Martin Gardiner Bernal
March 10th, 1937 to June 9th, 2013
March 10th, 1937 to June 9th, 2013
"Professor Martin Bernal, 'Black Athena' author, dies at 76"
June 14th, 2013
Martin Gardiner Bernal, professor emeritus of government and Near Eastern studies at Cornell and author of the widely read and debated "Black Athena” books on classical civilization, died June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
Bernal taught at Cornell from 1972 until his retirement in 2001. He began as an associate professor in the Department of Government and was named a full professor in 1988.
Bernal argued that Egypt, not Greece, was the root of ancient culture in his three-volume work “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.” Considered controversial by many, Bernal’s first volume, “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985" (1987) was followed by further research in “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” (1991) and “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence” (2006), and a volume in response to his critics, “Black Athena Writes Back” (2001).
The series 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.”
His other books include “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976); and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of The Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Born March 10, 1937, in London to writer Margaret Gardiner and scientist J.D. Bernal, he was a 1957 graduate of Kings College, Cambridge; earned a Diploma of Chinese Language from Peking University in 1960, and was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963 and Harvard University in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University in 1966, remaining there as a fellow until his recruitment by Cornell. Adding an appointment in Near Eastern studies in 1984, he initiated new courses including the politics of scholarship.
He was known as a brilliant and lively friend, teacher and colleague; was well-traveled and learned languages wherever he went, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, the Bantu language Chichewa, Vietnamese and Japanese.
"Martin Bernal obituary"
Scholar of Chinese history and politics whose most controversial work, Black Athena, explored the origins of ancient Greece
June 21st, 2013
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".
Volume I (1987), The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985, examined mainstream scholarship on Mediterranean history from the bronze age to the classical period. It received mixed reviews but generated widespread interest and was translated into nine languages. Less editorially polished, Volume II (1991) mixed interpretation of archaeological materials with analysis of myths, to support his historical reconstruction of trans-Mediterranean influences and argue that the "orientalising" influence on Greece began a millennium earlier than generally thought.
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.
Volume III (2006) presented evidence from comparative linguistics to support that case. The most technical instalment of the trilogy, focusing on ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages as well as Greek, it was ignored by scholarly journals. Nonetheless, two recent edited collections, Black Athena Comes of Age and African Athena: New Agendas, both published in 2011, express critical appreciation for Bernal's contributions to raising key issues for scholarly consideration.
Near the end of his life, he summed up what he believed to be the standard assessment of his work's value among those who took him seriously: that his analysis of the modern historiography was fairly solid, his reconstructions based on archaeology and comparative mythology dubious and his linguistic analyses impossible. His own assessment was rather the opposite: he considered his linguistic work his most solid contribution and his historiographical analyses from the 1980s oversimplified.
Born in London, Bernal grew up there in a left-leaning milieu, on familiar terms with prominent figures in the arts, sciences and politics. His mother was the writer Margaret Gardiner, and his father the physicist JD Bernal. The sole child of their longstanding relationship, Martin studied at Dartington Hall school, Devon, undertook two years of national service and worked in Malawi for a family trust.
In 1957, he embarked on an oriental studies degree at King's College, Cambridge. He hoped Maoist China might constitute an alternative to Stalinism and capitalism. A year abroad in 1960-61 polishing his Chinese at Beijing University, where he was deemed to have a "bad attitude", acquainted him with the regime's Stalinist features, while cementing his lifelong engagement with Chinese culture and history.
The Cambridge professor of Chinese EG Pulleyblank was conducting innovative research into historical linguistics that proved an inspiration for Bernal later on. He gained first-class honours in 1961 and married his fellow student Judy Pace. Their daughter was born in 1963 in the US, where Bernal spent successive years as a graduate student at Berkeley and Harvard. Twin sons were born in Cambridge 18 months later.
A King's fellowship followed, and he received his PhD, on early Chinese socialism, in 1966.
Bernal was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. Extended visits to Cambodia in 1967, to Cambodia and both parts of Vietnam in 1971, and to North Vietnam in 1974, put him in personal touch with people in those countries.
Prominent articles on Chinese politics in the New York Review of Books brought him to attention in the US just as President Richard Nixon was making diplomatic overtures to the People's Republic and withdrawing troops from Indochina. In 1972 Bernal was appointed associate professor in the department of government at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, on terms that allowed him to spend substantial amounts of time in Britain, close to his children, as his first marriage had come to an end.
In 1976, he met Leslie Miller, a professor (and later provost) at Wells College, near Cornell, whom he married. They had a son in 1979, and Leslie had a son from her previous marriage. The family moved regularly between Ithaca and Cambridge over the following decades.
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.
Bernal took strong public stands against the Iraq war, in the US and in Britain. His broad knowledge, wit and good humour made him a brilliant conversationalist. He was a warm and generous friend.
In retirement he led Cambridge University tours to China. He treated language learning as both a duty and a pleasure: in addition to fluency in French and Chinese, he knew Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Italian, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chichewa (spoken in southern Africa) and several ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern languages.
