April 5, 2008


Lefkowitz Agonistes: a Contemporary Odyssey (CARLIN ROMANO, 3/28/08, Chronicle Review)

Historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses called Mary Lefkowitz "an obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department." Africana-studies professor Anthony Martin, her colleague and chief combatant at Wellesley College, dubbed her a "national leader of the Jewish onslaught against Afrocentrism in general, and me in particular." Khalid Muhammad, formerly of the Nation of Islam, railed against her in 1997 as "Left-o-witch," a "hook-nosed, lox-eating, bagel-eating, … so-called Jew."

Survivors of scholarly controversies often exhibit serious scars from their infighting. Mary Lefkowitz's experiences since she opposed a number of Afrocentrist historical claims in the 1990s — and wound up sued by Martin, assailed by Afrocentrists, and in a battle with breast cancer at the same time — add up to a cautionary tale.

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey, published this month by Yale University Press, is Lefkowitz's attempt to size up the lessons. "Was it worth it?" she asks. Her answer is "Yes." Most scholars who follow her through familiar campus phenomena from political correctness to colleague wimpiness ("I couldn't take sides because it wasn't my field," one colleague confided) will care more about the issues her case raises than her ultimate peace of mind.

Lefkowitz's battle with Afrocentrism began with her 1992 New Republic review of Martin Bernal's Black Athena (Rutgers University Press, 1987), which she still refers to here as "a work of fiction." In her chapter "Discovering Afrocentrism," Lefkowitz recounts how the magazine asked her to review it along with several other titles. Bernal's "principal thesis," Lefkowitz writes, "was that Greek culture was heavily dependent on earlier cultures in Egypt and the Near East." The rest of the books sent "also argued that Greek culture had been stolen or borrowed from Egypt, and that the inhabitants of ancient Egypt were Africans." The New Republic jazzed up matters with a flamboyant cover — "the bust of a Greek philosopher wearing a Malcolm X cap, with highlights in purple."

For the first time, Lefkowitz confronted such claims as that Egypt "had actually invaded Greece during the second millennium BC and that there was a large component of Egyptian vocabulary in ancient Greek." The other books also came as a shock. Stolen Legacy, by George G.M. James, in print nearly 40 years, argued that "Aristotle took his ideas about the soul from The Egyptian Book of the Dead." Africa: Mother of Western Civilization, by Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan (Black Classic Press, 1971), "charged that Aristotle had stolen his philosophy from works by Egyptians in the library of Alexandria" and even "put his name on them."

"This assertion was obviously false," Lefkowitz writes, "because the library at Alexandria was not built until after Aristotle's death, and no ancient writer records that Aristotle ever went to Egypt." But it became clear to Lefkowitz that a "tradition of a Stolen Legacy," its original source a 1731 French novel (Sethos, by Abbé Jean Terrasson) persisted among some black-studies scholars who "regarded the existence of Greek philosophy as yet another case of a colonialist European plundering of Africa."

Much of History Lesson recounts Lefkowitz's efforts, in her review, lectures, and Not Out of Africa (Basic Books, 1996), her critique of Afrocentrism, to bring the known historical record to bear on its assertions.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2008 7:02 AM
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