Europeans not only colonized the globe, they colonized the past. The “Aryanization” (ethnic cleansing) of classical antiquity was deemed a project of immense significance given the need of Europeans to implant, rationalize, and justify the myth of “white” superiority during the era of Europe’s hegemonic control of the vast majority of the world’s “non-white” peoples.
According to the myth, which historian J.M. Blaut has labeled: “the European Miracle,” “whites” were the sole progenitors of Greek Civilization, which later served as the foundation of European culture, science and philosophy. The fabricators of this myth, imbued as they were with the racialist and racist thinking of their day, posited a Greece that was pure and unsullied by the influences of its neighbors to the south (Persia, the Levant, and Egypt), a Greece that sprang forth into the world full of wisdom and beauty like Athena springing forth from the forehead of her father Zeus.
This Broad Aryan Model of ancient civilization, as scholar-linguist Martin Bernal dubbed it, came under assault immediately from some European scholars and from the earliest “black” scholars of the era, of whom Frederick Douglass ranks as the most notable. Later generations of “black” scholars including W.E.B. Du Bois, George G.M. James, St. Clair Drake, and Cheikh Anta Diop brought this debate into the 20th century and helped to establish the scholarly theory and praxis for deracinating the Aryan Model and decolonizing the past.
Martin Bernal’s 1987 publication of “Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985″ is notable for bringing the centuries-old debate into academia and popular culture. His work generated a cottage-industry of seminars and publications and an avalanche of attacks from scholars and conservative pundits. In doing so it forever changed academic and popular discourse on Ancient Greece and the role of Afroasiatic civilizations in the development of European culture. Volume I was followed by three other volumes: “Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (1991); “Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics” (2001); and “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence” (2006). Each volume advanced his thesis, rebutted his critics, and further dismantled the foundation and structure of the master’s Eurocentric house. Like any scholar dealing with complex issues of ancient history and civilizations, Bernal’s work is not without its flaws. A number of reputable scholars have identified methodological problems in his texts, particularly in his linguistic analyses and uses of Greek myths. Nevertheless, the central premise of Black Athena–which pertains to the fabrication of the Broad Aryan Model of ancient history to supplant an Ancient Model of history that recognized Afroasiatic contributions to Greek culture and civilization–remains valid and worthy of further research and elucidation.
It is with great sadness and respect that I note the passing of Martin Bernal on June 9. Few scholars of his generation have had such a decisive and enduring impact on our understanding of the past and how it has been manipulated and misused for political and social purposes. His work and his example will continue to inspire, engage, and enrage a new generation of scholars as we move forward to meet the intellectual challenges of the 21st century. For more on Bernal’s life and work see the items linked below:
Dutch scholar Wim van Binsbergen has been an avid promoter of “Black Athena,” and offers here a constructive critique and analysis of Bernal’s books. Also see his edited volume, “Black Athena Comes of Age,” which features three essays by Bernal.
A brief obituary was published in the Ithaca Journal on June 13.
The NYT published this obituary on June 22.