A book as sharp as a whittled stick has come along to puncture the pseudo-academic inflations that have ballooned into Afrocentrism, a body of myths claiming that white, ancient Greece stole science, philosophy and religion from a black, ancient Egypt and that we European types have covered up the crime ever since.
If Mary Lefkowitz’s “Not Out of Africa” succeeds in embarrassing schools and colleges out of their indulgence of Afrocentrism, perhaps we can get back to the legitimate business of African history.
African history had to fight for decades to get its rightful place at the academic table, struggling past casually racist assumptions that Africa had no history or, at any rate, none worth bothering about.
Now, ironically, it finds itself muscled out and, in some quarters, discredited by the exaggerated claims Afrocentrism makes on the basis of equivocal data, mere coincidences, misunderstood or misrepresented sources and, sometimes, raw assertion.
Lefkowitz, a classicist and humanities professor at Wellesley College, lays to rest the myths of Afrocentrism.
No, Socrates was not African. Sorry, Plato did not go to Africa to filch his philosophy. There’s no reason to suppose Cleopatra was black; her inbred Ptolemaic Greek ancestry is well-documented.
And the Egyptian Mystery System the Greeks supposedly cribbed, to which barbaric Europe owes its eventual enlightenment, turns out to be a later European romanticization of Egypt that is far more indebted to early Masonic mumbo jumbo than to ancient Egypt.
But schools have let Afrocentrism into their curricula, as it is easier to put up with than to fight. Thus, it goes unchallenged from without and from within.
Scholars who know better are cowed, indifferent or, sotto voce, disdainful. And within the field, status comes from puffing up racial bragging points.
Sadly, Afrocentrism betrays the very clientele it claims to serve. It is a case of “mission creep” gone wildly over the top.
Far from outfitting black youths with a sustaining legacy of pride and accomplishment, Afrocentrism hucksters shoddy goods that burden the mal-tutored with lifelong grievances against the supposedly racist refusal of whites to see gold where, in fact, there is only dross.
African history does not owe its legitimacy to a contrived injustice.
Ancient Egypt, for instance, was far more African, as we understand the term today, than Middle Eastern.
It was multiracial. It acknowledged color differences but based no hierarchy on them. It was intimate with black Africa. A good part of its population and leadership would have looked black to us. It owned much of its culture to the African interior, especially its religious concepts and forms.
The Greeks admired it enormously.
Nor has sub-Saharan Africa been without notable achievement, from the ancient kingdom of Cush to the later West African empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, the art of Benin and the testifying ruins of Zimbabwe.
When you think about it, Afrocentrism actually slanders African history by its implied assumption that the real thing isn’t good enough.