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Anxieties of Influence

  1. Linguistic arguments. Bernal makes extensive use of etymologies coined by himself, explaining the origin of Greek words and—especially—names, as deriving from Egyptian. These words are supposed to have entered the Greek language in the period of Egyptian domination, about 1800 BCE. “Black Athena” itself is one of them, since Bernal derives the name of the goddess Athena from Ht Nt, “House of Neit.” It is noticeable that a large number of these alleged Egyptian derivatives are proper names; names are the least manageable area of etymology, the most separate from a language as a whole. We do not find suggested anything analogous, for instance, to the systematic influence of French on the English language after the Norman Conquest, covering whole areas of thought and vocabulary.

We also observe that the etymologies suggested are not derived from Egyptian to Greek in accordance with any regular patterns of sound change; the same sound in Egyptian is supposed to produce quite different results in different Greek descendants. That is a return to the sort of procedure that became antiquated in the last century, as the great linguists succeeded in showing that there are regular patterns of change—“Grimm’s Law” and the rest of them—which really can be seen to apply, and which allow the scholar to predict what form a root will assume in a daughter language.

From the standpoint of modern linguistics, Jay H. Jasanoff and Alan Nussbaum, of Cornell, comment:

Hand in hand with Bernal’s lack of semantic rigor goes an almost complete disregard for phonetic consistency…. Etymologies of this kind are too capricious and unsystematic to be of any value…. Our judgment, then, is that Bernal’s claim to have uncovered “hundreds” of viable Greek-Egyptian and Greek-Semitic etymologies is simply false….

On Ht Nt itself, their comment is that

Under Bernal’s logic, it would seem perfectly legitimate to contemplate a direct borrowing of “Athena” from a feminized variant of [Hebrew] satan “Satan”….Responsible scholars will not be convinced by such linguistic sleight of hand, but the Great Deceiver would surely be amused.

Some of Bernal’s etymologies for place names suggest what would happen if one were to try to derive the names of all the States of the Union from English: the State of Connecticut for example, as one of the revolutionary states, is clearly named from a desire to break away from Great Britain; Connect-I-cut: I cut the connection. Resemblance of form is not a reliable guide to linguistic history.

  1. The question of race: Were the Egyptians black? Bernal insists that the ancient Egyptians were not only African but explicitly black. The claim gives his book its title, and much of its appeal. Frank M. Snowden, Jr., of Howard University, goes carefully through the ancient evidence for the perception of Egyptians, both their own—they clearly differentiated themselves from the Nubians, who really were black—and that of other ancient peoples. He concludes:

Three important points relevant to the blackness of Africans in the ancient world emerge from an examination of the copious ancient iconographic and written evidence. First, Egyptians and their southern neighbors were perceived as distinctly different physical types. Second, it was the inhabitants of Nubia, not the Egyptians, whose physical type most closely resembled that of Africans and peoples of African descent referred to in the modern world as blacks or Negroes. Third, the Bernal-Afrocentrist practice of describing Egyptians as blacks overlooks crucial distinctions made in antiquity between the physical characteristics of Egyptians and Nubians, and actually equates the two physical types.

It is an unattractive moment in Black Athena when Bernal says of this respected scholar

There is no doubt…that most Blacks will not be able to accept the conformity to white scholarship of men and women like Professor Snowden.

White scholarship”: the phrase is a chilling one, more reminiscent than its author can have intended of such familiar notions as “Jewish science.” We had hoped for a scholarship that would be colorblind.

A professor of archaeology, Kathryn A. Bard, of Boston University, produces a judgment in accord with the observable realities of Egypt, then as now:

Ancient Egyptians were Mediterranean peoples, neither Sub-Saharan blacks nor Caucasian whites but peoples whose skin was adapted for life in a subtropical desert environment. Ancient Egypt was a melting pot….

And finally, from an anthropometrical standpoint, C. Loring Brace, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, writing with five professional colleagues, concludes that:

Whatever else one can or cannot say about the Egyptians, it is clear that their craniofacial morphology has nothing whatsoever in common with Sub-Saharan Africans’. Our data, then, provide no support for the claim that there was a “strong negroid element” in Predynastic Egypt.

In fact, from a scientific point of view,

Attempts to force the Egyptians into a “black” or “white” category have no biological justification.

  1. Myths and History. It is central to Bernal’s case, especially in the absence of the archaeological evidence which one would expect to find for Egyptian occupation of Greece, that it is possible to extract precious historical truth from Greek myths of a thousand or more years later. We have already seen that the myths in fact represent Cadmus and Danaus not as foreigners but as returning Greeks. But there is a much more general point. Myth has been the object of much study in the last century, and we have learned that a people’s myths have many other purposes than the preservation of anything which we could treat as history. They contain speculations on the nature of life and death, the nature of animals, the relation of the species, the origin of cults and rituals, customs and anxieties about marriage and about the relations of the sexes and the generations, as well as claims for the ownership of land, and charters for every other form of inherited custom and institution.

