Scan references to Dr. Tony Martin in newspaper databases, and you would think the Africana studies professor has devoted his long academic career at Wellesley College solely to the Jewish role in the African slave trade.
You would get only a clue or two that Martin, a historian who retires this spring after 34 years at the small all-female school outside Boston, is a prolific scholar of Marcus Garvey. You would have no idea that Garvey was the subject not only of Martin's doctoral dissertation at Michigan State University, but also nine of the dozen books he has written or edited.
What you find instead are articles since the early 1990s about a controversy over Martin assigning his students readings from a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Vol. 1. There followed denunciations from national Jewish organizations, dashes between Martin and Wellesley classics professor Mary Lefkowitz, his charge that the college unfairly denied him a merit raise and two unsuccessful libel suits he filed, one against Lefkowitz, who is Jewish and retired in 2005.
But Martin mentions none of that when asked about his legacy.
"I'd like to be remembered for my Garvey work" replies Martin, 65, who plans to move back to his native Trinidad after the spring semester.
Academic databases do reflect his scholarship on Garvey. His latest book is a biography of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist's widow. Only one of his books, The Jewish Onslaught, self-published in 1993, concerns the slave trade controversy that raged in newspapers.
"I think that's a reflection of the power of the Jewish lobby that arrayed itself against me," Martin says. "They consider that an anti-Semitic statement when you say they are powerfully positioned in the media, but this kind of thing, I think, proves it."
A decade later, Martin, an Afrocentrist brimming with West Indian pride, is not backing down. He says he has no regrets about his response, wishing only that newspapers had told his side of the story more fully and accurately.
"I kind of almost stumbled into all of this," he says, about the controversy. Martin says he had not known that The Boston Globe and Harvard University's Dr. Henry Louis Gates, writing in the New York Times, condemned the Nation of Islam book before he added it in 1992 to a Black studies course he had taught for 20 years. Martin says he did "a normal thing that all professors do" in introducing material reflecting new information.
"I had just discovered that Jews had a role in the slave trade, so I added a couple of chapters from this book," he says. "This was about less than one day's worth of readings in a whole semester course."
Martin calls the assignment a "nonissue" that was overblown in the media. The debate centered on the extent of the Jewish role in the Atlantic slave trade, an involvement that some Jewish scholars had denied existed at all. The scholarly distinction he makes now was blurred in the media: He says that role was "major" in Brazil and Suriname, but only "important" in the United States and several Caribbean islands.
"It was certainly important enough to be the subject of historical inquiry" he says.
Lefkowitz, who says Martin doesn't speak to her, gives a balanced response when asked about his impact on the suburban campus, where he spent nearly all his teaching career.
"Like everything else, it's complicated because he did a certain amount of good and harm," says Letkowitz, who taught at Wellesley for 46 years.
One source of harm, she suggests, was a tendency to "preach instead of teach," particularly about what she describes as an inaccurate account of the Egyptian role in shaping the civilization of ancient Greece, her academic specialty.
Lefkowitz so disagreed with Martin's Afrocentric history lessons that she wrote two books, both published in 1996, disputing the extent of Egyptian influence on the philosophy, religion and science of ancient Greece and Rome. …