Lingua Franca, November, 1996
“The Egyptians were an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere.” -Holden Caulfield
On a rainy spring evening in New York City, a predominantly black audience packs the auditorium of Greenwich Village’s P.S. 41 to listen to a debate over the origins of Western civilization. On stage, Utrice Leid, the host of WBAI radio’s Talk Back, introduces the evening’s panelists. She notes that although they are gathered to discuss the merits of Wellesley classicist Mary Letkowitz’s recent book, Not Out of Africa, the disagreement over Africa’s contribution to Western culture represents “much more than a mere difference of opinion in the ivory tower. It is also a topic of tremendous symbolic importance.”
Attired in a staid blue suit with a red blouse and a scarf, Letkowitz sits beside a colleague, the classical historian Guy MacLean Rogers. At another table sit the Afrocentric scholar John Henrik Clark and Martin Bernal, the Cornell professor of government whose much discussed Black Athena series makes the case for the “Afro-Asiatic roots” of Greek culture. Although Clark and Bernal are ideologically sympathetic, visually they are a striking study in contrast: the former’s lean, dark hued angularity couldn’t be further from Bernal’s rumpled, absentminded professor look.
Clark’s opening statement sets the evening’s tone. “I am not here to debate, because I only debate with my equals!” he announces to wild applause. “While Letkowitz’s book is a good sophomore effort, it’s not really about Africa,” he continues “Last year it was The Bell Curve, next year it will be something else. This is a War. Her book is nothing more than a rationalization for the reenslavement of the African people.”
In response, Lefkowitz protests that her work is not anti-African, but only an objective evaluation of the facts. “My training is in classics and women in the ancient world. I defend myself by citing sources, but I have no agenda?” She tails off, drowned out by the audience’s mounting boos and cat-calls. Someone charges that she is “a global terrorist.” The debate turns ugly as Leid, the “moderator,” directs her most hostile comments at Letkowitz and Rogers. As Leid runs through a list of hot button questions-Was Socrates black? Are Egyptians Africans? Did the Greeks steal their philosophy from Egypt?-the discussion spins out of control. “Have you ever been to Africa?” she asks Lefkowitz.
“Have you studied it?”
“No. I don’t pretend to be a scholar of Africa.”
“Have you been to Greece?”
“I thought so,” Leid snaps with satisfaction. The audience roars its approval. Although on the winning” side of this evening’s debate, Bernal looks a bit uncomfortable; after all, Black Athena argues that the ancient Greeks benefited from both Egyptian and Semitic contacts. Given the frequent allusions by audience members to “Jewish conspiracies” and the like, it is doubtful that the latter half of Bernal’s equation will be welcome here. When asked to describe his credentials, he says that he is not an Afrocentrist but merely an autodidact who is against racism in all its forms.
Later in the evening, Bernal describes the balancing act he says he has maintained in the decade since Black Athena made him an academic celebrity-the pariah of classicists as well as a darling of the Afrocentric camp. “My Near Eastern studies supporters, who have felt persecuted by the denial of Semitic influences in classics, are uneasy about my association with Afrocentrism,” he says. “So my problem is really that of the Democratic Parry how to keep blacks and Jews in the same column.”
Martin Bernal wasn’t always in the thick of academic controversy. Back in the mid-Eighties, his presentations on the “Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization” drew audiences he could count on one hand. But with the publication of Black Athena’s first volume by Rutgers University Press in 1987, a noisy debate began in the usually sedate world of classicists.
As the culture wars heated up and figures like Molefi Asante and Leonard Jeffries achieved renown, Bernal’s work came to be cited as the scholarly foundation of the Afrocentric movement. So complete was his identification with its aims that The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education mistakenly ranked Bernal, who is white, as the seventeenth most frequently cited African American scholar in 1993.
This past spring-five years after the publication of Black Athena’s second volume-a virtual Bernal industry sprang up. The controversy surrounding his work was given new life by the simultaneous publication of Mary Lefkowitz’s anti-Afrocentric polemic by Basic Books, and of Black Athena Revisited, a collection of critical reviews edited by Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers for UNC Press. Add to these a 60 Minute’s segment on the dispute, a fierce and extended Internet exchange, a series of live debates between Bernal and Lefkowitz, and a sea of ad hominem ink spilled in newspapers and journals.
