2001.
I’m just going to pause here to note that when he got that job at Cornell he also brought along with him his wife, who was a sociologist who was named Dr. Leslie Bernal who taught at my alma mater, Wells College. And so this whole thing was a thing at Wells- this whole controversy.
Averill: Early in his Cornell career, he made a radical shift in his research focus. According to Bernal, he first got interested in ancient Mediterranean history because of his Jewish ancestry.
“I had not previously given much thought to [my Jewish roots] or to Jewish culture. …. I started looking into ancient Jewish history and— being on the periphery myself—into the relationship between the Israelites and the surrounding peoples, particularly the Canaanites and the Phoenicians. I had always known that the latter spoke Semitic languages, but it came as quite a shock to learn that Hebrew and Phoenician were mutually intelligible and that serious linguists treated both as a dialect of a single Canaanite language.
During this time, I was beginning to study Hebrew and I found what seemed to me a number of striking similarities between it and Greek.”
Sarah: That was a really interesting accent…
Averill: That’s my white man voice.
Sarah: Oh I got it. Got it.
Averill: It sounds rad right?
Sarah: Oh yeah yeah…
Averill: The first book on this subject that he published was the first volume of Black Athena.
Sarah: Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 was published by Rutgers press. In this work Bernal outlined the ways that European scholars of the ancient world gradually shifted from what he terms the “Ancient Model” to the “Aryan Model.” Bernal argues that ancient scholars such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Isokrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch – inarguably closer to the period in question than 19th and 20th century historians – discuss the role of the Egyptians and Levantines (Phoenicians) on early Greek settlements. The Ancient Model that Bernal refers to, then, is his interpretation of the perspective of Greeks during the Classical and Hellenistic ages, and is thus evidence that Greek culture emerged because Egyptian and Phoenicians colonized the “native” inhabitants of the Greek peninsula and islands around 1500 BCE. He points out in particular to Herodotus’s Histories, which suggests that – at the time he wrote it in the fifth century – there was a popular belief that Greece had been colonized at the end of the Heroic age.
Averill: And just to sort of illustrate, so you can get a sense of the sources that he is using as his sources, I pulled a few quotes from Herodotus’s Histories that point to this belief include:
“Concerning Heracles, I heard it said that he was one of the twelve gods. But nowhere in Egypt could I hear anything about the other Heracles, whom the Greeks know. I have indeed a lot of other evidence that the name of Heracles did not come from Hellas to Egypt, but from Egypt to Hellas (and Heracles is a mythological figure or god and is shared by both the Egyptians and Greeks).
“These customs, then, and others besides, which I shall indicate, were taken by the Greeks from the Egyptians.”
And the third quote:
“The fashions of divination at Thebes of Egypt and at Dodona are like one another; moreover, the practice of divining from the sacrificed victim has also come from Egypt. It would seem, too, that the Egyptians were the first people to establish solemn assemblies, and processions, and services; the Greeks learned all that from them. I consider this proved, because the Egyptian ceremonies are manifestly very ancient, and the Greek are of recent origin”..
In Black Athena, Bernal pits this Ancient Model – which he says was widely accepted and understood in Europe until the mid-18th century – against the Aryan Model, which he charts as rising at the end of the 18th century. He argues that both racism and Romanticism dominated European thought, and that the focus of various emerging disciplines – from the phrenologists to the biologists to the anthropologists and historians – focused on categorizing peoples and races. In this wave of scholarship, there was a marked shift away from the traditions of Herodotus and his contemporaries with regard to understanding the roots of Greek civilization, toward one that centered Greece as the root of civilization in the world.
Sarah: In the lead-up to the Aryan model, Bernal examines the shifting attitudes of Europeans toward Egypt specifically but also Asia and Africa more broadly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to a few key notable figures like Isaac Newton, Bernal focuses on the criticism and rejection of the work of Charles Francois Dupuis, is that okay? My frenchie isn’t here to read it to me.
Averill: Yeah, where’s Marissa when you need her…
Sarah: a French professor of rhetoric, who argued that Christianity was an amalgamation of various ancient mythologies and that Jesus was a mythical character. Dupuis similarly challenged the myth of Greek cultural beginning. On both counts he was deemed absurd and dismissed by Christian writers and those, according to Bernal, who were proponents of the Aryan Model.
