“There is always something new from Africa.”
—Pliny the Elder
By the early 1970’s, I had come to the conclusion that American higher education could not get any worse. Most of the young and not-so-young Ph.D.’s in the humanities were intellectually anemic. What few brains they possessed had been starved on a diet of bogus theories and textbook generalities; hardly any of them had the fund of general learning that used to be expected of any gentleman, to say nothing of “a gentleman and a scholar.” Feminism and structuralism had already raised their ugly heads, and it was not too hard to predict the wave after wave of French theoretical scum that would wash upon the desolate shores of the American mind.
In thinking that the humanities could only get marginally worse, I was guilty of an uncharacteristic optimism. I had failed to correlate the rising tide of minority rights with the falling standards of scholarship, the perfect formula—as it turned out—for multiculturalism in general and Afrocentrism in particular. Even in the late 80’s, as Afrocentric books began to make a stir, I paid no attention: despite the low estate of American scholarship, the universities still contained dozens, even hundreds of philologists and archeologists who would give Leonard Jeffries and Martin Bernal the ridicule they deserve. Once again 1 was naive. Classicists and ancient historians, for the most part, remained silent; some even joined the barbarians. In a small way, the complicity of scholars reminds me of the German academics who turned their heads as their Jewish colleagues were expelled by the Nazis. In the short run, it was a good career move, although the shortest run was reserved for the part-Jewish professors who thought they were exempt. “Man is wolf to man,” runs the optimistic Latin proverb.
I wish I knew of all the exceptions, but among the most distinguished critics of Afrocentrism, I should mention Frank Snowden—the only prominent black classicist—Emily Vermeule, and Mary Lefkowitz. I had always admired Professor Lefkowitz for her good judgment and her skeptical treatment of ancient biographies. An academic feminist who helped to pioneer women’s studies in classics, she incurred the wrath of crackpot feminists, who objected to her androcentric insistence on logic and evidence. For the past several years, she has been writing careful but trenchant articles and reviews on the fantasies of multiculturalism. Not Out of Africa is the fruit of those labors.
It is a pity that a good scholar has had to waste her valuable time proving that 2 plus 2 equals four and not 378.77777 to the power of negative 12, but these are hard times. Abstracting a few general arguments from the welter of myth and pseudo-scholarship. Professor Lefkowitz sets out to show that Egyptians did not invade Greece and leave behind a legacy of African civilization; that Greek philosophy is not an offshoot of Egyptian thought; that there never was a secret Egyptian doctrine; that, finally, the central story of Afrocentrism—the idea of a “stolen legacy”—is an absurd fabrication patched together from novels, folktales, and wishful thinking.
Much of the argumentation will be fairly obvious to educated people; in fact, we know a great deal about what the Greeks looked like, how they developed their culture, and what their attitude to foreign cultures was. A generation or two ago, when most half-educated people had read the ancient classics, if only in translation, no Martin Bernal could have humbugged the reading public with the absurdities of Black Athena. Central to Bernal’s thesis (and to the case made by most Afrocentrists) is the idea that the Greeks would have been unwilling to admit their cultural dependency upon Africa. But, as Lefkowitz shows, Herodotus was credulous to the point of gullibility in believing what the Egyptians said about their influences on Greek civilization. Since Egypt was virtually a closed book, before the 19th century when some progress was made in the decipherment of hieroglyphics, the vision of Egypt handed down to Afrocentrists is essentially a Greek creation.
Some of the more amusing discussions concern the claims that Socrates and Cleopatra were African. Regarding Socrates, the only evidence comes from busts made of the philosopher generations after his death. The depiction, vaguely Negroid, probably does not go back to any life-portraits; it is obviously based on his own self-description (in Plato) as snub-nosed and resembling a silenus (a humanoid with horse’s tail and ears).
Pericles’ citizenship laws of 451 reserved Athenian citizenship to people whose father and mother were both citizens. This obviously excludes Ethiopians, and since the comic poets (particularly Aristophanes in the Clouds) ridiculed Socrates for every other peculiarity of his, it is utterly fantastic to suppose they would have ignored “the fact” of his being a Negro. “Saying that Socrates looks like a silenus means that Socrates looks like a silenus, not like an African. If we were to use his resemblance to a silenus as an indication of his origins, it would clearly be equally logical to infer that he was descended from bearded men with horse’s ears and tails.”