And this was only the beginning. Moses and Muses, Bernal’s more reader-friendly, illustrated version of his ideas, is currently ready for press, and he is well along the way on the third volume of Black Athena (volume one has been translated into five languages). Duke is publishing a response to Black Athena Revisted, titled Black Athena Writes Back; the University of Massachusetts Press is putting out a collection of critical essays titled Just Out of Africa; Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga are collaborating on a further response to Lefkowitz, titled Truly Out of Africa; and Heresy in the University, a study of the whole Black Athena ruckus, is due out from Rutgers next year.
Why has Black Athena gotten so much attention both within the academy and beyond? The reasons, it seems clear, have more to do with contemporary identity politics than with ancient archaeology. Though Bernal assails nineteenth-century classicists for their efforts to secure a pristine, “Aryan” origin to Western civilization, his work also benefits from the romance of origins. In particular, his assertions that the ancient Egyptians “might usefully be called Black” and that their civilization was “fundamentally African” have made him a hero to some, even as they’ve sent many historians-who view Bernal as disingenuously giving support to those who believe Greece stole its riches from Africa-into paroxysms of rage.
For all of Black Athena’s grandiose claims, its basic argument isn’t all that difficult, conveyed as it is in a rhetoric that borrows from both detective drama and the fairy tale. It goes something like this.
Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks believed their culture had emerged from the conquests and colonization carried out by Egyptians and Phoenicians around 1500 B.C. Aeschylus mentioned these events in The Supplicants; Plato referred to Egypt in the Timaeus and the Phaedrus; and Herodotus noted the various ideas and tools which Greece had inherited from
Egypt in his Histories. As Greece gave to Rome, so it had taken from Egypt and Phoenicia; although the periods of colonization were recalled with some dismay by these Greek writers, their culture’s indebtedness to as glorious and ancient a civilization as Egypt was ultimately looked upon with pride. Greek culture was thought of as a continuously developing, thoroughly multicultural affair, stretching from the third millennium B.C. through the classical and Hellenic periods. Bernal calls this the “Ancient Model.”
The belief in Egypt’s cultural primacy prevailed through the seventeenth century, with the Freemasons going so far as to posit their own origins in Egypt’s mystery rituals. Then, in the eighteenth century, attitudes toward the Egyptians and Phoenicians began to change. With the emergence of the modern paradigm of “progress” (the idea that later cultures were better than earlier ones), along with incipient racism, anti-Semitism, and the Romantic movement’s interest in ethnicity, enthusiasm for Egypt and Phoenicia waned and “Hellenomania” Rose. This new valuation of the Greeks, Bernal argues, had nothing to do with archaeological or linguistic evidence and every-thing to do with the prejudices of European scholars. The precursors to Greek civilization were now envisioned as white, Indo-European invaders from the north, rather than ethnically mixed, somewhat darker colonizers from the east and south. Egyptians (whom Bernal equates with black Africans) and Phoenicians (whom he identifies as proto-Jews) were systematically expunged from the modem story of the origins of Greece, and the accounts of these outside influences, by writers like Herodotus, were discredited by the new “scientific” historical methods. The nineteenth-century ideal of Greece as a pure culture with a pure language was championed by European (particularly German) classicists, who viewed that culture as a precursor to their own. Bernal calls this the “Aryan Model” and argues that it has dominated the study of the ancient world until fairly recently.
In the Sixties, a less extreme “Broad Aryan Model” began to gain credibility among classicists. This model, which allowed for the possibility of Semitic influence on Greece-although still denying any significant Egyptian role-made an appearance because of two factors: new archaeological data and the diminution of anti-Semitism in academia. Bernal puts Mary Lefkowitz and the majority of the profession in this camp. To many classicists, the model allows for precisely the close attention to intercultural “diffusionist” contact that scholars of the previous century neglected.
