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A Tenure Not Soon Forgotten

After 34 years on the Wellesley College faculty, Dr. Tony Martin’s teachings have at times been controversial, but his mentoring of Black women is what his students will remember most.

Wellesley, Mass.
Scan references to Dr. Tony Martin in newspaper databases, and you would think the Africana studies professor has devoted his long academic career at Wellesley College solely to the Jewish role in the African slave trade.

You would get only a clue or two that Martin, a historian who retires this spring after 34 years at the small all-female school outside Boston, is a prolific scholar of Marcus Garvey. You would have no idea that Garvey was the subject not only of Martin’s doctoral dissertation at Michigan State University, but also nine of the dozen books he has written or edited.

What you find instead are articles since the early 1990s about a controversy over Martin assigning his students readings from a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews ,Vol. 1. There followed denunciations from national Jewish organizations, clashes between Martin and Wellesley classics professor Mary Lefkowitz, his charge that the college unfairly denied him a merit raise and two unsuccessful libel suits he filed, one against Lefkowitz, who is Jewish and retired in 2005.

But Martin mentions none of that when asked about his legacy.

“I’d like to be remembered for my Garvey work,” replies Martin, 65, who plans to move back to his native Trinidad after the  spring semester.

Academic databases do reflect his scholarship on Garvey. His latest book is a biography of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist’s widow. Only one of his books, The Jewish Onslaught, self-published in 1993, concerns the slave trade controversy that raged in newspapers.

“I think that’s a reflection of the power of the Jewish lobby that arrayed itself against me,” Martin says. “They consider that an anti-Semitic statement when you say they are powerfully positioned in the media, but this kind of thing, I think, proves it.”

A decade later, Martin, an Afrocentrist brimming with West Indian pride, is not backing down. He says he has no regrets about his response, wishing only that newspapers had told his side of the story more fully and accurately.

“I kind of almost stumbled into all of this,” he says, about the controversy. Martin says he had not known that The Boston Globe and Harvard University’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates, writing in the New York Times, condemned the Nation of Islam book before he added it in 1992 to a Black studies course he had taught for 20 years. Martin says he did “a normal thing that all professors do” in introducing material reflecting new information.

I had just discovered that Jews had a role in the slave trade, so I added a couple of chapters from this book,” he says. “This was about less than one day’s worth of readings in a whole semester course.”

Martin calls the assignment a “nonissue” that was overblown in the media. The debate centered on the extent of the Jewish role in the Atlantic slave trade, an involvement that some Jewish scholars had denied existed at all. The scholarly distinction he makes now was blurred in the media: He says that role was “major” in Brazil and Suriname, but only “important” in the United States and several Caribbean islands.

“It was certainly important enough to be the subject of historical inquiry,” he says.

Lefkowitz, who says Martin doesn’t speak to her, gives a balanced response when asked about his impact on the suburban campus, where he spent nearly all his teaching career.

“Like everything else, it’s complicated because he did a certain amount of good and harm,” says Lefkowitz, who taught at Wellesley for 46 years.

One source of harm, she suggests, was a tendency to “preach instead of teach,” particularly about what she describes as an inaccurate account of the Egyptian role in shaping the civilization of ancient Greece, her academic specialty.

Lefkowitz so disagreed with Martin’s Afrocentric history lessons that she wrote two books, both published in 1996, disputing the extent of Egyptian influence on the philosophy, religion and science of ancient Greece and Rome.

“I don’t think the evidence is there for the Afrocentric interpretation of ancient history,” she says. “It’s just a misunderstanding, a myth — not history.”

More than using the Nation of Islam book in his class, Lefkowitz criticizes Martin’s response to the controversy, especially his writing of The Jewish Onslaught, which she describes as “open anti-Semitism.”

“I know he felt he was being attacked by Jews, but he really wasn’t,” she says. “Don’t assume people who disagree with you are necessarily doing it out of racism.”

Lefkowitz says the book and its “ad hominem attacks” on Dr. Selwyn Cudjoe, a fellow Trinidadian on the Wellesley faculty, left Martin isolated on campus. He denounced Cudjoe, then chairman of the Black studies department, as one of the “Uncle Toms” who had criticized his teachings about Jews and the slave trade. Cudjoe didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about Martin’s legacy.

As for the good Martin has done at Wellesley, Lefkowitz praises his mentoring of many of the college’s Black students. “He made a significant difference for them,” she says.

Two former students who chose Martin as their advisor credit him with shaping their racial identity and furthering their intellectual growth.

“He has literally shaped and impacted Black women as intellectuals for the past 35 years,” says Dr. LaTrese Adkins, an adjunct professor of history at Southern Methodist University, who graduated from Wellesley in 1993.

Adkins says Martin helped develop her “Black consciousness” and sense of racial integrity.

“He had to go through a lot, decade after decade” at Wellesley, she says. “And yet, he had to stay true to what he believes in. He showed me how to do that.”

Adkins so identified with Martin that she went to Michigan State University to get her doctorate, just as he had done.

Azizah Yasin, a member of the class of 1994 who is now a lawyer in suburban Quincy, Mass., says she can’t even remember how many of Martin’s classes she took as an undergraduate.

“When I took my first class from him, it opened a magic doorway to things I didn’t know about myself and my people,” she says.

“He was a personal favorite of mine because the way he taught enriched my soul. I think he is the most powerful and influential male role model in my life.”

Both Adkins and Yasin describe Martin’s teaching style differently than Lefkowitz does.

“He would say to check what he said,” Yasin recalls. “He taught history from the perspective of truth and fact.”

Adkins was in the class that read parts of the Nation of Islam book.

“We didn’t spend more than a week or two weeks on that particular subtopic,” she says. “It was intriguing and fascinating because we had never looked at the particular trade in Africans of one particular ethnic group. It was not accusatory of the Jewish faith or people.”

Looking back on his tenure at Wellesley, Martin says his friendships with students have been deeper and richer than his faculty peers.

“I’ve never been much a part of the broader scene at Wellesley.

I never socialized much with Wellesley faculty,” he says. “Most of the lifelong friends I’ve made at Wellesley were students, rather than faculty.”

After he retires on June 30 and moves to Trinidad, Martin says he will live in the hills above the capital of Port of Spain with his wife, Paloma Mohamed, and infant son, Shabaka, who is named for a pharaoh who ruled over Egypt and Nubia. Mohamed is a noted playwright and poet in her native Guyana. It is his first marriage.

Martin intends to give lectures around the world on Garvey, as he has for years, and also research and write books.

He is completing biographies of two prominent 20th-century Trinidadian women, Audrey Jeffers and Kathleen Davis, both icons in the Caribbean nation. Jeffers founded a women’s group in 1921 that provided social services. Davis had a radio program for decades that discovered children with musical and theatrical talent.

Martin is also completing a book on Jewish refugees from Europe to Trinidad in the 1930s and early 1940s. The unrepentant target of Jewish condemnation says he sees no irony in his plan to write about the refugees from the Holocaust. He says he came across the subject in the 1980s while scouring Trinidadian newspapers for articles about Jeffers. That was years before the controversy about Jews and the slave trade.

–Kenneth J. Cooper

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