Reviewed by Adam Lecznar
Ever since its initial publication in 1987, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena project has been entangled in fiery debates concerning its central thesis: that ancient Greek culture originated in the neighbouring regions of north Africa and the Levant. In addition, Bernal continued, classical scholars had tried to systematically erase the memory of these cultural interactions from narratives of ancient history, for reasons of personal and institutional prejudice, in order to create a picture of ancient Greece as autochthonous and untouched by outside influence. The editors of African Athena: New Agendas quickly put these disputes to one side. They declare that they are not concerned with the veracity of Bernal’s thesis, but rather with ‘the implications both of the juxtaposition of African and classical cultures in intellectual history, and of the absences of that juxtaposition’ (3). They also profess to investigate the ‘impetus behind’ Bernal’s scholarship in order to demonstrate ‘how modern African diasporas have fuelled the motors of modern historiographies and their contestations’ (9). The twenty-four essays that follow live up to the subtitle by offering plenty of new agendas for those working under the rubric of classical reception to explore and advance.
These essays, derived partly from an international conference at Warwick in November 2008 and partly from outside commissions, are divided into two clear halves. The first is entitled ‘Myths and Historiographies, Ancient and Modern’ and concentrates on historiographical and sociological issues related to Bernal’s work. The editors trace in the introduction some of the resonances that Black Athena has with the work of theorists such as Paul Gilroy who explore how diasporas generate cultural and historical changes and developments. They further suggest that a striking, but hitherto little noted, aspect of Bernal’s work is the way he folds both the Jewish and African diasporas back into antiquity, thus presenting a Graeco-Roman world in which two of the main events behind modern history have already taken place. The essays in the first section demonstrate how a critical attitude that is informed, if not entirely convinced, by Black Athena can lead a scholar to productive avenues of analysis.