Scholia Reviews ns 6 (1997) 2.
Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Pp. xvii + 222, incl. 4 illustrations, notes and an index. ISBN 0-465-09837- 1. US$24.00.
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
The contributions of Mary Lefkowitz to the Afrocentric debate and the historiography of antiquity is well known for its clearheaded, analytical precision and for its passionate rejection of the hypothesis that a great deal of the glory that was Greece was stolen from the African Egyptians. In Not Out of Africa, Lefkowitz sets out to tackle the notion, current amongst many adherents of the post-modern approach to history, that there is no ascertainable historical 'truth' in the slippery rhetoric of historical texts, but that there are many truths, appropriated by those engaging with the texts in different contexts. Afrocentric historiography thus rewrites the past from an African or African- American perspective in an attempt to empower its readers with pride in what are reclaimed (from European historiography) as the glories of black cultural achievement. Historiography becomes the tool of cultural politics and, argues Lefkowitz, 'everyone should be aware that there are real dangers in allowing history to be rewritten, even for culturally useful purposes' (p. 8).
Lefkowitz focuses on the founding fathers of the Afrocentric approach to the historiography of classical antiquity, in particular George James, whose Stolen Legacy[] has been so influential in shaping the views of extremist Afrocentrists, such as the inimitable Dr. Yosef A.A. ben- Jochannan, whose public lectures seem such a dangerous combination of racist hysteria and transparently shabby scholarship, exposed in a rather kindly way by Lefkowitz. The author probes the origins of Afrocentrism in African American historiography and interestingly demonstrates how the views of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, were shaped by the following kind of claim made by black Masonry: 'So out of Egypt and through the black man, the world gains its first knowledge of the worship of the deity and the cultivation of science . . . The Negroes [were] the founders of arts, sciences, and other forms of culture instead of being only hewers of wood and drawers of water' (cited in Lefkowitz, p. 130). The influential work of the Senegalese author, Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism is also critically examined.[]
Common to the above historiographical tradition is not only an uncritical dependence on the works of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus (used extensively by Martin Bernal as well, in order to construct his hypothesis in Black Athena),[] but also, as Lefkowitz demonstrates, a tendency to use Greek myth as historical evidence. The myth of Danaus, for example, has been extensively used to illustrate Egyptian colonisation of Greece (the ubiquitous Hyksos on the move again?); however, with the aid of a family tree (p. 19), Lefkowitz reminds us that Danaus was the descendant of Io, daughter of Inachus of Argos, who wandered from Greece to Egypt, tormented by the jealous Hera. Thus, if anything, Danaus and his daughters were returning Greek exiles, not colonising Egyptians. Furthermore, there is simply no archaeological proof of an invasion of Greece by Egyptians in the second millenium BCE. There are undeniably many references in Herodotus, and Diodorus to Egyptian influence on various aspects of Greek culture, but Lefkowitz is at pains to deconstruct these authors and show that Greek writers, in their efforts to establish direct links with an obviously older and very impressive culture, presented a very Hellenised portrait of Egypt, filtered through the very sort of ethnocentric gaze the Afrocentrists employ. This is especially evident in, for example, Herodotus' use of Greek names for Egyptian deities: 'the real and important distinctions [between ancient Egyptian and Greek religion] are further obscured', argues Lefkowitz, 'by the Greek practice of calling other peoples' gods by the names of Greek gods' (p.67).
Of particular interest is Lefkowitz's intricate 'Quellenforschung' which demonstrates, most convincingly, that the ideas of James and Garvey were grounded in the Egyptology of Freemasonry,[] which was in turn moulded by the essentially fictitious account of Egypt and its non-existent 'Mystery System', described in the Abbe/ Terrasson's Sethos, published in 1731.[] Both Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder were Masons who had read Terrasson; 'The Magic Flute' thus abounds with the kinds of symbols and motifs characteristic of this essentially European construct of Egypt. The fact that black Masonry and the founding fathers of Afrocentrism have been perpetuating a 'wholly European Egypt, as imagined by Greek and Roman writers, and further elaborated in 18th century France' (p. 126) is not without irony.
Some of the more radical claims of the Afrocentrist tradition, such as the fact that Socrates and Cleopatra were black and that Aristotle slunk around Egypt (in the wake of Alexander the Great), pilfering African ideas from the library at Alexandria (not yet built), are handled by Lefkowitz with a cool empiricism: the evidence is carefully dissected and shown to be shaky or non-existent. A\ propos the case of Cleopatra's black ancestors, for example, Lefkowitz comments: 'The principal reason why classical scholars do not talk about Cleopatra's black ancestors is that no one knows that Cleopatra's grandmother was an Egyptian, or whether she was black, because no one knows anything about Cleopatra's grandmother (p.47). Of course, there remains the possibility (acknowledged by Lefkowitz) that Cleopatra may have had black ancestors, but this is not a proven historical fact and should not be propagated as such.
