Ordeal by Greek Myth

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey by Mary Lefkowitz

The Ancient Greeks stole their culture from Africa. They didn’t just learn from the Africans, or borrow from them. They committed grand — very grand — larceny. Then they hushed up their crime, and Western historians have been labouring to maintain the myth of Greek originality ever since.

Such is one of the major contentions of Afrocentrism, a movement which has gained considerable ground (not least in American universities) over the past 40 or 50 years. It is also the thesis which Mary Lefkowitz subjected to critical scrutiny in her book Not Out of Africa, which was published in 1996.

Professor Lefkowitz is a distinguished classicist, who has spent almost her entire career at Wellesley College in Massachusetts . It was only in the early 1990s, however, that she became aware of what Afrocentrism entailed with respect to classical studies, and of what was being taught in its name at her own university. She was dismayed, and from then on she became increasingly caught up in academic and cultural controversy.

In the Afrocentrist version of classical antiquity, Africans are effectively equated with Egyptians, and Egypt figures in virtually all the historical claims that Lefkowitz examines in Not Out of Africa. There is the claim, for instance, that the Egyptians invaded Greece in the second millennium BC. This would have been a major event, if it had actually taken place, but Lefkowitz assures us that there is nothing — neither archaeological nor linguistic evidence ­— to show that it did. Again, Afrocentrists assert that Aristotle, far from being a master thinker, was not only a plagiarist but a common thief as well — that he derived many of his ideas from books which he stole from the great library at Alexandria. One trouble with this theory is that the library at Alexandria wasn’t founded until 25 years after his death.

As for the purloined philosophical teachings themselves, the key Afrocentrist text regarding them is Stolen Legacy, by George G.M. James, a work which has enjoyed a wide readership since it was first published in New York in 1954. According to James, the Egyptians had from earliest times maintained an elaborate “mystery system” which in turn provided the basis for a sophisticated educational system. It was from these sources that the Greek philosophers filched their ideas.

Alas, there was no such thing as the Egyptian Mystery System. It is a fantasy, although not one invented by George G.M. James himself. It had its origins in a forgotten French novel called Sethos, published in 1731. The myth expounded in Sethos was taken up by 18th-century Freemasons (it is echoed by that enthusiastic Mason Mozart in The Magic Flute), and elements of it live on in Masonic ritual. But by the early 19th century, once Egyptology had been established as a serious subject, it was clear just how much of a myth it was.

Among the general public, the best-known proponent of the “stolen legacy” thesis is the British-born but American-based historian Martin Bernal. (He was until recently a professor of government at Cornell.) Bernal’s multivolume study Black Athena bristles with scholarly detail, or speculation. It also has a catchy title, and it has never lacked publicity. In Britain, for instance, extracts from the first volume were published in the Observer.

Bernal’s ideas naturally feature in Not Out of Africa, though less prominently than many readers may have expected. One reason for this, no doubt, is that in the same year Lefkowitz also dealt with him elsewhere. Along with a colleague, Guy Rogers, she edited a symposium, Black Athena Revisited, in which 20 specialists assessed his arguments. Their verdict was for the most part highly unfavourable, and although Bernal has many admirers, they don’t as yet seem to have mounted an equivalent defence.

Now Lefkowitz has returned to the fray with a third book, a far more personal one. History Lesson describes the events that led up to the writing of Not Out of Africa, and its consequences. It is essentially a memoir, but it also offers some searching reflections on present-day academic and intellectual life.

Lefkowitz’s first intimations of what was in the air came in the 1980s. One of her students complained that during a class on Plato she had failed to point out that Socrates was black. (There is no evidence that he was.) Another student wrote to a campus newspaper protesting against a screening of the film Cleopatra, since the main role should have been given to a black woman rather than to Elizabeth Taylor. (It is conceivable that Cleopatra’s paternal grandmother was black, since nothing is known about her. Her other
grandparents were all of Macedonian Greek ­descent.)

These were isolated incidents, however. It was only in 1991, when Lefkowitz was asked to review a volume of Black Athena and some related books in New Republic magazine, that she took the full measure of the “stolen legacy” myth. She also discovered that the myth was being taught as though it were solid fact in the Africana Studies Department at Wellesley .

No one who reads History Lesson could doubt that she abhors racial prejudice. She is also highly sensitive — as her own work on women in ancient Greece demonstrates — to the ways in which traditional scholarship has slighted or neglected disadvantaged groups. (She had incidentally helped to found Wellesley’s Black Studies department, the Africana Studies Department’s predecessor.) In opposing the Afrocentrist version of antiquity, her only concern was that students shouldn’t be taught false history, or at any rate that false history shouldn’t be allowed to go unchallenged. Her review in the New Republic was measured in tone, and she took care to avoid mentioning the ethnicity or racial identity of any of the writers she was discussing.

