The Argument We're Really Having

© 1996 by Ibrahim Sundiata

Afrocentrism is many things to many people, from the insistent claims of Leonard Jeffries to the commercialism of the mainstream media. In the last five years it has pushed its way into the American consciousness, both as an academic movement and as an attitude. Several years ago I watched Eddy Murphy as Akenaton, Iman as Nfertiti, and Michael Jackson as a Trickster Imhotep in the music video "Remember the Time." MTV had met Afrocentrism? At any rate, it was an ambitious fantasy set in ancient Egypt for the delectation of Black Americans and, perhaps, the consternation of Whites.

I, a professional Africanist, had remained largely removed from the controversy surrounding Black nationalist historiography and, especially, Afrocentrism. Not that I hadn't heard about clashes. Several years ago, I could not help but be aware of charges of both racism and anti-Semitism at Hillary Clinton's alma mater, Wellesley College. Professor Tony Martin of the Africana Studies Department taught from The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, a book issued by the Nation of Islam; it argued that Jews dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Professor Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist, became one of Professor Martin's chief critics. He in turn accused her of leading a "Jewish onslaught." The president of the college became embroiled in an argument over freedom of speech, a debate with national reverberations, especially in a decade of supposedly deteriorating Black/Jewish relations.

Several months ago I met the same Mary Lefkowitz, a pleasant low-keyed woman with a scholarly face. In a course about Africa and the West, I had invited her to speak. Lefkowitz, now author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, spoke in measured tones about the stories that many scholars, Black and White, had spun about the connection between Egypt and Greece. The student audience asked questions and probed the responses in the best scholarly fashion. And that should have been that.

Now, in May of 1996, I found myself on a panel at Wellesley with the opposing forces of Afrocentrism and anti-Afrocentrism. I had stepped into the minefield that surrounds Afrocentrism, "Blackness" and "political correctness" in the academy. The audience of several hundred, crammed into a small science auditorium, was a sea of black, brown and white faces. Some young, a few old, mostly female, they seemed to resonate with the kind of intense interest seldom reserved for ancient history. Indeed, I knew that they had not come for that, per se. In the past several months Lefkowitz has become the doyenne of those who wish to see the end of liberal "relativism" in the academy, including many on the Right who see her as the opening wedge in a crusade to cleanse the temples of learning of creeping multiculturalism. Conservative pundits like George Will in Newsweek are using her work as a cudgel to beat home certain ideas about standards, pedagogy and race. Not since Martin Bernal's 1987 Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, which argued for the African roots of Attic civilization, have so many nonspecialists gotten into a lather about the sons and daughters of Hellen. The discussion has little to do with Egyptology or classics; it does involve our deepest feelings of who we are and the state of contemporary Black/White relations.

Lefkowitz is a serious scholar. We also have essential points of disagreement. She and I talked over lunch about the controversy surely to follow on the heels of the publication of her book. Lefkowitz points out that some Afrocentrists state that the ancient Greeks stole their philosophy from Egypt. She maintains that any idea of an Egyptian "Mystery System" is ultimately based on Greco-Roman sources which present only a partial and late version of Egyptian practice and ritual. These were worked up into a pseudohistorical pastiche in the early eighteenth century by a French cleric and then given wide currency. Lefkowitz argues that the Masons and certain twentieth century African American writers mistakenly used this work to construct a vision of ancient Egyptian religion and knowledge. However, she does not stop there. On the basis of a very slender number of examples, she set out to demolish what she construes to be "Afrocentrists" and to save young people from their clutches. She explicitly states that her work is a critique of "relativist" or "subjective" history that attempts to vindicate the past of any particular group—in this case Blacks. Indeed, her work has been partially funded by conservative groups hoping to stem the tide of such scholarship. If her tormentors have the Nation of Islam, Professor Lefkowitz has the Bradley and John M.Olin Foundations.