Bernal, however, is not happy with the “Broad Aryan Model.” His intentions are far more radical to vindicate what he calls the “Revised Ancient Model,” which incorporates a few modern insights (such as the discovery that Greek is an Indo-European language), but for the most part returns to the understanding he believes the ancient Greeks had of themselves. To a considerable degree, Bernal insists on the truthfulness of the ancient stories of conquest and intercultural indebtedness-a tendency that leads his critics to accuse him of either willful naivete or an inability to distinguish myth from history. Drawing on ancient inscriptions and an array of other fragmentary sources, he argues that the area we now call Greece was invaded and colonized in 1730 B.C. by the Hyksos-a multicultural but predominantly Egypto-Semitic tribe, who were superiorly armed with chariots and swords. The Hyksos brought with them Egyptian and Semitic culture and language, and these elements mixed in with the native population in the following centuries to create what we now think of as ancient Greece.
If nothing else, Bernal’s work is daunting in its scope, touching as it does on an astounding number of disciplines and subfields, including classics, mythology, archaeology, linguistics, hydraulics, and even dendrochronology, the counting of free rings. In fact, the very vastness of the Black Athena project has been crucial to its durability in the face of an overwhelmingly skeptical reception. Because of its scope, no one expert is technically “qualified” to pronounce on it in its entirety; as a result, many of the most hostile critics have equivocated on fields outside their areas of expertise-allowing Bernal to point to “concessions” and declare a “victory.” Howard University classicist and Bernal friend Molly Levine suggests it would require “a committee to review Bernal properly.”
Which isn’t to say that Black Athena hasn’t been appraised with startling passion. In The New York Review of Books, Harvard archaeologist Emily Vermeule described it as a “whirling confusion of half-digested reading, bold linguistic supposition, and preconceived dogma,” and compared Bernal’s endeavor to playing a “gigantic chess game without an opponent.” Classicist Edith Hall accused Bernal of “skating not on thin ice but on water.” Added Loyola Marymount’s Lawrence Tritle, “That such a distortion of the linguistic evidence (however well-intentioned) could find its way into print in a historical study in the late twentieth century strikes me as a retrograde step in historiography.”
Bernal’s defenders are equally-if more selectively-impassioned. Though few accept his claim of a Hyksos invasion, they have saluted the intellectual detective work that went into his expose of the classics profession itself. “An astonishing work, breathtakingly bold in conception and passionately written,” G.W. Bowersock of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study wrote of Black Athena’s first volume in The Journal of Interdisciplinary History. “Bernal shows conclusively that our present perception of the Greeks was artificially pieced together between the late eighteenth century and the present.” “The fact remains that there is considerable truth in much of the indictment leveled by Professor Bernal and others at the past masters of Greek historiography,” wrote UCLA historian Stanley Burstein in Scholia. “Bernal has the alarming habit,” wrote an anonymous archaeologist in Antiquity, “of often being right for the wrong reasons.”
In response to his many critics, Bernal charges that they are unwilling to acknowledge the Eurocentric biases of their work. He believes that the racism of nineteenth century classicists is far from being extinguished-and is especially evident in the reception of Black Athena. It’s an infuriating charge. Equally infuriating to his foes is the way in which Bemal has turned the rhetorical tables on them. It is Bernal and his Afrocentric colleagues who are advocating the “traditionalist” view, he says-the world as the Greeks themselves saw it. “Classics has made the total reversal, not us,” he says. “They are the revolutionaries, we are conservatives.”
Perhaps the supreme irony is that the author Who has aroused fury in so many fields isn’t really qualified to write about any of them. Bernal was trained as a scholar of modem Chinese History, not classics-a lack standing that he has attempted to transform into a moral and intellectual advantage. “While it is ‘only fair’ that the expert who has spent a lifetime trying to master a subject should know better than a brash newcomer, this is not always the case,” he writes puckishly. “The latter sometimes has the advantage of perspective; to see the subject as a whole and to bring outside analogies to bear on it.”
In the epigraph to the first volume, Bernal cites the words of Thomas Kuhn as further evidence of his intellectual superiority, his uncorrupted outsiderness. “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have either been very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change,” Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Bernal, attempting what one commentator has called “a hostile takeover of the reigning academic status quo,” believes he is such a maverick. His intention is nothing less,? he says, than to “lessen European cultural arrogance,” and force us to rethink “the fundamental bases of ‘Western Civilization.'”
