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Black Athena Ten Years After 0

towards a constructive re-assessment

by Wim van Binsbergen

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Part I (sections 1-3) | Part II (sections 4-6) | Part III (sections 7-8)


 This long paper, the opening piece of the collection Black Athena Ten Years After (1997, now being reprinted as Black Athena Alive), seeks to present an extensive critical yet constructive assessment of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena project. After sketching the context of the conference on which that collection was based, it presents a summary of the various contributions to the collective volume, by Martin Bernal (3 papers), Wim van Binsbergen (3 papers), Jan Best, Arno Egberts, and Josine Blok. It then sketches the specific critical contributions which Black Athena Ten Years After seeks to make: a contribution largely by Dutch scholars, with several new and illuminating pieces by Bernal himself, with a larger Africanist imput than the Black Athena debate had received so far, and resulting a far more constructive and positive assessment than would have seemed possible anymore after the dismissive critical collection Black Athena Revisited (1996). In section 2 Martin Barnal’s Black Athena project is sketched against the background of his unique social and intellectual background as a British upperclass intellectual from a milieu of intellectual giants, finding himself in a USA environment which is obsessed by cultural hegemony and race. The Black Athena project is then situated ned against the background of the growth of Near Eastern (including Egyptological) studies since the mid-19th century of the Common Era. The fact is stressed that Bernal’s ideas are in continuity with much established scholarship, his project largely popularising and politicising a scholarly view of Greece’s (and Europe’s) cultural indebtedness to the Ancient Near East which had been in the air in Near Eastern Studies for half a century or more. The implications of the Black Athenadebate for African Studies, and vice versa, are then briefly indicated. In section 4 the central issue is that of ideology and cultural history, highlighting both the fact of intercontinental interaction in the eastern Mediterranean basin in ancient times (Neolithic and Bronze Age), and the uniqueness of ancient Greek civilisation as a creative result of ‘transformative localisation’ of selected cultural imports; in the process, also the search for origins is discussed as both tempting and dangerous, yet unavoidable in our age of identity, minorities, multiculturalism and globalisation and scentral social and political concerns. Section 5 contains a highly critical discussion of what Bernal boastfully calls his sociology of knowledge, and seeks to situate himself in a sociological context of knowledge production – something which he has overlooked so far. In section 6 the flow of the Black Athenadebate is discussed in detail, and an attempt is made to evaluate the many critical arguments levelled against Bernal, while at the same time highlighting the many positive reactions which his work as brought forth among recognised specialists in the Ancient Near East history, archaeology and linguistics. Section 7 seeks to outline the puzzling epistemology which underlies Bernal’s work, having been responsible for a great deal of critical confusion and understandable rejection, especially in the light of Bernal’s unyielding and insinuating response to serious scholarly criticism. Here our key example is his proposed (and untenable) etymology of the name Athena as deriving from the Egyption Ht Nt, ‘temple of Neith’; however, this etymology may be rejected without major harm to Bernal’s scholarly project for which it inspired the name of ‘Black Athena’. Characterising Bernal as a hybrid between empiricist realism and political idealism, we identify why he is capable both of exploding established scholarly and societal myth, and of risking to create his own alternative myths. In the paper’s final assessment Bernal is given praise as one of the most creative and innovative scholars of the late twentieth century, whose seminal ideas deserve to continue to inspire research work in a number of fields for decades to come.   

The paper:

Part I (click to open)
1. Introduction
2. Martin Bernal's Black Athena project
3. Into Africa?

Part II (click to open)
4. Ideology and cultural history
5. Martin Bernal and the sociology of knowledge
6. The Black Athena debate

Part III (click to open)
7. Martin Bernal's epistemology
8. Towards a re-assessment - and beyond

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?/span> 1997 W.M.J. van Binsbergen

[1]Earlier versions of this argument were presented at the conference on ‘Black Athena: Africa’s contribution to global systems of knowledge’, African Studies Centre, Leiden, The Netherlands, 28 June, 1996; and at the Africa Research Centre, Catholic University Louvain, 8 November, 1996. I am indebted to Martin Bernal, Jan Best, Josine Blok, and Arno Egberts, for repeated and profound exchanges on the theoretical and empirical problems central to the present volume; to these colleagues, and to Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, Filip de Boeck, and Renaat Devisch, for useful comments; to the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Wassenaar, where the present argument was largely conceived when I spent a fruitful and exciting academic year 1994-95 at NIAS as a member of the theme group on ‘Religion and Magic in the Ancient Near East’; and to my wife and children, without whose unconditional support this book project — modest in itself but glaringly ambitious in view of my academic background and skills, and unexpectedly difficult because of its ideological tangles — would never have been completed. For official acknowledgements see the main text.

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Part I (sections 1-3) | Part II (sections 4-6) | Part III (sections 7-8)


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