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Black Athena III: The culture wars strike back

24 Jan 2006

Could Greek philosophy be rooted in Egyptian thought? Is it possible that the Pythagorean theory was conceived on the shores of the Nile and the Euphrates rather than in ancient Greece? Could it be that Western civilization was born on the so-called Dark Continent? For almost two centuries, Western scholars have given little credence to the possibility of such scenarios.

Strolling through the great halls of the Cairo Museum of Egyptian antiquities, in a blistering hot summer day by the River Nile in 1993, I remember being awestruck by what seemed to me as the evident African essence of the pharaonic artefacts I was admiring. As I pondered these thoughts, my mind wandered back a few years to when I sat in a Grade 9 history of civilization class. My teacher, Mr Zaki, was an Alexandrian Egyptian who was firm but highly liked and admired by many students -- including myself. I wasn't much of a history buff in high school (I much more enjoyed his third period literature class). So while he was discussing the greatness of Egyptian civilization, I was busy discussing sports with a classmate. Annoyed by my lack of attention, Mr Zaki decided to abruptly call my name and ask me: "Meres! Where is Egypt?" A bit stunned, I quickly gazed down at the map on the opened textbook on my desk and replied: "Africa?"

I'll never forget how the entire class immediately burst into thunderous laughter. Mr Zaki kind of stood there looking straight at me with a helpless and perplexed expression. He neither gave my answer a thumbs up or down. He just didn't say anything and simply went on with his lecture. I believe the answer he was looking for was "the Near East."

The third installment of Martin Bernal''s Black Athena series will be published in February 2006.

For the longest time after that, I went on half accepting Mr Zaki's nebulous interpretation while still remaining confused as to why my answer on that day wasn't "quite right." It wasn''t until years later, during my university days and my fateful work coop summer spent in Egypt in second year, that I really began to seek answers. I kept engaging my Egyptian colleagues at the bank I worked at in downtown Cairo into debates all week, and in the week-ends, I made a point of going back to the Cairo Museum for more evidence.

That's when my love affair with Egyptology and ancient history really began. Once I got back to Canada, I began avidly reading all the books I could on ancient Egypt. Getting together with some like-minded Black classmates at the University of Ottawa, we began holding weekly book discussion sessions and voraciously read from such Afrocentric scholars as Cheikh Anta Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Theophile Obenga, Molefi Kete Asante and many more.

While I must credit Senegalese scientist Cheikh Anta Diop's (1923-1986) work as the pivotal antidote in curing my Mr Zaki-infused poison for good, I became aware through the course of our book readings of a much-talked-about book series called Black Athena by a British-born author named Martin Bernal. Bernal, formerly a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and now retired professor of government at Cornell University, was causing quite a stir among university campuses across America and the world with his basic thesis that Classical Greece''s cultural debt to ancient Egypt had been systematically hidden and buried by 18th and 19th century European scholars.

Of course, Professor Bernal's theory wasn't anything new. As Bernal readily acknowledged himself, Black scholars such Cheikh Anta Diop, George G.M. James, William Leo Hansberry, and many others had been saying just that for years. But, surprise surprise, here was an ivory tower White scholar from Cambridge and Cornell giving credence to those "fringe" ideas.

The backlash was immense. The whole controversy became known as The Black Athena Debate.

Published in 1987, the first installment of the three-part Black Athena book series, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, immediately became a must for all Afrocentric libraries. While some in the Afrocentric camp have accused Bernal of stealing from Black scholars to create his study of the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, many more have given Black Athena its much due praise. In Black Athena I, Bernal introduces the dichotomy between what he terms the Ancient Model and the Aryan Model. We all grew up being taught the Aryan Model in school. According to the Aryan Model, Greek civilization came about as a product of invasions from northern Indo-European and Aryan peoples. But as he shows with the opposite Ancient Model, the Greeks of antiquity themselves, to quote Bernal, "say their ancestors lived in idyllic simplicity until people from Egypt and Phoenicia arrived, built cities, sometimes conquered the local population, and introduced civilization." Bernal explains how the Aryan Model was introduced in the 1830''s to eclipse the Ancient Model which fundamentally ran against some of the racist and still prevalent pro-slavery sentiments of the time.

Lead by Martin Bernal's main critic, Wellesley University classicist Mary R. Lefkowitz, a surprisingly organized opposition to Bernal's Ancient Model theory rose up from the ranks of establishment scholars. Even the New York Times got into the ring. In a book entitled Not out of Africa (with a sarcastic cover image of a bust of Aristotle wearing a Malcolm X baseball cap), Mary R. Lefkowitz relentlessly attacked Bernal''s claims and the entire edifice of Afrocentricsm.

Several Afrocentric scholars rallied to strike back at Lefkowitz. Among such epic battles was one against one her own University's faculty, Professor Tony Martin. Professor Martin rose the temperature on the debate by controversially characterizing Lefkowitz's opposition to Afrocentric theory as a "Jewish onslaught" (given that Lefkowitz is Jewish). Founder of Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga, also came out against Mary R. Lefkowitz in a heated debate on public radio (listen here).

Since the 1987 release of the first Black Athena book, Bernal also released Black Athena II: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization in 1991, and after a 15-year wait, the third and final installment of the trilogy Black Athena III: The Linguistic Evidence is set to once again revive the debate in time for African Heritage month in February 2006.

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