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Reading race in antiquity: the many fallacies of Mary Lefkowitz

Future historians will write that no intellectual idea has been so maligned in the 20th century as Afrocentric theory, the idea that African people are agents and actors in history.

The recent book by Wellesley professor Mary Lefkowitz, “Not Out of Africa,” continues the unfortunate tradition of failing to question the dominant mythologies of race in the intellectual history of the West by diverting attention to marginal issues.

Rather than a serious discussion of the ideas circulating in the Afrocentric literature or in the classrooms, Lefkowitz has offered the public a pablum history which ignores the substantial evidence of African influence on Europe.

Conservative writers have felt a tremendous need to respond in the most vigorous fashion with their applause to shore up their racial mythologies. And now columnists George Will and Roger Kimball have seen fit to bless Lefkowitz’ book as a sort of definitive moment in intellectual history. It is no such moment.

Anti-African Bias

It is a racial argument clearly fast backpedaling. What it indicates is that we have gone full circle from the Hegelian “Let us forget Africa” to a late 20th-century attack on African scholarship by declaring that major influences on Greece were not out of Africa. And as such, it will simply confirm the inability of some scholars to get beyond the imposition of their particularism of Europe. No one can remove the gifts of Europe, nor should that ever be the aim of scholarship. But Europe cannot impose itself as some universal culture that developed full-blown out of nothing.

The fanfare given “Not Out of Africa” demonstrates a glee, although misinformed, of those who feel some sense of relief that a white scholar has taken on the Afrocentrists — a kind of “white hope” idea. This stems, as I believe George Will has shown in his “Newsweek” essay on the subject, from what is viewed as white salvation from the irrationality of Afrocentrists. It originates in a historical anti-African bias. Roger Kimball nearly gloated in the “Wall St. Journal” that readers would “savor Lefkowitz’ definitive dissection of Afrocentrism.” Contrary to any definitive dissection of Afrocentrism, what Lefkowitz has offered is a definitive exposure of the principal assumptions of a racial structure of classical knowledge.

Lefkowitz is conversant with many Greek sources but, as she admits, this is the first time that she has ventured into these waters. This is unfortunate because she has created a false security among those who believe that Greece sprang like a miracle, unborn and untaught.

Walking a Tightrope

The book is badly written and terribly redundant, as if she is in a hurry to enlarge a relatively poor argument. How may times can you say that George G. M. James should not have used the term “stolen legacy” when he claimed that the Africans influenced the Greeks? James certainly had just as much rhetorical justification as Lefkowitz, who probably chose the unsubtle title “Not Out of Africa” for the same reason as James called his book “Stolen Legacy.”

Ruling classes always seek to promote and to maintain their ruling mythologies. Lefkowitz’ passion in trying to walk a tightrope between support of the false mythology of a Greek miracle and the facts of Egyptian influence on the early Greeks is telling. She seeks to minimize the role Egypt played in civilizing Greece by claiming that only in art and architecture was there real influence. This flies in the face of the ancient observers and beneficiaries of the largesse of the Africans.

Lefkowitz’ work has demonstrated the tremendous power of a false idea, especially when it is advanced in the halls of the academy. I have come to believe that it is a part of a larger falsification that encompasses the various right-wing ideologies that parade as truth. They are rooted in the same dogma: Reason is the gift of the Greeks; the Greeks are Europeans; Europeans are white; white people gave the world reason and philosophy. This is not only a bad idea, it is a false idea. It is a bad idea because it preaches a European triumphalism and it is a false idea because the historical record is contrary.

Four Flaws

Tragically, the idea that Europeans have some different intellectual or scientific ability is accepted doctrine and some scholars will go to any length to try to uphold it. Usually, as Lefkowitz does, they commit four fundamental flaws:

1. They will attack insignificant or trivial issues to obscure the main points.

Lefkowitz has three main axes to grind in her book. The first is that a student told her that she believed Socrates was Black. The second is the allegation that the Greek gods came from Africa, which she attributes to Martin Bernal, the author of “Black Athena,” and to Cheikh Anta Diop, the author of “The African Origin of Civilization.” The third is that freemasonry is the source of James’ claim, in his book “Stolen Legacy,” that the Greeks got many of their major ideas from the Egyptians.