If she thought that her opponents would reply in the same fashion, she was quickly disabused. Instead of engaging with her arguments, they launched angry attacks on her. In particular, little though she had intended it, she was drawn into a personal conflict with one of the most influential members of the Africana Studies Department, Tony Martin. Professor Martin is a belligerent character who was never slow to raise the temperature. When Lefkowitz asked if she could speak after one of his lectures, for example, he described her request as “a very hostile onslaught”. He was also someone whom the Wellesley authorities had learnt to handle with care — in 1987 he had successfully sued them over a routine evaluation of his work — and Lefkowitz gives some pitiful examples of university officials caving in to his demands. Eventually she found herself facing a libel action from him over references she had made in an article to a notorious and highly charged incident in which he had clashed with a white woman student. The case dragged on for five years. It was a punishing experience, although in the end the courts found in Lefkowitz’s ­favour.

Meanwhile, with the publication of Not Out of Africa, the controversy spread further afield, and an already tense atmosphere became even harsher. Lefkowitz gives a gripping account of the confrontations she was involved in and the calumnies she endured.

She had allies, of course, including some courageous black scholars. She also kept her sense of humour: she rather enjoyed being denounced by one Afrocentrist historian as “an obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department”. But many of the attacks were painful — and so was the lack of support from colleagues who were well aware of the scholarly rights and wrongs, but chose to remain silent.

Were they simply opting for a quiet life, or were they to some degree justified? Afrocentrism goes back a long way. It began as an understandable response to colonialism and prejudice, and most of us would agree that the compensatory fantasies of an oppressed group should be treated more tenderly than fantasies which don’t have such a rationale. But times change. Exactly how oppressed is someone like Martin, who is a tenured professor at a leading American university? And how much respect is one showing a group of students if one assumes that they can’t be expected to observe the same rules of evidence as everyone else?

There is another consideration, no less important. Allow a dubious piece of history to pass unchecked, and the next fabrication you will be presented with may well be worse. And that is what happened in this case. There was no obvious logic in such a development, but it soon became clear that the counter attack against the objections Lefkowitz had raised was closely entwined with anti-Semitism.

The fact that Lefkowitz is Jewish plainly played its part in this response. So did Tony Martin’s personal hang-ups. When in 1993 he published an account of the “stolen legacy” controversy, he called it The Jewish Onslaught; when he lectured at Howard, a predominantly black university, he held forth on such themes as supposed Jewish control of the Federal Reserve Bank, and wondered whether Jews were “totally incapable of telling the truth”.

But it would be a mistake to put down the anti-Semitic aspects of the story to chance, or to the impact of one or two individuals. For one thing, many other black extremists joined in the attack on Lefkowitz, often denouncing her quite as stridently as Martin did. For another, there was an ideology of sorts behind much of the abuse. For many centuries, it was alleged, Jews had been engaged in the wholesale exploitation of blacks. Above all, they had secretly funded the African slave trade — a case which was set forth most extensively, with a great show of pseudo-scholarship, in The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, an anonymous work published in 1991 by the Nation of Islam.

Needless to say the claim that Jews were a driving force behind the slave trade is another myth, and a vicious one. The notion of them as hardened exploiters may also seem to sit oddly with the fact that they played a conspicuous part in the struggle for civil rights, but Afrocentrists have an answer to that too. Lefkowitz quotes one writer who argues that what he calls — with a great deal of exaggeration — Jewish “dominance” of the civil rights movement could itself be regarded as a form of racism.

In a comparable spirit, Tony Martin shows less gratitude towards Martin Bernal than you might have thought he would. In The Jewish Onslaught he dismisses him as “the white Jewish king of Afrocentricland” (Bernal is of partly Jewish descent) and treats him as though he were one of Lefkowitz’s allies. For his part, Bernal is quick to pounce on any sign of anti-Semitism in traditional classical scholarship — it is one way of trying to discredit it — while with a none-too-subtle invocation of Nazism he refers to the Indo-European language system as “the Aryan hypothesis”. On the other hand, Lefkowitz describes a radio debate which she and her colleague Guy Rogers had with Bernal and the Afrocentrist historian John Henrik Clarke in 1996. Towards the end, she reports, Clarke “threw in a few comments about the malevolence of the Jews” but she didn’t hear Bernal make any objection to them.

She doesn’t allow herself to become fixated on anti-Semitism, however. She is at pains to remind us that the myth of the “stolen legacy” itself is by no means wholly victimless. It robs the ancient Greeks of the credit for their foremost achievements; it portrays traditional historians as either dishonest or hopelessly brainwashed.

She also points out that the willingness to jettison traditional scholarship was not a simple phenomenon. It was powered not only by compensatory politics but also by postmodernism — “the idea that facts are really nothing more than opinions”. In effect, as she puts it, she had run into a storm created by “two different weather systems on American campuses”, one political and one intellectual.

Postmodernism, far from being a mere fad, can have dangerous consequences. This is one of the things that History Lesson warns us against. But the book is not just a cautionary tale. It is also a heartening reminder of how much can be accomplished, in the face of intimidation and appeasement, by principled resistance.

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