MYTHOLOGY AS HISTORY
11:00 PM, Mar 17, 1996 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
It is a sign of the times that Mary Lefkowitz deserves great credit for writing Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (Basic Books, 222 pages, $ 24.00) even though it is a book that, as she herself recognizes, should not have needed to be written. Lefkowitz is a distinguished classicist who teaches at Wellesley; she has written Not Out of Africa to challenge a series of claims (most prominently advanced in Martin Bernal's Pulitzer Prize-winning Black Athena) about the African (specifically Egyptian) provenance of Greek civilization.
These claims have been made to further an obvious political agenda: to instill pride in African Americans and to denounce Western civilization (whose origin supposedly lay in the plunder of a superior African civilization's cultural riches). But as Lefkowitz reminds us, the motives behind an assertion are ultimately less important than the evidence supporting it: And the problem with the Afrocentrists claims about the origins of Greek civilization is that they are buttressed by wishes rather than facts. Lefkowitz's book should not be necessary because the historical arguments of the Afrocentrists can be refuted simply by repeating "what has long been known and established"; but it proved necessary because classical scholars (fearful of the charge of racism) have generally been reluctant to criticize them.
Lefkowitz does not need or take much space to refute the Afrocentric account of the Greek debt to Africa. No archaeological data suggest that the people who became the Greeks migrated to Greece from Egypt; there is little reason to believe (and good reason to doubt) that Greek religion and philosophy derived from Egyptian originals; there is no evidence supporting the contention that Socrates, Hannibal, and Cleopatra had African ancestors.
I can convey the level of the argument that Lefkowitz rebuts with a single example. Cleopatra was, of course, born in Egypt, but that makes her geographically and not ethnically Egyptian; she descended from a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. We do not know the personal or ethnic identity of her paternal grandmother, but otherwise her ancestry was Macedonian Greek. Although there is no evidence that the paternal grandmother was Egyptian or Ethiopian, Afrocentrists (who note that there is also no evidence that she was not Egyptian or Ethiopian) assert that she must have been, and that Cleopatra must therefore have been black. The intellectual quality of her opposition enables one to understand Lefkowitz's lament that "instead of getting on with our work, [classicists] must rehearse what has long been known."
Lefkowitz's account of the genesis of the Afrocentric claims makes for a more compelling story than her refutation of specifics. She shows that the belief in the superiority of ancient Egyptian civilization was originally propagated by European Freemasons in the 18th century (and subsequently adopted by black Masons in the 20th). Thus, the Afrocentric conception of ancient Egypt is only a recycling of the wildly inaccurate depiction of ancient Egypt found in Mozart's Masonic opera The Magic Flute -- which is not to suggest that Mozart is likely to join Scott Joplin as a composer favored by Afrocemrists, but to second Lefkowitz's ironic observation that " the Afrocentric myth of antiquity . . . is essentially not African. . . . It is a product of the same Eurocentric culture that the Afrocentrists seek to blame for the eclipse of African civilization."
The obvious problem with Afrocentric assertions is that they are plainly false; a problem possibly more troubling than this is the reticence of classical scholars who know the truth -- out of some combination of cowardice, desire to further the self-esteem of minority students, and the general erosion of intellectual standards. I greatly admire Lefkowitz for writing this book; but Not Out of Africa would have benefited from a more sustained critique of her colleagues and their diffidence about voicing similar criticisms. (There would certainly have been room; the page count is inflated because the book is double-spaced -- the only double-spaced book I have ever seen.)
Lefkowitz provides occasional, and always sensible, explanations to account for this profile in intellectual cowardice. She notes that academics today tend to reject claims of truth or falsity, believing that "facts are meaningless because they can be manipulated and reinterpreted."
Thus for many scholars factual accuracy is no longer the criterion for judging versions of history, which instead are judged in terms of the motivations of the historians: An Afrocentric account of classical antiquity can be regarded as "an alternative way of looking at the past," arguably even superior to the traditional account, because "it confers a new and higher status on an ethnic group whose history has largely remained obscure."
But some things really are true, and others really are false. If truth is so unrecognizable or irrelevant that we can't have certainty about simple matters of empirical fact, it is hard to see how we can be so certain about the moral truth underlying the Afrocentric rewriting of history: If we cannot say that some historical accounts are wrong simply because they are false, it is unclear that anything entitles us to reject (for example) the version of history promulgated by deniers of the Holocaust (even as we acclaim the version promulgated by Afrocentrists).
A renewed substantive interest in the classics would nevertheless be welcome, however dubious its motivation. But this consideration leads to an important question about the Afrocentric view of classical antiquity: If Greek philosophy is all that remains to provide us a clue to the wondrous Egyptian system of thought from which it supposedly derived, shouldn't undergraduates influenced by Afrocentrism be flocking to classics courses, seriously studying Plato and Aristotle, to recover as best they can the wisdom of ancient Egypt?
Needless to say, no influx of Afrocentrist students into classics courses is occurring. That, finally, is what is most depressing of all: The Afrocentric concern with Greek civilization seems to be restricted to sterile (and unpersuasive) arguments about the color of the skin of the great men and women of antiquity and resolutely to ignore the contents and the character of their words and deeds.
Joel Schwartz has taught political philosophy at the University of Michigan and been a program officer at the NationalEndowment for the Humanities.