After centuries of delusion that white people ever accomplished anything worth doing, Euro-Americans are finally learning to grapple with just how worthless they really are. Last November, a conference of the Brahmins of “Afrocentrism” in Atlanta devoted all of a weekend to expounding the much-trumpeted insights that it was really Africans who built the pyramids, invented philosophy and mathematics, discovered America, and founded Judaism and Christianity (both Moses and Jesus were “African-Americans,” you see).
Not only the first human beings but also the first languages were African, too, and so were Egyptians Nefertiti and King Tut, the largely Macedonian Cleopatra, and even the Creek slave Aesop, who, as far as I know, has never before been claimed by much of anyone except Walt Disney.
The world gapes in wonder at these revelations, before which the technology of space travel and TV dinners shrinks (both of these also were probably African in origin). Meanwhile, African-American civilization continues to outpace the brutish Euros. Last October 2 Live Crew won vindication in the courts for its garbage-box rap lyrics when its white lawyers argued that the group’s “music” derived from the black culture of the ghetto. In November an even greater African-American peak was scaled with the news that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pilfered significant portions of his doctoral dissertation.
The latter discovery might seem to cast a shadow over the thriving industry of discrediting Euro-American history and culture and weaving a new mythology of racial consciousness that Alfred Rosenberg would have envied. But the rationalizations for King’s academic shenanigans with the typewriter were ready to hand.
First, the plagiarism was minimized by those who discovered it. The Wall Street Journal reported that at the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford University, director Clayborne Carson asked that staff members not use the word “plagiarism” when talking about what they had found. This led to wiseacre code about “the P word,” but it didn’t prevent one of the project’s interns, who had not yet been brainwashed in the labyrinthine reasoning of Afrocentrists, from collapsing into tears.
Then there’s the “so-what” response, articulated by, among others, journalist Clarence Page, who is usually above such extenuations. “As one who exalts Dr. King for the wisdom and courage he showed long after his student days,” wrote Mr. Page, “I reacted to this latest flap with a shrug of the shoulders and a hearty ‘So what?'” But the shoulder-shrug defense seemed a little premature when hardly a soul had yet suggested any negative implications of King’s loose-fingered scholarship.
By far the most fascinating excuse, however, was the elaborate syllogism constructed by the hard-core Afrocentrists and those who toddle after them. Scholar Keith Miller, who is writing a monograph that reportedly will show that King also lifted lots of other people’s writing for his books Stride Toward Freedom and Strength to Love as well as for his Letter From the Birmingham Jail, says that King was a past master at what Mr. Miller calls “voice merging.”
“Voice merging,” says the Journal, is the art of “blending other people’s words” with one’s own, an art form that truly seems to be a genuine African-American invention. When white boys merge voices, it’s just plain plagiarism, and they lose their jobs, get the boot from graduate school, and wind up chairing Senate committees.
In an article published last year, Mr. Miller expands on this novel concept of the merged voice while evaluating King’s habit of “borrowing” language from other people without giving proper credit. “With respect to King’s language during his public career, he did absolutely nothing wrong,” says Mr. Miller. “He was trained in the black folk pulpit, which is an oral tradition; In this tradition, language was seen as a common treasure, not private property. His sense of language comes out of that tradition, not out of his academic training.”
That’s all very well, but it still means, even if it’s true, that the language commonly attributed to King may not have been his and that insofar as we evaluate his achievements on the basis of his command of language and his oratory, those achievements are now diminished. Moreover, the idea of “borrowing” language is itself interesting. Did King plan to give the language back later on?
But what is most intriguing about the “voice merging” defense is that it strides directly out of the “different cultural standards” line of reasoning that underlies the whole concept of Afrocentrism. One of the hidden purposes of Afrocentrism as an ideology, and of the whole racism racket by which traditional values are challenged as racially biased, is to concoct justifications for the lackluster performance of blacks in the United States. Plagiarism is OK, this reasoning holds, because it’s part of African-American culture.
Similarly, last year at the University of Virginia, black students questioned the legitimacy of the school’s traditional honor code by claiming it was inherently racist. Though blacks constitute only 9 percent of the student body at U.Va., 27 percent of the honor code cases investigated in 1988 and 1989 involved blacks, and 75 percent of the black students tried for honor violations were convicted, as opposed to 30 percent of the whites who went to trial. The Afrocentrist argument is that not only are the trials biased but also that the code itself imposes white standards by which blacks can’t be fairly judged.
The logical implication of that argument is in fact racial separatism such as both Louis Farrakhan and Tom Metzger support, and the New York Times reports that persistent poor black performance in schools is instigating calls for separate educational facilities for black students. “Today,” says the Times, “the impetus for more equal but separate education is largely from blacks themselves,” a plan that Dr. Kenneth Clark, who spent his life trying to end school segregation, says is “outrageous . . . a continuation of the whole segregation nonsense.” The ultimate rationalization, of course, is the motto, “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand”—a slogan that paralyzes serious discussion and helps lock blacks into a plantation mentality that docilely accepts the pornographic bullwhip of 2 Live Crew and the shackles of plagiarism dressed up as real scholarship.
Afrocentrism offers sophomorically fraudulent and bloated claims of racial greatness that tell us nothing authentic about real African and black American history and culture and in fact often trivializes them. Bragging that insignificant historical figures like Nefertiti and King Tut were black is rather like boasting that Millard Fillmore and his mother were white, and trying to fabricate a fake “Afrocentric” history is no less degrading than Jimmy the Greek’s discussion of the comparative racial anatomy of thighs.
Moreover, by pretending that Africans invented everything from pyramids to the Pythagorean theorem, Afrocentrists simply engage in an act of civilizational plagiarism. Champions of a real and distinctive African civilization would hold up its own unique achievements, not merely copy off of the desks of the Europeans sitting next to them.
Like everyone else, black Americans have a history and a culture and a right to be proud of them, but they have no right to manufacture new myths that falsify and degrade their own and other peoples’ pasts. When the Afrocentrist lobby learns that only the truth will make them free, they will give up their pathetic fables, forget about cooking up excuses for themselves, and let the unmerged voices of their people speak clearly and honestly and without the cant of propaganda and delusion.