Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.05

Jacques Berlinerblau, Heresy in the University: The 'Black Athena' Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals.   New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press, 1999.  



Reviewed by Geralyn S. Lederman
Word count: 1778 words

Response to Martin Bernal's Black Athena volumes has generated an overwhelming bibliography. Most authors have written about a particular argument canvassed in the volumes and why they agree or, as in most cases, disagree. It has been a contentious dialogue with no mediator. Jacques Berlinerblau, in his book Heresy in the University: The "Black Athena" Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals, gives a synopsis of that dialogue; he tries to gauge the response of academics from all different fields to Bernal's work. Berlinerblau's knowledge of the various fields of study covered by Bernal and his respondents is uneven; consequently, so is his ability to mediate between Bernal and his detractors. He is clearly less comfortable discussing the archaeological aspect of Bernal's argument than the sociological and historiographic aspects. Nevertheless, one of Berlinerblau's major contributions comes in his ability to grasp Bernal's most complex and contradictory arguments and translate them into understandable prose. This is quite an accomplishment since Bernal's explanations of his own ideas can be almost painful to read. Clearly, Berlinerblau has a great respect for Bernal's scholarship, but he remains objective and is certainly willing to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments presented in Black Athena.

Berlinerblau's book is divided into three parts with three chapters in each. He also provides an introduction and a conclusion. Each part addresses a separate issue which he sees as a crucial aspect of what he terms the "Controversy." The Introduction serves the purpose of spelling out Bernal's theories in very broad terms and providing some biographical data on Bernal. Part One summarizes the five models by which Bernal identifies the various approaches to ancient history. This is also where Berlinerbau addresses Black Athena's reception by ancient historians, classicists and archaeologists. In Part Two he deals with the sociological aspect of the work: Bernal's "sociology of knowledge" as he himself defines it, and his use of sociology as Berlinerblau understands it. In Part Three Berlinerblau faces the "culture wars" head on, addressing the claims of others that Bernal is an Afrocentrist and Bernal's own claims of how racism and anti-Semitism play crucial roles in understanding the study of ancient history. In the Conclusion Berlinerblau gets to his subtitle and discusses the role of the modern university system in nurturing or hindering new and innovative scholarship.

In Part One Berlinerblau presents Bernal's five paradigms of the study of ancient history, including a very helpful chart that lists the proponents of each model. He also makes the excellent point that, while Bernal is willing to see biases at work in each of the modern paradigms, he does not allow for the biases and motives of the ancient historians who are also reporting on incidents in the distant past. We know that ancient historians were not above being biased. Herodotus makes this clear when he discusses his approach: he uses the stories which he finds, personally, most believable. Here we have an early example of competitive plausibility which Bernal evokes repeatedly. Berlinerblau is clearly uncomfortable with this method of scholarship, and discusses opposition raised against it. This is a concept to which Berlinerblau returns more than once; he is uneasy with the idea of competitive plausibility, but he recognizes its necessity where there is a lack of hard evidence, as so often is the case in his own field of pre-Exilic ancient Israelite religion. In Part One it is the reliability of the ancient sources that gets the most attention. That Berlinerblau recognizes the difficulty in sifting fact from fiction in the work of ancient historians is made clear by his commendation of Mary Lefkowitz's unwillingness to take Herodotus at face value. In the next sentence, however, he rather unreasonably criticizes her for believing anything written by him. We know that some of Herodotus' information was reliable, especially when he was reporting on places or events of which he had first-hand knowledge.

It is Berlinerblau's agreement with Bernal on several archaeological points that makes Part One the weakest of the book. He follows Bernal in chastising ancient historians for being hyper-specialized in their fields and he praises Bernal's multidisciplinary approach, apparently without recognizing that Bernal's sweeping statements are a direct result of his lack of specialization, and the concomitant unfamiliarity with previous scholarship in the field, which caused such a furor in the academic community. No scholar of the Greek Bronze Age would deny that there was contact with the Near East and Egypt in the third millennium -- this has been proven through archaeological finds -- but it is an archaeological impossibility to assert this type of contact for the seventh millennium, as Bernal would like to do. While we have proof that there was trade with Egypt during the Bronze Age, there is no evidence for the colonization of Greece by the Egyptians (or the Hyksos or any other peoples). That Berlinerblau finds it odd that Bernal's colonization theory is not well received argues for, not against, "hyper-specialization", or at least passing familiarity with one's topic. Berlinerblau does not recognize the need for "hyper-specialization", as becomes clear when he does not object to Bernal's statements regarding the dating of the Thera eruption. This is a very controversial topic in Bronze Age scholarship and there is no "official party line" as suggested by Bernal. The ice core dating done in Greenland does not agree with radiocarbon dates from Thera, which, in turn, do not always agree with synchronistic data from Egypt. Bronze Age scholars do not agree on which dating system to follow. There are also several incidents in Part One where Berlinerblau is unduly harsh towards Bernal's critics, particularly the editors of Black Athena Revisited, Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers.