All of this is simply disregarded when the myths are treated as an essentially uniform set of garbled historical statements, which we can decipher to read the message which we were in any case expecting to find. Edith Hall, of Somerville College, Oxford, writes:

Are we to abandon the sophisticated theories of the twentieth century which have helped us to understand how mythology works? Are we going to return to a simple nineteenth-century model which ignores all the post-Malinowskian, post-Freudian, and post-Lévi-Straussian work on myths as ideological charters for social institutions, as expressions of subconscious desires, or as mediators of abstractors of concern to the contemporary world? Are we to ignore all the work done by social scientists in recent decades, since Weber’s pioneering labors, on the way subjective ethnicity is constituted? Accepting Bernal’s “Revised Ancient Model” requires us to do all this.

It is not possible here to go through every sort of claim and give even a summary indication of the argumentation for its rejection. Robert Palter, Professor of the History of Science at Trinity College, Connecticut, examines in detail Bernal’s claim that the Egyptians had true science long before the Greeks, and that Greek astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were profoundly influenced by the corresponding sciences in Egypt, and concludes that it is untenable. The archaeologist Emily Vermeule, of Harvard, reviews and rejects from the archaeological point of view Bernal’s ambitious rewriting of the accepted history of the second millennium BCE, sending the Hyksos pharaohs of Egypt to colonize Greece, and Egyptian armies to conquer the eastern end of the Black Sea; while from the specifically Egyptological side, the Egyptologists David O’Connor, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Frank J. Yurco, of the University of Chicago, equally find Bernal’s thesis untenable.

Even on his strongest ground, the detection of racism in scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where he presents some interesting and revealing material, Bernal damagingly overplays his hand. Robert E. Norton, professor of German at Vassar College, shows that the great Johann Gottfried Herder is guiltless of the charge of racism that Bernal brings against him; an apparently damning statement which he “is reported as having said” turns out, when actually quoted, to have the opposite meaning. And Guy MacLean Rogers, of Wellesley, successfully defends the historian George Grote, who is, for Bernal, a romantic and probably a racist. In life, he was a determined anticlerical, one of those who insisted that London University should be open to Jews and Nonconformists—that it should be, in the phrase of Arnaldo Momigliano, an institution “born in liberty for liberty.”

A couple of general judgments seem to me to sum up correctly the views of the more than a dozen scholars who have examined Bernal’s arguments in detail. John E. Coleman, of Cornell, says of the book as a whole:

The lack of scholarly method, of “disciplinary rigour,” is everywhere apparent. As a consequence, Bernal’s work has been almost universally rejected by Egyptologists, archaeologists, linguists, historians, and other scholars best acquainted with the material evidence. Most regard it as beyond the boundaries of legitimate scientific inquiry.

Mario Liverani, of the University of Rome, is no less severe:

The scholars of the mid-nineteenth century established the very “rules” of philological method…. All these professional rules can of course be improved upon or even replaced by demonstrably better rules; but they cannot simply be dismissed out of hand without providing a substitute. What Bernal does is to go back to a pre-paradigmatic behavior. He does without a methodology: he interprets sources at face value, avoids a critical evaluation of traditions, suggests etymologies by simple assonance, confers on myths the value of true history, and limits his primary and secondary sources to those which confirm his own perceptions. His treatments of etymology and mythical tradition are especially incompetent, and unfortunately most of his conclusions are built on them.

An ordinary scholarly book, receiving such crushing criticism on so many fronts, would be annihilated. It can be predicted with confidence that such will not, in North America, be the fate of Black Athena. The new myth which it presents meets a felt need. In the words of Mary Lefkowitz, the desire to believe in African origins for Greece

is strictly a twentieth-century phenomenon, specific to this country and to our own notions of race.

How are its consequences to be described? Frank M. Snowden has grave words of warning:

It is unfortunate that Afrocentrists fail to realize the serious consequences of their distortions, inaccuracies, and omissions, and the extent to which the Afrocentrist approach to ancient Egypt has motivated many blacks to stir up anti-white hostility. Substituting fiction for fact is a disservice to blacks. The twentieth century has already seen sufficient proof of the dangers of inventing history. What will be the effect on future generations, black and white alike, if the present “mythologizing” Afrocentrist trend continues, and if the historical record is not rectified? The time has come for scholars and educators to insist upon truth, scholarly rigor, and accuracy in the reconstruction of the history of blacks in the ancient Mediterranean world.

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