All of this would seem like the proverbial tempest in an academic teacup, if it were not for the fact that the Afrocentrist view of antiquity is being taught in some American universities as if it were the 'truth'. Here Lefkowitz is especially interesting, as she considers the purpose of such courses within the wider contexts of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Lefkowitz clearly believes that there are many possible interpretations of the truth (no-one would deny that history can ever be written without some bias), but refuses to accept that propaganda and myth (or that which is patently untrue) should be taught as truth, even if for the sake of cultural empowerment. Freedom of speech gives one the right to claim that Aristotle stole his philosophy from Egypt, but does academic freedom give one the same right to teach this opinion in the classroom, as if it were fact? Lefkowitz clearly believes not: 'Academic freedom and tenure are not intended to protect the expression of uninformed or frivolous opinions' (p.165). Such questions lead Lefkowitz to discuss the purpose of universities in her final chapter.
Because of the confusion about the purpose of the university (do we enforce social justice, or do we disseminate knowledge?), we have reached the point where academic discourse is impossible, at least in certain quarters, because the achievement of social goals, such as diversity, has been allowed to transcend the need for valid evidence. But once we accept the idea that instead of truth, there are many truths, or different ethnic truths, we cannot hope to have an intellectual community (pp. 174-175). Once one asserts as fact that Aristotle stole his philosophy from Egypt and conceals the evidence that proves the contrary, one cannot, believes Lefkowitz, have scientific or even social scientific discourse or a community or a university.
Perhaps because Lefkowitz deals with the views of extreme Afrocentrists who, because of racist attitudes, peddle patent untruths (such as the thefts of Aristotle from the non- existent library at Alexandria), she has a clear notion of what she understands by the truth. It is clearly not 'point of view', for she believes that one can have a diversity of 'points of view', but not a diversity of 'truths' (p.162). The notion of diversity cannot be extended to truth which, for Lefkowitz, seems to mean something like 'known facts'. However, what are the 'known facts', when one deals with something as elusive as the influence of one culture on another? Take the hypothesis that ancient Greek civilisation was influenced by the civilisation of ancient Egypt. Turn to the literary sources, such as Herodotus, Diodorus and Plutarch. This category of evidence undeniably suggests that many aspects of Greek civilisation were influenced by ancient Egypt; it appears to be a 'known fact' to the authors concerned. However, we are not to believe this, as none of these writers knew Egyptian and in any case they conceived of Egypt in Hellenic terms. Our disbelief of this evidence is shaped by the notion that ancient historians worked within a context which shaped what they considered to be the 'truth'. Lefkowitz's 'deconstruction' of these Greek writers is surely moulded by the intellectual milieu in which she is writing; the late twentieth century with its attendant notion of the inherent dangers in essentialising the 'truth'. The artistic record (for example, aspects of Minoan art- such as the Ayia Triadha sarcophagus and archaic Greek sculpture) suggests considerable Egyptian influence; the archaeological and linguistic records (despite Bernal's ingenious and at times disastrous etymological games), on the other hand, suggest that the influence was minimal. What are the 'known facts'? That the Greeks stole their civilisation from Africa? Obviously not. That there was some influence over many centuries? Perhaps, but this has to be debated, and the context and intention of the interpreter of or claimant to the 'truth' (Lefkowitz included) has to be considered. We may well have to come to the same conclusion Lefkowitz reached about Cleopatra's grandmother: we do not know the 'truth', but such a conclusion seems possible only if one believes that in certain areas of cultural history there are no 'known facts'.
There is no doubt, however, that Lefkowitz's work can make a crucial contribution to the broader Eurocentric- Afrocentric debate taking place in many South African universities at the moment. After years of apartheid historiography, many of our students are keenly aware of myth and propaganda disguised as history and are eager to discover what they conceive of as a truly African historiography. Lefkowitz's expose/ of the excesses of the Afrocentrist view of antiquity comes as a timely reminder that ethnocentric historiography, whether written by Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus or George James, can be horribly blinkered and can, for political or cultural purposes, distort the evidence which exists or make claims on the basis of that which does not exist. For those of us who teach classics in universities in Africa, where, I trust, Mary Lefkowitz's book will feature alongside those of Diop and Bernal in courses where the historiography of antiquity is debated, Not Out of Africa is essential reading.
[] George James, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (New York 1954).
[] Cheikh Ana Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology translated by Yaa-Lengi Meema Ngemi and edited by H.I. Salemson and M. de Jager (New York 1991).
[] Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afro- Asiatic roots of Classical Civilization. Vol. 1: The fabrication of ancient Greece 1785- 1985. (London 1987); Vol. II: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (New Brunswick 1991).
[] Garvey is cited in Lefkowitz (p. 207f.).
[] J. Terrason, Life of Sethos Taken from Private Memoirs of the Ancient Egyptians 2 Vols. translated by Thomas Lediard (London 1732).