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Book Review

Not Out of Africa
How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History


by Mary Lefkowitz


New York: Basic Books, 1996

 

 

This is a book for teachers and scholars, written by a professor of classics at Wellesley College. I wish there were no need for such a book. It is to our national shame both that Afrocentrism has been allowed to flourish inside our schools, but outside the boundaries of the traditional standards of empirical research, and that there has been a need for Afrocentrism to develop in the first place.

Lefkowitz has defended the profession of teaching against those who would use the classroom as a pulpit for propaganda. And she has defended the standards of honesty and accuracy in the interpretation of history against the pseudohistorians who repress such values in favor of advancing political purposes. Watching her do this is like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel.

My overall emotional response to Lefkowitz's obliteration of the opponents of historical accuracy and honesty is not one of joy but of disgust and sadness. We have witnessed a similar debacle in the debates over creationism vs. evolution with scholars such as Stephen Jay Gould stripping away the veneer of argument from creationists. Gould can hardly debate and argue with his opponents, for they have all but obliterated traditional standards of evidence and argument. So too with Lefkowtiz and her opponents. They distort and twist facts and interpretations of facts at will. Many scholars have been afraid to take on the creationists when they have threatened science and scientific knowledge, methods and standards. Textbook authors still kowtow to religious fundamentalists and falsify science in text after text by ignoring evolution or treating it as "just a theory, like creationism." Likewise, few scholars have publicly stated their opposition to Afrocentrism. Lefkowitz stands out as a voice in the academic wilderness, defending traditional standards of inductive reasoning to the most probable conclusions. It is as if the voices of relativism, historicism and the fear of being labelled a "racist" have silenced the majority of scholars and teachers.

What is offensive about Afrocentrism is not that its advocates assert such things as that Socrates and Cleopatra were black Africans or that Aristotle stole his ideas from the library at Alexandria when he visited Egypt. What is offensive is not that they claim that the ancient Greeks took everything they are known for from the Egyptians, and that those Egyptians were black Africans. What is offensive is that these claims are put forth as articles of faith. Any challenge to them is seen as racist. What is offensive is that these claims are not based on scholarly research, evidence and argument from evidence. Nor are they based on a sincere desire to discover historical truth. They are based on unsubstantiated opinions of mythmakers and fiction writers. They are based on the possibility they are true. They are based on a desire for them to be true. They are based on a preconceived notion that white scholars have conspired from time immemorial to repress the truth that everything good about Western civilization came out of black Africa. They are based on the desire to give African-American children self-esteem and pride.

How did this happen? How did Afrocentrism develop unchecked until now? My opinion is that racism made Afrocentrism necessary. That doesn't justify or excuse the excesses of Afrocentrism, but it makes it understandable. Martin Bernal's Black Athena, to take just one example, is a work of propaganda, but it is pleasing propaganda to some ears. It is a voice saying to a people that you are noble, you come from greatness, you are great, your children are great. It is a voice saying that racism may have belittled you and demeaned you in its attempts to make you feel inferior. But you are the one who is superior. The racists are the ones who are inferior.

The choice is flight or fight; the Afrocentrists have chosen to fight. Have scholars been fair, accurate and honest in their treatment of people of color? No. Most of the sins of traditional scholarship may have been sins of omission, but they were grievous nonetheless. Have respected historians falsified facts, twisted evidence, or jumped to grand conclusions on the basis of mere possibilities, in order to serve some political purpose? Yes. It does little good to protest that these are not admirable qualities and should be avoided. Why would Afrocentrists follow in the footsteps of historians whose ideas of fairness, accuracy, honesty and integrity have traditionally ignored or belittled Africa and the descendants of Africans on other continents?

Do these facts about historians justify Afrocentrism? Of course not. Nothing justifies a Louis Farrakan proclaiming to millions of people that Napoleon's soldiers defaced the Egyptian sphinx because he was offended by its negroid features. You do not elevate your race by proclaiming as true something for which there is no evidence. By spreading such falsehoods and myths as historical truth, you breed contempt for white and black people alike. Your black followers will accept your claim as one more piece of evidence of white hatred for blacks; and many whites will see you as one more black racist blaming whites for all the problems of all the people of your race.

The modern Afrocentrists are not the first to claim Egypt as the source of Western civilization, though they're the first to claim that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans. Many ancient writers claimed Egypt as the source of Greek art, philosophy, science, etc. Lefkowitz names Herodotus, Strabo, Diadorus, Eudoxos, Aristobulus and others as tracing Greek cultural achievements to Egyptian sources. Most modern classicists are distrustful of these ancient accounts. Not only are many of their claims contradicted by evidence, but their methods of gathering data cast serious doubts upon the accuracy of the claims they make. Not to put too fine a point on it, these guys were sloppy and gullible to a fault. Modern classicists therefore do not take them at their word, but are cautious in evaluating their claims, attempting to check them against what is now known from later research. Modern Afrocentrists, on the other hand, commit two sins in the use of these ancient sources:they accept them uncritically and selectively. When the claims of these ancient writers fit their political agenda, they accept them at face value; when they don't, they ignore them.