Averill: Though the shift was largely gradual, Bernal contested, by the end of the 19th century, it was codified. He pointed to the way that 19th century scholars of the humanities and social sciences categorized peoples of African descent as inferior, and the ways that racism and Romanticism refocused the origins of civilization around Greek legacy. He wrote, “Thus it became increasingly intolerable that Greece–which was seen by the Romantics not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood–could be the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites.” This period – from approx. 1880 to 1945 – Bernal calls the Extreme Aryan Model, where the historiography more broadly – and not just in its treatment of ancient history – reflects efforts to discredit African influence on European civilizations – particularly the Levantine (and thereby Semitic) Phoenicians.
Sarah: So this was mega racist in that period, 1880-1945. Certainly consistent with what we, modern scholars, understand about the period. It certainly lines up.
Averill: Oh yeah.
Sarah: Not by coincidence, this coincides with the continued oppression of people of color in the United States under Jim Crow and segregation laws. I don’t think it’s incendental that the highest number of lynchings in the United States takes place in 1880, or excuse me, 1890, so right in that period. And in the Nuremberg Laws passed by the overtly anti-Semitic Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. Within this rampant ideological slant, stuff like the Holocaust happened. And this is not part of Bernal’s analysis, but should certainly be seen as an extension of that criticism. The kicker, though, is that immediately after the Holocaust, European policymakers worked to prevent “another Holocaust.” Not immediately, and not, perhaps, in the most efficient or effective ways, but steps were taken in the decades after 1945 to denormalize anti-Semitism. And yet, the scholarship and historiographical traditions of this Extreme Aryan Model of academia, which whitewashed history in the most insidious ways, were not challenged or reshaped or thrown out. Bernal argued, then, not that the Aryan Model is wrong (though it certainly left glaring omissions and propagated some particularly racist ideas about the past) but that a new model – a Revised Ancient Model, which is proposed in the second volume of the series – would mitigate the historiography that had so clearly been impacted by the sentiments and institutions of the 19th century. Concerned in particular that going forward we were working from this flawed and whitewashed base, Bernal wrote “…the modern archaeologists and ancient historians of this region are still working with models set up by men who were crudely positivist and racist. Thus it is extremely implausible to suppose that the models were not influenced by this idea.”
Averill: Bernal basically calls Americans and Europeans out – by the 1980s, with the emergence of new fields like Women’s Studies and African American Studies, etc, he saw the academy as operating as though it had moved beyond the Aryan model. That we were living, even then, in a “post-racist world”
Averill: in academia. By which, we of course, still believe. Black Athena negates such a misconception; because, in fact, here in this one issue – the roots of Classical civilization – the racism in Bernal’s opinion, persisted in the academy. Not, perhaps, as overtly or purposefully as it had in the Extreme Aryan Model period, but the on-going denial of this connection between Egypt, the Phoenicians, and the emergence of Greek civilization perpetuated the institution that denied people of African descent their place in history.
Sarah: Ultimately Bernal wrote the volumes supporting this thesis. The first, as we’ve just discussed, dealt with historiography – or the history of how historians have written on this subject. In his second volume, where he stepped back from comparing the Ancient Model to the Aryan Model, and instead proposed a Revised Ancient Model for the modern scholar, relied on Archaeological and Documentary Evidence, published in 1991. Various scholars have quibbled with his use of the sources in this volume, particularly with his roundabout connections between the Greek god Pan, the Egyptian Pharaoh/god Min, and the reign of King Minos of the Minoans. But some of his other examples, like the presence of arguably Egyptian-influenced pottery and architecture in early Greek settlements seems feasible at the least. He responded to critics in 2001 – the same year he retired from Cornell, in Black Athena Writes Back. And he published the third and final volume of the series in 2006. In book 3 he focused specifically on the issue that drew him to the topic at the first: language. He’d written an extensive study of the Greek alphabet in 1990, titled the Cadmean Letters, which undoubtedly informed his much later work for the third Black Athena volume.
