Cleopatra needled

March 15, 1996

The Afrocentric theory that Ancient Egypt not Greece is the cradle of civilisation is under attack.

Since the 19th century, black American thinkers have treasured the notion of Egypt as the African cradle of civilisation. "When the ancestors of the present haughty Saxons," ran an anonymous article in The Colored American Magazine of 1903, " - the Gauls, the Normans, and the Celts - were naked barbarians living in grottoes and dropping (sic) caves, slinging stones at wild animals for food, and eating that food uncooked, there was on Africa's soil, in Egypt, the land of the black man, a civilisation resting on the 'pinnacle of national splendour' far exceeding that of Greece or Rome today".

But asserting Egypt's primacy was not enough. In the 1940s and 1950s, a theory took hold that western Europeans did not only borrow from this black culture, they pillaged it - and then tried to conceal their crime. "Literature, science and art they stole, after Africa had measured each pole," wrote Marcus Garvey, one of the black leaders of the early 20th century, in a poem. The ancient Greeks, this theory went, were not the original philosophers and thinkers, but plagiarisers: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle learned their ideas from the Egyptians. "The Greeks were not the authors of Greek philosophy," Arkansas classics teacher George James wrote in his 1954 book, Stolen Legacy.

In 1993 Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan, author of African Origins of the Major Western Religions, gave the Martin Luther King memorial lecture at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Dr ben-Jochannan is an uncompromising exponent of Afrocentrism, usually taken to mean the study of history, culture, and literature from a "non-European" perspective. He was introduced by the college president as a "distinguished Egyptologist".

The audience included Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist at Wellesley for more than three decades. She heard him assert that Aristotle had gone to Egypt with Alexander and robbed the library at Alexandria, literally removing books off the shelves. As far as she knew, Aristotle had never been to Egypt. She stood up and asked him to explain another problem: how Aristotle pulled off the heist when the library did not exist until after his death in 322bc. "That's when people started surrounding me," she said, "and saying you've been trained to teach us lies about the past and conceal the extreme debt of Greeks to Africa."

Lefkowitz's book, Not Out of Africa, is a painstaking but often passionate defence of academic truth - and the good name of the Greeks -against what she regards as feel-good history, "identity politics", and simple factual error. The book has sold 20,000 copies and is in its third printing. She challenges claims that Cleopatra, Socrates, and Hannibal had African ancestors, and that the Greeks borrowed heavily in their philosophy, their Gods, and even their language from the Egyptians.

"In American universities not everyone knows what extreme Afrocentrists are doing in their classrooms," she begins. "Or even if they do know, they choose not to ask questions." The book is part polemic, part an erudite investigation of classical figures like Herodotus, who travelled to Egypt and observed similarities between its civilisation and his own. Lefkowitz argues that Herodotus's writings were speculative, misleading, and mistranslated, though she is not the first to do so.

She delves into the perennially thorny question of Cleopatra's granny, the elusive mistress of Ptolemy IX, long-claimed by Afrocentrists as an African but about whom very little is known. Cleopatra, says Lefkowitz, came from a Macedonian Greek dynasty where intermarriage even among close family members was the norm. She may have been a great, despotic, and ultimately heroic Egyptian leader, but she was not a role model for "women of colour".

But while she observes that teaching false information about Socrates and Aristotle will not put anyone in "immediate physical danger", Lefkowitz is outspoken on the "horrific result" of hostile propaganda. "There are of course many possible interpretations of the truth, but some things are simply not true," she writes. "It is not truth that there was no Holocaust . . . likewise, it is not true that the Greeks stole their philosophy from Egypt." It is instead, she writes, "relating a story, a myth, or a tall tale".

Lefkowitz has had other close brushes with the controversial edge of scholarship. In early 1994 a Wellesley colleague, Anthony Martin, published The Jewish Onslaught: Dispatches from the Wellesley Battlefront. Martin became a controversial figure at Wellesley when he began teaching, in an introductory course on African American history, that Jews played a major role in the slave trade. In the book he claimed to have encountered Jewish opposition, which included Lefkowitz.

She is on the board of advisers of the National Association of Scholars, a group that has consistently challenged the politically correct orthodoxy. Her book was backed by grants from two conservative foundations and is part of the academic backlash, often sponsored by conservatives, against the perceived extremes of multi-culturalism and feminism alike. Bernard Knox, the celebrated classicist who has ardently defended the continued relevance of what he fondly calls "dead white males", calls her book "detailed, carefully researched and fully documented". Several African American professors, concerned about Afrocentrism's more radical theories, including that black Eyptians discovered flight and electricity, and its disappointingly frequent lapses into anti-Semitism, have welcomed her work. Anthony Appiah, of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, calls the book "the best word so far in the debate about Egypt's influence on classical Greek philosophy".

One of Lefkowitz's targets is Martin Bernal, the Cambridge graduate now teaching at Cornell. In his much-publicised Black Athena Bernal set out to "lessen European cultural arrogance" by detailing how the Greeks borrowed from non-European cultures. Lefkowitz has helped marshall a full-scale assault on Bernal's scholarship: she is also the editor of Black Athena Revisited, a series of essays by scholars critical of his work, to which he says he was not given the chance to respond.

Bernal asserts that 19th-century classical scholars and those who followed in their tracks systematically down-played the Egyptian role in shaping Greek culture; if anyone is to be accused of "Orwellian" thought control, they are, he says. They postulated an invasion from the north - not the influence of Egypt - to explain nagging questions about, for example, the more than half of Greek vocabulary that cannot be traced to Indo-European roots. Lefkowitz challenges his sources, and says his etymology is based on "vague similarities", and that his argument over figures like Socrates "does not stand up to scrutiny".

Bernal, who says he is not an Afrocentrist per se, says it is too easy to pick holes in the work of the early generation of black scholars, the products of a segregated education system who often missed out on formal academic training. The first US suggestion that Cleopatra had a black ancestor, as Lefkowitz notes, came in 1946 in a book called World's Great Men of Colour. The book includes citations from popular literature that Cleopatra was "fat and black". But what Lefkowitz particularly objects to is that it is now in its 19th printing.

Bernal believes a new generation of African American scholars now picking up their PhDs may bring a new standard of scholarship to Afrocentrism and lift it beyond a tangled and often emotional debate. Lefkowitz compares Afrocentrism to a kind of religion, locked in its own dogma and ready to dismiss any opponent as a heretic.

Bernal counters: "I don't believe that all good things came from Africa, on the other hand I do believe that people of African descent have contributed substantially to world progress and this has been systematically played down over the past 200 years." Academic debate over the ancients, he says, is not so much about facts but "competitive plausibility". Originally a Far Eastern specialist, he draws parallels with China and Japan. "Japanese language is unrelated to Chinese, but it is saturated with Chinese words," he says. "It is the same distance from China to Japan by sea as it is from Egypt to Greece, and it is rougher and tougher to get there."

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