Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.5.7


Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa. How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books, 1996. Pp. xvii + 222. ISBN 0-465-09837-1.


Reviewed by Lawrence A. Tritle, Loyola Marymount University.

[An earlier review of the same title appeared as BMCR 96.4.5]

The spring 1996 Walter Prescott Webb lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington, a friend of mine, presented a paper ("Race, Progress and Destiny: Caleb Cushing and the Quest for American Empire") that touched on the classical education of the nineteenth-century American statesman and diplomat Caleb Cushing. Well educated in Greek and Latin, Cushing frequently alluded to famous Greeks and Romans in his writings and speeches and cited them as examples of political conduct and inspiration in one's personal life. After the lecture, a member of the audience asked how, if Cushing were so knowledgeable about the classics, he could have failed to know that Herodotus was the first "black" historian. Questions and comments in a similar vein followed. Sadly, no one in the audience was concerned enough to take issue with the assertion regarding Herodotus' color: to point out that Herodotus was a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus, that surviving portraits of him reveal without a doubt an individual of Indo-European, i.e., "white," identity (more on the business of "race" later). The audience's silence on this occasion is not an isolated occurrence today, as anyone who takes the time to read Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa (cf. her own Wellesley "battles," recounted in the "Introduction," pp. 1-11) will find out, if they have not already experienced similar situations on their own campuses themselves.

In this straightforward, passionate critique of the Afrocentric attack on classical Greek history and culture (and what is sometimes overlooked, one directed at the academy), Lefkowitz confronts candidly, while yet sensitively, issues that are of interest not only to classicists and educators, but to anyone concerned with the present and future course of American society. That is, a society founded on rational discourse and debate, rather than one in which myth-making (of any kind, e.g., David Irving in his forthcoming work Goebbels who will attempt again to persuade readers that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust, etc. [see F. Rich in the New York Times, April 3, 1996]) and paranoia win primacy of place, and not just in the check-out stand ("I was abducted by aliens" in the National Inquirer et al.), but in the ivory tower as well.

In the second chapter, "Myths of African Origin," Lefkowitz demonstrates clearly that various articles of faith for Afrocentrists, e.g., that Socrates, Cleopatra, and Hannibal were "black" are not just mistaken but groundless (pp. 26-39). The point on Socrates' "Athenian" status could have been further supported by reference to the gift of Egyptian grain from the pharaoh Psammetichus to Athens in 445 BC which resulted in a purging of the citizen rosters based on Pericles' law on citizenship (451 BC); had there been any question of Socrates' parentage -- of citizen ancestry on both sides -- he would have been removed from the lists (for further discussion see S.C. Humphreys, "The Nothoi of Kynosarges," JHS 94 [1974]: 92, 94). Cleopatra's origins will always remain a source of fascination as well as dispute owing to the unknown origins of one of her grandmothers. It seems most likely, given the in-breeding practiced by the Ptolemies and their court politics, that her line of descent was fully Greek-Macedonian.

Essentially, the analyses of Afrocentric writers on these points, e.g., J.A. Rogers, Great Men of Color (rev. ed. 1972), Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilisation or Barbarism (1981), reflect first an antiquarian, conservative attitude to the sources they cite (a flaw to be found also in M. Bernal's Black Athena). They would maintain that sources can only mean what they explicitly state and any attempt to evoke a deeper understanding of a text's cultural, social, and intellectual context, to determine its often hidden origins and nuances, is mere intellectual grandstanding or hypercritical conceit (a good example of this is Bernal's notion of Besserwissen). Secondly, the Afrocentric view also reflects a conspiratorial view of history which is, as R. Hofstadter once remarked, "paranoid" and prone to "the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events" (R. Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays [New York, 1965], p. 37). Behind this perception is an inability to see, as L.B. Namier once remarked, "how things work ... [to acquire] an intuitive understanding of how things do not happen" (italics supplied; L.B. Namier, "History," in F. Stern, ed., Avenues of History [London 1952], p. 4). So it is that George James and others can imagine a conspiracy of Greeks, of Europeans, to steal what belonged to Africa, in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary. James and Marcus Garvey, both Afrocentric writers from the first half of the twentieth century, lived in a time when their "paranoia" was surely well founded: there were then teachers and schools that denigrated -- often viciously -- the genuine achievements of Africa. Surely some of these (and too many to be sure) remain today, but these are being weeded out -- too slowly to be sure -- but steadily nonetheless. The past and presence of such hatemongering, however, is no license for contemporary scholars and teachers to replace past wrongs and errors with new.