On an overcast April afternoon, Cornell’s hilly campus oozes with mud, signaling winter’s thaw and the onset of spring. As Bernal and I walk to his favorite Vietnamese restaurant, the deafening roar of Ithaca’s swollen gorges drowns out the sound of his soft British accent. He is a charming man whose enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. After translating a few items from the restaurant’s menu in his rusty Vietnamese, he orders for us two bowls of steaming hot pho and talks about “The Herodotean Moment,” a course on Europe and the Other, which he is co-teaching this semester.
Today’s class was on Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book whose critique of the academic Establishment has been compared with Bernal’s own. I ask whether he feels any affinity with Said. “In terms of our sociology of knowledge, there are a lot of parallels. But our social and intellectual backgrounds are very different,” he says.
Bernal notes that Said’s identity as an exiled Palestinian endows him with a distinctive kind of cultural “marginality.” “Subjectively, my position is also quite marginal,” he says. “My father was a notorious communist and I was illegitimate. But from the outside I appear very central. I have extensive contacts with Cambridge, Where I studied and got all the biggest prizes; I come from privilege, and have benefited from being British in America It is the ideal marginal position, really-in society but not fully of it. I was always expected to be radical because my father was. It was as if there were a curse: ‘There will always be Bernals to plague us.'”
The inclination to scholarly heterodoxy is well lodged in Bernal’s family history. Alan Gardiner, Bernal’s maternal grandfather, was a distinguished land prolific Egyptologist who authored the standard grammar of Middle Egyptian, as well as dozens of other publications. When Bernal was ten years old, his grandfather gave him a copy of the grammar, but instructed him not to read it. “It was the forbidden fruit,” says Bernal. “He wanted it to be an incentive for me to do Greek and Latin, which he believed one should learn before Egyptian.” When Bernal began to study Chinese at Cambridge, he was amused to hear that Gardiner had asked his mother, “What does Martin want with such an obscure language?”
A wide-ranging independent scholar, Gardiner introduced Saussure’s linguistics to England in a book that was summarily dismissed by Oxford’s reigning “ordinary language” philosophers. This slight against an outsider made an Impression on the young Bernal, and He attributes the treatment his grandfather received to the same kind of academic turf-consciousness that would later dog his own work. “He was an important influence on me,” says Bernal. “I would visit him during college and we’d spend all day working together; me on my Chinese and he on his Egyptian.” For all his fondness for his grandfather, however, Bernal doesn’t exempt Gardiner. “We are very different,” he says. from his critique. “He was racist like all his generation,” he says.
Though the Bernal side of the family descend from Spanish Jews, Martin’s father was an Irish nationalist and a would-be Jesuit so fervently devout that he organized nightlong prayer marathons in high school. Upon going up to Cambridge, in 1919, John Desmond Bernal was so appalled by the elite “Brideshead” Catholics there, that he abandoned the church and become a fervent member of the Communist Party. Nicknamed “Sage” for his keen intellect, Bernal pert became a gifted crystallographer who was famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from economics to modern art. His friend C.P. Snow eulogized him as “the most learned scientist of his time,” and used him as the model for the polymathic scientist in his first novel, The Search. In 1939 Bernal established himself as one of the pioneering sociologists of science with The Social Function of Science, a Marxist analysis of science, politics, and culture. “In its endeavor, science is communism,” he wrote. “In science men have learned consciously to subordinate themselves to a common purpose without losing the individuality of their achievements.”
As a communist, the elder Bernal initially restricted his work during the Second World War to research on defense techniques. Later, he became Lord Mountbatten’s scientific adviser, devising floating harbors and underwater oil pipelines. The imaginative peak of his wartime service, however, was Operation Habakkuk, a 2,000-foot-long aircraft carrier whose thirty-foot-thick hull was to be made entirely of reinforced ice. In the days before the Allies had sufficient long-range bombers, Habakkuk was designed as a platform that could withstand repeated German attacks. If hit by a bomb, the resulting crater would simply be filled with a mixture of water and papier-mÃ¢chÃ© and frozen solid. As the massive ice-ship melted, it would grow a layer of “fur,” which would provide insulation. (“Like something from The Goon Show,” offers Martin.) Though it was never completed, the project was one of Churchill’s favorites. In recognition of his contributions to the war effort, Bernal was awarded the American Medal of Freedom; the Soviet Union gave him the Stalin Peace Prize.
