- Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History by Mary Lefkowitz
Basic Books, 222 pp, $24.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 465 09837 1
- Black Athena Revisited edited by Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers
North Carolina, 544 pp, £14.75, September 1996, ISBN 0 8078 2246 9
The term ‘Afrocentrism’ was invented relatively recently, by Molefi Asante, a professor in Philadelphia, who described it as a way to escape from Eurocentrism by looking at the world from an African viewpoint. Since then, the label ‘Afrocentrist’ has been attached to a number of intellectual positions, ranging from ‘All good things come from Africa’ or, as Leonard Jeffries, the outspoken professor of African Studies at City University in New York, put it, ‘Africa creates, Europe imitates,’ to the many who merely maintain that Africans, or peoples of African descent, have made significant contributions to world progress and that, for the past two centuries, these have been systematically played down by European and North American historians.
‘Afrocentrism’ has also become attached to a much older intellectual tradition among American blacks – and originally among white abolitionists, too – dating back to the early 19th century. This saw the culture of Ancient Egypt as both the ‘classical’ culture of Africa and the source of European civilisation. The close relationship between Egypt and the rest of Africa had earlier been set out by the radical French scholars, Charles François Dupuis and Constantine de Volney, at the end of the 18th century, while the idea of Egypt as the source of Greek and hence of Western civilisation was the conventional wisdom at that time, and had been proclaimed with particular fervour by the Freemasons during the Enlightenment.
After the 1820s, however, the founders of a new discipline – the ‘classics’ – attempted, with increasing success, to weaken the links between Greece and, first, Egypt and then the Levant. They replaced the traditional view that civilising influences on the Aegean basin had come from the South-East with a radically new one, based on local developments and migrations from the North by Indo-European speakers or ‘Aryans’. A number of black thinkers, however, refused to adopt the ‘Aryan Model’, which they saw as an exaltation of European and white supremacy. Scholars like W.E.B. Dubois and St Clair Drake worked to make the case against it, cautiously but effectively using the tools provided by white academia. Other speakers and writers stayed within the black community, cut off not only from academic disciplines and fashions but also from books, libraries and other resources. They were further isolated by preaching only to the converted. Thus it is not surprising that they should have made many trivial and some serious historical errors. It is such autodidacts who tend today to monopolise the label ‘Afrocentrist’.
Mary Lefkowitz’s concern, or obsession, with Afrocentrism emerged suddenly in 1991, when she wrote a review of my book Black Athena for the New Republic. As a professor of classics, she was appalled to discover that people were writing books and teaching that Greek civilisation had derived – or even been ‘stolen’ – from Egypt, and claiming that the Ancient Egyptians were black, as were Socrates and Cleopatra. The Afrocentrists maintained that Greece had been invaded from Africa in the middle of the second millennium, that Greek religion and the mysteries were based on Egyptian prototypes, and that what was called ‘Greek’ philosophy was in fact the secret wisdom of Egyptian Masonry. Lefkowitz could also see that these arguments were being supported by gross errors of fact, such as the idea that Aristotle had plundered the Egyptian library at Alexandria as a basis for his own writings, whereas the library had actually been founded by Macedonian Greeks at least thirty years after Aristotle’s death.
One might wonder why, knowing all this was fantasy, Lefkowitz bothered to confront it. She explains that it was because Afrocentric literature was being widely read and taught, not merely in some schools but also in universities. Furthermore, when she attempted to question Afrocentric speakers on her own campus at Wellesley, she had been rudely rebuffed. Even worse, when she appealed to colleagues for help, they often failed to support her. The ostensible basis for this reluctance was the relativist position that since all history is fiction, there is room for many different versions of it.
Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997
How curious! In Black Athena (1987 and 1991) Martin Bernal argues that the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians ‘massively’ influenced early Greek civilisation in religion, philosophy and science. In our books, Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited, we, along with 18 other ancient historians, archaeologists, Egyptologists and anthropologists, show that Bernal’s historical claims are not supported by the ancient evidence. Instead of asking an independent party to read our books and compare our arguments about the evidence to those of Bernal, the LRB invites Bernal to review our works (although Bernal already has published versions of the same review in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and the Ithaca Book Press). How surprising, then, to discover (LRB, 12 December 1996) that he objects to our criticisms of his claims. Why is Bernal afraid to let our books be reviewed by anyone other than himself, or his associates, Eric Cline and Jacques Berlinerblau? Perhaps after Bernal has published Volume III of Black Athena, he should simply write his own review of it for the LRB, and then send in letters of support to the editor. That would spare your readers any possible criticism of Bernal’s historical assertions or arguments. According to Jasper Griffin, in his review of our books, all of those assertions and arguments ‘have been refuted’.