"Martin Bernal, ‘Black Athena’ Scholar, Dies at 76"
June 22nd, 2013
The New York Times
Martin Bernal, whose three-volume work “Black Athena” ignited an academic debate by arguing that the African and Semitic lineage of Western civilization had been scrubbed from the record of ancient Greece by 18th- and 19th-century historians steeped in the racism of their times, died on June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
The cause was complications of myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder, said his wife, Leslie Miller-Bernal.
“Black Athena” opened a new front in the warfare over cultural diversity already raging on American campuses in the 1980s and ’90s. The first volume, published in 1987 — the same year as “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom’s attack on efforts to diversify the academic canon — made Mr. Bernal a hero among Afrocentrists, a pariah among conservative scholars and the star witness at dozens of sometimes raucous academic panel discussions about how to teach the foundational ideas of Western culture.
Mr. Bernal, a British-born and Cambridge-educated polymath who taught Chinese political history at Cornell from 1972 until 2001, spent a fair amount of time on those panels explaining what his work did not mean to imply. He did not claim that Greek culture had its prime origins in Africa, as some news media reports described his thesis. He said only that the debt Greek culture owed to Africa and the Middle East had been lost to history.
His thesis was this: For centuries, European historians of classical Greece had hewed closely to the origin story suggested by Plato, Herodotus and Aeschylus, whose writings acknowledged the Greek debt to Egyptian and Semitic (or Phoenician) forebears.
But in the 19th century, he asserted, with the rise of new strains of racism and anti-Semitism along with nationalism and colonialism in Europe, historians expunged Egyptians and Phoenicians from the story. The precursors of Greek, and thus European, culture were seen instead as white Indo-European invaders from the north.
In the first volume of “Black Athena,” which carried the forbidding double subtitle “The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece — 1785-1985,” Mr. Bernal described his trek through the fields of classical Greek literature, mythology, archaeology, linguistics, sociology, the history of ideas and ancient Hebrew texts to formulate his theory of history gone awry (though he did not claim expertise in all these subjects).
The scholarly purpose of his work, he wrote in the introduction, was “to open up new areas of research to women and men with far better qualifications than I have,” adding, “The political purpose of ‘Black Athena,’ is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.”
He published “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” in 1991, and followed it in 2006 with “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence.”
Another book, “Black Athena Writes Back,” published in 2001, was a response to his critics, who were alarmed enough by Mr. Bernal’s work to publish a collection of rebuttals in 1996, “Black Athena Revisited.”
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.”
Martin Gardiner Bernal was born on March 10, 1937, in London to John Desmond Bernal, a prominent British scientist and radical political activist, and Margaret Gardiner, a writer. His parents never married, a fact their son asserted with some pride in interviews.
“My father was a communist and I was illegitimate,” he said in 1996. “I was always expected to be radical because my father was.”
His grandfather Alan Gardiner was a distinguished Egyptologist.
Mr. Bernal graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, in 1957, earned a diploma of Chinese language from Peking University in 1960 and did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963 and Harvard in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge in 1966 and remained there as a fellow until he was recruited by Cornell.
His other books, which also focused on the theme of intercultural borrowing, were “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976) and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of the Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Besides his wife, he is survived by his sons, William, Paul and Patrick; a daughter, Sophie; a stepson, Adam; a half-sister, Jane Bernal; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Bernal was asked in 1993 if his thesis in “Black Athena” was “anti-European.” He replied: “My enemy is not Europe, it’s purity — the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture. I believe that the civilization of Greece is so attractive precisely because of those mixtures.”
Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization
Review by John R. Lenz...
Not since the Old Testament has a book about the second millenium B.C.E. generated as much controversy as Black Athena. The second volume of this projected four-volume work arouses equal degrees of awe and skepticism.
In Black Athena, Martin Bernal attempts to derive Greek civilization and language from Egypt and the Semitic Near East. Volume 1 (1987) argues that Western scholarship, operating under an "Aryan (i.e. Indo-European) Model," has excluded such contributions. Attributing this to racist impulses, Bernal countered (in kind) that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. His work thus complements the wider phenomenon of Afrocentrism.
More know the book's title than its arguments. Black Athena, volume 2 is extremely heavy going and problematic. Informative and generally reasonable in tone, its scope and ambition put the work of most scholars to shame. Even hoary antiquarians will learn things, and other dedicated readers will be led into the fascinating alleyways of Aegean (and Chinese) prehistory. Everyone, however, should read this work with extreme caution.
So radical is Bernal's ambition that much in the book eludes proof. Etymology--the heart of his case--is a notoriously slippery area. Bernal proposes many Egyptian or Semitic roots for Greek words, including such central concepts as psyche (soul) and hybris (pride). He gives some striking examples. Some interesting and some obscure aspects of Greek names and myths are illuminated. However, the fits, as he honestly admits, are usually loose ones, based on a grab-bag of roots that look or sound alike. Compelling as all this potentially is, there is just too much piling on of weak cases and no real method.