After the war, the elder Bernal joined the faculty of Birkbeck College. His reputation was seriously marred, however, when he became one of the only prominent British scientists to support Lysenko’s theory of genetics, the quack Soviet alternative to Darwinism. In defending Lysenkoism, Bernal suggested that previous geneticists had been blinded to the truth of Lysenko’s work, having been bred “in a scientific atmosphere derived from the conditions of bourgeois capitalism.” Over the years, Bernal gradually withdrew his support for Lysenko, devoting less space to the affair in each edition of his massive book, Science in History.
Martin Bernal was born in Hampstead, London, on March 10, 1937. An illegitimate child, he was raised by his mother, an extremely cultured woman who counted W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster as close friends. As a student at King’s College, in the Fifties, Bernal was a member of the Apostles, the elite secret society whose past members included Wittgenstein and Keynes. Each week he would go to E.M. Forster’s rooms to discuss ideas with fellow Apostles, including the future philosopher Amartya Sen. Like his father before him, Bernal was drawn to radical politics. And he began to cast his attention far abroad, setting himself the goal of learning Chinese in three years. “I had this idea that in order to understand Europe, I would study the world’s most elaborate non-European culture,” he says “I found Red Star Over China very exciting, and in 1955 China seemed to provide a middle way between communism and capitalism.”
Bernal’s first book, Chinese Socialism to 1907, published in 1976, traces the influence of Western socialism on China, exploring the theme of intercultural borrowing which would reappear in Black Athena. In it, he rehearses the methodological criticisms he would later level at historians of the ancient world. “In scholarship there has been an inclination to rely almost entirely on the historiography of the Chinese ruling class,” he writes. “The positivist precision with which it is used tends to give a spurious scientific objectivity to history that is in tact based on very partial material.” Peter Zarrow, a scholar of Chinese politics at Vanderbilt, says the book “was a genuinely pathbreaking work when it appeared.”
Owing to his father’s credentials, Bernal was one of the few Westerners allowed to study at Peking University, where he became friends with David DuBois, W.E.B.’s son. Bernal found the teaching excellent, but was demoralized by the country’s social and economic circumstances. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that he became politically impassioned again: Vietnam, he says, “was a straight colonial war in which I could identify with the people.”
Back again in England in the Sixties, he got married and started learning Vietnamese. He recalls: “This proved difficult, however, because the one person who knew the language was very right wing and wouldn?t lend me the tapes, so I had to go to Paris for my material.? He began visiting Vietnam and soon became a darling of The New York Review of Books, writing articles first on China and then on the war in Southeast Asia. As a research fellow of King?s College he got involved with the antiwar movement, lecturing Bill Clinton?s class of Rhodes scholars and debating Bob Dole at the Cambridge Union.
In 1972 Bernal arrived at Cornell, where he was enthusiastic about his work and at least cautiously sympathetic to the Maoist regime, which was bringing its Cultural Revolution to a close. “He was defending the people who later became the Gang of Four with all this absurd communist sloganeering,” remembers Jeremy Rabkin, a Cornell professor of Government who studied with Bernal as an undergraduate. “He loves spinning conspiracies, and he always knows three completely unrelated facts, which he can connect to show that there is a pattern,” says Rabkin. “It probably comes from being a China specialist. His mind is oriented toward conspiracy, which is a great explanatory tool in the field of Chinese history.”
Then home to philosopher Allan Bloom, Cornell was a petri dish for the brand of cultural conservatism inspired by the writings of Leo Strauss. Bernal got to know several young Straussians, including Francis Fukuyama, and received a crash course in their mentor’s philosophy. “I got an early dose of American conservatism before it got big,” says Bernal, “and it was the use of Greece that alerted me to the whole project.”
