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.

Lefkowitz believes, however, that a more significant reason why her colleagues let her down was the fear of being labelled as racist. She thinks that Afrocentrists are purely concerned with the ‘feel-good’ factor and with boosting the low self-esteem of African-Americans. Although she has some respect for this motive, she denies it has any place in the writing and teaching of history, which she maintains must always remain objective. Thus, she has felt obliged to stand up and be counted against what she sees as the Afrocentrist assault on the basic principles of education: respect for the facts, logical argument and open debate.

For this reason, she has published a series of overlapping articles denouncing these Afrocentrist ‘myths’. Not Out of Africa is a compilation of these pieces, along with some added material and new arguments. The blurb on the back of the book proclaims it to be ‘a thoughtful inquiry’, ‘detailed, carefully researched and fully documented’. In fact, this is not an argument conducted with the Afrocentrists, but an attempt to finish them off. Lefkowitz suffers from none of the material difficulties that afflict the Afrocentrists themselves, but this has not stopped her from making many factual mistakes. Not all of these are trivial. For instance, she writes that ‘since the founding of this country, Ancient Greece has been intimately connected with the ideals of democracy.’ In fact, the source she cites here states the precise opposite: that the Founding Fathers were so terrified of the image of Athens that they did not dare to use the word ‘democracy’ and were forced to accept the Roman term ‘republic’. The use of ‘democracy’ and ‘democrat’ only became possible with the triumph of philhellenism in the 1820s.

Lefkowitz’s sloppiness in this instance might seem inconsequential, but it serves an important purpose. It suggests that one cannot have freedom or democracy without having also a respectful awareness of Ancient Greece, and that we lose that reverence at our peril. Therefore, she implies, the Afrocentrists are enemies of freedom. This is untenable even in the Western tradition. The English ‘Revolution’ of the 17th century, for example, relied for its historical precedents on the anti-royalist passages of the Bible and on myths of Saxon freedom, while the American and French Revolutions took Republican Rome as a model. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, since the 1820s, images of Ancient Greece, and of Athens in particular, have usually served a progressive function, even though antebellum Southern writers used them to demonstrate the political and cultural benefits of slavery. And today, American conservatives, with whom Mary Lefkowitz is intimately connected, are using images of Ancient Greece in support of their own political agenda.

One reason she has made so many slips is that the book was obviously cobbled together in a hurry. This is less significant, however, than two other characteristics which, interestingly, Lefkowitz shares with the extreme Afro-centrists. The first is her conviction that she possesses a general truth that allows her to be cavalier over specifics. The second is that she and her allies feel besieged and obliged therefore on occasion to abandon the niceties of academic debate. Her general truth, as set out in Not Out of Africa, is that Greece did not derive any significant part of its civilisation from Egypt. In maintaining this, she not only flies in the face of Greek and Roman tradition but goes further than most of her classicist colleagues.

She has found powerful helpers on the far right. In her Preface she thanks the Bradley and John M. Olin Foundations for their grants. These bodies are among the most generous contributors to right-wing organisations such as the National Review, the Heritage Foundation and the National Association of Scholars. Lefkowitz sits on the advisory board of the last and plays an active role on its journal, Academic Questions. The concern of these organisations and journals is to turn back what their members and contributors see as the tides of liberalism that have engulfed not only American society but also education and the highbrow media.

The way these conservatives see themselves echoes the sense of isolation and persecution experienced by many black Afrocentrists. There is a fundamental difference, however: the Afrocentrists really do inhabit a social and academic ghetto, while Lefkowitz and her allies, like the paranoid anti-Communists of the Fifties, inhabit one that is largely imaginary. Unlike the black scholars – or even white liberals – the conservatives are amply funded and have access to many prestigious journals. The articles that make up Not Out of Africa first appeared in the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, Partisan Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Academic Questions.

Lefkowitz admits that she may have biases but argues that this is very different from ‘consciously setting out to achieve a particular political goal’. Ten years ago, she would have been able to avoid any charge of bias, because she, and those who think like her, held hegemonic power within their disciplines. This had been achieved by the 19th-century Northern European scholars who did have the explicit ideological and political aim of denying European indebtedness to Africans and ‘Semites’. During the last decade, however, the previously unmarked ‘origins of Ancient Greece’ have increasingly been thought of as the ideologically constructed ‘Aryan Model of Greek origins’ and the re-establishment of the status quo in classics has become one part of the conservative political aim of overturning multiculturalism.

