The Ancestors Claim Martin Bernal, 76, Author of “Black Athena”
Martin Bernal in the mid-1980s did the unthinkable for a Western academic: he maintained in his three-volume argument, Black Athena, that the cultural underpinnings of ancient Greece—the cradle of democracy and of Western civilization—also lay with Phoenicia, west Asia, and especially Egypt, and therefore Africa, something that Afrocentrists had been saying for quite a while from George James to Cheikh Anta Diop. The death was only announced Friday; Bernal died on June 9.
Martin Bernal, who has died aged 76, was a scholar of China and modern politics, but his contentious work on ancient Greece brought him most to the public eye. He maintained that the cultural roots of Greek civilisation derived not just from Indo-Europeans invading from the north, but substantially, as ancient authors affirmed, from Egypt, the Phoenician cities of the eastern Mediterranean and west Asia.
In place of what he saw as the racist “Aryan” theory of Greek origins prevalent from the early 19th century, he proposed a “revised ancient model” that accepted some Indo-European input, but held that about half the linguistic and mythic components of Hellenic culture came from African and Asiatic introductions since the early second millennium BC. The trilogy in which he put forward this argument, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, provoked great academic controversy. He did not foresee what one commentator called “the firestorm that would break upon his head”.
And Bernal would not budge an inch from what he had propounded. Like Fawn Brodie, who lobbed a cannonball from outside the academy for her book on Thomas Jefferson and his affair with Sally Hemmings, Bernal came in for some scathing rebuke as well as support for what he was trying to do: to open up a dialogue and hopefully to perform a revision of history, and a revisiting to texts that would tell the whole story.
Scholarly reviews in the west were almost entirely negative, and opinion was sharply divided. Some classicists considered Bernal a serious scholar who had made a considerable, if flawed, contribution; others treated him as an academic fraud.
Black Athena Revisited (1996), edited by Mary Lefkowitz and GM Rogers, brought together hostile contributions by scholars from a range of disciplines. Among their main objections were alleged naivety in Bernal’s readings of myth and ancient literary texts, abusive generalisations in his treatment of ancient and modern authors, unconventional etymological analysis and selective presentation of evidence.
Bernal’s detailed responses were collected in Black Athena Writes Back (2001). While admitting secondary errors and revising his positions accordingly, he stuck to his central argument of the key role of Egyptian and Phoenician immigrants in laying early foundations for classical Greek civilisation.
One critic derided Mr. Bernal’s thesis as evidence of “a whirling confusion of half-digested reading.” Some were more conciliatory. J. Ray, a British Egyptologist, wrote, “It may not be possible to agree with Mr. Bernal, but one is the poorer for not having spent time in his company.”
Stanley Burstein, a professor emeritus of ancient Greek history at California State University, Los Angeles, said Mr. Bernal’s historiography — his history of history-writing on ancient Greece — was flawed but valuable. “Nobody had to be told that Greece was deeply influenced by Egypt and the Phoenicians, or that 19th-century history included a lot of racial prejudice,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But then, nobody had put it all together that way before.”
The specific evidence cited in his books was often doubtful, Professor Burstein added, but “he succeeded in putting the question of the origins of Greek civilization back on the table.”
See what I mean. It was all so startling, and still is to the powers that are in history, anthropology and archeology intelligentsia, but the thesis was so brilliantly and forcefully rendered that they could not put it down entirely. Of course, now that Bernal is dead, there will be those historians who will take up his work, make it their own, and then prove his thesis at another time.
Indeed, Bernal’s three volumes “…was translated into several languages, became the subject of conferences, radio and television programs, and earned honors including a 1990 American Book Award for the first book and the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun’s 2004 Book of the Year for Black Athena 2.”
Bernal was born illegitimate on March 10, 1937, the son of John Desmond Bernal, a prominent British scientist and leftist, and Margaret Gardiner, a writer. The pair never married. His grandfather was a well-regarded Egyptologist. Bernal followed his father and grandfather into both academia and radical politics . He was proud to say,“I was always expected to be radical because my father was.” In his lifetime, he was also a critic of both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.
After he studied at Dartington Hall school, Devon, performed his national service (military), and worked in Malawi for a family trust, Bernal graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, in 1957. He later received a diploma in Chinese from Peking University in 1960, and did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Harvard. He completed his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge in 1966, and remained there as a fellow until he was recruited by Cornell University. Thereafter, he divided his time between Britain and the United States, not only to be present for his children as his first marriage to Judy Pace had failed, but also to be closer to the sources of his books, and to home with his second wife, Leslie, and their family. From the Guardian:
Bernal’s first book, Chinese Socialism to 1907, appeared in 1976, but then his research interests increasingly shifted to antiquity. From his grandfather, the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, Bernal had gained an enduring engagement with the ancient Mediterranean; that and fascination with his Jewish heritage gave impetus to Black Athena, the project that most allowed him to connect prose and passion. It brought him an adjunct professorship in the department of Near Eastern studies in 1984. He became full professor at Cornell in 1988 and retired as emeritus in 2001.
When Bernal retired, he led Cambridge University tours to China—back to his first study. Interest in what moved him never flagged, and he was always an engaged, brilliant conversationalist, among other gifts. From the Ithaca Journal:
Many friends, family members, and colleagues will remember Martin for his wonderful sense of humor and wide-ranging knowledge, not only of history and political events but a surprising amount of popular culture, too. He enjoyed watching sitcoms on television and could cite many episodes of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” Folk music was important to Martin. Although not trained formally in music, he loved singing, sometimes to the embarrassment of his children, and knew an incredible number of verses of Irish, Scottish, English, and American folk songs. Martin was passionate about politics and had strong liberal views about U.S. domestic and foreign policy and signed many petitions and joined anti-war marches. Friends of many years described Martin as “brilliant, charming, lively, unpredictable, slightly wicked, but loving and fundamentally humane . . . one of the finest people we’ve ever known.”
Bernal was fluent in French and Chinese; he knew Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Italian, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chichewa (a southern Africa tongue) and several ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages. He loved languages; he saw languages much the same as a child would gaze longingly at the display in a candy store.
The New York Times reported that Martin Bernal died of complications stemming from myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder.
Bernal is survived by his second wife Leslie Miller, by his children in his combined family: Sophie, William, Paul, Adam and Patrick; and by nine grandchildren. He also leaves a half-sister, Jane, and her family. A private funeral took place in Cambridge, England on June 19, with memorial services being scheduled in both the United States and Britain in the fall.
- Professor Martin Bernal, ‘Black Athena’ author, dies at 76 | Cornell Chronicle (aboriginalwriter.wordpress.com)
- Martin Bernal (paulbernal.wordpress.com)
- Remembering Martin Bernal (dukeupress.typepad.com)