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

You draw extensively on literary evidence both as a buttress to historical claims and as an object of ideological scrutiny. What implications does your research have for contemporary literary criticism, beyond the Great Books/political correctness debates?

I use literary sources partly to demonstrate my general culture, but also because they often epitomize or encapsulate the intellectual atmosphere of a particular place and period better than any formal document or historical record. I realize that this puts the filter of the author between me and the topic, but it's precisely this filtration that provides the concentration I want.

Let me ask you about ideology. You focus so much on racism—European and, more broadly, Western racism, ethnocentrism, and religious intolerance—that related issues of ideology and social hierarchy such as imperialism, class conflict, and gender relations all but disappear. The star exhibits are Sesöstris of Egypt marching through Asia Minor, leaving a trail of destruction, or the Hyksos establishing colonies and setting up Mycenaean civilization. Imperialism becomes a sign of the importance of Near Eastern civilization. Similarly, there's a feeling almost of belated vindication in your recent arguments that it is the Phoenicians, rather than the Greeks, who really deserve credit for inventing the slave economy. Do you think you pay a price for your thematic concerns? Are these unintended ideological effects?

They are unintended. I suppose I get pleasure from Sesöstris 's reversal of the traditional picture of Europe as conqueror and Africa as conquered, although I try to express sympathy for the victims. On the Hyksos I become confused, because ideologically I'd prefer not to have diffusion by conquest. But history isn't always as you like it. I say what I believe to be the case.

But surely the point isnt whether or not you should tell the truth, but whether your approach imposes certain ironies on your presentation. Your argument becomes stronger to the extent that you can demonstrate that the Egyptians, say, were even more imperialistic and destructive than was previously thought—and this in an argument designed to restore and, in a way, celebrate Afroasiatic civilization. F m thinking of Benjamin s well-known connection of civilization and barbarism. In a certain sense, the worse Phoenicia and Egypt are, the better.

You are clearly right. I remember the delight of the audience in Jerusalem when I argued that the Phoenicians, whom we identified closely with the Israelites, had created slave society. I also believe it important that blacks in the diaspora not accept the ideas of négritude and the image of Africa as a continent that is inherently gentle and civilized. Europe's hegemony of atrocities over the past five centuries has been a function of its power—though there is some circularity there. Africans with power have not been notably milder.

Let me put the matter a little differently. Do you feel a difficulty in having to point to the achievements of the Egyptian nation and the black African race, considering that your work is designed to discredit nationalist or racialist assumptions about Western civilization ?

No, I do not feel any awkwardness about that. Giving credit where credit is due to Africans is writing good history and underscoring the point that all good things have not come from Europe. African achievements have been so systematically underrated that righting the balance would seem to me appropriate from both scholarly and political points of view.

Do you take your work to be anti-European ?

My enemy is not Europe; it's purity—and the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture. In general, I believe that contact and mixture are more culturally productive than isolation. In particular, I believe that the civilizations of both ancient and modern Greece have been so attractive precisely because of such mixtures.

Can you distinguish between your valorization of hybridity and your earlier, relatively skeptical view of the ideology of the melting pot?

I do not disapprove of the concept of the melting pot in itself. What I object to is its use to prescribe conformity to a single dominant culture. I believe that ancient Egypt, ancient Syro-Palestine, and ancient Greece were all melting pots. But they each created distinctive cultures from the diverse elements in their societies. The melting pot I should like to see in the United States as a whole is of the type represented today in some of the great cities—New York,
Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. These cities are full of hatred and friction, and the federal establishment has been doing all it can to block their distinctive social, economic, and cultural growth. But from their more inclusive "melting pot," a new vital and distinctive North American culture is emerging.

My final question: you begin the preface to volume two by writing, "The publication of volume one of Black Athena transformed my life." In light of the important Semitic influence you see on the formation of Classical civilization and "the scattered Jewish components of. . . [your] ancestry," how does it feel to be a prophet no longer crying in the wilderness?

I much prefer the current, more comfortable role. I don't find being totally alone altogether comforting, but I never was totally alone. That was the extraordinary thing: when I started talking about my ideas, very few people treated me as deranged. The idea held by a lot of people, particularly blacks, that I really suffered to produce this book is greatly exaggerated. I had a tenured post and people to talk to. I was never a martyr or a prophet. But now I do like being able to discuss the ideas and receive correspondence, both of which I get from recognition. It's very rewarding.

A shorter version of this interview appeared in The Bookpress (Ithaca, N.Y.) 1, no. 3
(November 1991). Ciarán ó Faoláin, Department of Literature, Cornell, transcribed the
tapes on which most of this text is based.

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