Averill: So, now that you get the sense of where Bernal was coming from, I want to return to this fact that, you know, this inspired an immense backlash from the ancient scholar community. So the responses to Bernal’s first volume was swift. Mary Lefkowitz, who was a classics professor at Wellesley College, was asked to write a rebuttal for the New Republic shortly after the publication of Bernal’s second book (Cademean Letters) and the same year of the publication of volume 2 of Black Athena. Five years later, after numerous attacks from the various sides of this controversy, she wrote a monograph expansion of her article subject. The book, which shared a title with the article, was titled Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History.
Averill: Yeah. And this obviously takes issue with Bernal’s thesis but it also has a number of other criticisms just of uh, a sort of third-party involved in this controversy. She argues that the Greek sources he built his narrative on were mistaken, themselves, the scholars of the ancient world like Herodotus, and that the authors “interpreted Egyptian culture in terms of Greek custom and experience.” So essentially, that they, Herodotus and Ustedes understood Egyptian culture through the lens of their own experiences in Greek culture, and so were themselves drawing these weird connections, perhaps incorrectly. She asserts that the Egypt in those accounts never existed, and that the Freemasons and other Egyptophiles from the first part of the 19th century – like Bernal – incorrectly interpreted these sources to name the Egyptians as the root of Western civilization. So essentially she’s saying that “we’ve already had this conversation. We had this conversation 160 years ago because the Freemasons were all obsessed, it was Egyptomania, and they were arguing even then that Egypt was the root of all Western civilization.” She’s saying that they too were incorrectly interpreting the sources, just as Bernal is now.
Averill: The third camp in this controversy. You have like Mary Lefkowitz, um, and her contingent of ancient scholars. Then you have Bernal who is, you know, he’s this white, British Sino historian who is…
Sarah: Not a classicist…
Averill: Not a classicist but has taken it up as a hobby…
Sarah: Which, I should interject, can be a bone of contention among scholars. When you’ve spent your entire career on a certain subject and then someone swans in, it can be very irritating.
Averill: We’ll repeat that at the end. Because I also thought those same things.
Sarah: Oh okay.
Averill: So he’s the first camp, Mary Lefkowitz is the second camp, then off in the corner are all these Black scholars. Africana studies, African-American studies scholars who I had mentioned in the beginning, who had been making similar arguments throughout the 20th century. Um, but they’re also, as Lefkowitz is going to reveal I guess, in her investigation of this issue, and this is sort of conveyed by her title Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, um because they’re creating myths, or using myths as sources to “blackwash” I guess, history. So instead of, all the people who are important being white, they’re instead making all the people who were important in history, African.
Averill: Without evidence.
Sarah: Lefkowitz and her camp took issue with three key components of Bernal’s argument and the Afrocentrists who used Black Athena to support their vision of history. Her first criticism was of Bernal’s evidence, and as Averill just noted, Lefkowitz believed that Bernal was falling prey to the same mythology that the Egyptophiles of the 19th century. She calls in Not Out of Africa for all those invested in this discussion to learn about Egypt, and Greece, about Africa, rather than making wild assertions like that Socrates was African – and further, for academics to put a stop to legitimizing these kinds of stories, even if it seeks to repair a deeper socio-political problem of racism in society.
Averill: Additionally, scholars in the fields of study of the ancient world were offended by Bernal and Asante of Temple University and ben-Jochannan, and their loud and insistent assertion that the entire lot of the Classicists were straight up racist. Mary Lefkowitz earned her degree in 1961 from the then gender segregated Radclyffe (Harvard’s “sister school) and cut her teeth on some of the most important work of giving a voice to the women of the ancient world. Nothing cuts a feminist like Lefkowitz more than telling her that she is racist. The attacks were not just j’accusations of racism, however. When Lefkowitz attended a lecture Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan gave at Wellesley, she challenged his arguments from the audience during the question period. He, in turn, accused her of leading a “Jewish onslaught” to attack the oppressed black people of America. The Jewish conspiracy kind of stuff… anti-Semitic…
Sarah: So we’ve got levels of stuff of racism.