In 1975 Bernal had a mid-life crisis. His marriage had fallen apart, the Vietnam War had ended, Mao was dying, and the once-wide-open field of Chinese politics had become crowded and specialized. “I was becoming an authority and I’m much happier being a gadfly or enfant terrible,” he says. “I like asking awkward questions.”
In his floundering, Bernal began to get interested in his scattered Jewish ancestry. Encouraged by Rutgers historian Alice Kessler-Harris, he started to learn Yiddish and Hebrew. “I was trying to figure out how to identify with something Jewish without taking on the two things-Zionism and the religious life-which are normally considered essential,” he says. It was while studying Hebrew that Bernal began to see the language’s parallels with Greek. As someone fluent in several non-European languages, and comfortable making cross-cultural comparisons, he was intrigued by the connections he was discovering. “Once I realized that Hebrew wasn’t just the language of the Israelites, but was spoken all over the Mediterranean and wherever the Phoenicians sailed, I thought, What is so strange about Greek having borrowed massively from Semitic?”
Expanding his research to Egyptian, he was amazed at the new connections he saw. Bernal now believes he can trace 25 percent of Greek vocabulary to Egyptian and 17 percent to Semitic-a significantly larger proportion of words than is accepted by traditional linguistics. Though Bernal organized discussion groups on linguistics in the Eighties, most of those who participated remained skeptical about his work. One participant, Cornell linguist Jay Jasenoff, goes so far as to label it as “typical amateur quack stuff.”
Unlike the academic who conceals his discoveries for fear of their being stolen, Bernal couldn’t stop talking about his work “The advantage of having outrageous ideas is that you needn’t be frightened that people are going to steal them,” he says. “You can get feedback in a way that people who have only one or two little ideas would be frightened of.” In the Eighties, Bernal gradually stopped teaching Chinese politics and became a self-described “public nuisance” at Cornell and Cambridge. “On the one hand, it was incredibly exciting to witness someone so excited about his work,” says Cornell’s government department head Isaac Kramnick. “On the other hand, it was sometimes a little oppressive.”
After nearly a decade of research, the actual writing of Black Athena was comparatively quick. Bernal produced one immense manuscript, which he then expanded and divided into several volumes; two chapters in the original became the whole of volume two. Finding a publisher, however, was more Difficult. Bernal began sending his work out in 1982. “When a publisher would get interested, I’d tell him not to send it to a classicist for review because he would be sure to hate it,” he says. Cornell, Cambridge, Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley, Macmillan, Greenwood, Pantheon, the Free Press and others all rejected it.
Visiting Cambridge, England in 1984, Bernal ran into Robert Young, the publisher of Free Association Books, a press that specializes in radical science and psychoanalysis. Young read the manuscript, loved it, and agreed not to send it out for peer review. With Black Athena as its new, if somewhat misleading, title (Bernal preferred the clunkier “Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization,” but was told it wouldn’t sell), the first volume was published in England to generally good reviews. This aroused the interest of American publishers Kenneth Arnold, then the director of Rutgers University Press, exercised his right to exempt three books a year from the review process and accepted the Black Athena series unconditionally. To date, the two volumes have sold more than 60,000 copies in America and 20,000 in England. And Bernal is currently at work on still two more volumes. Black Athena’s third installment will be devoted to the linguistic evidence for Egyptian and Semitic influence on ancient Greece, and its fourth will cover the mythological parallels.
With so much of the Bernaliad yet to come, the debate over Black Athena may last well into the next century. This fall Bernal began his “phased retirement” from Cornell, an arrangement that allows him to devote half of each year exclusively to the Black Athena project. He intends, he says, to dedicate the rest of his life to making his case. Any compromise with his critics is unlikely to take place soon.
