Whose Greece?

Martin Bernal

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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