Wellesley Historian Calls Afrocentrism Mythology in Book: She Rejects White-Racism Charges

By Innerst, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Wellesley Historian Calls Afrocentrism Mythology in Book: She Rejects White-Racism Charges


Innerst, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Neither Cleopatra nor Socrates was black.

The ancient Greeks did not steal their philosophy from Egyptian priests, and Aristotle didn't loot the library at Alexandria. The roots of Western civilization can't be traced to Africa.

Nevertheless, these are among the claims of the Afrocentrism movement, which thrives on many campuses, and Mary Lefkowitz, a professor of Greek classics at Wellesley, is trying to expose them as the myths they are.

The claim that ancient Egypt was a black African civilization whose philosophy and achievements formed the foundation of Western civilization is the underlying assumption of Afrocentrism. This movement was spawned by certain black academics determined to reclaim what they say is a glorious African past that was stolen or trashed by racist white historians.

This view has seeped into public and private school classrooms, including those in the District and Prince George's County, in the guise of multiculturalism.

It's all myth, writes Miss Lefkowitz, an expert on classical Greece who proceeds to tear down the tenets of Afrocentrism in her new book, "Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History."

"Afrocentrism not only teaches what is untrue; it encourages students to ignore chronology, to forget about looking for material evidence, to select only those facts that are convenient, and to invent facts whenever useful or necessary," she says.

Students exposed to Afrocentric curriculums are taught Napoleon deliberately shot off the nose of the Sphinx to alter its facial features so people wouldn't know it was African - an assertion made by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, at the Million Man March. In this telling, Napoleon's soldiers similarly mutilated other Egyptian statues to obliterate their black features.

They are told Africans sailed to America thousands of years before Columbus happened upon islands off the coast of North America and that the first human life, first religion, first philosophy, first mathematics and first science came out of black Africa.

"There is a current tendency, at least among academics, to regard history as a form of fiction that can and should be written differently by each nation or each ethnic group," Miss Lefkowitz notes in her book.

"The assumption seems to be that somehow all versions will simultaneously be true, even if they conflict in particular details. According to this line of argument, Afrocentric ancient history can be treated not as pseudohistory but as an alternative way of looking at the past. It can be considered as valid as the traditional version, and perhaps even more valid because of its moral agenda. It confers a new and higher status on an ethnic group whose history has largely remained obscure."

Miss Lefkowitz has had a long-standing interest in pseudohistory.

"I have also studied the many and ingenious ways in which ancient writers created historical `facts' to serve particular purposes, some of them political," she says.

She was drawn into the Afrocentrism debate in 1991 when she was asked to write an article for the New Republic about Cornell University Sinologist Martin Bernal's book "Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Culture." Afrocentrists have used his 1987 book to support their claims that Greek civilization was created by black Africans in Egypt.

About that time, Miss Lefkowitz learned that Wellesley was among the colleges where students were being taught "strange stories" about ancient Greece in a course called "Africans in Antiquity."

"I had always thought that the course was about historical Africa," she writes. "But now as a result of my research, I realized that the ancient `Africans' in its subject matter were such figures as Socrates and Cleopatra.

. . ."

Her discussion of why these claims were wrong prompted charges of "racist motives" from Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University, an influential Afrocentrist writer. …

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