BMCR 2012.06.40

African Athena: New Agendas. Classical Presences

, , , African Athena: New Agendas. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiv, 469. ISBN 9780199595006. $160.00.


Ever since its initial publication in 1987, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena project has been entangled in fiery debates concerning its central thesis: that ancient Greek culture originated in the neighbouring regions of north Africa and the Levant. In addition, Bernal continued, classical scholars had tried to systematically erase the memory of these cultural interactions from narratives of ancient history, for reasons of personal and institutional prejudice, in order to create a picture of ancient Greece as autochthonous and untouched by outside influence.1 The editors of African Athena: New Agendas quickly put these disputes to one side. They declare that they are not concerned with the veracity of Bernal’s thesis, but rather with ‘the implications both of the juxtaposition of African and classical cultures in intellectual history, and of the absences of that juxtaposition’ (3). They also profess to investigate the ‘impetus behind’ Bernal’s scholarship in order to demonstrate ‘how modern African diasporas have fuelled the motors of modern historiographies and their contestations’ (9). The twenty-four essays that follow live up to the subtitle by offering plenty of new agendas for those working under the rubric of classical reception to explore and advance.

These essays, derived partly from an international conference at Warwick in November 2008 and partly from outside commissions, are divided into two clear halves. The first is entitled ‘Myths and Historiographies, Ancient and Modern’ and concentrates on historiographical and sociological issues related to Bernal’s work. The editors trace in the introduction some of the resonances that Black Athena has with the work of theorists such as Paul Gilroy who explore how diasporas generate cultural and historical changes and developments. They further suggest that a striking, but hitherto little noted, aspect of Bernal’s work is the way he folds both the Jewish and African diasporas back into antiquity, thus presenting a Graeco-Roman world in which two of the main events behind modern history have already taken place. The essays in the first section demonstrate how a critical attitude that is informed, if not entirely convinced, by Black Athena can lead a scholar to productive avenues of analysis.

The highlights of this section are the three successive chapters by Robbie Shilliam, Anna Hartnell and Toby Green, which treat different examples of the interaction between Jewish, African and European cultures. It is one of the strengths of African Athena that none of these scholars works in disciplines connected to classics. Although the target readership is scholars interested in classical reception (hence its publication in the prolific Classical Presences series), it includes scholarship, and bibliography, that would not automatically be familiar to that audience. This is appropriate, since much of the verve, and consequent controversy, of Bernal’s original writings derived from his self-fashioned persona as an outsider storming into the Classics faculties and laying their prejudices bare. Instead of emphasizing the conflicts between Classics and other disciplines, however, African Athena brings together scholars from across various disciplinary boundaries into harmonious co-existence.

In his striking chapter, Shilliam traces the divergent ways in which Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican black nationalist leader, and Mortimo Planno, a leading Rastafarian, appropriated antiquity in order to privilege Ethiopia in comparison with Graeco-Roman civilization. Shilliam is particularly illuminating when he links his analysis back to Bernal: he argues that while Bernal wrote from a position of relative security as a Western academic, both Garvey and Planno felt more urgently the need to make antiquity ‘impure’ and a mixture of many races. Taking a different tack, Anna Hartnell uses Bernal’s claims for the Jewish and African roots of Greek antiquity as the foundations for a discussion of the interwoven history of the tropes of ‘Exodus’ and ‘Egypt’ in the African-American civil rights movement. She shows how the Jewish Exodus had been utilised by Christian and conservative civil rights leaders to assert an affinity between the black struggle in America and the Jewish struggle in ancient Egypt. However, after the 1967 Middle Eastern War this affinity became increasingly untenable in light of discourses of Israeli-Palestinian enmity, and a vocal affinity between African-Americans and ancient Egyptians became more prevalent.

Toby Green takes as his starting point two seeming paradoxes in the content and legacy of Black Athena. First, he describes how Bernal’s project has more often than not inflamed the difficult relationship between the African and Jewish perspectives despite its express desire to bring them closer together. The second paradox is the fact that Bernal’s exposure of the ideologically contingent nature of scholarship in classics and ancient history is at odds with his own desire to provide a true, ideologically neutral, account. Through a case study of Jewish-Jolof relations in seventeenth-century Senegambia, Green masterfully demonstrates how a nuanced historical account can show us positive examples of African and Semitic alliances that belie the myth-invested narratives of antipathy that are prevalent today. Another rich contribution to the first half is Patrice Rankine’s exploration of the third instalment of Black Athena, published in 2006 to comparatively little fanfare, which offers the linguistic evidence for Bernal’s hypothesis. Rankine concludes that although Bernal’s questions about cultural origins may seem out-dated they respond to urgent issues in modern classical scholarship, and can still stimulate fruitful debate.

