Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Deconstructing the Classical Age: Africa and the Unity of the Mediterranean World

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Deconstructing the Classical Age: Africa and the Unity of the Mediterranean World

Article excerpt

In his controversial work, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom writes of the student today:

In his innocence of the stories of Biblical or Greek and Roman antiquity, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and all the others can say nothing to him. All he sees are colors and forms - modern art. In short, like almost everything else in his spiritual life, the paintings and statues are abstract. No matter what modern wisdom asserts, these artists counted on immediate recognition of their subjects and, what is more, on their having a powerful meaning for their viewers. The works were the fulfillment of those meanings, giving them a sensuous reality and hence completing them. Without these meanings, and without their being something essential to the viewer as a moral, political, and religious being, the works lose their essence. It is not merely the tradition that is lost when the voice of civilization elaborated over millennia has been stilled. It is being itself that vanishes beyond the dissolving horizon.(1) [Italics added]

There is a great deal in Professor Bloom's work which one might find disagreeable. One might begin with his assumption of a single tradition which has only been transmitted through white, privileged males. His work opens this discussion because it epitomizes some of the most salient elements of the discourse on "otherness" in the latter part of the twentieth century. Because Professor Bloom is a classicist, his ideas and opinions hold sway in the various disciplines which are attendant to Classical studies, including history. There is, within Bloom's work, at least one point which strikes a chord: "the voice of civilization elaborated over millennia has been stilled." In that vein, the question which Bloom failed to ask must be asked: What has been the role of racism in stilling the voice of civilization? That question is a focus of this work.

Bloom seems to imply that modernity and modernization are twentieth century achievements. It would prove useful to remind those who support this argument that the modernity to which they so frequently refer with disgust had its beginning in the very writers that Bloom loves to reference. It reached its pinnacle in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ensconcing itself in the reign of Victoria. In fact, that same modernity confronts us at the opening of the twenty-first century. It finds conservatives, and not a few liberals, resorting to Victorian constructs. They have reverted to arguments that are 150 years old. These are the same arguments that bolstered the institution of slavery and which provided the rationales for modern imperialism.

However, in appreciation of the "voices of civilization elaborated over millennia," the argument presented here has less to do with a critique of arguments and rationales in support of slavery and imperialism, than it has to do with an analysis of the materials of those distant millennia. Falling in line with Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, this discussion focuses not only on the fact that students do not study the works of "Biblical or Greek and Roman antiquity," but when they have been studied, they have been taught incorrectly by "modernists" steeped in racist theories and attitudes inherent in the age of "modern wisdom" which Bloom both loves and hates.(2)

As essential feature of the "modernist's" argument has been the reference to race or physical characteristics to define historical progress or regression. The use of race as a pseudo-scientific measurement of a people's civility created an historiography which deliberately precluded Africans, specifically, as participants in their own history, and in that of the world. As Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in 1964, Africa was still awaiting history. Possibly, the most fortunate aspect of this attitude is that it has not always been among us:

During the nineteenth century, race-thinking emerged for the first time as the central current in western thought. …

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