Sarah: The way that the “Afrocentrists” rewrote the past to advance current political debates, however, is the true issue that Lefkowitz and those who joined her for the second rebuttal – a 500 page collection of articles refuting Black Athena’s claims and the larger issues. Though they easily cut through Bernal’s errors and selective use of evidence to fit his hypothesis, her deepest qualm was with the way the self-proclaimed Afrocentrist circle of academics seized on Bernal’s study as evidence that the Greek’s stole African culture, and there has been a conspiracy to cover it up and malign people of African descent for centuries. More, as Lefkowitz writes in the preface to Not Out of Africa, this went deeper than a single Cornell professor’s pet project. She writes:
“For many years a course had been offered in Wellesley’s Africana Studies department called “Africans in Antiquity.” I had always thought that the course was about historical Africa. But now as a result of my research, I realized instead that the ancient ‘Africans’ in its subject matter were figures such as Socrates and Cleopatra, and that among the ‘facts’ of ‘African’ ancient history were the same bogus claims about Greek philosophy that I had previously uncovered.”
Averill: Lefkowitz recognizes the reason that these scholars have appropriated the history to empower an oppressed population. People of color are still widely and grossly underrepresented in the academy. And the continent of Africa and its peoples and its history are equally grossly underrepresented in our curriculum and history departments. Even at the University at Buffalo, when I was a Teaching Assistant for the first half of a World History sequence, no matter who the instructor was, the entire continent got ONE LECTURE, if it got covered at all. In one class we spent four weeks on ancient Rome. In another with a different professor, we spent at least that many classes talking about various barbarians of the Steppes in Eurasia. And that is a reflection of the individuals who taught those classes – professors who were experts in Ancient Rome or modern Russia, respectively, and thus tailored the course to what they know best. But in a World History class, whether we’re at the high school or college level, it seems like there should be a greater effort to deEuropeanize that discussion. And I think that, at the very least, with all the errors of Bernal’s work, that at least should be something that should be taken seriously. Europe was pretty much a backwater pit of hillbillies and superstitious fools until the Renaissance, and really after that too. Particularly for the courses that cover the ancient world to 1500, in no way should we be focusing on the miniscule happenings of the northern Mediterranean in a bubble. And I don’t think that’s what was happening in those classes that I was a teaching assistant for. In that class taught by a Roman historian, Don McGuire, for example, there is a great emphasis on the diffusion of the Mediterranean, the interactions and circulation of ideas by the various peoples, and particularly by those Phoenician traders who did a lot of the legwork. But balance and on-going discussion are the crux of shaking up the Eurocentric model for something less fixedly centric,at all. It shouldn’t be Afrocentric and it shouldn’t be Eurocentric. It should be more fluid and conversational. It isn’t helpful to rewrite history –to recast Socrates as an African, and to do so without any evidence is even more problematic, and to do so without any actual evidence — to fabricate a more palatable or exciting narrative of the past. You can’t, particularly as a teacher, and we are teachers, ask “What is Socrates was black?” and then leave your students thinking that he was.
Sarah: Right. [laughter]
Averill: First, because there is no circumstantial evidence that could even give that question plausibility. It is thus then one of those very, you know we say “there’s no stupid questions” but it is a stupid questions. And second, it is our duty, yes, to get our students to be inquisitive and to think for themselves, but feeding them misinformation is not a constructive way to do that.
Sarah: Right, and I don’t want to take us down a different path but your, “what if Socrates was Black?” I think that there are those kinds of questions for all disciplines. There’s one or two or three questions that people have tried to propose, and it’s pointless. It ends up being a time waster. Because you end up spending all this time talking about “What if Socrates was Black” but it doesn’t actually matter.
Averill: Except, that could be an interesting question if you asked “What if Socrates was Black and what would his experience have been in the Greek world if he… is there a sense of racial segregation that we experience in the modern world”
Sarah: Sure, sure. What I mean is, we end up spending our time in counterfactuals instead of spending our time to better understand the time period as it was. And so there are these questions in the Civil War era. One is “what if Lee, um, what if the Confederacy had not failed at Pickett’s charge, at Gettysburg?” And people will spend years, books, entire books, thinking about that question. What would have happened, would the Confederacy have won. And it doesn’t matter! It’s not factual. That’s not what happened. Let’s spend our time focusing on what actually happened. And one other Civil War thing….
Averill: This is the ancient world Sarah!
Sarah: I have to get it back to the Civil War somehow! Your Socrates question reminds me of.. There was a similar controversy over Abraham Lincoln. Not that he was Black, but that he was gay. And I think the part of it was an updated version of wanting to find our heros, and make them a part of a different community. Or make them a part of a community that feels as though they don’t have public heros.