The second section, entitled ‘Classical Diaspora, Diasporic Classics’, deals with the more diffuse idea of ‘literary production’ and the way in which predominantly black authors have engaged with Graeco-Roman literature. Bernal’s project serves a different rhetorical purpose here: while the first half was directly concerned with the content of his hypothesis, the second is more interested in how Black Athena is symptomatic of broader trends in classical reception.2 In this section we find evidence of a fundamentally post-Bernalian discipline that is happy to juxtapose the concepts of Africa and Europe and to interrogate the historical preoccupation that Classics has had with a predominantly white literary tradition. Four contributions stand out. Though Tim Whitmarsh’s analysis is arguably more about the history of scholarship than about literary production, it paints a nuanced picture of different theories on the origins of the Greek novel, and the ways that European scholars from the late nineteenth-century onwards responded to particular socio-cultural concerns in their appeal to either African or Hellenic roots for the genre. One of the pleasant surprises of the collection is to be found in Brian Murray’s extremely stimulating account of how writings by the late nineteenth-century Egyptologist Gerald Massey became staples of Afrocentrist thought while simultaneously displaying profoundly Eurocentric assumptions and concerns.

Emily Greenwood continues her sterling work on the Caribbean reception of Graeco-Roman antiquity with a thoughtful consideration of the poetry of Aimé Césaire and Kamau Braithwaite and their complementary appropriations of certain classical Greek images and tropes. Greenwood is particularly informative in her examination of the affinities between Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and Lucretius’ De rerum natura in their common strategies of affirming the poetic potential of a minority language in the face of a hegemonic language (French and Greek respectively). Tessa Roynon, the only editor to provide a paper, concludes the analytic efforts of the volume by investigating how the Nobel Prize winning African-American author Toni Morrison weaves her outspoken sympathy for Bernal’s efforts in Black Athena throughout her literary oeuvre, and how this translates into a concerted attempt to make antiquity more authentically and deep-rootedly African. According to Roynon’s account Morrison does not rest content with offering an ‘African classicism’, and opposes the implication that classicism, or antiquity, is something that is fundamentally white but which can, if required, take on black or non-European forms.

Alongside the contributions that explicitly introduce the reader to the promised new agendas sits another set of essays that provides a more general and often anecdotal reassessment of the genesis and later influence of Black Athena. The most notable of these is the Afterword by the man who started the debates. Martin Bernal offers some interesting recollections on the institutions in which he composed the work (Cambridge and Cornell, mainly) in a winding but always engaging chapter that demonstrates how Black Athena not only exposed the ideological preoccupations of scholarship but also came about in response to such preoccupations. There is also much interesting material in the essays by Robert Young and Valentin Mudimbe, where two giants of postcolonial scholarship demonstrate how the issues raised by Bernal have informed some of their most provocative and seminal writings.

The only striking typo in this excellently produced volume is a missing footnote on p. 350, though it can easily be reconstructed from the text it refers to. More cross-referencing between the contributions would also have been useful: Hall and McConnell discuss Garvey and Rastafarianism without reference to Shilliam, while John Thieme investigates the Caribbean author Denis Williams’s appropriation of antiquity without reference to the many writings by Emily Greenwood on the subject. It is to be hoped that one of the positive outcomes of this collection is that it will encourage more of the multidisciplinary work that would facilitate such cross-fertilization. Also, a word on the title. The editors are keen to stress the ‘potent ambiguity’ of their coinage African Athena, arguing that to describe Athena as African and not black not only moves the discussion away from ‘sterile questions’ regarding race but also conjures a relationship that encompasses ‘ both directions of cultural influence and diaspora, as they have occurred across centuries and millennia’ (3). While I accept their broader point, and believe the essays themselves validate it, I am unsure that their title does. They repeat the story that Bernal’s original title was ‘African Athena’ before savvy publishers changed it to ‘Black Athena’ (though Bernal himself does not tell this story in his Afterword). This connection betrays the fact that the title resonates with the very debates that the editors so expressly wish to avoid. This is confirmed when Roynon opines in her contribution that the term itself ‘may in the final analysis be both misleading and unhelpful’ (397) since it suggests that the concept of Athena exists independently of all receiving contexts and is a way of understanding African experience and praxis by means of a Western model. Given that one of the editors thought this to be the case I would have liked a little more theorisation of the title, and of how we can escape from these often unconscious, and for that reason all the more troubling, imperialisms. This is only a minor point, however, and hopefully one of the many new vistas of scholarship that this book will open up.

The debates surrounding Black Athena show no sign of dying down and 2011 saw the publication of another more conventional volume on its legacy: Black Athena Comes of Age edited by Wim van Binsbergen (a reprint, with some additions, of his 1997 special edition of Talanta entitled Black Athena: Ten Years After). van Binsbergen explicitly criticizes the editors of African Athena for trying to ‘usher [ Black Athena ] into academic mainstream respectability, almost as part of the canon of proto-history’ (338). This is a misunderstanding of the volume. Rather than endorsing Bernal’s thesis, African Athena evokes with a breath-taking scope of vision the different ways in which Black Athena has acted as a foundational text for those interested in teasing out the dynamics of cultural engagements between Europe and Africa in both antiquity and modernity. African Athena is a triumph and will serve as the starting point for research in the field for many years to come.


1. For a microcosm of these debates between two of the main protagonists, Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz, see BMCR 96.04.05 and 96.04.19. See further Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers (edd.) ‘Black Athena’ Revisited (Chapel Hill: 1996) and Bernal’s Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to his Critics (Durham NC and London: 2001).

2. Indeed, the original plan seems to have been to publish the two halves separately. See Report on the African Athena Conference (6-8 November 2008) to the HRC, University of Warwick. Please note that clicking on this link will automatically download the report as a Word document.