Martin Gardiner Bernal, Professor Emeritus of Government and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, died on June 9, 2013 in Cambridge, England.
The basic outline of Martin Bernal's life is relatively straightforward. The son of writer Margaret Gardiner and the radical scientist, J. D. Bernal, Martin Bernal was born in London on March 10, 1937. He attended a progressive, coeducational boarding school, Dartington Hall School in Devon, where he made many lifelong friends. Before attending Kings College, Cambridge University to study Mandarin Chinese, he served two years in the Royal Air Force. At Kings he met and married Judy Pace with whom he had three children, Sophie, William, and Paul. The oldest, Sophie, was born in Berkeley, California, one of the two American universities where Martin studied as part of his Harkness Fellowship which he received as a graduate student at Cambridge University (the other university was Harvard). After completing his Ph.D., Martin remained at Kings as a fellow. Cornell University contacted him in 1972, however, and he was lured away from one university to another. Cornell's offer came at an opportune time as his first marriage had ended. He received a flexible appointment at Cornell which enabled him to live in his Cambridge, England house half the year in order to be with his three young children. In 1977 he married Leslie Miller, a faculty member at Wells College who had a young son, Adam. They continued a trans-Atlantic lifestyle, living in Aurora or Ithaca during the academic year and Cambridge, England, during the summers. Together they had a child, Patrick, who made the fifth in this combined family.
Interspersed with these basic life events, Martin Bernal lived and studied in China; traveled to and wrote about Vietnam during the war; and worked on a family trust in Malawi, southern Africa. In fact, his life and travels were so extensive that he organized his memoirs (Geography of a Life) by place. Everywhere he went he learned the language, so that he knew with greater or less fluency Mandarin Chinese, French, Chichewa (a Bantu language), Vietnamese, Japanese, Hebrew, Greek, various ancient Egyptian languages, Spanish, and German, among others. Martin loved learning languages. He compared his feelings of being in a language lab to a child in a candy store.
While Martin's publications were originally on Chinese socialism and Vietnamese history and politics, in the mid-1970s he changed his focus dramatically to the ancient Mediterranean world. The first volume of his seminal and controversial work, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, was published in 1987. Two more volumes followed, as well as a book written in response to his critics. Black Athena has been translated into many languages and the subject of scholarly conferences, a film, and television and radio programs. Martin felt very grateful to Cornell's Department of Government which tolerated his fundamental shift in scholarly focus and allowed him to teach new courses, such as the politics of scholarship.
Many friends, family members, and colleagues will remember Martin for his wonderful sense of humor and wide-ranging knowledge, not only of history and political events but a surprising amount of popular culture, too. He enjoyed watching sitcoms on television and could cite many episodes of "Seinfeld" and "Friends." Folk music was important to Martin. Although not trained formally in music, he loved singing, sometimes to the embarrassment of his children, and knew an incredible number of verses of Irish, Scottish, English, and American folk songs. Martin was passionate about politics and had strong liberal views about U.S. domestic and foreign policy and signed many petitions and joined anti-war marches. Friends of many years described Martin as "brilliant, charming, lively, unpredictable, slightly wicked, but loving and fundamentally humane . . . one of the finest people we've ever known."
Martin will be greatly missed by his large family who played such a major role in his life—his wife, Leslie; his daughter, Sophie and her husband, Mark and their two children, Charlotte and Ben; his son William and his partner Vanessa and their two children, Kate and Danny; his son Paul and his wife, Corina, and their daughter, Alice; his step-son, Adam, his wife Shelley, and their two children, Leo and Zoe; and his son, Patrick, his wife, Bliss, and their two children, Jude and Clive. Martin is also survived by his half-sister, Jane, her husband, Nigel, and their son, Sam.
A funeral is being held on June 19th in Cambridge, England, to be followed in the autumn by memorial services on each side of the Atlantic.
Published by Ithaca Journal on Jun. 13, 2013.