According to Berlinerblau, one of Bernal's most heretical stances, and the one largely ignored by commentators, is his indictment of the modern research university. This is the primary focus of Part Two. In Berlinerblau's view criticism of academia (and opposition to its accepted views) can be considered as a form of heresy when it comes from an insider, and Bernal, as a white tenured male is the very definition of an insider. It is the heterodoxy of the research university, beginning at Göttingen in the eighteenth century, with which Bernal is most unhappy. It was the scholars at Göttingen who abandoned the Ancient Model of history and, in an environment of racism and anti-Semitism, promoted the Aryan Model. Berlinerblau, quite rightly, does not agree with Bernal's monolithic view of eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship as being ruled by racism and anti-Semitism and mentions Bernal's "proclivity for irresponsible statements." An example of one of his irresponsible statements is his accusation that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was a racist, a statement energetically criticized by Robert Palter in Black Athena Revisited. This acknowledged failing does not prevent Berlinerblau from denouncing Bernal's most vocal critics for both their tone and their exclusiveness, in that they are hyper-critical of Bernal because he is viewed as a non-specialist poaching in their territory. Bernal, however, is not an amateur; he is a professional scholar on the staff of an elite research institution and if he wants to broaden his field of inquiry he should be held to the same standards as he would be if he were writing about Sinology, his own field of specialization. It is interesting that Berlinerblau does not allow him much leeway when he dabbles in the sociology, a field with which Berlinerblau is very familiar. He does a good job in explaining Bernal's sociology of knowledge, which is confusing and often contradictory. Bernal's approach is that ideology affects scholarship, but he is inconsistent in his sociological approach. One of his most confusing inconsistencies arises because his definition of what ideology is, in a sociological framework, varies. Berlinerblau concludes that although Bernal makes constant reference to sociology, and specifically the work of Thomas Kuhn, he makes only limited use of it. Perhaps this is why, as Berlinerblau notes, sociologists have largely ignored Black Athena.

In Part Three Berlinerblau discusses charges of racism and anti-Semitism in the Academy, as well as exploring the relationship between Bernal and Afrocentrism. Bernal claims not to be an Afrocentrist and Berlinerblau agrees with him, although he recognizes why the issue has been raised. Much of what Bernal posits parallels Afrocentric thought, although Bernal did not fully explore African-American scholarship. Upon publication of Black Athena he went directly to Afrocentrists for support of his arguments. According to Lefkowitz this led to the misuse of Bernal's arguments by Afrocentrists who claim that the Egyptians were racially black and that Egypt was the sole source of Western Civilization. According to Berlinerblau it is Bernal's status as an insider (white, male and tenured) that has led to such furor over his statements while similar statements in a contemporary book by St. Claire Drake, a prominent African-American scholar, have been largely ignored by the outside world. In this belief Berlinerblau is clearly discounting how Bernal, or his publisher, went about publicizing Black Athena. Bernal actively courted the media, sent copies of his volumes to popular publications, toured college campuses and appealed directly to the world outside the Academy for support. He even admits that his publisher insisted on the title Black Athena for its promise of controversy, a point commented upon by Berlinerblau. This is why his book received so much more publicity than others bearing the same message. Berlinerblau does observe that, from an Afrocentrist standpoint, Bernal is far from being original in his statements.

Public and academic reaction to Bernal's work is what brings Berlinerblau to his Conclusion and the subject announced in his subtitle: the responsibilities of American intellectuals in the face of dissent. He views Bernal's type of scholarship, with all of its inaccuracies and faults, as necessary to the well being of academia; that is, he thinks that someone should shake up the orthodoxy occasionally. He suggests that today's atmosphere of adjunct teaching and general unemployment among recent Ph.D. recipients is stifling creativity in scholarship. Few want to make waves by challenging accepted theories for fear of being branded troublesome and, as a result, damaging their marketability. This is an interesting idea, but it is not convincing. It seems unlikely that any good scholar armed with evidence, a plausible argument and a forum would shrink from challenging an accepted theory from fear of professional fallout. It is, however, reasonable to expect accurate, fully informed and consistent arguments when publishing a theory, regardless of whether it is "unorthodox." This type of scholarship is something which Berlinerblau conscientiously admits Bernal does not provide and he suggests that this is one reason that his work acts a lightning rod for criticism.

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