Over the past decades, a loose consensus has formed in the academy around the belief that Greece’s Egyptian and Semitic neighbors helped shape its origins-although exactly how, and to what extent, is in dispute. While most people in Bernal’s position would consider this a heartening development, he views it merely as part of the final assault on him. First, he says, he was ridiculed, then attacked, and now his intellectual precursors-those scholars who were once marginalized by the discipline for their heterodox views-are being brought into the center of the field. “This is the traditional pattern: Execute the leaders but concede the demands,” Bernal says with bravado. “Now, we’re moving into the ‘absorption’ phase, in which they will say, ‘But we’ve always known this! Bernal is just unnecessarily politicizing the whole thing.”‘
That may be. But there’s at least one part of Bernal’s “Revised Ancient Model” that is unlikely to be absorbed-his contention about the origins of Egypto-Semitic influence on Greece. While most scholars attribute that influence to trade, he insists that Greece was also subject to a prolonged period of armed conquest and colonization.
Sitting over coffee in one of Ithaca’s dingy cafÃ©s, I ask Bernal about the conquest and he tells me the story of the Hyksos, the shadowy multi-ethnic tribe he believes left Egypt to colonize Greece in 1730 B.C. Because the Egyptian records from this time are lost, not much is known about them. Named by the Egyptian priest and historian Manetho in the third century B.C., the Hyksos were a technologically sophisticated and warlike tribe who roamed the ancient Near East, appropriating from the various groups they encountered. By the time they reached Egypt, around 1740 B.C., he says, they were a “thoroughly Semitized” group of Indo-Aryans from the north-a grouping he likens to “a multinational corporation.”
In the forthcoming Heresy in the University, Jacques Berlinerblau notes the congeniality of Bernal’s theory with the Nineties Zeitgeist. Bernal’s Hyksos, Berlinerblau writes, are “a kind of militant multicultural Juggernaut-heterogeneous to the core, ‘open’ to influences from other cultures, spreading these around the map, mutating into an even more complex cultural mosaic as they come into contact (and overrun) other societies.” The irony, though, is that the Hyksos turn out to be a bit too multicultural even for Bernal’s purposes, since, by appropriating from everybody, they end up embodying some of the very elements that belong to the cultural models he opposes. Says Bernal: “The problem with the Hyksos is that since they were partly composed of Indo-Aryans who came down from the north, we are back to the ‘Aryan Model,’ in which the Indo-Aryans are at the center. And I don’t like that. But what I would have liked to have happened is not very likely.”
As I listen, I am puzzled by how much Bernal has personalized the Hyksos, and I ask him what he mean, by “not liking” his own findings. “The Nazis believed the Semites couldn’t have invaded on their own and so must have been galvanized by Indo-Aryans,” he says. “In this case, I have to conclude that they are right, but I don’t like being on the same wavelength as them, even though I come at it from a different position.”
This kind of pained self-consciousness about writing history runs through Bernal’s work. Toward the end of the second volume of Black Athena, he writes, “I refuse to accept [the] basic Social Darwinist premise that conquest or domination through violence some how makes a people or linguistic group morally Or creatively better than those who are conquered or dominated, any more than l would put the German Nazis above the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and communists they had power over and murdered.” The sentiment itself is sound. What’s odd is Bernal’s belief that the cause of Social Darwinism is somehow bolstered if the Greeks were conquered by Indo-Aryans, whereas if they were conquered by Semites, it is not.
“The historiography, while a bit slapdash, has been Bernal’s real contribution,” says historian Stanley Burstein. “He has put the question of the origins of Greek civilization back on the table, but in the process, he’s put himself in a box with his claims about the massive influence of the Hyksos. He has dug himself in so deep that he’s no longer willing to reconsider anything.”
In the end, no amount of criticism is likely to convert Bernal from his quest to rewrite the story of Western civilization. But having construed the conspiracy to Suppress Greece’s Afro-Asiatic roots so widely, Bernal risks alienating even those scholars who are most sympathetic to his general position. Surveying the debate, Molly Levine suggests that Bernal’s tenacity is a major source of its bitterness. “The problem with Martin is that he never stops responding, and it’s driving his critics wild because they want to win and he just won’t let them. He’s like a Hydra whose head cannot be chopped off.”
Bernal himself prefers to speak of other, less mythical, predecessors. “My situation is very similar to my father’s,” he says. “In a way, we are like Hannibal-formidable but isolated. People never know quite how to handle us. They hope that sooner or later I’ll simply disappear. But I won’t.”