Wellesley College, Massachusetts
Martin Bernal’s article contains the following claim: ‘Lefkowitz is basically right to deny such extreme Afrocentric claims as that Socrates and Cleopatra were black.’ Why only basically? The implication is that Lefkowitz’s denial, though it cannot be rejected outright, cannot be accepted outright either, but Bernal says nothing to justify this, and it is hard to see what he could say. This is not the first time that Professor Bernal has shown himself willing to give with one hand and try to withdraw with the other. In Black Athena, he denies that the concept of race in general has any utility, but immediately goes on to say that ‘Ancient Egyptian civilisation was fundamentally African,’ adding that ‘many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties … were made up of Pharaohs one can usefully call black.’ It is surely regrettable that Bernal says as little as he does about the criticisms put forward in the books under review, and as much as he does about the alleged agendas of the people responsible for them.
Vol. 19 No. 4 · 20 February 1997
Philip Hoy (Letters, 23 January) laments my failure to discuss the substance of Mary Lefkowitz’s criticism of my work as opposed to the ‘alleged agendas of the people responsible for them’. In my review I drew a sharp distinction between the contributions to Black Athena Revisited, which I see as academically conservative, and the intentions of the editors, who combine this with undoubted political conservatism. It was impossible to respond to the many substantive criticisms made of my work in a review of limited length, indeed the editors rightly cut out a number of my attempts to do so. In fact, I have published detailed responses to all of the previously published criticisms in scholarly journals.
In their letter Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers blame me for publishing various versions of the same review elsewhere. Their charge is correct. I did this because I did not think that many readers of the LRB would read the Ithaca Book Press, which is the only place I reviewed Black Athena Revisited. Even more to the point, 90 per cent of Not Out of Africa and 70 per cent of Black Athena Revisited are recycled from previously published material. They then ask: ‘Why is Bernal afraid to let our books be reviewed by anyone other than himself and his associates?’ This is endowing me with extraordinary powers. I have no control of or even influence with the journals wishing to review Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited.
What Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers are unable to accept is that this is not a struggle between good and evil, or truth and lies, but an academic debate in which some scholars fall on one side and others on the other.
Martin Bernal (LRB, 12 December 1996) contends that ‘the idea of Egypt as the source of Greek and hence of Western civilisation was the conventional wisdom’ during the late 18th century; elsewhere he has claimed that prior to the 19th century this so-called ‘Ancient Model’ had always been the conventional wisdom, going back, as its name implies, to ancient Greece itself. In one of my contributions to Black Athena Revisited I present evidence showing that, beginning with the Greeks themselves, there never was a single monolithic model of ancient history; in the 18th century, among other leading thinkers, the distinguished archaeologist and antiquarian Bernard de Montfaucon, as we1l as Voltaire and Diderot, were intensely sceptical about ‘Egyptian wisdom’. And such scepticism did not spring from racist prejudice against the Egyptians, since, as Bernal would agree, the Egyptians were not thought of as black at this time.
Bernal might continue to argue that the choice of a model for ancient history by later historians was influenced by racist considerations if he could convict any such historians of racism, of believing the Egyptians to have been black and of adducing no authentic scholarly reasons for rejecting the Ancient Model. Bernal has, in fact, singled out one such later historian, the German K.O. Müller (1797-1840), as the culprit primarily responsible for overthrowing the Ancient Model. Müller is accused by Bernal, if not of racism, then of anti-semitism, and also of neglecting the field of ancient Egyptian history, including the newly deciphered hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, each of these charges against Müller has now been shown to be a travesty of the truth.
Although I have never done this before, I feel compelled now to state certain facts about myself: in my recent research I have received no financial support from any individual or organisation; I am not tainted by a classical education; my political friends and foes all agree that my political convictions are left-tending (sort of like the LRB).
New Britain, Connecticut
Vol. 19 No. 6 · 20 March 1997
In a recent letter (Letters, 20 February) Martin Bernal states that 90 per cent of my book Not Out of Africa is ‘recycled from previously published material’. This claim offers yet another illustration (as if more were needed) of Professor Bernal’s scholarly objectivity and balance. The ‘recycled’ material I know about amounts to some 10 per cent of the total.
Wellesley College, Massachusetts