This article will feature in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
Classical Greece has long been perceived by modern Western countries as the birthplace of democracy, and has been used to shape and justify Eurocentric concepts of identity and political thought. When asked to imagine the Ancient Greek world, images of beautifully carved white marble statues, mythology, philosophy and grand architecture instantly come to mind. These ideas have fuelled a collective imagination of the Ancient Greek world, which has influenced modern media, modern politics and Hollywood representation of the ancient civilisation. It is no surprise that both are a result of constructed white narratives by early historians and artists.
In 1997 Martin Bernal published a book entitled ‘Black Athena’, in which he examined the African heritage of Ancient Greek culture, calling to account the early classic scholars of the 18th and 19th century, who had white washed the historical narrative. At the time of publication, many scholars focused primarily on discrediting the archaeological evidence provided by Bernal, perhaps missing the broader importance of his writing, which was to challenge the elements of an assumed ‘white’ and ‘Western’ heritage. Bernal and Black Athena became the centre of a political and racial debate in America. Regardless of controversy, Bernal was inherently successful in bringing to light the unsettling depth to which racism and prejudice has tainted not only historical narratives, but also modern visions of democracy, beauty and civilisation.
Racism within classical scholarship can be seen through many common historical myths. A key example of this is that much of the research regarding the ethnic origins of multiple Greek cultures stems from primarily pre-Nazi German scholars looking to attach German roots to the Dorians/Spartans. Many Germans (Hitler included) have long used this hereditary myth to justify Aryan supremacy. Whilst modern scholars have moved away from these misconceptions, much of the general population has not. As historian Rebecca Kennedy concludes; fallacies of ethnic identities in Ancient Greece often result in the exclusion of peoples from a history that is as much theirs as it is anyones by allowing ‘white’ people to ‘lay claim to it’.
The racism surrounding popular and professional knowledge of Ancient Greece is unwavering even decades on from the research of Martin Bernal. It calls us to question why we have not moved on from discriminatory assumptions? Surely historians do ‘know better’? For many of us, Ancient worlds are introduced into our education from as early as primary school and feature heavily in our perceptions of the modern world. It is my belief that it is the responsibility of historians to actively push for more inclusive and diverse narratives of Ancient Greece, in the national curriculum and in the entertainment industry. By doing this, heritage myths, hoarding of histories, and centuries of supremacist influence might finally end.
By Darcy Adams