Until the publication of Bernal's work in the late 1980s, the White academic establishment took little notice of what was emerging as "Afrocentrism." However, Black nationalist historiography had already put down deep roots in the African American community. In the nineteenth century writers like Edward Blyden and Martin Delany pointed the way. In the twentieth century J. A. Rogers and others emphasized the Black contributions to "High Cultures" of the Old World, contributions which they argued had been for too long denied. At the same time, religious groups, like the Moorish Science Temple and, later, the Nation of Islam, created a completely alternative cosmology and narrative for African Americans. This responded to the predominant ideology of White supremacy and created a universal history in which the North American racial hierarchy was turned on its head. Blacks were the original people and whites were a devolution. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the following Black Power movement increased the need for a broader new history. Works like Chancellor Williams' The Destruction of Black Civilization and George James' Stolen Legacy became focal texts. The Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop's works were translated into English; these were taken up by many Black Studies departments and became part of the alternative Black Studies canon.

Afrocentrists argue that Blacks must see themselves through Black eyes, as agents of history, rather than as simply subjects of investigation. Their view must proceed from an "inside place." Most emphasize the civilizations of northeastern Africa, namely Kemet (Egypt), Nubia, Axum, and Meroe. Early on it was truly a "Black Thing," involving as it did its own conferences, publishing and networks. By 1978 Jay Carruthers' Kemetic Institute was established in Chicago. A year later a similar thematic course was taken by the Institute of Pan-African Studies in Los Angeles. A meeting in that city in 1984, the First Annual Ancient Egyptian Studies resulted in the organization of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. In the same year Ivan Van Sertima's Nile Valley Civilization group held a major conference. His Journal of African Civilization became a major diffusion point in the burgeoning corpus of Afrocentric literature.

In spite of criticism (or maybe because of it), Afrocentrism (or Afrocentricity) was and is spreading. Elementary schools in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, as well as other locales, have initiated new curricula, impelled largely by the demands of parents and students. The African American Baseline Essays, created for the Portland, Oregon, school system, have had a wide impact. Covering a number of disciplines, ranging form history to mathematics, the essays attempt to topple the perceived "Eurocentrism" of the pedagogical status quo. At the same time, Afrocentrism has begun to make itself felt in higher education. The largest Afrocentric program in the United States is housed at Temple University in Philadelphia and has well-over one hundred students under the chairmanship of Molefi Asante.

The African American Studies establishment has awakened to find itself on the defensive and university administrators find their campuses being visited by a stream of Afrocentric speakers invited in by the students. In the early 1970s Orlando Patterson of Harvard, a Jamaican-born sociologist, lambasted the incipient movement as emphasizing only "pageants, pyramids and princes." Twenty years later Newsweek carried a feature article on it; Afrocentrism was a menacing exotic growth emanating from the bowels of urban America, rapping out a lyric of Black primacy and rapping ancient history on the head. Many Whites and not a few African Americans saw it as dangerous. In 1994 the Manhattan Institute, a public policy forum, published Alternatives to Afrocentrism, a collection of highly critical essays by, among others, Lefkowitz, Gerald Early, Stanley Crouch, Wilson Moses, and Frank Yurco. Early, an African American, has been especially vitriolic, dismissing Afrocentrism as just another North American experiment in "group therapy," intellectual fast food for his less sophisticated brethren.

Lefkowitz says that her own combat with Afrocentrism began after a visit to Wellesley in the early 1990s by the longtime Afrocentrist Yosef Ben-Jochannan. Given this experience and subsequent ones, the Wellesley professor advises: "University administrators ought to ask whether we need courses in flat-earth theory — or Afrocentric ancient history — even if someone is prepared to teach them." This assumes an equivalence between flat earth theory and all Afrocentrism, a simplistic assumption, at best. Some of Afrocentrism's detractors connect it with everything from anti-Americanism to anti-Semitism. True, among some of its proponents these elements are all too much in evidence. Doctrines of "Sun People" and "Ice People" have emerged that simply reverse the Manichean duality of the dominant White mindset and spit it back. Melanism, "the doctrine that this pigment confers superior intelligence on Blacks, has been propounded, as have theories, too numerous to mention, which connect the origin of Blacks with the Lost Continent of Mu or Muria, a kind of sepia version of Atlantis. Indeed, like former Utopians, many tendencies branch off and make the transition from the tired Profane History of this world (and the political battles it calls for) to millenarian Never Lands which exist outside the American racial nightmare.

