Black is the New White: Martin Bernal Examines Greek Historiography

Black Athena Statue

The central argument of Black Athena by Martin Bernal, that Greek culture (and, therefore, so-called “Western” culture) had roots in the Levant and in Asia and Africa, and that these roots were obscured in the 18th and 19th centuries by simple racism, is compellingly stated, and appeals to a liberal mind accustomed to seeing suppression and institutional racism. Furthermore, the instances which he finds (like the similarities between Hebrew and Greek language) seem to offer a plausible enrichment of the heretofore accepted concept of the conceptual divide between East and West. 

So I can easily accept his premise; and in fact, it’s not the first I’ve heard of consistent contact between the Israelites and the Greeks. Nor is this the first I’ve heard of the deep racism which led many 19th century historians to make specious claims. However, Bernal makes some assertions to support his thesis that mitigate his credibility.

I’ll Give You a Quarter for Your Nickel and a Paradigms

First off, I’ll admit that quoting Thomas Kuhn is always a deficiency to me. I find his ideas of paradigm shift a bit too broad; treating scientific fields of study like religious orthodoxies gives rather short shrift to the real complexities of both the scientific community and religious orthodoxies. For example: the German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach, writing in the 18th century, divided the human species into five groups; however, he himself disputed the hierarchical view of races which many of his colleagues used to justify ethnic discrimination. Even if his voice had been a minority, his work had a very real impact and to speak as though historiography was a monolithic thing with a single conception of human history seems an oversimplification. 

Further, Bernal’s setting himself up as a crank, while amusingly self-deprecating, is also itself deeply problematic. While admitting that many amateurs are just as wrong as their detractors describe them, he points out that there have been many instances in history when non-professional outsiders have proven the experts wrong. He then cites the popular demonstration of Kuhn’s theory, that of Continental Drift. While this example does fit rather nicely with Kuhn’s theory of paradigms, it doesn’t do much for Bernal’s point, since Wegener, the man who first proposed the theory, was neither a crank nor an amateur; he was in fact a trained scientist and lecturer.

Is Certainty Quantitative or Qualitative?

But here’s where Bernal really goes off the rails. He tries to discredit the “positivist” shift in historiography, by saying that not everything can be empirically demonstrated and that the only proof historians can achieve is “competitive plausibility.” While I grant the premise that you can’t actually demonstrate via experiment whether or not the Phoenicians influenced Greek culture, or many of the other explanatory hypotheses circulating among historians, there should still be sufficient evidence to support a given theory. 

Now, some of my critique may result from my own naïveté regarding what counts as evidence in history. Several years ago I was working with a genealogist to find out more about my family. So I gave him what records I had and he went away for a couple of weeks to research, look through some databases, and so on. When he came back to me, he was really excited to show me everything he’d found: census records, newspaper clippings, and more census records. But while he was walking me through the census records, I realized that what he’d found were similar surnames to those of my ancestors, living in and around the areas my ancestors had lived in. These were literally just similar names. No evidence of relation, just chronological and temporal proximity. 

Now, I understand that there simply won’t be family trees to show me how, if at all, these people were related to each other. Many of those documents, if ever produced, are probably lost to the ages. I also understand that more than a couple of centuries ago, most of my ancestors were probably barely literate (perhaps even more recent than that) and so variation in spelling of names is to be expected. So is it possible all of those people are related to me? Absolutely. However, I have to say that a similar name living near someone I know to be related to me doesn’t make me feel like we’ve demonstrated anything. 

And this lack of certainty is something that only increases the further back in time that we look; establishing firm lineage for anyone but nobility centuries ago must be a guessing game, especially considering that even as late as the Elizabethan age, Britons (to pick a familiar example) spelled their own names a variety of ways throughout their lives. So my expectation of hard evidence is almost certainly an impossibility for those studying civilizations that thrived thousands of years ago. However, prizing plausibility over demonstration (which he does only implicitly) seems to cover an awful lot of assumptions. Isn’t there a fair amount of subjectivity in determining plausibility? 

Sound Conclusion from Flawed Logic

I should say, however, that I find Bernal’s project intriguing, and from what little history I’ve read, the concept that there is more interaction between cultures seems to fit with many of the recent discoveries. Just as many of the wealthiest people have many people and inheritances to thank for their fortune, so too with the richest cultures. And from glancing around at some critical responses to Bernal (and to the backlash against his work) I can see that he’s generated some fruitful conversations and research. So I don’t mean to diminish his scholarship or his ideas. I recognize my own unfamiliarity with the accepted expectations for rigor in his field, and I also recognize the importance of examining (and questioning) the biases that shape fields of study. And, it makes intuitive sense to me that the Levant, Asia and Africa should have had some influence on the richness of the Greek culture which has formed the basis of our East/West dichotomy. Exploding that dichotomy would likely go far to help building bridges and establishing greater understanding between far-flung peoples. However, in the search for historical truth, as with any truth, academic standards must be maintained. 

3 thoughts on “Black is the New White: Martin Bernal Examines Greek Historiography

  1. Perfect graphic choice! I think the issue of “feeling” that you bring up in the 7th paragraph is really interesting. Do you think if the genealogist had come back to you with a story about one of the people that you might be related to, instead of just a name, it would have made you “feel” more related to them?

    1. It’s a good question, and I want to be aware of my own biases. However, unless I could see some record of relation, I don’t think a story would be enough. Now, if a newspaper clipping showed marriage records, or a particular census record showed members of household, and it listed someone I knew to be my ancestor, then I’d be convinced. But I’m having to accept that that level of certitude just can’t be established many times, and so, lacking that level of proof, I suppose historians/genealogists have in fact built a science based on “competitive plausibility” which, lacking any contradictory evidence, is as close to certainty as we can get.

  2. Another great post! You have hit at the major challenge of all history: what is plausible, and how do we decide whether (and how much of) it is true? These issues have pushed us even to consider historiography as art and relate history to the realm of rhetoric (and ethics). But then would anyone like to call history a rhetoric?

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