Not Out of Africa

NOT OUT OF AFRICA provides a long-needed corrective to the theories advanced by extreme members of the Afrocentric school of scholarship. Among the claims discussed and challenged by Lefkowitz are that major developments in Greek civilization were really African in origin, that central figures of ancient history (including Cleopatra and Socrates) were black, that Greek society was incapable of developing the many innovations attributed to it, and that a conspiracy arose in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to disparage African contributions to European heritage.

Lefkowitz explodes these theories, demonstrating in each case that scholars have ignored evidence to the contrary. Lefkowitz suggests many reasons why speculation has gained widespread acceptance: the tendency of scholars to rely upon translations rather than original texts causes them to misinterpret the statements of ancient authorities; the use of secondary rather than primary sources leads the errors made by a few scholars to be repeated by those who cite them; literary and historical scholars are untrained or unwilling to demand the same standards of evidence expected by their colleagues in the natural sciences; modern society dismisses literary studies as having little practicality, thus abandoning it to the political agendas of special interest groups; and university administrators are reluctant to challenge the claims of minority scholars, even when they are demonstrably false, because of a belief that self-esteem and “empowerment” are more important than academic standards.

Lefkowitz’s recommendations for solving these problems are rather few. She encourages scholars to demand evidence rather than ideology when their colleagues make claims about the past. She hopes that further debate, although acrimonious, will bring light to bear on controversial issues. The testimony provided by her text is, however, not encouraging that a solution is likely to arise soon.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. April 7, 1996, p. L11.

Choice. XXXIII, July, 1996, p. 1846.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 11, 1996, p. 14.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XLII, February 16, 1996, p. A6.

Commentary. CI, June, 1996, p. 70.

Journal of Black Studies. XXVII, September, 1996, p. 130.

Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. XI, Spring, 1996, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times. July 3, 1996, p. E4.

The Nation. CCLXIII, October 28, 1996, p. 42.

National Review. XLVIII, March 25, 1996, p. 54.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, June 20, 1996, p. 67.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 25, 1996, p. 6.

Newsweek. CXXVII, February 19, 1996, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 18, 1995, p. 37.

Time. CXLVII, February 19, 1996, p. 66.

The Wall Street Journal. February 14, 1996, p. A12.

Not Out of Africa

Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History provides a long needed corrective to the theories—often advanced as though they were proven facts—developed by extreme members of the Afrocentric school of scholarship. (Afrocentrism is the belief that Africa’s contributions to world civilization have not been sufficiently appreciated and that a shift in understanding world history, including Africa’s place within it, must occur to correct this.) Among the claims discussed and challenged by Lefkowitz are that major developments in Greek civilization were really African in origin, that central figures of ancient history, including Cleopatra, Socrates, and Hannibal were black, that ancient Greek society was incapable of developing the many innovations attributed to it, and that a massive conspiracy arose in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to disparage African contributions to European heritage as a result of growing racism among white societies in Europe and America.

With patience and objectivity, Lefkowitz explores the origins of these theories, demonstrating in each case that the scholars who proposed them have ignored evidence to the contrary. Lefkowitz suggests many reasons why unproved theories have gained widespread acceptance: the tendency of many scholars to rely upon translations rather than original texts causes them to misinterpret the statements of ancient authorities; the use of secondary rather than primary sources causes the errors made by a few scholars to be repeated by those who cite them; literary and historical scholars are sometimes untrained or unwilling to demand the same standards of evidence expected by their colleagues in the natural sciences; modern society dismisses literary and historical studies as having little practical relevance, thus abandoning them to the political agendas of special interest groups; and university administrators may be reluctant to challenge the claims of minority scholars, even when they are demonstrably false, because of a misguided belief that self-esteem and “empowerment” are more important than academic standards. Lefkowitz’s recommendations for solving these problems are, unfortunately, rather few. She encourages scholars to demand evidence rather than ideology when their colleagues make claims about the past. She hopes that further debate, as acrimonious as it may be, will bring greater light to bear on controversial issues. The testimony provided by her text is, however, not encouraging that a solution is likely to arise soon.

Lefkowitz demonstrates that many statements made about the ethnicity of such figures as Cleopatra, Socrates, and Hannibal arose for political reasons, rather than out of a careful analysis of the evidence. Cleopatra’s ancestry is well documented, for instance, and there is every reason to conclude that her ancestors were Macedonian Greek. Nowhere in ancient literature, even in satire, is she described as black. The vast majority of her ancestors are known to have been of purely Greek descent. Nevertheless, because the identity of a single figure—her paternal grandmother, the mistress of Ptolemy IX—is not beyond dispute, scholars have felt free to make wholesale speculations, and then to treat these speculations as fact. Because Ptolemy’s mistress could have been a local Egyptian, many assert, and could have been black, they conclude that she must have been black. That this view has no supporting evidence is taken, not as indicating that the hypothesis is weak, but as proving that a conspiracy must have arisen to conceal the truth from later generations. Lefkowitz demonstrates, however, that the Ptolemaic dynasty tended not to interact (amorously or otherwise) with the local Egyptian population. If Cleopatra—not to mention her father and brothers—actually had been of mixed heritage, their unusual status would almost certainly have been mentioned by at least one ancient historian. No such evidence, however, exists.

In a similar way, speculation about the African heritage of Socrates, Hannibal, and others proves to be groundless. Some scholars have assumed Socrates was black because one ancient source (Xenophon’s Symposium 5.6) describes him as having a snub nose and late statues depicted him with “non- European” features. Hannibal is called black because he came from Carthage and Carthage was in Africa. (Actually, the Carthaginians were Semitic settlers from Phoenicia rather than native Africans. Their closest modern relatives are other Semitic peoples, not the majority populations of Africa.) Perhaps the strangest claim scholars have made about African influence in Greece is that the hero Heracles (Hercules) was black because Herodotus (2.43.2) says that both of his parents were “from Egypt.” Lefkowitz asserts, however, that this claim demonstrates the dangers of research relying upon translations rather than original texts. What Herodotus actually said, Lefkowitz argues, was that Heracles’ parents...

(The entire section is 2058 words.)