Afrocentric authors also seek to exploit patently political agendas at the expense of a historical understanding of events. This is demonstrated in Lefkowitz's criticism of Cheryl Johnson-Odim's assertion that Egypt should "stand for the rest of Africa." Lefkowitz rightly faults Johnson-Odim for placing myth and politics before history. It is relevant to add further that the ancient Egyptians would have been mystified by this claim, then would have scoffed at the idea. Skeptics should examine Egyptian attitudes toward their Nubian and Libyan neighbors: from the Egyptian standpoint, to be anything other than Egyptian was an unfortunate act of nature! Further objections to Johnson-Odim's position may be based on geography. That Egypt is in Africa can be seen on any map. But does that mean, and especially in antiquity when most people did not travel extensively, that those inhabiting opposite ends of the continent were connected? Such an argument, which Bernal expresses as well in Black Athena, is seemingly well intentioned but in the end remains both Eurocentric and paternalistic. It must be seen as Eurocentric because the overwhelming focus is from the standpoint of western civilization: paternalistic because of the misguided perception that African-Americans must be included in the story. My own ancestors, Danish pirates and Alamannic warriors, played no role in the shaping of classical Greek civilization (or Roman for that matter). Just because people lived on the same continent as the Greeks and Romans does not mean that they shared in the cultural achievements of either antecedent. In fact cultural achievements vary greatly from place to place and time to time as a discerning eye will confirm: in 2000 BC the achievements of Egypt were demonstrably greater than Europe's, while in AD 1400 those of Italy were greater than Egypt's. This is no racist or prejudiced analysis, but rather one based on the definition of what constitutes culture: a long history, great art, literary accomplishment. The efforts of Afrocentric writers to attach African-Americans to the origins of western culture actually denigrate the genuine accomplishments of African culture by suggesting that they are only of value in so far as they can be attached to the classical world of Greece and Rome (see further R. Jenkyns, "Bernal in the Nineteenth Century," in Black Athena Revisited, ed by M. Lefkowitz and G.M. Rogers [Chapel Hill, 1996, pp. 419-20). This is manifestly untrue, as suggested by any number of museum exhibitions and other media presentations which the general public has attended.

In chapter 3, "Ancient Myths of Cultural Dependency," Lefkowitz refutes the Afrocentric assertion that the Greeks "stole" their philosophy from Egypt, a point made most famous in G. James' Stolen Legacy. According to this view, Thales of Miletus, Plato and the other Greek philosophers must have learned their philosophy in Egypt because, after all, Egypt came first; and finally, Aristotle found his ideas in the great Library at Alexandria by Egypt. Yet Thales' idea that the prime stuff was water might well have more to do with ancient Mesopotamia than Egypt, not to mention the more immediate experiences of Milesian colonists in the Black Sea who had firsthand experiences with the various forms that water can take. Plato's dialogues, couched in the language of myth and allegory, have their roots in Athenian history and culture as a close reading will make clear; and Aristotle died before the Library at Alexandria was even built.

