Mary Lefkowitz: Wellesley classicist, reflects on the bruising debate she has been part of concerning history, philosophy, and race

Historians in the News

Historian Wilson Jeremiah Moses called Mary Lefkowitz "an obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department." Africana-studies professor Anthony Martin, her colleague and chief combatant at Wellesley College, dubbed her a "national leader of the Jewish onslaught against Afrocentrism in general, and me in particular." Khalid Muhammad, formerly of the Nation of Islam, railed against her in 1997 as "Left-o-witch," a "hook-nosed, lox-eating, bagel-eating, … so-called Jew."

Survivors of scholarly controversies often exhibit serious scars from their infighting. Mary Lefkowitz's experiences since she opposed a number of Afrocentrist historical claims in the 1990s — and wound up sued by Martin, assailed by Afrocentrists, and in a battle with breast cancer at the same time — add up to a cautionary tale.

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey, published this month by Yale University Press, is Lefkowitz's attempt to size up the lessons. "Was it worth it?" she asks. Her answer is "Yes." Most scholars who follow her through familiar campus phenomena from political correctness to colleague wimpiness ("I couldn't take sides because it wasn't my field," one colleague confided) will care more about the issues her case raises than her ultimate peace of mind....

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