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The logic of civilizational critique: Martin Bernal’s notion of Semitism


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This paper revisits Martin Bernal’s 1987 Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of Classical Civilization in order to put critical pressure on its notion of ‘Semitism’. I start from the premise that the ensuing debate was a missed opportunity to reckon with the colonial epistemology of the field, as I have described elsewhere (Umachandran and Ward 2024). Instead, attention was diverted into a bitter entrenchment of race-based identity politics, wherein the arguments of the book about the classical as justification for civilizational supremacy were diluted and deflected.


In this paper, then, I attempt to critique Bernal from a position that does not attempt to undermine his deflation of Eurocentric chauvinism (what could be called a post-Bernal position, indicating that the critique he inaugurated is by no means completed or behind us, roughly analogously with the ‘post’ of post-colonialism). Rather I insist that Bernal was no champion of Black emancipation via the re-narration of global history. I take seriously the distance he took care to re-iterate from Afrocentrist historians to give closer critical scrutiny to the ‘-asiatic’ half of the root-story that Bernal would tell. In tracing how Bernal constructs ‘Semitism’ in volume 1 of Black Athena, I argue that his historiography of so-called classical civilization is nonetheless dependent on the exclusion of the Muslim subject.


Therefore, I query the extent to which critiques of the Eurocentrism of Classical Studies can refer to Bernal to launch projects of 'decolonisation' or adjacently, projects of racial justice. WHat would embracing an ancient history of the world that embraced Muslim subjectivities look like, especially when oriented towards justice? What kinds of knowledge-production would go on in a historical discipline that undertook such a project, and how would these engender a politics in common with other critical disciplines such as Critical Muslim Studies?  In conclusion, I suggest how Critical Ancient World Studies can work past the reductive epistemological terms of analysis that have kept Classical studies turning in ever smaller circles since Black Athena failed to ignite a revolution it might have promised.




Mathura Umachandran (she/they) is a lecturer in the Department of Classics, Ancient History, Religious Studies and Theology at the University of Exeter (U.K.). They took their PhD from the Department of Classics at Princeton University in 2018, followed by a post-doctoral research position at Oxford University and the Andrew W. Mellon post-doctoral fellowship at the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University. They co-steward the Critical Ancient World Studies collective with Marchella Ward, from which collaboration the co-edited volume, Critical Ancient World Studies: The Case for Forgetting Classics (Routledge 2024), emerges. They have expertise across a broad range of classical reception studies with an emphasis on thinking with critical theory of all stripes but specifically queer, decolonial and post-colonial theories.


Cosponsored by the Decolonizing Humanism(?) initiative at the Center for Ideas and Society, the Department of English, and the Department of Comparative Literature and Languages

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