Averill: I mean, I’m absolutely an LGBTQ scholar, a scholar of this history, and one of the things that we talk about when we’re first talking about this in grad school, is the first wave of gay history was to “identify” the gay individuals in history. Alexander the Great. Aristotle. All… Abraham Lincoln. George Washington even… why not? King Henry VIII – who knows?!
[laughter] Sarah: Right, right.
Averill: That’s why he couldn’t have boys.
Sarah: Yeah, he was directing his energies elsewhere.
Averill: No, I don’t think that anyone’s ever claimed that. But anyway! This, this…
Sarah: We’re being silly…
Averill: We are being silly, but this is like actually part of our historiography. This was actually how the field was developed.
Sarah: Eleanor Roosevelt is a good one.
Averill: Claiming legitimacy, by claiming these important people from the past. Which is an unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that that has to be a step. And that I can certainly see where these Africana studies scholars would see that, to make their splash, to make their place in academia, that they would have to go down that road.
Sarah: Yeah. There’s also a similar conversation about Alexander Hamilton, whether Alexander Hamilton was um, was of mixed race. In a similar kind of conversation as well. About what if one of our founders was, at least, in some sense black.
Averill: But in once sense too, whether we’re talking about LGBTQ history or we’re talking about Africana studies and claiming these characters, it’s also about deEuropeanizing, deheterosexualizing these narratives and trying to shake up a stagnant system.
Sarah: Yeah, and in a sense, they’re right. Because it um, it never was as straight as we’d like to think it was. It was never as white as we’d like to think it was. Does that make sense?
Averill: Yeah, it does.
Sarah: But the problem is we can’t always identify and find those people. Because they were marginalized. They were written out of the story. And so you cling to ones that you can find, right? You try to see if there’s a way that Abraham Lincoln was gay.
Averill: And Mary Lefkowitz is obviously upset because she’s seeing these scholars claiming Socrates and claiming Cleopatra as Black, but doing so without any evidence. Just saying “what if he was?” and leaving it at that.
Sarah: Right. Alright, so in the introduction to his third volume, written nearly two decades after the first, Bernal responded to his critics. “Where I have merely aimed at ‘competitive plausibility’ conventional scholars in these fields have required ‘proof.’” Bernal sees this reluctance to consider the possibility that his theorizing and use of the evidence could be plausible as a continuation of the Aryan Model in those fields and among those scholars. In those two decades, though, there were a number of interesting archaeological discoveries which seemed to support Bernal’s more thinly evidenced volume two suggestions. For example, an Egyptian statue base with place names from the Aegean, Egyptian and Levantine styles and representations in the frescoes uncovered at the volcanic deposits at Thera; the Mesopotamian and Syrian seals found at the Greek Themes, and paintings with Egypto-Minoan motifs founds at Tel Ed Daba’a, and more.
Averill: So that’s the controversy. And it gets pretty nasty, it gets pretty racist, and the accusations of racism get thrown around between Bernal, Lefkowitz, and the Afrocentrists, like Asante who are “blackwashing” an entire group of people. Um, so sometimes in internet history chat rooms, often populated by history buffs with a little h and a little b – people who really love history, but have little to no formal training – we see folks railing against the podcasts – like ours – that don’t “remain objective” in the presentation of history. But one of the first things that good history graduate programs teach their students is that there is no such thing as ‘objectivity.’
Sarah: Like we spend weeks, just discussing that.
Averill: When we tell the stories of history, we – the historians, the history podcasters, the history teachers – we all choose which details to include, what evidence to use to support the narrative we present.
Sarah: On the History Buffs Podcast, we do our best to present as complete a picture of the stories we tell, with a wide range of both primary and secondary sources. And doing that is an important part of our job. But our experiences as people living in the real world shape us and the work that we do just as much as our formal training as historians shapes the way that we approach research and storytelling. The very topics that we pick to cover on this show are nothing if not a reflection of that. Sometimes we do episodes on stuff that we teach our students – like today’s episode – and sometimes we do episodes on our own research topics – so that we can use them in class [laughter] the episode I wrote a year ago about Roger Casement and the Easter Rising of 1916 is an example of that – and sometimes we do episodes on topics that resonate with us personally or politically, like our on-going episodes about immigration, or women’s reproductive rights. One of the first things we were told when we started our dissertations was that we should pick a topic that we are passionate about, because history PhDs spend between three and seven years working on that research project, and then it kind of sticks with you for the next 10 years if you decide to turn it into a book.