Many of Afrocentrism's critics have chosen to battle these straw men (and women). However, "Afrocentrists do not want," according to Asante, "to replace Greece with Egypt. They want a proper recognition of African civilization." Afrocentrism "is not, nor can it be based on biological determinism." The movement is open to "anyone willing to submit to the discipline of learning the concepts and methods. . . ." The question is not whether or not Cleopatra was Black — Asante argues that she was not — but about "a proper recognition of African civilization." Maulana Karenga uses the term "Afrocentricity" to avoid any perception that it has aims equivalent to the "Eurocentrism" it seeks to replace. In seeking to delimit it, he has encouraged its adherents to be autocritical. They must not "promote a static, monolithic and unreal concept of African culture which denies or diminishes its dynamic and diverse character." They must also not "overfocus on the Continental African past at the expense of recognizing the African American past and present as central to and constitutive of African culture and the Afrocentric enterprise."

Afrocentrism attracts attention in a way that new theories of the diffusion of the Indo-European languages do not. Part of this is due to the fact that Afrocentrism lends itself to a political vision. Many of its opponents, from Arthur Schlesinger to Dinesh D'Souza, see it as the historiographical groundwork for Black separatism. As it filters into the academy, it increasingly influences young African Americans who will be the leaders of tomorrow. In addition, as it filters into formerly white temples of learning, it acquires legitimacy and funding which make it harder to uproot as time progresses. To its myriad enemies, it, Hydra-like, seems to acquire new heads and new strength. Some of these new heads are White and within the Ivy League. Chief among them is Martin Bernal of Cornell. He argued that until the eighteenth century Western Europeans had seen the origins of Greek civilization in Egyptian and Phoenician colonization. In the nineteenth century this "Ancient Model" was dropped in favor of one which attributed the wellsprings of classical Greek civilization to hardy (and quite White) northerners cascading down the Balkans. Bernal labels this formulation the "Aryan Model." In it the African and Semitic roots of the West could be blotted out. Racism and anti-Semitism had triumphed, if only for a time.

Bernal's second volume of Black Athena was published in 1991 and it still causing fallout half-a-decade later. Indeed, cyberspace is whizzing with e-mailed debates between the twin peaks of the (White) debate on Afrocentrism. Lefkowitz and a colleague, Guy Rogers, have added fuel to the fire by editing a rather ponderous tome entitled Black Athena Revisited in which a wide variety of scholars hammer away at Bernal's central theses. Much of it has been heard before; much of it needs to be very seriously debated. Much of it is arcane and makes one wonder why all the media hype surrounding arguments about people who have been dead for at least twenty-five hundred years. For instance, Frank Yurco, the Egyptologist, tackles Black Athena herself and holds that Bernal's claim that the Hellenic goddess of wisdom sprang from an Egyptian prototype, Neit, is nonsense. Yurco assures us, at one point, that "H is a strongly voiced phoneme in Egypto-Coptic..[also] Greek theta does not exist in Egypto-Coptic, but it would have to derive from the final t in Egyptian Hwt." Not really the kind of thing most people, even academics, discuss at parties. It is of even less concern to the "Boyz in the Hood." So why now is this "hot stuff"? Lefkowitz is invited to speak on National Public Radio and is defended by George Will, but the recent discovery of the complex relationship between the Germanic languages and the Slavic and Celtic groups won't get five minutes or five pages in the media. The issue is race. The present wrangles have two parts: the relationship between "Black" Africa and Egypt, and the relationship between Egypt and Greece. The first is primary; the issue of Egypt's relation to Greece only takes on interest (and color) when the issue of who the ancient Egyptian actually "were" comes into play.