As Lefkowitz acutely notes, philosophy and related ideas can not really be "stolen": such a misperception fails altogether to understand how concepts and influences are transmitted, shared, and ultimately transformed. As remarked above concerning Afrocentrists' antiquarian and "paranoid" attitudes, so too they have a curiously old-fashioned way of looking at the origins of ideas and influences. Again like M. Bernal, they adhere to a diffusionist understanding of culture, that ideas are created or born in one place and radiate outward. The idea that cultures in different parts of the world could develop similar ideas independently and contemporaneously seems regarded an unlikely occurrence: someone must have first "created" the idea, which was then "given" to some one else. An example of this is that of transmigration of the souls, an idea developed in both ancient Egypt and Greece but in ways that demonstrate clearly how a similar concept can take divergent forms (p. 69). Through the eighteenth-twentieth centuries of the modern era, diffusionism was commonplace among scholars and intellectuals, particularly European, who wanted to justify and validate further the European dominance over the world. Thus culture was perceived as emanating from Europe, bringing "goodness" and "light" to the poor, blighted masses (i.e., the "White Man's Burden"). Today we understand (or should) the impetus -- racial, cultural, and political -- behind such a belief and reject it accordingly. The perpetuation of these intellectual relics, no matter the reason, serves only to foster ignorance and to incite strife, intellectual and other.

Afrocentric writers, however, seem unwilling and perhaps even uninterested in making any sort of an objective, well-intentioned effort to understand what happened in the past. A good example of this is Asante's remarks on the slave trade in Africa: that European imperialism was accompanied by the slave trade (p. 55), as if there had not been an indigenous form of enslavement in Africa that was, admittedly, greatly stimulated first by the arrival of Arabic/Muslim traders then the Europeans. For them to note, however, that anything such as this had happened, that African "big men" agreed to sell debtors and slaves (prisoners of war as was usual in the ancient world) in their possession, is an admission that Afrocentric writers seem reluctant to make. Similar attitudes may be seen today, as discussed in The New Republic (April 8, 1996, p. 8), reporting the slave trade in the Sahel, the territory between North and sub-Saharan Africa, and the persecution of native African religionists by Muslims (especially a problem in the Sudan).

In chapter 4, "The Myth of Egyptian Mystery Religions," Lefkowitz argues persuasively that the supposedly "ancient" doctrines of Hermes Trismegisthus that inspired modern day Freemasons are actually a hodgepodge of Greek and Egyptian beliefs reflecting the world view of the late first to third centuries AD (see e.g., G. Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes. A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind [Princeton, 1993], p. 11). Lefkowitz rejects James' argument that there was any sort of a universal "Egyptian mystery system." By the late second and clearly in the third century AD, the various deities of the ancient world were in that process of assimilation now referred to as syncretism. Thus Isis, for example, was worshipped as Ceres, Venus, Aphrodite, etc. (see e.g., Apul. Met. 11.2, A.D. Nock, Conversion [Oxford, 1933], pp. 150-53) and as far away as Cologne (see e.g., G. Wolff, Das römisch-germanische Köln. Führer zu Museum und Stadt [Cologne, 1984], p. 100) where today one can see the small bronze statuette of Isis-Venus. To characterize such religious views as solely "Egyptian" is to misunderstand the universalism that was the cultural milieu of the late antique world. Moreover, the universalism inherent in the cult of Isis-Venus-Etc. (which may be seen as well in that of Heracles-Hercules-Melkart earlier on the island of Delos) significantly undercuts the idea that any of these deities was conceived of as distinctly "Egyptian" or anything else. The idea behind such syncretism was to pull people from around the (Roman) world together, to build bridges rather than walls. Once more, as demonstrated in the ancient idea of race -- in which "race" was a cultural phenomenon rather than one consisting as today in such meaningless characteristics as skin color and the shape of one's nose -- the ancient world was light years ahead of people like James, Asante, et al. who would set one group against another.

