One of the more controversial debates now going on in intellectual circles is over Afrocentrism, a movement that argues that traditional history has undervalued the contributions of Black Africa to ancient Greek and Western thought. At the center of the debate are Afrocentrists and those attacking them, most recently Mary Lefkowitz, who wrote “Not Out of Africa.”
Recently Lefkowitz’s publisher, New Republic Books, sponsored a debate between her and a leading Afrocentrist, Martin Bernal, author of “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Culture.”
Washington — The crowd began arriving early, nearly an hour before Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz were to take the stage at George Washington University. They came in all colors, ages, backgrounds. Some wore kente and sported dreadlocks, while others came buttoned-down double-breasted, Eddie Bauered, lugging backpacks or brief cases. One quartet spoke German.
But all were drawn by a common interest, one that for many was about more than whether Black Egypt inspired the ancient Greeks. It was about much more, argued Bernal, the grizzled-bearded government scholar at Cornell University and author of “Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.” It was about finally correcting past wrongs.
At the top of the debate, moderator and GW professor Linda Solomon told the audience, “The questions of history happen in many layers. How do we know? How can we be sure we know?”
“This is a political debate in one form or another because we are here,” admitted New Republic editor James Woods, whose publication co-sponsored the event. “But this is also an academic debate.”
It also was yet another debate on Black contributions to history devoid of a Black scholarly point of view.
Because race matters and we live in a racist country it is an important issue,” Bernal said. “Africans are frequently told `you have no civilization.’ I agree that race was less important for Greeks, but it is important for us. To deny that has a bad impact on American society today.”
Wellesley College humanities professor Lefkowitz, sitting erect and exact in blue blazer and smart multicolored scarf, countered that Bernal and contemporaries were engaged in “feel good” history. “If we are trying to address modern problems, we are not talking history.”
“There is a feel good history for whites too,” Bernal shot back. “Whites were separate and superior,” and the telling of Grecian history is no more than an attempt to have a pure white cultural origin, he said.
The debate between two of the better-known scholars in the Afrocentric wars was a first, and continued what has become one of the hottest controversies in academia. More than 500 filled the auditorium, and several more watched the event via closed-circuit television. For many involved in the controversy, at stake is more than a mere knowledge of events. Ultimately the debate is about identity, about culture, about what society’s most learned believe to be right, decent and just, and how such knowledge affects the way people treat one another. In one way or another, both Lefkowitz and Bernal said that.
“In this whole discussion, there has been an emphasis on the modern world. America is a racist society and there have been many crimes,” Lefkowitz said, then pleaded, “We have to do what we can to stop what has happened, but I don’t believe that it will help to introduce this agenda. Lessening European cultural arrogance is a good thing, but can’t we do it without re-writing history altogether?”
Throughout the evening Lefkowitz argued that the issue went beyond specific critiques of Bernal’s and other books. “It’s not about race,” she offered, echoing the rallying cry from many within her camp. “It is not an attack on Afrocentrism, if that means acknowledging the accomplishments of Blacks. I do not seek to deprive Africans of their rightful heritage. But Africans do not need Greece to have a rich heritage.”
But there are consequences to how a history is delivered, and maybe the time has come for more drastic changes than many care for, Bernal said. “We are not dealing with unwarranted facts. We cannot look at Greece without looking at the whole of the Mediterranean, and the oldest society in that region is Egypt,” he said. “It could be a very exciting time for the classics. The interaction of the cultures can be extremely fruitful.”
Responding to criticism that much of the research of Afrocentric scholars has been discredited, Bernal replied, “The orthodox classics have been full of mistakes for a long time. There are mistakes, but they are on both sides.”
Lefkowitz said that the controversy over Greek origins has had an effect on what she now says to students in the classroom. “I have changed what I teach over the years and I have included more Egyptian texts,” she said. “In this case the political discussion has been helpful.”
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