Averill: Unless you are Sarah, because her book is going to print next year, which is only like – 1.5 years out of us graduating? But she’s also a rock star.
Sarah: If I can ever get the manuscript turned in…
Averill: But when it’s published we’ll give you all copies. No.. we’ll do a giveaway.
Sarah: Yeah, we’ll do a giveaway.
Averill: Oh, so fancy.
Sarah: No you should all buy my book.
Averill: But we’ll give one away.
So what Bernal’s work reveals, particularly his “Aryan thesis” about the conscious and unconscious whitewashing of classical civilization during the 19th and early 20th century, is that historians are very much a product of their time. For nearly 150 years, that meant that the white European and American men who monopolized professional academia wrote history that worked for them. Step by step analyses of Civil War battles, biographies of Napoleon, summations of the rulers of Europe – great, white, man histories of the world. In the context of racial slavery in the 18th century, anti-Mohommedism, or anti-Muslim sentiments, scientific racism, and then Jim Crow in the 19th century, it should come as no surprise that the great white men writing the histories of the world should intentionally or unintentionally I guess, if we’re going to give people the benefit of the doubt, exclude the nonwhite from their understanding of the ancient Greeks. Bernal’s own fascination with this subject came from exploring his Jewish roots, and examining the Hebrew language and Levantine culture in the Mediterranean, and drawing then connections with Greek language, mythology, and culture. As a younger man he was part of the anti-imperialism and anti-Vietnam movements, and so shaking up the academy was very much modus operandi. It’s kind of just what he did and so he found his passion in this subject.
Sarah: We won’t speculate on what personal or political stake motivated Mary Lefkowitz to take issue with Bernal and his thesis. Though hastily pulled together, and editorially inflammatory from the start – Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth As History is a pretty obnoxious and incendiary title – Lefkowitz made some legitimate criticisms of Bernal’s work, though she couched it in language of finality rather than healthy academic discussion. On the one hand, I can understand the resistance to a non-expert making major, field-shifting assertions, which we alluded to earlier. It can be very irritating when somebody out of left field switches their major focus, or time period, or subject that they study and are writing these groundbreaking works and you feel like they, don’t belong.
Averill: But sometimes later career scholars do that all the time…
Sarah: But, sometimes it can feel as though people are jumping in and trying to pretend as though they’re experts when that’s their first foray into that field. But, on the other, academia has to be an open and ongoing dialogue. The study of history is not static. Otherwise there’d be no need to issue new PhDs every year, or to write new history books! Putting the puzzle pieces of the past together in different ways, to shed new light on old ideas or old light on modern ideas, to better understand the human experience of this world; this is the crux of our profession. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we created this podcast. Whether you are an amateur history buff with the little h and the little b, or one of us degree-mongering big H and big B History Buffs working on this podcast, or somewhere in between, we’re all part of the process of better understanding the past. We need to be having these conversations. And we have to be having them civilly.
Averill: I would like to say that it’s not often that academics get into these kinds of tiffs. I’ve heard of more than I care to, though. Few get as nasty as this one did though. Some of the awful, anti-Semitic things that people – other historians and scholars – educated people – said to Mary Lefkowitz were really unacceptable. But again, that goes back to fallibility of even we few who pursue “That Noble Dream” of “objectivity.” We are people too. Sometimes we are overpuffed know-it-alls. Sometimes we do know it all about some things. And sometimes we do and say stupid, insensitive, and wrong things.
Sarah: Right. I think that these types of debates where one article appears and then another article appears and they are clearly talking against each other- that is how the historiography moves forward. But generally it doesn’t devolve into this type of controversy. Um, just in my own field there have been publicized debates over the “dark” history of the Civil War. There have been people that have really drawn their battle lines and you sort of have to align yourself on one side or the other… I also was just thinking of another book in American history that I think kind of functions, not as controversial as Black Athena, but those arguments over sourcing, were very similar. And that’s Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. And it’s a really powerful book but a lot of historians read it and think, “this is doing a good thing politically, in terms of trying to redress the wrongs of who’s been written out of American history. But at the same time he’s doing some of the same things as Bernal. Finding things that he wishes were there.” Or making too much, or misinterpreting documents. It’s an important book but it has it’s flaws, definitely how I see Bernal.