The discussion of "Egyptian mysteries" leads to one detailing the emergence of Masonic rituals and beliefs from the French Enlightenment work Sethos published by the Abbé J. Terrasson in 1731 (subsequently appearing in French, German, and Italian editions). This work would acquire a good deal of influence as seen in Mozart's The Magic Flute (and other musical versions), and perhaps more significantly, in the rituals of Masonics in the West Indies and the United States who would imagine Terrasson's work to be a scholarly one. What they would not realize, however, is that Terrasson's work, while "scholarship" for its time, is more a fictionalized travelogue that shares many parallels with Voltaire's Candide and Montesquieu's Persian Letters in which the past serves as a forum to critique and comment upon the present (a commonplace in the period owing to political realities).

In chapter five, "The Myth of the Stolen Legacy," Lefkowitz details the origins and development of G. James' views (elaborated by his student Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan) on the theft of so many ideas from Africa by the Greeks and their successors. The characterization of James' work as fantasy is sound (p. 149) and Lefkowitz cites many examples of his fallacious etymologies and misleading ahistorical conclusions. This includes the attempt to portray Simeon "who was called black" (Acts 13.1) as "an Egyptian professor attached to the Church of Rome." On the basis of Simeon's description as niger, Lefkowitz suggests that Simeon was possibly of Ethiopian descent. This seems unnecessary as Simeon, described as "prophet and teacher" in the Church of Antioch (so Acts 13.1) was almost certainly of Jewish descent. A far simpler explanation is that Simeon was simply dark-haired and/or had a darker than average complexion. I have German relatives who resemble anything but the Nordic ideal, instead black-haired with dark complexions who in summer are easily taken to be Italian or Greek while on holiday. Such characteristics account as well for the description of Cleitus "the Black" killed by Alexander at Maracanda (Arr. 4.8.1) while his namesake Cleitus "the White" was surely the opposite (see e.g., A.M. Devine, "Blacks in Antiquity? (The Case of Apollonios ho melas)," AHB 2.1 [1988]: 9).

The uncritical attitude of the Afrocentrists leads Lefkowitz to reject Asante's assertion that one must be of a particular cultural group in order to have legitimacy as a spokesperson -- in other words that it is one's skin color, ethnicity, religion that validates or authenticates what is said (p. 159). Lefkowitz rightly condemns this specious rationale (which is a popular commonplace but nonetheless fallacious), but her arguments -- cogent as they are -- may be elaborated. First, if this were true, then it would be necessary to find an ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Nubian, Eskimo, etc., to teach these subjects today. Talk about depressing further the academic market-place! Second, such a view -- inherently racist -- omits any idea or recognition that scholars, people generally, can via empathy relate to one another and so put themselves into another's situation; if such a notion were true, we would undoubtedly lose much great literature from around the world not to mention history. Fortunately, it is not the case at all. Thirdly, Asante's notion that European scholars are separated from African by their notion of "objective knowledge" is far-fetched to say the least, unless that is, African scientists have another value for pi, or aircraft mechanics employ some intuitive method in the maintenance of their aircraft. I doubt this occurs in either case, so why should such a measure be presumed as valid in understanding Africa, or any other culture, society, history?

In the University community today, students are confronted by an ever-widening body of knowledge and arguments of corresponding complexity and theoretical application. Some of these rest upon myth-making and political considerations rather than on scholarship or a desire for getting things right. Mary Lefkowitz has revealed with candor and understanding the origins of the Afrocentric attack on Hellenism, an attack that underlines the importance of the latter still in the late twentieth century. While Lefkowitz and I might haggle over the idea of "truth" in history, a term and concept that I try to avoid in preference to a critical understanding of the past, it remains that she has brought a factual and critical assessment to a debate with ramifications of importance to all Americans. Her work aims to enlighten and to stimulate discussion, not to further the prejudiced agendas of the lunatic fringe on either side of the debate. For it is only through an accurate understanding of what happened in the past that a dialogue can occur that will allow all Americans to understand the past so as to comprehend the present. Without that we are all so many amnesiacs stumbling around in the dark trying to shout each other down.