Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Putting Athena into *Black Athena*

I'm writing after a class on the implications of Martin Bernal's Black Athena for an understanding of a) classics, b) western civilisation, c) Athena - these are three discrete areas but on one level different ways of saying the same thing. As we considered, Athena has long been used a symbol of classical, and so western civilisation. So by arguing that classicists were a group of elite, ideologically 'white' in-groupers who had inherited a subject with Eurocentrist origins that they were unconsciously or otherwise perpetuating, he was effectively saying that how Athena has been received was at best partial, at worst a fabrication. 

As well as thinking about how Bernal's work impacts on how Athena is understood, we reflected on what it means to study classics and to be a classicist. And several people shared the experiences reported by Frances Foster (available here) that I mentioned - of feeling uncomfortable about describing themselves as a classicist when asked what they 'do'.  Students mentioned responses like 'but isn't that a subject done somewhere else?' and the perception of classics as a 'posh' subject responated with their own experiences of justifying what they do to friends, family and strangers. 

I'd welcome feedback on how this outline fits with the experiences of those reading this posting - and how all this bears on what the purpose of classics is, on who receives (or owns) the classical world, and how Athena fits into all of this. Many figures from classical myth have been reclaimed by new users from non-dominant groups in light of the 'democratic turn' in classics - Antigone is one strong example here, Medea another. But Athena has been suprisingingly little used. Could this because, despite Bernal's argument that she was originally African and perhaps black, the goddess has remained too far associated with connotations of elitism to be appropriated in new ways?


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