Elizabeth Sherman

Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, eds. Univ. of North Carolina Press. 544 pp. $55 cloth, $19.95 paper

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2m 44sec

According to the Italian historian Mario Liverani, "Black Athena must be the most discussed book on the ancient history of the Mediterranean world since the Bible." But if Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (Vol. I, 1987; Vol. II, 1991) has captured the imagination of the public, it has earned the author the enmity of many of his fellow scholars.

Bernal is the half-Jewish grandson of the eminent Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardner, and a Cornell University political scientist whose specialty is China. As Bernal tells it, Black Athena began in a search for his own ethnic and intellectual roots. That query brought him up against what he regards as the systematic anti-Semitic and racist bias of 18thand 19th-century historiography. Hence his crusade, in Black Athena, "to lessen European cultural arrogance" by radically revising ancient history.

Lefkowitz, the co-editor of Black Athena Revisited and a professor of humanities at Wellesley College, has written another critique of Bernal’s work called Not Out of Africa. But the present volume contains the assembled commentaries of leading classicists, Egyptologists, historians, archeologists, and physical anthropologists. At stake are two vital questions: First, is there any truth to Bernal’s bold claim that the real cradle of Western civilization was not classical Greece but Africa? And second, what is the standard of truth by which such scholarly (some would say pseudoscholarly) claims can be measured?

Fired by a sense of injustice, Bernal pronounces on the modern—and historically irrelevant—concept of biological race. With a certain cynicism, he agreed to title his book Black Athena rather than African Athena, knowing that it would stir up controversy. He makes the misleading assertion that "many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties... were made up of pharaohs whom one can usefully call black." This combustible topic gets cool-headed treatment from C. Loring Brace and a team of biological anthropologists at the University of Michigan. Having compared Egyptian human remains statistically for a variety of traits, they find that Egyptians have changed very little since Predynastic times. No wonder a baffled Egyptian official, confronted recently by the peculiar racial politics surrounding the American discussion of ancient Egypt, felt obliged to protest that "Ramses II was neither black nor white but Egyptian."

Bernal also claims that Egyptians twice colonized Greece, citing not archeological evidence (none has ever been found) but "massive" linguistic borrowings. Cornell professors Jay H. Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum (a linguist and a classicist, respectively) demonstrate that most of Bernal’s proposed etymologies are based on no more than surface similarities. At one point, faced with Bernal’s notion that the Greek labúrinthos comes from the Egyptian Ny-m∋ t-R ntr, the authors throw up their hands: "We confess to finding this derivation wildly far-fetched even by Bernal’s standards."

Bernal has injected new life into a field too frequently dry and arcane. But his scholarship, imposing though it might appear to the nonexpert, is highly dubious. As a professor at a great university and the grandson of a great scholar, he should know better. Black Athena Revisited will make it possible for others to know better as well.

—Elizabeth Sherman