Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History
By Mary Lefkowitz
Basic Books, 222 pp., $24
This is one of those books that needed to be written if the racial and ethnic aspects of the culture wars in the United States are to be finally resolved.
In "Not Out of Africa," classics scholar Mary Lefkowitz cuts through and rebuts a series of myths, as she describes them, which deny that the ancient Greeks were the "inventors of democracy, philosophy, and science."
She puts down the argument ("myth" for her), advanced by some black scholars today, that the Greeks stole their ideas from black Egyptians in Africa. Along the way, she convincingly overturns the claims that Socrates and Cleopatra were black.
If such theories, which she neatly demolishes, seem somewhat inconsequential and removed from practical affairs, consider that they are taught in some Oregon public schools and in a number of universities across the US.
Why is it important, in her view, to challenge them and to reply to them with facts and arguments drawn from the best of scholarship?
At one level, she says, simple justice would seem to require that the Greeks get credit for their accomplishments.
But also, students are being "indoctrinated along party lines" and for political reasons, rather than being given all the evidence and taught how to make judgments for themselves.
Further, she herself was called a racist for challenging those who put forth such arguments.
She also found that other academics - including some administrators in universities - who agreed with her were not willing to stand up and speak for the value of debate in academic life.
Finally, Lefkowitz argues, if the so-called Afrocentrists who argue such views are allowed to bend historical facts and force objectivity and reasoned debate out of academic life, other ethnic groups will try exactly the same thing.
"Will students of one ethnicity deny the existence of other 'ethnic truths,' with dire consequences akin to the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia?" she asks.
She also recalls both the racism that led to the Holocaust and the "fictive history" used by the Third Reich.
Lefkowitz answers well the belief that the political scene today justifies promulgation of myths in order to build the self-esteem of blacks. Every ethnic group, she argues convincingly, must squarely face its full and factual history.
Multiculturalism and political correctness are yanked into perspective when she points out that 30 years ago, it might have seemed plausible to some to have argued that Cleopatra was Jewish.
The book is a case study in historical methods, the value and limits of scholarship, and the preciousness of hard-bitten reason and objectivity. The book is also lucid and accessible.
Each page is fascinating. But especially admirable for this reviewer is how Lefkowitz handles a very thorny problem: A number of early Greeks were ready to believe that Egypt, because it was so ancient, had provided much culture to Greece. But these Greeks did not know the ancient Egyptian language.
After hieroglyphics were deciphered just 130 years ago, 19th-century scholars sleuthed out the basic facts regarding ancient Egyptian civilization.
The consensus was formulated then, and it holds today, that those early Greeks overestimated what Egypt had given them.
But out of this twist of history arose the wrong turns European intellectuals took in the 18th century on their way to laying the traps that apparently have caught the Afrocentrists of today.
Responsible academics will read and act on this book.