The main point made by Afrocentrists is that Egypt was anterior to Greece, that Greece owes a substantial debt to Egypt and that Egypt should be considered a major contributor to our current knowledge. I think I can say without a doubt that Afrocentrists do not spend time arguing that either Socrates or Cleopatra were Black. I have never seen these ideas written by an Afrocentrist, nor have I heard them discussed in any Afrocentric intellectual forums. Lefkowitz provides us with a hearsay incident which she probably reports accurately. It is not an Afrocentric argument.

2. They will make assertions and offer their own interpretations as evidence.

Lefkowitz makes a statement on page one of her book that “In American universities today, not everyone knows what extreme Afrocentrists are doing in their classrooms. Or even if they do know, they choose not to ask questions.” We are off to a bad start. Who are these extreme Afrocentrists? She does not provide us with one example of something that an extreme Afrocentrist is teaching in a classroom. Not one. But already the reader is inclined to believe that something exists where nothing exists. No matter how passionate, assertion is not evidence.

What Afrocentrists do teach is that you cannot begin the discussion of world history with the Greeks. Creating clouds of suspicion about scholarly colleagues in order to support a racial mythology developed over the past centuries to accompany European enslavement of Africans, imperialism and exploitation will not dissipate the fact of Greece’s debt to Africa.

3. They undermine writers they previously supported in order to maintain the fiction of a Greek miracle.

Lefkowitz and others who once considered Herodotus to be the Father of History now find fault with Herodotus because, as Afrocentrists read Book Two of “Histories,” we find that Herodotus glorifies the achievements of Egypt in relationship to Greece. But Herodotus is not the only ancient Greek writer to be dismissed by classicists who accept what Bernal rightly calls an “Aryan” interpretation of the ancient world.

Aristotle reported that the Egyptians gave to the world the study of geometry and mathematics — and the Aryanists argue that Aristotle made mistakes in what he observed. Lefkowitz carries the denial of the ancient Greeks to a new level by saying, essentially, that we cannot trust Homer, Diogenes, Plutarch or Strabo. Her position is that Strabo, like Herodotus, depended too much on what the Egyptian priests told him. Every Greek who wrote on the overwhelming impact of Egypt (Africa) on Greece (Europe) is discredited or set up to be discredited by the Aryanists.

The abandonment of the Greek authors rests on the belief that these ancient Greek writers cannot be counted upon to support the theories of white supremacy.

4. They will announce both sides of an issue are correct, then move to uphold only the side that supports European triumphalism.

Lefkowitz could have admitted that dynastic Egypt was the source of much of Greek knowledge. Rather, she claims that the only real impact of Egypt on Greece was in art and architecture. This is to state an obvious fact in order to obscure the deeper influences in science, astronomy, geometry, literature, religion, mathematics, law, government, music, medicine and philosophy.

Lefkowitz’ major points are not only flawed but her reasoning is faulty and cannot be sustained by any inquiry into the Greek or Egyptian languages — or into ancient history. She wonders why the Afrocentric perspective is plausible to so many intelligent people. Clearly, it is plausible to intelligent people because they do not believe that there was some unique brand of intelligence that struck the Greeks and created a Greek miracle, willy-nilly, without contact with the civilized world. In most cases, knowledge builds upon knowledge. In the case of the ancient Greeks, they tell us that they built upon the Egyptians. Should we believe them or should we believe the modern Aryanist interpreters who want to dismiss the ancient Greek observers?

In the end I have asked myself, what is Lefkowitz’ point, why does she see the need to challenge Bernal, James and Diop — and to question my integrity? She states very clearly that her project is about sustaining the American myth of European triumphalism. In her own words: “Any attempt to question the authenticity of ancient Greek civilization is of direct concern even to people who ordinarily have little interest in the remote past. Since the founding of this country, ancient Greece has been intimately connected with the ideals of American democracy.”

No one could have given a better reason than that for Lefkowitz’ spirited — but misguided — attempt to defend a falsification of history in the name of attacking Afrocentricity. When all is said and done, a more perfect union of this nation can only be based on facts.

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the department of African American Studies at Temple University, is the author of many books on Afrocentric history. He is currently co-editing a book that will rebut the arguments presented by Mary Lefkowitz in “Not Out of Africa.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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