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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 5/9

From what F ve seen, the situation is getting increasingly complex. You re now cited in the New York Times as a respectable, serious, and, above all, white scholar whose work lends credibility to some Afrocentrist claims. But in virtually the same (printed) breath, your distance from Afrocentrism is emphasized, so that, at least for the moment, your work becomes a moderate norm against which radical and self-interested deviation may be measured.

I should not exaggerate the extent of my respectability, either in the disciplines concerned or in the media. I am seen as a moderate Afrocentrist. Hence liberals put me on the side of the angels. Conversely, political and academic conservatives—these categories do not always overlap—see me along with other Afrocentrists as diabolical.

What about the more narrowly academic response in general (not just conservatives), beginning with classicists?

I misjudged the field of Classics, seeing it as a hostile monolith. I hadn't noticed its internal tensions or dissident constituencies. One is a group I'd never considered—Latinists, who feel that Hellenists have been lording it over them for eighty years. Some Latinists have helped me enormously. Second, women in Classics are exploited, and they have a great deal of resentment. The key panel on Black Athena at the American Philological Association was organized by a woman, and three of the four panelists were women. There's also the "tyranny of philology." Literary critics, art historians, and archaeologists are terrified of the philologists, who have a core
position in the discipline. Therefore, that I should shake philological foundations gives other classicists a certain Schadenfreude. So all sorts of schisms made the field far from unified in its hostility toward me. And this complex response from within Classics again shows the crudity of my sociology of knowledge.

The sociology of knowledge is a topic about which you have had a lot to say. You ve cheerfully acknowledged that you have had to revise your views. But when you speak of the crudity of your sociology of knowledge, does that crudity occur at the methodological level, or did you just get the facts wrong?

I think I got the facts wrong. Black Athena is a broad project, I just couldn't give enough attention to each aspect of it, and I didn't do enough analysis in this particular area.

Volume one puts your opponents on the defensive—not just because it's a learned and wellexecuted book, but because of the danger of someone repeating the racist behavior of the past. Reception is fundamentally what it is about. Your readers and reviewers have surely been conscious of the analogies between their own responses—to the origins of Classical civilization, to your view of those origins—and the prior 2,500 years of interpretation of the subject that you analyze. Is the relationship between contemporary and previous reception one of parallelism, influence, or something else? That is, most of the classicists who were skeptical of your work before it was in print are people who don't know Afroasiatic languages and thus are in no position to pronounce on this issue. Now I wonder: is it your sense that this has been a factor in the response or not? What do you think of this phenomenon?

There are two levels to this response. One is the scholarly feeling: "He's probably wrong, but we can't show it, because we aren't in control of the data." Another is that people who are liberals in their political beliefs, but traditionalists within Classics, don't want to be seen as conservative or racist. I was very strongly advised by friends—true friends, in this case—to do the historiographical volume first, rather than the language or the archaeology volume, in order to shake the authority that I was challenging. Then I was in a stronger position to relativize the authority of Classics.

In the years before the first volume of Black Athena appeared, your ideas and preliminary presentations elicited considerable skepticism and even hostility from specialists. Has that changed? Where is the field right now?

There was an initial attempt to say, "Well, maybe the early classicists were racists and anti-Semites, but that didn't affect their scholarship." But this line couldn't be sustained. The relevant fields would now admit: "Yes, he's very likely right in volume one. We accept his historiography. We don't accept his history." But even on history, ground has been given. "Yes," specialists say, "there was substantial Near Eastern influence on Greece in the Bronze Age." So there's been a big shift since Black Athena came out. I can claim some of the credit, but by no means all. The current battle is on colonizations, and I expect one on language.

Were you surprised, then, to find these concessions combined with snide incompetence in the hostile review of volume two by the distinguished Classical archaeologist Emily Vermeule (the New York Review of Books, 26 March 1992)? I'm referring, on the one hand, to her attribution to you and rejection of positions you never take, indeed specifically reject yourself, and, on the other, to her systematic failure to summarize either the arguments or the evidence you offer in support of the positions you do adopt. Do you think the obvious specialist defensiveness of her response, the urge to stand up for the profession, helps explain her remarks?

I did not expect such a violent response from Emily Vermeule. In her Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, she wrote about outside influences on Greek views of death during the Bronze Age: "The natural source for such influence was Egypt. . . . The mechanics of transmitting some of the Egyptian ideas and some physical forms to Greece is not at all clear yet." I provide some clarification of this problem and she is appalled. It now seems that Black Athena has posed unbearable threats both to her Classical background and to her archaeological professionalism. Her feelings about this are clearly intense. You can see that in her image of me as a seductive Lucifer, or Belial, a fallen angel puffed up with pride challenging the heavenly hosts of classicists and archaeologists. It is a wonderful picture. Such strong feelings obviously made it hard for her to read the book she was supposed to review.

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