Martin Bernal (1937-2013)

I heard the sad news today that Martin Bernal, the political scientist/historian/classicist and ‘humanist’ in every relevant sense of the word, passed away on Monday at the age of 76 (follow the link for his obituary in the Ithaca Journal).  At the time of his death, he was Professor Emeritus of Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell.  One can only imagine that he was, and will be, the only figure to hold simultaneous professorships in these two fields.  He was also a genial, considerate scholar, and it was my honour to have worked with him.

Bernal is, of course, best known for his three-volume Black Athena (Bernal 1987, 1991, 2006), a massive attempt to show the indebtedness of classical civilization to Egyptian and Phoenician influences and that Greek civilization was only secondarily Indo-European but principally an African and Near Eastern civilization which, due to racism among European early modern scholars, was not recognized as such.  To say that it was controversial is a gross understatement – few claims in the study of the ancient world have attracted as much scorn, including an entire edited volume dedicated to its refutation.  The scholarly consensus today is that Bernal’s linguistic, archaeological and historical evidence is too rough-and-ready and that he was too willing to take coincidence as evidence when considering similarities in the languages and symbolic lives of Greeks and Egyptians.  The Greek pantheon is not simply a set of African deities with a European veneer, any more than the Greek language is some sort of bizarre mixed language full of Semitic and Afro-Asiatic roots.

These are serious problems, and to his credit, Bernal did attempt to address them, not always successfully. I do not, however, agree with the assessment of some that he was credulous.  Rather, I view his work as a conscious attempt to provide a counterpoint to mainstream views, even when – or especially because – the ideas he was proposing were so challenging. He was unafraid to be wrong if the alternative was to be silent.  Unlike, say, Erich von Daniken, to whom he has been most unjustly compared, Bernal’s work was meticulously thorough in its citation, and rather than simply postulating massive conspiracies, asking ridiculous rhetorical questions, and dishonestly ignoring all contrary evidence, he was a very serious scholar, sometimes out of his depth, but never out of his mind.

I corresponded with Martin over the past five years (we never met in person) during the preparation of Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger.  His chapter in that volume, ‘The Impact of Blackness on the Formation of Classics’ (Bernal 2013) will surely prove to be one of his final published works.  I do not know if he had an opportunity to read the entire volume prior to his death, but I want to echo the remarks I made in the introduction: there is enormous value in Bernal’s demonstration of the role of implicit and explicit Eurocentric biases in shaping the course of classical scholarship from the 17th century to the present day.  His chapter expands on his earlier work by addressing the role of some key scholars, such as James Bruce, in shaping views of Greece and of Africa, and their interrelations.   He insists that postulating links between societies does not stigmatize borrowing: “I do not accept that hybridity leads to sterility; a culture is not a mule!” (Bernal 2013: 14).  Throughout the process of editing and revision and production, Martin was cheerful, thoughtful, and open, responsive to editorial comment and a true professional.

I wrote Bernal to invite him to participate in the volume, knowing full well that Trigger had been publicly quite critical of Black Athena and its revisionist assertions.  Indeed, that was part of the point.  Bernal exemplified an unflinching willingness to spend decades on an extreme version of a position that, over time and with much refinement and revision, has come to limited acceptance in some scholarly communities, at the cost of great scorn from others.  You might count this in the ‘loss’ column, if scholarship were measured in wins and losses.  But this was never the point.  The point is the process, and both Bernal and Trigger exemplified the principled willingness to present a point of view regardless of its conformity to some present orthodoxy.  In my view, too much anthropology and archaeology, and quite a lot of linguistics, lack this principled willingness to challenge, to doubt even when doubting has costs, to publish the unpublishable – a luxury his position afforded him, but alas, too few of us today enjoy such freedom.

In 2002, when I was just finishing my PhD and writing my first published article, ‘The Egyptian origin of the Greek alphabetic numerals’, I un-courageously felt the need to distance myself from Bernal in writing, “This theory is a further contribution towards delineating the economic and intellectual transfers between Egypt and Greece in antiquity, though of course at a later date and with a more secure contextual foundation than that found in Bernal’s (1987) analysis of the subject.” (Chrisomalis 2003: 58).  It’s a true statement, but at the time, what I failed to recognize is that I could not have had my hypothesis considered fairly without the sort of framing that Bernal’s body of scholarship afforded me.  I am grateful, a decade later, to have had a chance to know the man and return the favour.


Bernal, Martin. 1987. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 1: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 1991. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 2006. Black Athena : the Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization. Vol. 3: The Linguistic Evidence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Bernal, Martin. 2013. The impact of blackness on the formation of classics.  In S. Chrisomalis and A. Costopoulos (eds.), Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, pp. 12-30.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. 2003. The Egyptian origin of the Greek alphabetic numerals. Antiquity 77 (297): 485-496.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

7 thoughts on “Martin Bernal (1937-2013)”

  1. I have always considered it strange that Lefkowitz and Rogers, who published a refutation called “Black Athena Revisited”, did not ask him to contribute a final chapter. Droit de réponse is a basic moral principle, but apparently academics are above the normal rules of decency.

    1. I’m not sure why they didn’t do so, and I would leave open the possibility that he was asked and declined to respond at that time (he did, of course, write a much fuller book-length response to them and other critics a few years later). I agree that it is a basic decency, particularly in this case where the vitriol against him was so strong.

      1. I put up your post on my FB page, which evoked a fairly lively response, including Jona’s misgivings. A.K. Eyma replied: “That format was employed in: Black Athena – Ten Years After, ed. Wim M.J. van Binsbergen (Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, 1997), allowing him to react to critical articles in the volume. A sympathatic format, yes, certainly – but it did not make him look any better (only made more clear that he did not know what he was talking about). People by nature cannot say “okay, I was wrong”, but only become defensive and dig a deeper hole.”

      2. I’ve read in Bernal’s “Black Athena writes back” that he asked Lefkowitz if he could write such a chapter but she refused. She also said that some of the contributors of the book even demanded that he should be denied the opportunity or they wouldn’t particpate at all! (sorry for the bad english)

    2. Thanks to all – this is helpful! I should clarify – I do think that Lefkowitz and Rogers have, like any scholars, the right to invite whomever they wish to contribute (or not) to their volume. I also think that the level of vitriol directed at Bernal was quite unwarranted even though I agree with most of his scholarly critics on the evidence of the matter.

  2. A very fair and generous post, but did Bernal ever speak out against the blatant misuse of his ideas in black studies? In all of the thrust and parry of the time, I don’t remember him doing so.

    1. I’m not sure whether or not he did. The place to look, I suspect, would be the recent Oxford University Press volume, ‘African Athena: New Agendas’ which has a range of contributions from mainstream scholars in African studies and an afterword by Bernal. I’m afraid I don’t own a copy and neither does my university library, so I can’t comment on any specifics.

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