Black Athena Revisited

By Mary R. Lefkowitz; Guy MacLean Rogers | Go to book overview
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transmission. Thus, although Bernal is correct to insist that the sociology of knowledge illuminates the interpretations of Western scholars, he does not seem to apply the same principles to ancient peoples.


Bernal ends the second volume of Black Athena on two paradoxes (522-27). The first of these is a rhetorical listing of his "outrages" against what he sees as academic orthodoxy; he promises to provoke greater outrages in the third volume, which is to be about language. Yet outrages are hardly likely to win over those who are unconvinced by his approach, and one wonders whether they are really intended to do so -- or whether they are presented at least partly with the aim of producing outraged reactions. However this may be, Bernal does not seem to consider the possibility that specialists in the Near East might in any case have an interest in promoting "their" civilizations -- whether or not that is the best basis for disinterested study -- or that he and they may have a very different feel for the nature of their data and of the society or societies which produced it.

The second paradox rests in a more general comment Bernal makes on his historical reconstruction, where he remarks that he has returned to many interpretations of the early years of the twentieth century, but in a different framework and in a different spirit. He notes that these interpretations were offered by people who may have held the racist and colonialist beliefs he abhors along with most of the rest of the academic profession. Elsewhere, he discusses the ethnic composition of the Hyksos, whom he sees, against his own "ideological reluctance," as including Hurrians and Indo-Europeans as well as Semitic groups ( BA 2:346-48); one would hope rather that he might be personally neutral, rather than racially committed in some way, when considering which ethnic groups may have been present among the Hyksos. He does not, however, comment on the methodological implications of his preference for views formulated before source-critical methods had developed significantly in Near Eastern studies, even though the company he finally keeps might have alerted him to difficulties there.

Despite his professed radicalism, Bernal's methods and conclusions are in the end deeply conservative. His world of great events and broad historical sweeps seems remote from the mainly small-scale, slowly changing societies described by archaeologists and students of texts. He does not completely address the complexity of societies, whether small communities or large states. As both his discussion of the Hyksos and his treatment of "black" Egyptian kings cited earlier ( BA 2:32) exemplify, his concern with race also leads him to adopt models of ancient ethnicity that are both inappropriate to the materials studied and ethically somewhat distasteful. 15


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