Race in Antiquity: 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.
Professor Lefkowitz is conversant with many Greek sources but as she admits this is the first time that she has ventured into these waters. This is unfortunate because she has created a false security among those who believe that Greece sprung like a miracle unborn and untaught. Bringing Frank Snowden in the discussion of the ancient world does not help because Professor Snowden’s book Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Graeco-Roman Experience is fatally flawed as a Eurocentric interpretation of the African past. His objective was to demonstrate that Africans existed in the imaginations and experience of Greece and Rome. He succeeded in stripping all agency from Africans. The problem is that Ethiopia in the form of Nubia and Kemet (Egypt) existed thousands of years before there was a Greece or Rome. To start a discussion of the ancient world with 800 B.C. is certainly poor scholarship. But Professor Lefkowitz reliance on Snowden is the least of her problems.
The book is badly written and terribly redundant as if she is in a hurry to enlarge a relatively poor argument. How many times can you really say that George G. M. James should not have used the term “stolen legacy” when he claimed that the Africans influenced the Greeks? Professor James certainly had just as much rhetorical justification as Professor Lefkowitz who chose the unsubtle title “Not Out of Africa” probably for the same reason as Professor James called his book Stolen Legacy.
Ruling classes always seek to promote and to maintain their ruling mythologies. Professor Lefkowitz’ passion in trying to walk a tight rope between support of the false mythology of a Greek miracle and the facts of Egyptian influence on the early Greeks is telling. She seeks to minimize the role Egypt played in civilizing Greece by claiming that only in art and architecture was there real influence. This flies in the face of the ancient observers and beneficiaries of the largesse of the Africans.
Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa, has demonstrated the tremendous power of a false idea especially when it is advanced in the halls of the Academy. I have come to believe that it is a part of a larger falsification that encompasses the various right-wing ideologies that parade as truth. They are rooted in the same dogma: reason is the gift of the Greeks. The Greeks are Europeans, Europeans are white, white people gave the world reason and philosophy. This is not only a bad idea it is a false idea. It is a bad idea because it preaches a European triumphalism and it is a false idea because the historical record is contrary. Tragically the idea that Europeans have some different intellectual or scientific ability is accepted doctrine and some scholars will go to any length to try to uphold it. Usually, as Lefkowitz does, they commit four fundamental flaws:
1) They attack insignificant or trivial issues to obscure the main points.
Professor Lefkowitz has three main axes to grind in her book. The first is that a student told her that she believed Socrates was black. The second is that the Greek gods came from Africa which she attributes to Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena, and to Cheikh Anta Diop, the author of The African Origin of Civilization. The third is that freemasonry is the source of George James’ claim in his book Stolen Legacy that the Greeks got many of their major ideas from the Egyptians.
The main point made by Afrocentrists is that Greece owes a substantial debt to Egypt and that Egypt was anterior to Greece and should be considered a major contributor to our current knowledge. I think I can say without a doubt that Afrocentrists do not spend time arguing that either Socrates or Cleopatra were black. I have never seen these ideas written by an Afrocentrist nor have I heard them discussed in any Afrocentric intellectual forums. Professor Lefkowitz provides us with a hearsay incident which she probably reports accurately. It is not an Afrocentric argument.
I believe that both Bernal and Diop have done admirable jobs making their own cases on the legendary origins of the Greeks and I believe that readers should go to the sources themselves to see whose case, theirs or Professor Lefkowitz’, is most plausible. I am convinced from my reading that the relationship between ancient Greece and Africa was closer and more familiar than Greece’s relationship to Northern Europe.
2) They will make assertion and offer their own interpretations as evidence.
Professor Lefkowitz makes a statement on page 1 of her book that “In American universities today not everyone knows what extreme Afrocentrists are doing in their classrooms. Or even if they do know, they choose not to ask questions.” We are off to a bad start. Who are these extreme Afrocentrists? She does not provide us with one example of something that an extreme Afrocentrist is teaching in a classroom. Not one. But already the reader is inclined to believe that something exists where nothing exists. No matter how passionate, assertion is not evidence. What Afrocentrists do teach is that you cannot begin the discussion of world history with the Greeks. Creating clouds of suspicion about scholarly colleagues in order to support a racial mythology developed over the past centuries to accompany European enslavement of Africans, imperialism, and exploitation will not dissipate the fact of Greece’s debt to Africa.
3) They will undermine writers they previously supported in order to maintain the fiction of a Greek miracle.