Afrocentrists are not the only ones, however, to approach ancient stories and myths with an uncritical and selective eye. This approach is a favorite of the catastrophist pseudohistorian Immanuel Velikovsky. In fact, the Afrocentrists, Velikovsky and the ancient writers they are fond of using as sources for their many questionable claims, share in common the trait of uncritical and non-skeptical thinking. They are all fond of etymologies and words that they think would sound alike in ancient languages. And they use trivial similarities in words or practices or stories as scientific evidence of the "truths" they espouse. All seem extremely erudite with their parallels, etymologies, homophones and scholarly citations from sources of various cultures. All seem more interested in telling a good story and satisfying some political, religious or philosophical goal, than they are in checking out their stories against all the evidence. But the modern Afrocentrist and catastrophist have in common two things that their ancient sources did not: they put forth their claims as articles of faith and they believe that there is a conspiracy to suppress their notions.

It is not an accident that the students of Afrocentrism and catastrophism act more like disciples of a guru than students of a scientific teacher. They are on a mission, not a quest. And, as with many before them with noble goals, they believe the end justifies the means. Hence, it is nearly futile to engage them in debate. Scholars have difficulty debating opponents such as Afrocentrists, catastrophists, creationists or even anti-abortionists, because they expect their opponents to be civil and play by the rules of scholarly evidence. They mistakenly believe they have entered an arena where all sides are in quest of the same truth. What they are actually getting into is a street fight, where the goal is to defeat and humiliate your enemy. Their opponents don't follow traditional standards of evidence in their printed arguments and diatribes, so why expect them to be any different in a public debate? If you challenge their accuracy, they will question your integrity. If you ask for evidence, they will insult you. If you challenge their sources, you will be asked to prove the absolute certainty of your sources. You think the arena is an intellectual one where the combatants use wit and intelligence to score points, but while you are looking above your opponent's shoulders, he will kick you in the groin. You may have the evidence and the arguments on your side but your opponent doesn't care about the evidence and is not interested in your arguments. He already knows the truth.

Dr. Lefkowitz tried to debate Afrocentrism and seemed genuinely shaken that she wasn't treated like a scholar, that her opponents and their disciples are fond of poisoning the well and other ad hominem attacks and that they do not follow traditional scholarly standards of evidence. On a clip I saw of Lefkowitz debating Afrocentrists ("60 Minutes", Nov. 24, 1996), the African-American moderator asks her, "And how many times have you been to Africa, Professor Lefkowitz?" When she replies that she's never been to Africa, the moderator says triumphantly, "I thought so." The audience (I think it was Howard University, but I could be mistaken) indicated by its response that they, along with the moderator, believe that going to Africa is a necessary condition for speaking with authority on Afrocentrism. They also seemed to believe that being African-American and going to Egypt in itself gives one authority on Afrocentrism not available to whites.

Afrocentrists are already entrenched in our schools and universities. They are part of a growing, not diminishing, movement. Is there hope that the excesses of Afrocentrism might be overcome and the good that motivates its adherents will eventually drive Afrocentrists to a quest for historical truth? My view is that it will not be possible to curb the excesses and errors of Afrocentrism because its major proponents advocate an epistemology which rejects the notion that there is such a thing as "truth" or "accuracy" or "getting it right rather than wrong." White people have their truth and Afrocentrists have their truth. Fairness demands that each "truth" be heard. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it is: the creationists have maintained a similar kind of notion with respect to "theories." Fairness demands that the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism should be taught to our children. Theories aren't absolutely certain, so they're epistemologically equal. Truths aren't absolutely certain or objective, so they're epistemologically equal. The errors behind these beliefs are distinct, however. The creationists do not recognize that theories of different kinds are not in competition with one another: metaphysical theories such as creationism do not compete with scientific theories such as evolution. Furthermore, they are wrong in assuming that some theories are not better than others. The history of science could supply them with plenty of examples of theories replacing other theories because they are superior to the ones they replace.

Afrocentrists, on the other hand, seem to believe that all truth is subjective. Truth is whatever you want it to be. Since historians interpret facts differently, there is no such thing as historical accuracy. Any interpretation is as good as any other, epistemologically speaking. Morally, some views are superior to others. It is just arrogance and racism which gives greater value to white theories than to Afrocentrist theories. Whites interpret the same data differently from Afrocentrists because whites have a different agenda. Differences of opinion are not resolvable by scholarly argument over evidence, because all scholars are biased. To an Afrocentrist the fact that we do not know who Cleopatra's paternal grandmother was is sufficient evidence to justify believing that Cleopatra was a black African. The fact that she was a member of the Ptolemaic line, recognized by all as Macedonian, which for generations had practiced incestual marriages to keep the bloodline pure, is of little importance. It is politically important that young African-American children believe that they descend from Queens like Cleopatra.

