MARTIN BERNAL, ‘BLACK ATHENA’ SCHOLAR
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: June 22, 2013
- Martin Bernal, whose three-volume work “Black Athena” ignited an academic debate by arguing that the African and Semitic lineage of Western civilization had been scrubbed from the record of ancient Greece by 18th- and 19th-century historians steeped in the racism of their times, died on June 9 in Cambridge, England. He was 76.
The cause was complications of myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder, said his wife, Leslie Miller-Bernal.
“Black Athena” opened a new front in the warfare over cultural diversity already raging on American campuses in the 1980s and ’90s. The first volume, published in 1987 — the same year as “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom’s attack on efforts to diversify the academic canon — made Mr. Bernal a hero among Afrocentrists, a pariah among conservative scholars and the star witness at dozens of sometimes raucous academic panel discussions about how to teach the foundational ideas of Western culture.
Mr. Bernal, a British-born and Cambridge-educated polymath who taught Chinese political history at Cornell from 1972 until 2001, spent a fair amount of time on those panels explaining what his work did not mean to imply. He did not claim that Greek culture had its prime origins in Africa, as some news media reports described his thesis. He said only that the debt Greek culture owed to Africa and the Middle East had been lost to history.
His thesis was this: For centuries, European historians of classical Greece had hewed closely to the origin story suggested by Plato, Herodotus and Aeschylus, whose writings acknowledged the Greek debt to Egyptian and Semitic (or Phoenician) forebears.
But in the 19th century, he asserted, with the rise of new strains of racism and anti-Semitism along with nationalism and colonialism in Europe, historians expunged Egyptians and Phoenicians from the story. The precursors of Greek, and thus European, culture were seen instead as white Indo-European invaders from the north.
In the first volume of “Black Athena,” which carried the forbidding double subtitle “The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece — 1785-1985,” Mr. Bernal described his trek through the fields of classical Greek literature, mythology, archaeology, linguistics, sociology, the history of ideas and ancient Hebrew texts to formulate his theory of history gone awry (though he did not claim expertise in all these subjects).
The scholarly purpose of his work, he wrote in the introduction, was “to open up new areas of research to women and men with far better qualifications than I have,” adding, “The political purpose of ‘Black Athena,’ is, of course, to lessen European cultural arrogance.”
He published “Black Athena 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence” in 1991, and followed it in 2006 with “Black Athena 3: The Linguistic Evidence.”
Another book, “Black Athena Writes Back,” published in 2001, was a response to his critics, who were alarmed enough by Mr. Bernal’s work to publish a collection of rebuttals in 1996, “Black Athena Revisited.”
One critic derided Mr. Bernal’s thesis as evidence of “a whirling confusion of half-digested reading.” Some were more conciliatory. J. Ray, a British Egyptologist, wrote, “It may not be possible to agree with Mr. Bernal, but one is the poorer for not having spent time in his company.”
Stanley Burstein, a professor emeritus of ancient Greek history at California State University, Los Angeles, said Mr. Bernal’s historiography — his history of history-writing on ancient Greece — was flawed but valuable. “Nobody had to be told that Greece was deeply influenced by Egypt and the Phoenicians, or that 19th-century history included a lot of racial prejudice,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But then, nobody had put it all together that way before.”
The specific evidence cited in his books was often doubtful, Professor Burstein added, but “he succeeded in putting the question of the origins of Greek civilization back on the table.”
Martin Gardiner Bernal was born on March 10, 1937, in London to John Desmond Bernal, a prominent British scientist and radical political activist, and Margaret Gardiner, a writer. His parents never married, a fact their son asserted with some pride in interviews.
“My father was a communist and I was illegitimate,” he said in 1996. “I was always expected to be radical because my father was.”
His grandfather Alan Gardiner was a distinguished Egyptologist.
Mr. Bernal graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, in 1957, earned a diploma of Chinese language from Peking University in 1960 and did graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1963 and Harvard in 1964. He received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge in 1966 and remained there as a fellow until he was recruited by Cornell.
His other books, which also focused on the theme of intercultural borrowing, were “Chinese Socialism Before 1907” (1976) and “Cadmean Letters: The Westward Diffusion of the Semitic Alphabet Before 1400 B.C.” (1990).
Besides his wife, he is survived by his sons, William, Paul and Patrick; a daughter, Sophie; a stepson, Adam; a half-sister, Jane Bernal; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Bernal was asked in 1993 if his thesis in “Black Athena” was “anti-European.” He replied: “My enemy is not Europe, it’s purity — the idea that purity ever exists, or that if it does exist, that it is somehow more culturally creative than mixture. I believe that the civilization of Greece is so attractive precisely because of those mixtures.”
Professor Martin Bernal was a man ahead of his time.
A man who questioned the ancient past and how it tied in with the present modern world.
A man who was not in lockstep with the accepted belief that Africa did not have any profound influence on Europe.
A man who opened up discussions on the effect Egypt had on Greece and even Rome.
Greece influenced/borrowed from Egypt; Rome influenced/borrowed from Egypt; Egypt influenced/borrowed from Nubia……………
……………….and so it goes.
No one nation or continent is or was stagnant or “pure”, as Professor Bernal challenged. Such a life in vacuum has never existed amongst humans no matter what continent they or their ancestors hail from. For anyone to say otherwise is to accept a belief based on lies.
He may have caused his detractors consternation, but, he still commanded respect when he refused to merely accept that Europe was the only continent to contribute to the world of today. He not only talked the talk; he walked the walk, even if it meant walking alone.
