Black Athena Controversy: Battle of Historians


Read the transcript.

In 1987, a historian of modern China wrote a book that was way outside of his field – a historiographical work about the classical world, which argued that argued a racist and imperialist Europe had written Egyptian and Phoenician origins out of Greek history — essentially whitewashing the African roots of Western civilization. The book caused a firestorm within the field of Classics, launching a series of rebuttals and re-rebuttals. Today’s episode is about the thesis that Bernal posed in his Black Athena, but it is also a peek behind the curtain of the academic world. It might get a little weird – because our discussion will be about the evidence Bernal used to support his assertion that Egyptian and Levantine civilizations significantly shaped ancient Greek civilization, but we will also dive into the backlash against Bernal’s work, and what that says about our profession, and how even historians are human and thus susceptible to the world in which we live. Join Averill and Sarah to learn more about Black Athena – and how the historical sausage gets made. 

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Show Notes & Further Reading 

“Antenor Firmin, The ‘Egyptian Question,’ and Afrocentric Imagination,” The Journal of Pan-African Studies 7 (August 2014).

Belucci, Nina, Sri Bellucci, Kevin Hofelmann, “The Black Athena Controversy: Introduction” 

Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume III. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987)

Bowersock, Glenn. Rescuing the Greeks. The New York Times, February 25, 1995.

Herodotus, The Histories. 

Kastor, Caroline. “African Athena: Discussions Surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena,” PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas, 2016.

Keita, Meghan. “Blackness in Ancient History: Criticism and Critique,” Race and the Writing of History: Riddling the Sphinx (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Lefkowitz, Mary. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became An Excuse to Teach Myth As History (New York: BasicBooks, 1996)

Martin Bernal: Historian Best Known for Hist Controversial ‘Black Athena” Books,” The Independent, August 28, 2013. 

Warren, Sam. “Martin Bernal Revisits ‘Black Athena’ Controversy in Lecture,” Cornell Chronicle, October 18, 2007.

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