The case for Cleopatra is equally substantial, turning on the anonymity of one of her grandparents—the other three were Greco-Macedonian as far back as can be traced. Joel Rogers, in the Afrocentric classic World’s Great Men of Color, clinches his argument for a black Cleopatra by misinterpreting a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. But even if he were right, what sort of a “scholar” treats Shakespeare as a source for ancient history?
The most fascinating sections of Not Out of Africa are not Professor Lefkowitz’s refutations of Afrocentrist mythology, but her discussions of the subterranean tradition of Egyptian mystery cults. According to George James, the author of Stolen Legacy, the Egyptians were possessed of secret mystic lore which they communicated to Greek visitors who subsequently used it as the basis of their philosophical systems. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of any form of mysticism, philosophical or otherwise, among the Egyptians. What evidence we have of so-called mystery cults in Egypt makes it clear that they were imported directly from Greece, where such rites as the Eleusinian Mysteries were a distinctive form of Greek popular religion. The myth of Egyptian mysteries is largely based on the so-called Hermetic writings, a literary forgery of sorts, attributed to an ancient Egyptian, Hermes Trismegistus, but actually written in Greek in a period much later than that of the philosophers supposedly inspired by the Hermetica. The great scholar Isaac Casaubon revealed the truth in 1614, but the 17th century was a civilized age in which evidence and logic had some bearing on cases of fact.
Even more bizarre than the fantasy of Egyptian mysteries is the Masonic tradition that revived and elaborated on the myth. The vehicles of this cultural transmission were works of art: Sethos, a three volume fictional biography by Abbe Jean Terrasson, and the many novels and operas that it spawned. The greatest monument to Afrocentrism is Mozart’s The Magic Flute—an apotheosis of Masonic mumbo-jumbo. I take it as a tribute to my good sense that I always sided with the Queen of the Night against the blowhard Sarastro, who—if he were alive today—would probably be running the Vatican Bank from behind the scenes.
How black Americans like Frederick Douglass picked up these stories in the 19th century and used them to explain away African non-history makes a less interesting story; in fact, Professor Lefkowitz does not trace her story as far back as it can go. The earliest American Afrocentrist argument I know of occurs in an 1829 pamphlet of David Walker, a former slave, but she has little patience for these self-serving follies. Every ethnic group has made its share of “terrible and foolish mistakes,” she says, asking, “Isn’t treating African-Americans differently from the rest of humankind just another form of segregation and condescension?”
Yes and no. Yes to the extent that we are using a double standard in tolerating nonsense in the guise of history and hate-mongering in the form of African nationalism and black pride. On the other hand, our treatment of the past is not an exclusively rational affair. If I were not of European background, I am not at all sure that I would have spent so much time—even if I were born in America—learning Greek and Latin, to say nothing of the languages and histories of more recent European nations. Europe is our metropolis; the British are our cultural parents; the French, Germans, and Italians our cousins; the Greeks and Romans our grandparents. Even the Russians are at least second cousins once removed. I admire the Chinese and the Japanese, from what I know of them. I would like to know more, but my European self-absorption always draws me back to the founders of my own civilization.
Black Americans have it tough. Professor Lefkowitz avoids the difficult question of who the Egyptians were, but whoever they were, they were not blacks from sub-Saharan Africa. They are no more the ancestors of present-day African-Americans than St. Augustine or Callimachus, both of whom are African in the geographical sense. It is hard not to have some sympathy for African-Americans looking for a usable past. The trouble is, this search is motivated as much by resentment of European- American culture as by ancestral piety. A real study of African culture reveals strengths and beauties that black and white people in America might well envy, and an Afrocentrism that started with this reality might be forgiven for stretching the point.
Professor Lefkowitz is a hard-minded scholar who does not share my sentiments, but her book is one of the strongest weapons that any teacher and parent can have to defend the minds of our children against the racist poisons being poured into their ears in Black History Month. The least that we can do as civilized readers is to buy this book.
[Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, by Mary Lefkowitz (New York: Basic Books) 222 pp., $24.00]