After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana
In After Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz: research opportunities in classica Africana, Michele Ronnick coins the phrase classica Africana, which is a subversion (which is a common theme here) of Reinhold’s Classica Americana which concerned itself with the impact of the classics upon 18th and 19th century America. Ronnick’s subversion sharpens the wide view taken by Reinhold concerning the influence of the classical tradition of the Graeco-Roman heritage in America, and examines the undeniable impact, both positive and negative, that this heritage has had upon people of African descent not only in America, but also in the western world. Her article offers brief examination of a selection of ideas that vary in scope and involve reassessment of old material in the light of contemporary theory and new approaches. All revolve around the interrelationship between the classics and people of African descent. This creation of the term classica Africana gives rise to the basis of my project – to examine how and why the authors I am focused upon chose to utilize Greco-Roman mythology to subvert the traditional Euro-centric U.S. cultural societal narrative.
The Black Athena Project
Authored by Martin Bernal, the Black Athena position is one that suggests that the Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic periods (500-50 BCE) believed that their religion had come from Egypt that there had also been profound Egyptian influences on the formation of their philosophy and mathematics. Similarly, they maintained that Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon and Northern Israel/Palestine) had introduced cultural artifacts notably the alphabet. Bernal calls such beliefs, the “Ancient Model” of Greek origins. This Ancient Model was generally accepted until the beginning of the 19th century CE (AD). It then began to fall into disrepute and by the 1840s, it was replaced by what Bernal calls the “Aryan Model.” According to this model, the Greek stories of their origins were mistaken and Greek culture was “in fact” a mixture of the soft but civilized natives of the Aegean basin and the dynamic Northerners who had conquered them. This mixture was seen as having created the perfect balance of Greek civilization.
In Volume I of Black Athena, Bernal argues that the destruction of the Ancient Model was not the result of any new discoveries. Rather, that it came from various ideological forces, one of which was the racism which made it intolerable that Greece, now seen as the pure cradle of Europe should have received its higher culture from Africans and “Semites.”
Bernal argues that the rise of the “Aryan Model” (which should be distinguished from the fall of the Ancient one) came partly for these reasons but also because, by the 1840s, it was generally recognized that the Greek language was closely related to Sanskrit and Latin. Furthermore, it was plausibly supposed that the Indo-European linguistic family to which they all belonged, had originated somewhere to the north of Greece. Therefore, the founders of the modern discipline of classics envisaged the Northern invaders as Indo-European speakers or “Aryans”. Thus, although there were no Greek traditions of an invasion from the north and there was no archaeological evidence to suggest it, the case for such a conquest could be made on linguistic grounds alone. It was admitted that there were many Non-Indo-European features in Greek, but these were attributed to the language of the conquered early inhabitants or “Pre-Hellenes.”
Bernal does not advocate a return to the Ancient Model but to a Revised Ancient Model, which accepts the work of 18th and 19th century linguists who demonstrated that Greek is fundamentally an Indo-European language and hence that this indicates a substantial cultural influence possibly migration from the north at a very early period. However, Bernal posits that there is no reason why this should conflict with the Greek traditions of settlements from the South and East during the 2nd millennium, which together with subsequent contacts introduced the Egyptian religion, the Phoenician alphabet etc. While both sides agree that the Greek language is a mixture, supporters of the Aryan Model see it as one made up of Indo-European and the unknown language (or languages) of the Pre-Hellenes. Bernal argues that Greek is an admixture of Ancient Egyptian and West Semitic languages, both of which belong to the Afroasiatic language family, which was inserted into an Indo-European base.