Much of the archaeology is, likewise, awesomely bold but hard to swallow. Bernal wishes to weave a complex web of populations and cultural borrowings in the Aegean Bronze Age. Such questions have long been the stuff of archaeology; the "Pax Aegyptiaca" is no new idea. But Bernal rightly resurrects many examples that have been minimized or overlooked from a Hellenocentric perspective. This is important. How many universities even offer courses on the ancient Near East and Egypt? How often do we hear Egyptian art unfairly disparaged by comparison with Greek? However, Bernal's blunt reconstructions go much further than warranted. In fact he rejects a model of multiculturalism in favor of a scenario of widespread Egyptian colonization and domination. For example, reshuffling myth-history, he alleges Egyptian settlement of Bronze Age Crete and Greece c. 1730 B.C.E.
Bernal's method is a misplaced materialism. He traces Chinese political theory (the ruler's "Mandate from Heaven") to a Greek volcanic cataclysm: "China today still bears the marks of the Thera eruption" (now dated c. 1628 B.C.E.). (Moses's parting of the seas and Plato's myth of Atlantis he indirectly connects with the same event.) Did atmospheric disturbances from Krakatoa's eruption really "have an impact on the development of Impressionism"? If you like such causal fancies, you will love the dense historical drama/espionage of Black Athena.
Aside from numerous questions of detail, two major problems flaw the core of the author's desire to erect a new paradigm. How far does he explain Greek culture, and does he do justice to the interaction of different cultures and to the cause of multiculturalism itself?
Frustrated with a sacred-cow Classicism, Bernal (the grandson of the Egyptologist A. Gardiner), only attacks Classical Greece at some remove: he combs the Aegean Bronze Age, c. 3000 to 1150 B.C.E., in order to derive Greek culture (a vast animal in time, space, and thought) from Near Eastern ones of that time. But from c. 1150 to 750 B.C.E. Greece experienced a Dark Age. Deriving the succeeding Greek city-state culture from the earlier Mycenaean palace civilization (whatever its origins) is problematic. Bernal's solution involves idiosyncratic redatings, e.g. placing the introduction of the Greek alphabet (unattested before 775 B.C.E. or later) between 1800 and 1400 B.C.E. and the poet Hesiod in the tenth century. These heavy-handed moves neither sufficiently bridge the divide of the Dark Age, nor answer the many difficult and subtle questions about the development of Greek civilization both from within and without.
There is a more serious, general objection. Suppose (as the author doesn't) that everything in the book were true: Egyptian settlement of Greece, Greek borrowings of language and ideas (e.g. Plato's) from Egypt. What would this explain? How far, for example, do we get in understanding Virgil by citing all of that great poet's borrowings from Homer? Wouldn't anything Plato wrote, short of taking dictation from Egyptian priests, bear his own stamp (and what about Socrates, who hardly left Athens)? In short, even if all of Bronze Age Greece were settled by Egyptians, we would still, immediately, have to say that the Egyptians in Greece were different from the Egyptians in Egypt. Glossing over deep questions of cultural change and identity, appropriating pieces here and there for one's own chosen peoples, is dangerous both politically and intellectually.
Bernal reminds us, and takes pride in demonstrating, that scholarship and politics (or ideology) can never be separated. His gadfly intent, "to lessen European cultural arrogance" and "to make conventionality have its cost," is most admirable (if itself somewhat conventional). But his own appeal to be faithful to the ancient traditions is rather disingenuous, since his "Revised Ancient Model" selects, rejects, and interprets from varied sources just as any historian must do.
Exposing others' preconceptions gives a false sense of security, when one remains blind to one's own. A theme of volume 1 was that we invent our ancestors (there, the ancient Greeks). Bernal answers by redefining the ancestors. Thus, like many revolutionaries, he does not condemn the system (namely the appropriation of the past for political purposes), but attempts to make it his own. Are black paradigmatic ancestors better (on principle) than European ones? Does a pharaoh in a black power pose really help the cause of Afro-American humanism (see Free Inquiry, Spring 1990) by replacing one elitism with another?
In my opinion, this trend does no service even to the intended cause. Deriving one culture from another (whether Europe from Greece or, in turn, Greece from Egypt) is not multiculturalism, but uniculturalism. (A strict Afrocentrism only takes Eurocentrism one step back, by maintaining, even requiring, a glorified view of the Greeks.) True multiculturalism recognizes the merits (and faults) of all peoples and cultures, and judges civilizations by other than their highest monuments. Wouldn't the Egyptian treatment of minorities be of concern to an Afrocentric perspective? Shouldn't the message be, you don't need the greatest or most powerful conquering ancestors to be worthy of human respect (today or in history)? Shouldn't a "politically correct" stance take some interest in the political and social systems of Egypt and Greece? We might ask, "How did the pharaohs treat their subjects?" or "Did Plato have totalitarian tendencies?"
Black Athena deserves respect for its broad ambition and inclusiveness. Terribly important in its aims, it remains highly problematic in methods and results, opening up new vistas rather than settling them. All should, while criticizing, widen their interests and sympathies. In a country that professes to live by ancient texts it knows shockingly little of, it is good to see the past taken seriously. But readers should approach this book in the same spirit of scholarly uncertainty in which, at its best, it is written.
Martin Bernal [Wikipedia]
Afrocentrism--the Black Athena Controversy