Blacks in Antiquity
A few years ago Martin Bernal's Black Athena stimulated considerable commentary about the role of blacks in antiquity. Many leftists applauded Bernal's perceptive analysis of the racism of many nineteenth century German scholars without understanding the thinness of Bernal's general argument regarding the supposed Egyptian roots of Greek culture. Popular books by Afrocentrists, vaguely proceeding from Bernal, posited an absolute victimization of black African culture in which discoveries made by Africans have been attributed to Greeks or were outright stolen by the Greeks. Much of this nonsense and Bernal's notion that Egyptians colonized mainland Greece centuries before the arrival of Indo-Europeans have not withstood scholarly scrutiny. Mary Lefkowitz has been particularly prominent in debunking Bernal and those who went far beyond Bernal's hypothesis.
An unfortunate aspect of the intellectual fallout of this controversy has been a diminution in interest in the actual role of Africans in the ancient world. Nor have many leftists taken up Lefkowitz's suggestion to look at the interaction between black Africa and the Greco-Roman world. A starting point for any such consideration is the work of Frank Snowden, whose most important single work is Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.
What distinguishes Snowden's work from Bernal's is his marshaling of physical evidence. Even on the literary side he bests Bernal by citing numerous Greek and Roman sources with explicit evaluations of Ethiopians rather than citing vague similarities in folk tales. He points out that the Greeks considered the color of Ethiopians as stemming from environmental factors and never posited any moral or intellectual consequences stemming from color, a view accepted by the Romans and early Christians. Snowden's texts go back to Homer and move through to the early Christian era. This vast array of poems, essays, plays, histories, and other written texts trace how the idealization of a distant black people evolved into references to black people completely meshed into the Greco-Roman world.
Most impressive are the one hundred and twenty-four images Snowden reproduces from ancient pottery, murals, sculpture, and other graphic arts. These range as far back as six centuries before the Christian era and like the written texts often depict events from even older time periods. These images show black Africans were involved in all aspects of life rather than limited to a single occupation or myth. Common people of all kinds rather than a legendary hero are usually the subject matter.
What is so refreshing in reading Snowden is that instead of a back formation reading of history based on the modern assumptions about black Africans in Europe, Snowden goes to the ancient texts and limits his analysis to unambiguous identifications. What emerges is a portrait of black Africans well integrated into the ancient world in scenarios of explorations, trading, and wars that make geographic and chronological sense. Snowden demonstrates that even when blacks were slaves they were slaves like other peoples and manumission through various means occurred with the same frequency and consequences as with those other peoples. Rather than vague references to individuals who might be black or the making black of Macedonian royalty such as Cleopatra, Snowden offers a history involving the interfacing of entire nations.
As we continue to struggle with the problem of color in the modern world, it is enlightening and hopeful to know that color prejudice was not part of the ancient world and was not part of the origins of Christianity. Rather than promoting the culture of victimization and paranoia, Snowden allows the role of black Africans in the ancient world to stand on the usual historic proofs. That role proves to be substantial.
Snowden's Blacks in Antiquity is not a new book. It was first published in 1970! What a shame that it is rarely referenced in leftist commentary on the role of blacks in the ancient world. Underlying all of this discourse, of course, is the erroneous notion that black contributions to the world depend on their immediate impact upon the West. Leaving that discussion aside, the two major roots of modern Europe are the pagan world of the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian traditions. Snowden shows us the positive manner in which both those worlds regarded and interacted with black culture in Africa. Postmodernists who think all history is more or less subjective and invented often intersect with nationalist thinkers who invent histories to fit their ideological and political agendas. Neither fare well when confronted with the kind of data Snowden has mounted. Score one for traditional research by a distinguished African American scholar.
Dan Georgakas is coauthor of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and currently is teaching at New York University.