One can admire Professor Lefkowitz for taking on this challenge, but I fear she has chosen an opponent she cannot fight with, much less defeat. If, however, some eminent African-American scholars enter the arena, not to kill the dragon but to tame it and direct it, she will have done much good not only for historical scholarship and academic integrity but for African-American scholarship and integrity as well.

The only complaint I have about the book is that it is very repetitious. Much of the text is based on essays previously published and little effort went into editing those essays so that the book would be more focused and streamlined. Also, there is a glitch in the introduction which states that the third chapter will deal with the issue of whether Greek philosophy was stolen from the Egyptians. That topic is also stated in the introduction to be the focus of chapter five, which it is. Chapter three, "Ancient Myths of Cultural Dependency," actually concerns a much broader topic: the way historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus, Strabo, Eudoxus and Aristobulus created the myth that the Greeks owed their entire culture to the Egyptians.

Chapter one describes how the author became involved in the debunking of Afrocentrism. At a lecture at Wellesley given by Dr. Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan, introduced as "a distinguished Egyptologist," she asked him what his evidence was for his claim that Aristotle had robbed the library at Alexandria and stolen his ideas from black Egyptians, when that library had not been built until after Aristotle's death. The Egyptologist said he resented the tone of her inquiry; several students called her a racist for asking such a question; and colleagues indicated that they were indifferent to the matter.

Chapter two is called "Myths of African Origins," and focuses on the myth that Egyptians invaded Greece during the second millennium B.C., a claim made in Civilization or Barbarism (1981) by the Sengelese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. The main source for Diop's claim is Diodorus of Sicily, who wrote in the first century B.C. Professor Lefkowitz is not the first scholar to question the reliability and accuracy of Diodorus. Diop's other sources are quickly disposed of by Lefkowitz and she moves on to Martin Bernal's Black Athena, who also treats myths and stories as history. She engages Bernal on his use of philological evidence and questions his etymologies and assumed homophones and misunderstood homographs of various Egyptian and Greek words. She also mentions that many of the basic claims of Afrocentrism originate in France in the eighteenth century, but that will be the subject matter for chapter four. In chapter two, she focuses on the notion that Socrates and Cleopatra were black Africans.

The main evidence for the claim that Socrates was black seems to be (a) he could have been black, (b) he is compared to a silenus by Plato, and the features of the silenus were associated with Ethiopians by the Greeks, and (c) there is a conspiracy to suppress the truth about black supremacy.

Chapter four is called "The Myth of the Egyptian Mystery System." Here the author shows the origin for the myth that an ancient Egyptian mystery religion was the source of Greek and Roman mystery religions. The idea was given its Afrocentrist push by George G.M. James in Stolen Legacy (1954). James's principal sources were Masonic, especially The Ancient Mysteries and Modern Masonry (1909) by the Rev. Charles H. Vail. The Masons in turn derived their misconceptions about Egyptian mystery and initiation rites from the eighteenth century work of fiction Sethos, a History or Biography, based on Unpublished Memoirs of Ancient Egypt (1731) by the Abbe Jean Terrason, a professor of Greek. Terrason had no access to Egyptian sources and he would be long dead before Egyptian hieroglyphics could be deciphered. But Terrason knew the Greek and Latin writers well. So he constructed an imaginary Egyptian religion based upon sources which described Greek and Latin rites as if they were Egyptian. Hence, one of the main sources for Afrocentric Egyptology turns out actually to be Greece and Rome. Thus, many of the claims that the modern world owes its origins to black Egyptians rather than to Greeks and Romans, turn out to mean that we owe a debt to Greece and Rome. The Greeks would have called this irony. I don't know what Afrocentrists call it.

Chapter five is devoted to James's Stolen Legacy, which Lefkowitz calls "perhaps the most influential Afrocentrist text." Terrason and Herodotus are fingered as the main sources for "The Myth of the Stolen Legacy." This chapter connects James to Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912) and Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), men who are considered heroes by many African-Americans. Philosophy teachers will find this chapter especially interesting, since one of the main themes of Stolen Legacy is that Greek philosophy was all stolen from the Egyptians.

The sixth and concluding chapter takes on such issues as Should Afrocentrism be taught? And what will its longterm effects be? Is pseudohistory to be admitted into our curricula? Does historicism mean we must accept the notion of "many truths"? Are there no limits to academic freedom? She might well have asked for directions to the Records Department of the Ministery of Truth where

"all history was a palimpset, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary" (George Orwell, 1984).

Robert T. Carroll
November 27, 1996


further reading

afrocentrism

pseudohistory

HarperCollins Page on Dr. Lefkowitz

Black Athena Revisited

Willful distortions of history by Mary R. Lefkowitz

The myth of a 'Stolen Legacy' by Mary R. Lefkowitz

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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