Black Athena Revisited

by Mary R. Lefkowitz
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Last Updated on March 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377

Black Athena Revisited was published in 1996. It consists of a collection of essays edited by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers.

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The work is a response to the popular but wildly inaccurate Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (1987, 1991, 2006), a work by Martin Bernal, a British scholar specializing in Chinese history. The main thesis of Bernal's book was that Greek civilization was rooted in Egyptian, Phoenician, and African influences rather than Indo-European ones. Bernal argues that such influences were underestimated due to racism and religious prejudice, especially among nineteenth-century Europeans.

There are three major problems with Bernal's work that are laid out in Black Athena Revisited. First, Black Athena tends to use ancient sources uncritically and is replete with factual errors. Second, it often advances arguments that attack positions few scholars hold or held (for example, the overwhelming majority of classical scholars acknowledge that there were strong relationships between Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other Mediterranean cultures). Third, while responsible scholarship strives to be nuanced and to examine degrees of influence, Bernal tends to argue for extreme positions instead of making limited and specific claims for various influences; rather than writing with nuance and leaving room for the inherent ambiguities of historical discussions, he tends to advance an all-or-nothing position.

Black Athena Revisited thus consists of complied works by leading scholars from various fields that examine different areas where Bernal's work is unreliable. Mary R. Lefkowitz herself provides an overview of ancient historiography and how one must carefully examine ancient Greek texts within their historical context. She addresses the problem of the unreliability of much of the ancient biographical tradition.

John Baines, David O'Connor, and Frank J. Yurco supply extensive discussions of the relationships between Greece and Egypt. Three chapters address the issues of race and nationhood in antiquity, showing how the Greek sense of cultural identity differs from the one in which Bernal grounds his concept of Afrocentrism. Chapters on the ancient Near East, ancient science, and linguistics are followed by three on ancient Greek culture. The final and longest section consists of six chapters on historiography—or the history of the reception of classical culture—showing that, while some philologists were indeed racist, many at least acknowledged the multicultural nature of the ancient Mediterranean.

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Themes