Rest in peace, Professor Bernal.
Rest in peace.
For those wishing to know more information on Professor Bernal and his literary works, please click on the following links:
Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, Volume… by Martin Bernal (Feb 1, 1991)
Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Linguistic Evidence, Vol. 3 by Martin Bernal (Nov 3, 2006)
Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (Volume 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence… by Martin Bernal (Jun 1, 1991)
Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics by Martin Bernal and David Chioni Moore (Sep 20, 2001)
Geography of a Life by Martin Bernal (Jul 3, 2012)
JAMES GANDOLFINI, A COMPLEX MOB BOSS IN ‘THE SOPRANOS’
James Gandolfini in a scene from “The Sopranos.”
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By DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: June 19, 2013
- James Gandolfini, the Emmy Award-winning actor who shot to fame on the HBO drama “The Sopranos” as Tony Soprano, a tough-talking, hard-living crime boss with a stolid exterior but a rich interior life, died on Wednesday. He was 51.
Mr. Gandolfini’s death was confirmed by HBO. He was traveling in Rome, where he was on vacation and was scheduled to attend the Taormina Film Fest. The cause was not immediately announced; an HBO press representative said that Mr. Gandolfini may have had a heart attack.
Mr. Gandolfini, who grew up in Park Ridge, in Bergen County, N.J., came to embody the resilience of the Garden State on “The Sopranos,” which made its debut in 1999 and ran for six seasons on HBO.
In its pilot episode viewers were introduced to the complicated life of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob kingpin who suffers panic attacks and begins seeing a psychiatrist. Over 86 episodes, audiences followed Mr. Gandolfini in the role as he was tormented by his mother (played by Nancy Marchand), his wife (Edie Falco), rival mobsters, the occasional surreal dream sequence and, in 2007, an ambiguous series finale that left millions of viewers wondering whether Tony Soprano had met his fate at a restaurant table.
The success of “The Sopranos” helped make HBO a dominant player in the competitive field of scripted television programming and transformed Mr. Gandolfini from a character actor into a star. The series, created by David Chase, won two Emmys for outstanding drama series, and Mr. Gandolfini won three Emmys for outstanding lead actor in a drama. He was nominated six times for the award.
HBO said of Mr. Gandolfini in a statement on Wednesday, “He was a special man, a great talent, but more importantly, a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect.”
Mr. Chase, in a statement, called Mr. Gandolfini “one of the greatest actors of this or any time,” and said, “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes.” He added: “I remember telling him many times: ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”
James Joseph Gandolfini Jr. was born in Westwood, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1961. His father was an Italian immigrant who held a number of jobs, including janitor, bricklayer and mason. His mother, Santa, was a high school cafeteria chef.
He attended Park Ridge High School and Rutgers University, graduating in 1983 with a degree in communications. He drove a delivery truck, managed nightclubs and tended bar in Manhattan before becoming interested in acting at age 25, when a friend took him to an acting class.
He began his movie career in 1987 in the low-budget horror comedy “Shock! Shock! Shock!” In 1992 he had a small part in the Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.
By the mid-1990s Mr. Gandolfini had made gangster roles a specialty, playing burly but strangely charming tough guys in films like “True Romance” (1993) and “The Juror” (1996). He had an impressive list of character-acting credits, but was largely unknown when Mr. Chase cast him in “The Sopranos” in 1999.
“I thought it was a wonderful script,” Mr. Gandolfini told Newsweek in 2001, recalling his audition. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’ But I thought they would hire someone a little more debonair, shall we say. A little more appealing to the eye.”
“The Sopranos,” which also became a springboard for television writers like Matthew Weiner (who would later create the AMC drama “Mad Men”) and Terence Winter (who later created the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”), drew widespread acclaim for its detailed studies of the lives of its characters, and, at its center, Mr. Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano, who was tightly wound and prone to acts of furious violence. (He beat and choked another mobster to death for insulting the memory of his beloved deceased racehorse, to name but one example.)
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If you are tired, every single thing that somebody does makes you mad, Mr. Gandolfini said in the interview. “Drink six cups of coffee. Or just walk around with a rock in your shoe. It’s silly, but it works.”
Tony Soprano — and the 2007 finale of “The Sopranos,” which cut to black before viewers could learn what plans a mysterious restaurant patron had for Tony as he enjoyed a relaxing meal with his wife and children — would continue to follow Mr. Gandolfini throughout his career.
He went on to play a series of tough guys and heavies, including an angry Brooklyn parent in the Broadway drama “God of Carnage,” for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 2009; the director of the C.I.A. in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; and a hit man in the 2012 crime thriller “Killing Them Softly.”
Mr. Gandolfini also produced the documentaries “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq” and “Wartorn: 1861-2010,” about the history of post-traumatic stress in the military.
Survivors include his wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini; a daughter, Liliana, born last year; a teenage son, Michael, from his marriage to Marcella Wudarski, which ended in divorce; and his sisters Leta Gandolfini and Johanna Antonacci.
In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Gandolfini said that he was not worried about being typecast as Tony Soprano and that he was being offered different kinds of roles as he aged.
“Mostly it’s not a lot of that stuff anymore with shooting and killing and dying and blood,” he said. “I’m getting a little older, you know. The running and the jumping and killing, it’s a little past me.”
Asked why he did not appear in more comedies, he answered, “Nobody’s asked.”