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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 4/9

Do you see any political consequences for African-Americans?

Many blacks gain psychological satisfaction from Egypt now. In a way this is a retreat from political action. I see this as part of a larger social phenomenon. The mood described as "political correctness" is antidefamation writ large. It's sensitivity to deprived groups. I find it entirely admirable, but that this should be the key issue shows how little is going on in radical politics.

Can this kind of satisfaction be expanded beyond the African-American community?

Yes. Liberal America may come to look at Greece as a parallel to a diverse America. Greece's culture was nearly as diverse as modern America's. Although this view can probably be turned into some melting-pot image, at least it will be a melting pot with many more flavors in it. And my reference to "political correctness" indicates yet another way in which my sense of the project has changed in response to new conditions. I'm delighted that volume one has been a thorn in the flesh of the crusade against "political correctness." It has been the more damaging volume of the two because it shows the heavily politicized and specifically racist character of conventional wisdom, of Classics.

But if there were no volume two with a detailed alternative model, you d leave the way open for that typically American response: "We used to have it wrong; now we've got it right. Those people were racists, we're not."

The fact that Classics was conceived in racism and anti-Semitism doesn't falsify the Aryan model. But right-wing crusaders against "political correctness" assert there was once objective scholarship, which radicals have polluted by adding politics to it. It's an absurd claim, but it's getting wide coverage. Volume one demonstrates—and they're not really denying this—the overwhelming influence of unsavory, specifically racist politics on the formation of the modern discipline of Classics. That's the main damage to the crusade.

Attackers of upolitical correctness" have defended the Great Books against the new barbarians who supposedly don't teach them. You cut across that debate, providing a different angle on Great Books. How would you position yourself, or at least your work, here?

"Great Books" is such a loaded term. What I object to is the reverence with which they're approached. One should look skeptically and creatively at them. It's strange that I should start using capitalist metaphors, but I see study of the humanities as a marketplace of ideas, rather than as a shrine, which is what the New Right wants it to become.

You ve talked about the motivation and the impact of Black Athena. More gen- erally, who were or are your intended audiences? Do they differ from book to book?

Volume one was written for the cultivated lay public.

To an American ear that sounds like a British category.

Well, then, for an American ear: it was written for New York Times readers. Since I thought I couldn't persuade the relevant academics, my strategy was to outflank them by reaching a group that could influence them. My unspoken assumption was that most of the readership would be white. So there were two surprises. One was the way blacks took it up; the other was that academics were more open to the book than I'd anticipated.

One of the issues your comment raises is the role of the mass media. The New York Times did not review volume one of Black Athena and all but ignored it. It published a prompt, if cool, review of volume two, and soon followed that notice with highly favorable responses to your work in a front-page news article on multicultural education. Newsweek made Afrocentrism its cover story for 23 September 1991. The last of its sequence of articles on the subject was a basically sympathetic summary of your research, together with some respectful criticisms of it, a large color photograph of you, and—what one would have thought almost impossible—an exaggerated account of your linguistic competence. How do you assess this recent tendency, if it is that? And do you feel you have reached that cultivated lay audience?

Not until recently. But last year there were a number of articles in the popular press and reviews of volume two, including the one in the New York Times that you mentioned and another in the Washington Post. Somehow a breakthrough has occurred. I think that it results from Afrocentrism rather than Black Athena. As I've said, I'm not an Afrocentrist, and I have difficulties over this, but in another way it's been a stroke of luck. For instance, Leonard Jeffries, a professor at CUNY who has become the symbol of radical Afrocentrism and "Black Racism," put a copy oí Black Athena on New York Mayor David Dinkins's desk. It's getting sensational, in a way. And also, volume two gives a solidity to volume one.

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