Who Invented The Greeks?


August 21, 1991|By ALEX BEAM

BOSTON — Boston.--Afrocentrism, which posits that much of Western civilization sprang from African origins, is a doctrine notorious for its frivolities. Suddenly, blacks are deemed to be the ''true'' progenitors of the Pythagorean theorem, the Ten Commandments, etc., rather like the bizarre Stalinist claims that Soviets invented the telephone and the light bulb.

The self-appointed keepers of the Eurocentric flame are predictably aghast. ''If a Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan wanted . . . to handicap black Americans, he could hardly come up with anything more effective than the 'Afrocentric' curriculum,'' wheezes the historian and Kennedy-era apologist Arthur Schles- inger Jr.

However, many mainstream academics, particularly classics scholars and archaeologists, now acknowledge that Afrocentrism is no joke. In fact, a major revision of the conventional view of Western origins is taking place, much of it prompted by the work of Martin Bernal, a Cornell historian and the author of a two-volume historiographical investigation called ''Black Athena.''

In his books -- the second volume was published last month -- Mr. Bernal makes two key assertions. First, he believes that classical Greek civilization was profoundly influenced by Eastern Mediter- ranean and Egyptian (i.e., African) cultures. Second, he writes that the ''racist and Romantic'' classicists of the 19th century deliberately downplayed evidence of African and Semitic colonization and cultural exchange with Greece.

Mr. Bernal says that the Europeans cast the history of antiquity in their own image, creating an ''Aryan'' model of Greek history which argued that Hellenic culture was essentially home-grown.

In retrospect, the earlier scholars' motives seem clear: How indelicate, not to mention politically incorrect, for British, German and French classicists to admit that the ancestors of Plato, Homer and Euclid were . . . blacks and Jews.

When the first volume of ''Black Athena'' appeared two years ago, Mr. Bernal complained -- perhaps too loudly -- that his work was being ignored. (It turns out that he was cheesed off because ''Athena,'' which won an American Book Award, wasn't reviewed by the New York Times.)

In fact, as Mr. Bernal now admits, academe merely took its time digesting his complex, 600-page argument crammed with linguistic and archaeological arcana. ''I've been quite pleased with the reaction from the field,'' he says.

With ''multiculturalism'' the order of the day, Mr. Bernal, an expert in Chinese civilization who revels in his status as an outsider among classicists, is probably the most talked-about scholar in the English-speaking world.

But not necessarily the most praised. While accepting Mr. Bernal's critique of 19th-century academic biases, mainstream classicists are underwhelmed by his scholarship. Ironically, even archaeologists who can prove that Mr. Bernal's methodology is flawed agree with his central premise -- that Egypt and the Levant profoundly influenced ancient Greece.

''He's right, but for the wrong reasons,'' concedes one archaeologist whose work overlaps Mr. Bernal's.

And where others would like him to be right -- on the politically charged question of the ''blackness'' of ancient Egyptians -- Mr. Bernal wonders if he may have overstated his case. He now says he might have named his masterwork ''African Athena,'' to avoid the suggestion that ancient Egyptians had the same skin color as darker West Africans.

Some critics ask what all the fuss is about. ''Even if the Greeks ripped it all off from the Africans, it would be a historical curiosity,'' says one scholar. ''It wouldn't make any difference to the curriculum beyond a lecture or two.''

That is probably an understatement. More likely, Mr. Bernal's conclusions, like those of most radical revisers of historical doctrine, will be absorbed into the historical canon. If ''the political purpose of 'Black Athena' is to lessen European cultural arrogance,'' as Mr. Bernal states, then he has already achieved his goal.

Alex Beam is a Boston Globe columnist.

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