Black Athena

A recent exchange with a slightly disgruntled reader of Mankind: The Story of All of Us * led me to pull a book off the shelf that I hadn't looked at for several years: the first volume of Martin Bernal's Black Athena .

Sub-titled The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Bernal's book was a smack up the side of the head when I first read it at the suggestion of my dissertation adviser.  (I was stuck in a section on nineteenth century representations of ancient Egypt.**) Bernal's book was no help with my chapter, but it fundamentally changed how I look at the ancient past.

Briefly, Bernal argues that Europeans*** from the Renaissance to the eve of Romanticism****, as well as the ancient Greeks themselves, found the roots of classical Greek culture in ancient Egypt.  In the early nineteenth century, a creative and occasionally toxic blend of Romantic Hellenism, imperialism, racism, and the new sciences of linguistics and archaeology relocated the cradle of western civilization from Egypt to Greece.  In the new formulation, Greeks had created civilization as we know it but they couldn't be trusted to write their own history.

 Black Athena was controversial at best when it first came out in 1987.  Even though elements of Bernal's arguments have been incorporated into our model of western civilization, they remain controversial.  Personally, primed by Edward Said's Orientalism***** and a post-modern intellectual stew of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and company, I found Bernal's arguments compelling and believable.

I still do.


* Inevitably, any passionate history nerd is going to be slightly disgruntled about some part of Mankind, including me.  One of the harsh realities of writing a book that covers history from the Big Bang to yesterday is that things have to be left out.  Even really important things.

**Part of a chapter that I wrote many, many times before I realized it didn't belong in the book.

***Or at least Europeans who had both the luxury and inclination to think about such things. My guess is the butcher, the baker, and the average wealthy merchant didn't care.  Some things don't change.

****As you doubtless remember, Europeans before the Renaissance didn't spend a lot of time thinking about classical Greece.

*****Another paradigm buster, which deserves its own blog post.

History on Display: The Unexpected DeMoulin Museum Celebrates Invention, Imagination,and Industry

I freely admit that I visited the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, Illinois, with a certain amount of trepidation. Over the years My Own True Love and I have visited plenty of small private museums that were founded to showcase an individual's passion. All too often, they are sad, weird, and incoherent.* A museum devoted to a company known for band uniforms and what the brochure described as "lodge initiation devices" sounded like a candidate to be all three.

Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.** The DeMoulin Museum is quirky and fascinating: one of those rare gems that keep My Own True Love and I walking through the door of small private museums with hope in our hearts.

Today DeMoulin Brothers and Co. is the largest manufacturer of band uniforms in the country. A perfectly respectable, if occasionally glittery, business. But the real story lies in those mysterious "lodge initiation devices".

The period from 1890 to 1930 was the Golden Age of the fraternal lodge in America. Belonging to the Elks, Moose, Kiwanis, or one of the dozens of other organizations that sprang up at the time*** offered American men a social outlet, a status symbol, a female-free zone other than the corner bar, and sometimes health and life insurance not available elsewhere. A chance to wear a funny hat and get life insurance? How could a man resist? Hundreds of thousands of men belonged to at least one lodge. Some sociable types belonged to three or four. With more than 100 different lodge organizations in existence, lodges competed for members. That's where the DeMoulin brothers come into the story.

In 1892, the national head of the Modern Woodmen of America was looking for a way to stand out from the pack. He called on local photographer and inventor Ed DeMoulin for help. DeMoulin and his brothers, Erastus and Ulysses, suggested that the Woodmen needed to add a little excitement to their initiation rites. They devised the “molten lead test:” candidates were told that to join the lodge, they had to plunge their hands into a bubbling pot of molten lead, an illusion created with the chemical reaction of dry mercury powder and cold water.

The molten lead test was a success, and a decades-long tradition of hazing new lodge members was born. So was DeMoulin Bros. and Company, which became the leading inventor and manufacturer of fraternal paraphernalia, including spanking machines, collapsing chairs, and other devices designed to cause discomfort in the initiate and hilarity among his friends.**** Their signature item was the DeMoulin goat, a vehicle halfway between a rocking horse and a tricycle certain to give a blindfolded rider an undignified ride.

Known locally as "the goat factory", DeMoulin Brothers soon expanded its focus. The transition from initiation devices to other lodge paraphernalia***** was an obvious one. In 1897, the company made another obvious transition its first band uniforms. (It was also the Golden Age of the municipal marching band.) Over the years, they've made circus costumes and military uniforms, reinventing themselves as needed.

The museum tells the story well, focusing not only on the DeMoulin brothers and their wacky devices but on the story of a company that has reinvented itself over and over in response to social changes. If you're in the St Louis area, give yourself a treat and spend an hour or two at the DeMoulin Museum. You might even get a chance to ride the goat.
* Unfortunately, passion does not always come with the skills needed to inspire others to share it.

** You knew there was going to be a happy ending, right?

***Masonic lodges look similar but the organization is older and may in fact be the pattern on which later fraternal orders are based. Freemasonry reached North America from England in the 1730s.

****The fake guillotine was not a big success with lodges, but museum owner John Goldsmith says it is popular with modern school groups.

*****Any fan of the Flintstones will remember the headdresses Fred and Barney wore to meetings of the Loyal Order of the Water Buffalo.

Eighty Days

On November 14, 1889, Nelly Bly, reporter for the popular newspaper The World, sailed from New York on the trip that would make her famous: an attempt to travel around the world in less than eighty days. Eight and a half hours later, unknown to Bly, the literary editor of the monthly magazine, The Cosmopolitan, boarded a westbound train in a reluctant and largely forgotten attempt to beat Bly around the world. Matthew Goodman tells their story in Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.

Goodman emphasizes both the differences and the surprising similarities between the brash investigative reporter from a Pennsylvania coal town and the southern lady who educated herself in a ruined plantation’s library. Alternating between their experiences, he contrasts their reactions to publicity, their fellow travelers (especially the British), and the new cultures they encounter. Even knowing that Bly will win, the race is a page-turner, complete with storms at sea, damaged ships, nearly missed connections, the kindness of strangers, and a hair-raising train ride through western mountains.

Although the race is engaging in its own right, Eighty Days is more than an adventure story. Goodman does not limit himself to a step-by-step narrative of his heroines’ travels. Instead he uses the race to illustrate the social impact of new modes of transportation, a growing popular press, and new opportunities for women. The result is a social history of America on the verge of modernity.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.