Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Race In Antiquity: Truly Out of Africa
Truly Out of Africa Africa's influence on ancient Greece, the oldest European civilization, was profound and significant in art, architecture, astronomy, medicine, geometry, mathematics, law, politics, and religion. Yet there has been a furious campaign to discredit African influence and to claim a miraculous birth for Western civilization. A number of books and articles by white and some black conservatives seek to disprove the Egyptian influence on Greece.
One of the most recent works in this genre is a book by Wellesley professor Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa. It continues what Martin Bernal calls in Black Athena the Aryanist tradition of attacking African agency in regard to Greece by raising strawpeople arguments and then knocking them over. This is unfortunate but to be expected by an intellectual tradition that supports the dominant mythologies of race in the history of the West by diverting attention to marginal issues in the public domain.
Afrocentricity seeks to discover African agency in every situation. Who are we? What did we do? Where did we travel? What is our role in geometry? How do we as a people function in this or that contemporary situation? But the Afrocentrist does not advance African particularity as universal. This is its essential difference from Eurocentricity which is advanced in the United States and other places as if the particular experiences of Europeans is universal. This imposition is ethnocentric and often racist. Afrocentricity advances the view that it is possible for a pluralism of cultures to exist without hierarchy but this demands cultural equality and respect.
Mary Lefkowitz' book has sought to re-assert the idea that Greece did not receive substantial contributions from Kemet, the original name of Egypt, which is the Greek name for the ancient land. Professor Lefkowitz has offered the public a pablum history which ignores or distorts the substantial evidence of African influence on Greece in the ancient writings of Aetius, Strabo, Plato, Homer, Herodotus, Diogenes, Plutarch, and Diodorus Siculus. A reader of Lefkowitz' book must decide if she or he is going to believe those who wrote during the period or someone who writes today. History teaches us that a person is more likely to distort an event the farther away from it she happens to be. If you have a choice, go with the people who saw the ancient Egyptians and wrote about what they saw.
Conservative white columnists have felt a tremendous need to respond in the most vigorous fashion with their applause to shore up their racial mythologies. And now George Will (Newsweek, February 12, 1996) and Roger Kimball (Wall Street Journal, February 14, 1996) have seen fit to bless Professor Mary Lefkowitz' Not Out of Africa as a sort of definitive moment in intellectual history. It is no such moment. It is a racial argument clearly fast back-stepping. As is too often the case these days, however, Lefkowitz received the go-ahead to attack Afrocentricity by writing this book of blacks such as Anthony Appiah and Henry Gates. They have, of course, had a real problem with the Afrocentric idea.
What this indicates is that we have gone full circle from the Hegelian "Let us forget Africa" to a late 20th century attack on African scholarship by declaring, in the face of the evidence, that major influences on Greece were not out of Africa. And as such it will simply confirm the inability of some scholars to get beyond the imposition of their particularism of Europe. No one can remove the gifts of Europe nor should that ever be the aim of scholarship but Greece cannot impose itself as some universal culture that developed full-blown out of nothing, without the foundations it received from Africa.
The aim of Professor Lefkowitz is to support the unsupportable idea of a miraculous Greece and thus to enhance a white supremacist myth of the ancient world. Perhaps George Will and Roger Kimball believe that that they have found a savior of the pure white thesis. They are wrong. The thesis cannot be supported with facts although Professor Lefkowitz goes to great length to confuse the picture by concentrating on irrelevancies.
Professor Mary Lefkowitz' work pales besides the research done by Cornell professor Martin Bernal, Black Athena, the late Cheikh Anta Diop, author of Civilization or Barbarism, and Temple professor Theophile Obenga, author of the important La Philosophie Africaine de la période Pharonique, (African Philosophy in the Age of the Pharoahs) or the forthcoming work by Professor Maulana Karenga on ancient Egyptian ethics.
The press fanfare granted Not out of Africa, however, does demonstrate how noise can be confused with music. But what is more worrisome is that it demonstrates a glee, although misinformed, of those who feel some sense of relief that a white scholar has taken on the Afrocentrists, a kind of white hope idea. This stems, as I believe George Will has shown in his essay on the subject, from what is viewed as white salvation from the irrationality of Afrocentrists. It originates in an historical anti-African bias and Roger Kimball nearly gloated that readers would "savor" Lefkowitz' "definitive dissection of Afrocentrism." Contrary to any definitive dissection of Afrocentrism what Professor Lefkowitz offered was a definitive exposure of the principal assumptions of a racial structure of classical knowledge.