'Black Athena' and the American Dilemma

Article excerpt

I was not one of the multitude who watched the O.J. Simpson criminal trial religiously on television, but I was probably one of the few who read Martin Bernal's Black Athena as it unfolded. My home in Vancouver on Canada's west coast is close enough to the United States for a curious onlooker but too far away for a committed spectator. But I did note that, as the trial neared its end, the correspondent for the Manchester Guardian Weekly wrote that if he were on the jury, he would find it difficult to vote for a guilty verdict. After the trial was over and the predominantly black jury had acquitted 'the Juice', I mentioned the Guardian's opinion to some friends in Seattle. They were astonished. They were white and had no doubt at all that Simpson was guilty.

In the civil trial which followed, where the prosecution did not have to prove Simpson's guilt beyond reasonable doubt but only to show a preponderance of evidence against him, a predominantly white jury repudiated the acquittal and awarded $8.5 million compensatory damages to the families of the two victims, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, and the following week added $25 million punitive damages. Goldman's father, who emerged sadder but wealthier, had a book ready for release as soon as the verdict was announced. But there were two jurors who voted against the huge punitive damage award. One of them felt the sum was too high, but the other, who was the only black juryman, born in Jamaica, and part Asian perhaps had mixed motives, but among them was probably the feeling that no black victim would have had a similar dollar value put upon his life. At the University of Maryland, black students hung signs reading 'For Whites Only' and 'For Coloured Only' on doors, water fountains and rest rooms in the Student Union Building. The stunt was intended to preface 'Black History' Month, but the media drew the connection with the Simpson trial verdict.

In recent years, the schism between the two American 'melting pots' has rarely been so sharply revealed: the one generally white, although it accepts Japanese, Chinese, Hispanics and East Indians into the mix, and the other generally black, although native Indians are a significant ingredient, and there is a large infusion of Caucasian genes. The product of the black pot is not so much a lower class as an inferior caste, and until the Civil Rights Movement got under way in the United States in the 1950s, blacks in the South, regularly encountered signs in public buildings reading 'For Whites Only', like the specimens which the University of Maryland students hung in the Student Union building to call attention to 'Black History' month. There is now a black middle class that buys old signs like those as collector's items. The second half of this century has changed the equation between blacks and whites enormously but not entirely in ways that the early Civil Rights activists imagined. The 'American Dilemma' to borrow the title of the classic work by Gunnar Myrdal which appeared during World War II, is still a dilemma, and the O.J.Simpson case put it under the spotlight.

'Black History' Month underlined another development: the new black middle class has produced its own intelligentsia that is taking control of its own history, not merely of matters like the slave trade, but the so-called 'Western Tradition' which goes back to ancient Greece. Mainstream American history is still the product of a succession of national historians beginning with George Bancroft in the last century: the history of the United States was the epic of liberty, the American Revolution was a united struggle against tyranny, and the Loyalists were unremembered; triumph in the War of 1812 confirmed the Revolution's verdict. Thomas Jefferson's magnificent assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal laid the cornerstone of freedom, which the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was later to confirm.

Once upon a time, black histories such as John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom (1947) attempted to integrate the Negro record into the mainstream: they noted with pride the Negro role in the American Revolution and passed quickly over the more numerous black Loyalists, ignored the contribution of former slaves to the defence of Canada in the War of 1812 but accented the Negro participation in the victorious battle of New Orleans in 1815. …