Averill: It’s important to recognize, and to acknowledge our biases and the various factors that shape who we are as historians, and how we interact with the world and with each other. But more importantly, I think, from these kinds of disagreements – the ones that blow up like the Black Athena one did, and the ones that just get mildly uncomfortable – look up the Daniel Goldhagen controversy and conference fiasco when he presented his argument for Hitler’s Willing Executioners to an American audience – he argues that German civilians wanted to kill Jews and it basically blamed that generation for being anti-Semitic for the entire war. It was actually really well received in Germany because a younger academic crowd was coming up and they were like, yeah it was our parent’s fault so we’re absolved of guilt. But then this came to an American audience and they were like, “oh hell no son.”
Sarah: Really? Interesting.
Averill: Oh yeah, it got really interesting at one conference. And then Christopher Browning wrote his, “Ordinary Men,” which is a direct response to Goldhagen thesis. And Brown said, these are ordinary men and they drank themselves into a stupor before they had to go out and kill people, they suffered. Which does not absolve them, but this was a case…
Sarah: They weren’t gleefully going out to murder.
Averill: Yeah. Super, super interesting. But whatever, these conversations, whether they are intense or uncomfortable or whatever, they give us a greater nuance and better understanding of the past. Bernal was criticized for accusing the Greeks of “stealing” Egyptian culture. The evidence he presented did not really support that thesis. But what his j’accuse moment achieved was something more important: he shed light on an issue that had long been ignored or overlooked by the predominantly white academy. Ultimately the answer is not that Greek culture emerged in a vacuum, nor that it straight up plagiarized Egyptian culture. Rather, the Mediterranean world was a region of cultural diffusion. People have been moving around and bringing language, culture, and goods into new places since before the land bridges disappeared. Our understanding of the ancient world is better understood not as one monolithic culture shaping all the others, but of ideas, things, and people moving around and shaping the world as they went. But also that similar and cool ideas and inventions and philosophies could emerge in different places at roughly the same time.
Sarah: And they do!
Averill: And if there is nothing to evidence one culture appropriating it from the other, we can believe, safely, that human innovation is not specific to a single group. Great minds, and all that.
So, it got a little weird.
Sarah: We got very historiographical. I think that these peaks are good for people who are interested in history. It’s good for people to see how the sausage is made. I find often when I talk to students or non-historians, they ask what exactly I do. Like “don’t we already know what happened? Like why do you have a job?” But the thing is, we don’t know, and even what we do know is changing all the time, based on what we learn, or what we discover. Like someone goes out and digs up something new and makes a new argument. And maybe that argument is rebutted, but it still pushes the conversation further.
Averill: Because Christopher Brown used the same exact source base, and interpreted them differently.
Sarah: That’s exactly what I do in my manuscript of stories that other people have told. And I read it and I see it “this way.”
Averill: And some of us use sources that no one else, like I work on gay men in modern Ireland and nobodies looked at these court cases. I can tell because they were very dirty when I pulled them out of the archive. Very. very. Dirty.
Sarah: So there are still stories that haven’t been told. But even for the stories that have been told, um, sometimes we need to go back and look at them again, and reinterpret. And rethink. Reframe. And so sometimes these books like Bernal’s, maybe they weren’t perfect or flawless, they help push the conversation forward. And even the very worst histories do that.
Averill: And I think by the early 2000s, late 2000s, Lefkowitz, she recognized that too. She, for all the controversy, and all the personal attacks that she experienced from her opponants, she knows that this is an ongoing conversation. And for all the hardship in the moment, that obviously some of the scholars of the Africana vein, they felt, they experience everyday, in their profession, because they were marginalized in academia, that these kinds of conversations move the entire profession forward. And we need to better understand, look at the Mediterranean world not in this bubble of Greece and then Rome.
Sarah: Right. It’s much more complicated.
We covered everything there. We’ve got gay Abraham Lincoln to ancient Sumer. And everything in between.
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