Lefkowitz is basically right to deny such extreme Afrocentric claims as that Socrates and Cleopatra were black. But she should not treat the Afrocentrists as beyond the pale because they maintain that the Ancient Egyptians had a system of initiations, universities and a philosophical tradition and that these influenced subsequent Greek rituals and philosophy. There is no doubt that – as she claims – Afrocentrist ideas about these aspects of Egyptian culture were shaped by the Masonic tradition, which in turn drew on 18th-century novels. These novels themselves, however, were erudite elaborations of the conventional wisdom in the classical world. Many, if not most, Egyptologists now accept that there were initiations of the living in Ancient Egypt and that these influenced initiations in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Furthermore, a strong and articulate minority of 20th-century classicists has maintained that there were Egyptian influences on the Eleusinian mysteries from the beginning. And although there is considerable debate as to what form they took, it is also generally accepted that centres of learning were attached to temples in late pharaonic Egypt. ‘Philosophy’ is a slippery concept but taken in the sense of ‘wonder, or speculation on truth and reality’, there is every reason to suppose it was present in Ancient Egypt. Indeed, it was conventional wisdom among Ancient Greeks and Romans that philosophy had derived from Egypt. In general, the Afrocentrists are tapping into a tradition of great antiquity maintained by a number of non-Greeks, which, in the areas of religion and science, appears to have some validity. On all these topics, an argument with the Afrocentrists could have had great value, but Not Out of Africa, which the conservative columnist George Will has described approvingly as a ‘howitzer aimed at a hamster’, merely exacerbates the already frightening racial tensions in the US.

Mary Lefkowitz has written the Introduction and her colleague Guy Rogers the Conclusion to Black Athena Revisited, an attractively produced book made up of 18 essays by scholars, many distinguished, others less well known. It is disconcerting but flattering to have a large book devoted to attacking your own work. I knew nothing about the project until an uncomfortable contributor told me that Lefkowitz was compiling a book on Black Athena. I immediately e-mailed her, asking to see the essays so that I could prepare a reply. She informed me that they ‘had decided not to have a response’ from me. When I suggested that this was unusual, she told me it was because most of the pieces had already appeared, and I had published responses to them. ‘Were these to be included?’ No, they had decided against. The most plausible explanation for my exclusion is that this volume was compiled in the same spirit as Not Out of Africa, to close down discussion rather than open it up.

The editors’ determination is revealed in the way they exaggerate or distort my views to fit their hostile image. For example, the first section of the Introduction has the heading, ‘Are Ancient Historians Racist?’ This suggests that I have made such a charge. In fact, as I have constantly reiterated, I believe that classicists and ancient historians are no more racist than the rest of us, but that they are working within a model established in the 19th century by men who undoubtedly were both racist and anti-semitic. In general, the editors maintain that I demand a return to the ‘Ancient Model’ of Greek origins rather than to what I have called the ‘Revised Ancient Model’. This latter agrees with the ancient view that Egyptians and Phoenicians played central roles in the formation of Greek civilisation but accepts the 19th-century identification of Greek as a fundamentally Indo-European language. This, in turn, indicates that there were substantial early cultural influences on the Aegean basin from the North. When Lefkowitz concedes the revisions, she describes it as ‘the “Ancient Model” (really the “African Model”)’. The desire to portray me as an Afrocentrist and eliminate the Asiatic aspect of my work is also reflected in Guy Rogers’s final article, which accuses me of neglecting Mesopotamian civilisation.

In fact, I stress the south-west Asian character of the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt, whose settlement in parts of Greece is the only ‘invasion’ from the South-East that I am inclined to accept. (I have also published a book on the south-west Asian origins of the Greek alphabet, which hardly mentions Egypt.) In an article entitled ‘Phoenician Politics and Egyptian Justice in Ancient Greece’, I emphasised that Phoenician city states, with deep roots in south-west Asian social structures, and not those of pharaonic Egypt, provided the prototypes for the Greek poleis. Tony Martin, an Afrocentrist, was far closer to the mark than Lefkowitz and Rogers, when he wrote: ‘If any of Bernal’s Afrocentric followers had slowed down a bit in their speed-reading of Black Athena, they would have noticed that he was as much or more concerned with a “Semitic” origin for Greek civilisation as for [sic] African influence over Greece.’

The editors of Black Athena Revisited draw a distinction between what they see as the acclaim Black Athena has received from outside – which they link to the iconoclasm of the culture wars – and the scepticism of scholars within the relevant disciplines. There is something to this, and it raises the difficult but interesting question of who should choose between competing historical interpretations and on what bases: the specialists, who tend to know more but have a vested interest in the status quo, or the ‘cultivated lay public’, who have less knowledge but equal intelligence, and greater objectivity.

To my mind the surprising aspect of the reaction to Black Athena was not that the majority of experts disliked a book by an outsider that challenged many of their fundamental beliefs, but that a minority generally agreed with the criticisms contained in it and a larger number of classicists and other specialists, while disagreeing with my views, welcomed the debates the book stimulated. By my estimate, nine or ten of the 30 reviews of Black Athena written in English by experts in the Ancient Mediterranean were generally sympathetic towards it. None of these was chosen for this book.

Black Athena has been taken up by Afrocentrists and radical relativists, who have claimed that it provides far greater support for their ideas than it really does. Nevertheless, while not socially determined, scholarship is socially embedded. And so I believe that the discipline of classics, founded as it was in a time of European expansionism, racism and growing anti-semitism has been ‘political’ from its beginnings. Such a view is intolerable to American cultural conservatives because it undercuts their doctrine that, before it was polluted by left-wing radicalism in the Sixties, there was a pure, objective form of scholarship.