Professor Lefkowitz and others who once considered Herodotus to be the Father of History now find fault with Herodotus because as Afrocentrists read Book Two of Histories we find that Herodotus glorifies the achievements of Egypt in relationship to Greece. But Herodotus is not the only ancient Greek writer to be dismissed by classicists who accept what Bernal rightly calls an Aryan interpretation of the ancient world.
Aristotle reported that the Egyptians gave the world the study of geometry and mathematics and the Aryanists argue that Aristotle made mistakes in what he observed. Professor Lefkowitz carries the denial of the ancient Greeks to a new level saying essentially that you cannot trust Homer, Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, or Strabo. Her position is that Strabo, like Herodotus, depended too much on what the Egyptian priests told him. Every Greek who wrote on the overwhelming impact of Egypt (Africa) on Greece (Europe) is discredited or set up to be discredited by the Aryanists. The idea to abandon the Greek authors rests on the belief that these ancient Greek writers cannot be counted upon to support the theories of white supremacy.
4) They will announce both sides of an issue are correct, then move to uphold only the side that supports European triumphalism.
Professor Lefkowitz could have admitted that Egypt during the times of the Pharaohs, whatever interpretation you have of that ancient society, for example, as ornamented with Mystery Schools or simply filled with keepers of mysteries at the temples of Ipet sut, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, Esna, Abydos, and other cities, was the source of much of Greek knowledge. Rather she claims that the only real impact of Egypt on Greece was in art and architecture. This is to state an obvious fact in order to obscure the deeper influences in science, astronomy, geometry, literature, religion, mathematics, law, government, music, medicine, and philosophy.
Professor Lefkowitz’ major points are not only flawed but her reasoning is faulty and cannot be sustained by any inquiry into the Greek or Egyptian languages or into ancient history. She wonders why the Afrocentric perspective is plausible to so many intelligent people. Clearly it is plausible to intelligent people because they do not believe that there was some unique brand of intelligence that struck the Greeks and created a Greek miracle willy-nilly without contact with the civilized world. In most cases knowledge builds upon knowledge. In the case of the ancient Greeks they tell us that they built upon the Egyptians. Should we believe them or should we believe the modern Aryanist interpreters who want to dismiss the ancient Greek observers?
What are the substantial arguments advance by Afrocentrists, not the hearsay comments of a student or some rhetorical repartee between public debaters? What Afrocentrists articulate (see Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1990; Theophile Obenga, A Lost Tradition: African Philosophy in World History, Philadelphia: Source, 1995) is that the Greeks were students of the Egyptians. Readers should see the works of Yosef Ben-Jochannan and George G. M. James for themselves rather than rely on the misinterpretations and distortions of others.
On these facts we stand:
*Ancient Egyptians were black people.
*Egyptian civilization precedes Greece by several thousand years
*The pyramids are completed (2500 BC) long before Homer appears (800 BC)
*Philosophy originates in Africa and the first Greek philosophers (Thales, Isocrates) studied in Egypt
* A discussion of the wise, wisdom, (sb) appears on tomb of Antef in 2052 BC
*Thales of Miletus is not a philosopher until 600 BC
Among Greek historians and others who wrote about what the Greeks learned from Egypt are Homer, Herodotus, Iamblicus, Aetius, Diodorous Siculus, Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, and Plato. Who were some of the Greek students of Africans, according to the ancient records? They were Plato, Solon, Lycurgus, Democritus, Anaxamander, Anaxagoras, Herodotus, Homer, Thales, Pythagoras, Eudoxus, and Isocrates and many others. Some of these students even wrote of their studies in Egypt as well.
There are many other points that are debatable in Lefkowitz’ book but I do not have space to discuss all of them in this essay. However, I do want to point out that she is also wrong on the issue of Alexandria. The City of Alexandria built in honor of Alexander of Macedonia was not a new city, the Greeks simply expanded an existing city and changed its name. The ancient Egyptian city of Rhacôtis, which probably had an even older name, was the original African city upon which Alexandria was built much like Kinshasa under the Belgians was expanded and changed to Leopoldville. Triumphalism has a way of insinuating itself into everything and then claiming that it is original.
In the end I have asked myself, what is Professor Lefkowitz’ point, why does she see the need to challenge Bernal, James, Diop, or to question my integrity? She states very clearly that her project is about sustaining the American myth of European triumphalism. In her own words:
“Any attempt to question the authenticity of ancient Greek civilization is of direct concern even to people who ordinarily have little interest in the remote past. Since the founding of this country, ancient Greece has been intimately connected with the ideals of American democracy.”
No one could have given a better reason than that for Professor Lefkowitz’ spirited but misguided attempt to defend a falsification of history in the name of attacking Afrocentricity. When all is said and done a more perfect union of this nation can only be based on facts.