Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

'Feel Good History': Scholars Debate Afrocentrism

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

'Feel Good History': Scholars Debate Afrocentrism

Article excerpt

One of the more controversial debates now going on in intellectual circles is over Afrocentrism, a movement that argues that traditional history has undervalued the contributions of Black Africa to ancient Greek and Western thought. At the center of the debate are Afrocentrists and those attacking them, most recently Mary Lefkowitz, who wrote "Not Out of Africa."

Recently Lefkowitz's publisher, New Republic Books, sponsored a debate between her and a leading Afrocentrist, Martin Bernal, author of "Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Culture."

Washington -- The crowd began arriving early, nearly an hour before Martin Bernal and Mary Lefkowitz were to take the stage at George Washington University. They came in all colors, ages, backgrounds. Some wore kente and sported dreadlocks, while others came buttoned-down double-breasted, Eddie Bauered, lugging backpacks or brief cases. One quartet spoke German.

But all were drawn by a common interest, one that for many was about more than whether Black Egypt inspired the ancient Greeks. It was about much more, argued Bernal, the grizzled-bearded government scholar at Cornell University and author of "Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization." It was about finally correcting past wrongs.

At the top of the debate, moderator and GW professor Linda Solomon told the audience, "The questions of history happen in many layers. How do we know? How can we be sure we know?"

"This is a political debate in one form or another because we are here," admitted New Republic editor James Woods, whose publication co-sponsored the event. "But this is also an academic debate."

It also was yet another debate on Black contributions to history devoid of a Black scholarly point of view.

Because race matters and we live in a racist country it is an important issue," Bernal said. "Africans are frequently told `you have no civilization.' I agree that race was less important for Greeks, but it is important for us. To deny that has a bad impact on American society today."

Wellesley College humanities professor Lefkowitz, sitting erect and exact in blue blazer and smart multicolored scarf, countered that Bernal and contemporaries were engaged in "feel good" history. "If we are trying to address modern problems, we are not talking history."

"There is a feel good history for whites too," Bernal shot back. "Whites were separate and superior," and the telling of Grecian history is no more than an attempt to have a pure white cultural origin, he said. …

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