The assertion that the Egyptians were "Black" raises hackles. The three writers that deal with race in the Lefkowitz/Rogers collection go to considerable lengths to prove that "Blacks," however defined, are not part of the story. Indeed, Glen Bowersock, reviewing Not Out of Africa in the New York Times, had already questioned "why Egyptian origins or influences should be linked with Africans at all, except in the simple-minded geographical sense." This is the heart of the matter. It has bedeviled Western scholars for over one-hundred and fifty years and is still not resolved. Although in the nineteenth century Sir Richard Burton referred to modern Egyptians as "whitewashed niggers," and Sir Flinders Petrie referred to their ancient ancestors as being of "course mulatto stock," neither of these formulations serve to give an agreeable pedigree to the precursors of Western civilization. Indeed, it was for this reason that Giuseppe Sergi, an Italian anthropologist overcame the problem in the 1880s by divining that the ancient Egyptians were dark — sometimes very dark — Caucasians. He labeled his group Hamites and placed them at the intersection of Africa and Asia. Later anthropologists theorized a Hamitic or series of Hamitic languages. By the 1920s the American anthropologist, C. G. Seligman, wrote that any signs of "civilization" in Africa were the products of the penetration of these incomparable bearers of culture. A few years later, Alfred Rosenberg, chief Nazi Party ideologue, could confidently claim Egypt's ruling class for Europe's peoples - and their Aryan branch at that. By the 1960s, however, the "Hamitic Hypothesis" had fallen from grace as the established orthodoxy. The linguist Joseph Greenberg demonstrated that the "Hamitic" languages were a chimera; no such unified group could be found. The people called "Hamites" were found to belong to differing language families. As the linguistic foundations for the hypothesis fell away, so too did the idea of a conquering "Hamitic Race."

At least until Black Athena Revisited. On the whole, the book hedges on the race issue. Guy Rogers says, in summation that "It would be inaccurate to describe the ancient Egyptians as either black or white; the population of ancient Egypt was one of mixed pigmentation." The assertion is mild, but in the land of Colin Powell it seems more disingenuous than myopic. We live in a society of races, which few classicists have expressed any desire to declassify. W. E. B. Du Bois was right when he said: "We cannot if we are sane, divide the world into whites, yellows, and blacks, and then call blacks white." He might have said that it would be equally as strange to call them "Mediterranean," "Hamitic," or a hundred other euphemisms. One assumes that these various authors in Black Athena Revisited have seen, if not met, an African American. And here lies the rub — the very catholicity of the term "Black" in the North American context. The "social "construction of race in America does not rely on skin color. "African Americans," as Asante notes, " constitute the most heterogeneous group in the United States biologically, but perhaps one of the most homogeneous socially." Hypodescent, the "One Drop Rule," has molded and still molds discussions "Blackness." And, it is still maintained. As Wilson Moses points out, "Even today, this . . . reasoning remains the basis for classifying appreciable numbers of people as 'black' despite their blue eyes and blond hair." While Cheikh Anta Diop did argue for a West African phenotype for the ancient Egyptians, leading Afrocentrists do not insist upon it. In fact they are quiet explicit. Karenga notes that it "is . . . playing Europe's racial game to concede that Egyptians are white or Asian if they don't look like a Eurocentric version of a West African." Furthermore, "Ethiopians and Somalis, perhaps, resemble the ancient Egyptians and ancient Nubians more than any other peoples and they are, even by Eurocentric standards, African." Unless we revive the hoary "Hamitic" Myth, they are.

One need not argue that the ancestors of African Americans rafted to the Americas on papyrus boats to make the Afrocentrists' point. The issue is that if they had "Black" African ancestry, it would clearly place them in a subordinate caste in the United States. Or, as Wilson Moses has put it, "In fact many of the Pharaohs, if transplanted across time and onto the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in 1945, would have a hard time obtaining a Pullman berth or being seated in a dining car." It might be pointed out that the ancient Egypt did not see themselves as "Caucasoid" or "Negroid." The issue of imposing our racial taxonomies on the ancient Egyptians is a specious one. To call the Hittites or the Trocharians "Indo-Europeans" is to impose terminology on peoples who never themselves used it. The process of classifying and aggregating is well-known to most social scientists — witness the evolution of the 1970s ethnic neologism "Hispanic."

For those anti-Afrocentrists truly concerned with the Black in Black Athena, there is a way out. One of the writers in the attack on Bernal has it. Not only were the ancient Egyptians not Black, their nearest relatives are Europeans: "It is obvious that both the Predynastic and Late Dynastic Egyptians are more closely related to the European cluster than they are to any of the other major regional clusters in the world." In one fell swoop, he drives a stake through the heart of Bernal's argument, those of the Afrocentrists, and not a few Africanists. Relying on skulls, but not blood groupings or DNA, Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, tells us that heads do talk and that the ancient Egyptians were closer, at least head-wise, to Germans and Danes than they were to Somalis, Ethiopians, Nubians or Berbers. He dismisses the term "race" and then revives it cleverly disguised within the term "cluster." There are several of these; the two of most interest to him just happen to be the "European" and the "African." And the Egyptians definitely belong with the former. Brace' s article is by far the longest and most detailed of the three in the book that deal with specifically with race. It would also vindicate much late nineteenth century racial thought on the "Egyptian Question."

One of the authors in Black Athena Revisited, Kathryn Bard, does note that some craniometry is pretty old-fashioned. The dean of African-American classicists, Frank Snowden, in his contribution, advises Afrocentrists to give up Egypt and focus on Nubia as the first great Black civilization. Brace's contribution, far more radical than it seems at first glance, would deny even this concession. Nubians, like the Egyptians, are not part of the African head cluster. Brace's argument is admittedly clever, for it avoids any claims that might arise based on the American "One Drop Rule." The Egyptians and their neighbors to the south in Nubia and the Horn are, according to a series of impressive cranial geneologies, adaptations to climate. And the African "cluster" is not in the mix; the ancient Egyptians were people with European skulls whose epidermises gradually adapted to the rigors of a subtropical sun.

Of course, Dr. Brace is not the final word. The field of physical anthropology has progressed somewhat beyond the phrenology and craniometry of the nineteenth century. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, to many the present authority in the field, has said that we must look to gene frequencies, blood groupings and a host of other data before we construct our "racial" genealogies. Homo sapiens has had the annoying habit of being able to interbreed; unlike Brace, Cavalli-Sforza believes that the population of the Horn of Africa is clearly the result of a fusion of black African and non-African elements. The Italian geneticist, a former Princeton professor and one of the authors of the Human Genome Project, is hardly a radical in matters racial. At the same time, he, more than some of his American confrerès, is willing to admit to the infinite variety of human experience and the human hybridity that may have been the past of the race and which may be its future.

Where "race" has been legally enforced for over nine generations, we must take it, however socially constructed, very seriously. And here is the both the hope and the warning. Lefkowitz, the scholar, acknowledges that "If you go by the American 'one-drop rule,' the Egyptians would be black." In spite of any craniofacial legerdemain, the Egyptians and their neighbors to the south were "people of color." Hopefully, the sterile debate on whether Northeastern Africa was really within or without Africa will soon be closed. In the late 1980s an Ethiopian student, Mulugeta Seraw, was stomped to death by a group of skinheads in Portland, Oregon. They crushed his skull. Dr. Brace's measurements were irrelevant.

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Copyright 1996 by Ibrahim Sundiata. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all html codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact <[CONTACT PAGE]> Preferred Citation: Ibrahim Sundiata, "Afrocentrism: The Argument We're Really Having," DISSONANCE (September 30, 1996 [http://way.net/dis sonance/sundiata.html]).