Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Mary Lefkowitz, History Lesson: A Race Odyssey (Yale University Press, 2008)

May 25, 2008 2:29 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Mary Lefkowitz, History Lesson: A Race Odyssey (Yale University Press, 2008)

Wellesley College’s leafy, green campus just outside Boston seems an unlikely setting for an academic blood feud, but for almost two decades, beginning in the early 1990s, it has been just that. When classicist Mary Lefkowitz challenged the historical accuracy of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (which argued that ancient Greek culture had African—especially Egyptian—roots) and other Afrocentric works that claimed western civilization had basically been stolen from Africa, she found herself at the center of a firestorm that still smolders today. She was denounced as a racist in person and in print and even subjected to an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit for slander by her colleague and chief antagonist, Prof. Anthony Martin, himself a tenured professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley.

Now that she has retired, Lefkowitz is publishing this memoir of the battles she fought, on campus and off, to remind us of how important it is to keep our view of the ancient world (indeed, the entire past) grounded in historical evidence. Her wounds are still fresh, and her narrative sometimes seems (understandably) defensive and even occasionally bewildered, as if she has still not fully absorbed how a college she thought she knew, where she had been an undergraduate and then taught for decades, could turn into snake pit. So her book arrives armor-clad, published by Yale University Press, with laudatory blurbs from heavyweights Stanley Katz (former president of the American Council of Learned Societies), the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum, and Yale’s Donald Kagan.

It also comes with an entirely neutral cover and less-than-provocative title, an indication of at least one hard lesson learned. When Lefkowitz reviewed Black Athena and other Afrocentric books in lengthy 1992 essay for The New Republic, the magazine’s cover was memorable: in Lefkowitz’s words, it “showed in garish black and white and purple a picture of a bust of an ancient philosopher wearing a Malcolm X cap.” Lefkowitz was surprised and shocked. “I was not consulted about the magazine’s cover design,” she says, and adds, “It seemed to me, then as now, no more than a rather tasteless joke.” Certainly it had the potential of placing her review in a more provocative light than she had expected or intended.

Despite the unfortunate magazine cover, and despite the fact that her article appeared at the height of the “Culture Wars,” Lefkowitz thought that her carefully documented historical argument would carry the day. How could she doubt it? She had the facts. For instance, when dissecting Dr. Yosef A. A. ben-Jochannan’s Africa: Mother of Western Civilization, she could point out that Aristotle could hardly have stolen his ideas from the Egyptian library at Alexandria because Aristotle had died well before the library was built. So she was surprised when some Afrocentrists counter-attacked by arguing that her facts were not facts at all, but “opinions,” even “lies.”

Lefkowitz’s most vocal critic was right on her own campus. Martin “devoted a long section of the spring 1992 Africana Studies Newsletter to an attack” on Lefkowitz and rallied some students to his cause. In 1993, he sought a wider audience, aimed at more targets, and published The Jewish Onslaught: Dispatches from the Wellesley Battlefront. Described in the Boston Globe as “an almost hysterical string of examples, from centuries-old Talmudic ideas to the presence of Jewish newscasters such as Ted Koppel, Mike Wallace, and Barbara Walters as proof of Jewish oppression,” the book even repeated the threadbare accusation that Jews had been the primary operators of the slave trade. He denounced African-American scholars who opposed his views: Henry Louis Gates, he said, was “America’s most notorious Judeophile.”

Shaken but undeterred, Lefkowitz expanded her critique of the “Stolen Legacy” thesis into a book, Not Out of Africa, which was published in 1996. Her arguments were the same ones she had advanced in The New Republic—and, unfortunately, so was the book’s cover! “At the last minute,” she says, instead of a cover featuring the statute known as the Venus de Milo, “Basic Books substituted the old New Republic cover, showing a bust of a Greek philosopher wearing a Malcolm X cap, with highlights in purple.”

At this point one wonders whether Lefkowitz is the unluckiest or the most naïve academic alive. By 1996 she had not only been blindsided by The New Republic’s cover decision, but also was in the midst of her (ultimately successful, but nevertheless stressful) defense against Martin’s libel suit. (The lawsuit was really no surprise: Martin had already sued several undergraduates for libel, and Wellesley College itself.) Not to blame the victim here, but shouldn’t she have been savvy enough to have her literary agent or lawyer make sure that her contract with Basic Books included the right to say what went on the cover?

Since Martin’s lawsuit was dismissed in 1999, Lefkowitz has kept fighting the good fight against bad history. Now professor emerita at Wellesley (Martin has retired, too), she writes History Lesson as a cautionary tale, and a valuable, sobering one it is. Her disproving of the Afrocentrists’ main myths is exhaustive and persuasive, the product of a careful historical intelligence at work. And one can only share her outrage when such myths are defended, not by historical method, but by scurrilous attacks, frequently anti-Semitic ones, on the critics.

At the same time, one comes away wishing that some important aspects to this story had gotten more attention. There are issues of professionalism and civility, even of academic freedom, here that cry out for consideration. Martin loudly intimidated faculty and even students who he thought had insulted him (berating at least one student so nastily that she left school), told other students that he and his ideas were the target of a racist conspiracy and encouraged them to confront his enemies, published personal attacks on colleagues, and, when all else failed, sued.

Lefkowitz meticulously details all of this, but her explanation for how he got away with is too…well…academic: she lays it at the feet of postmodernism, criticizing its relativism and willingness to say that ideas are nothing but expressions of power and self-interest. But she doesn’t really show Martin and the others employing postmodernist arguments; she shows them using bad history. And although she does not spell out a particularly nuanced theory of how historians know what they know, her main argument requires no more than this: “Ancient historians rarely have all the facts at their disposal that they would like to have. But nonetheless we did know SOMETHING.”

So this reader, at least, wishes she had spent a little more time talking about other people and events on that leafy, green campus. Why did President Nan Keohane, Provost Dale Rogers Marshall, and other senior administrators do little, if anything, to mitigate the unprofessional and uncivil behavior that occurred on their watch? (When Lefkowitz got the summons for Martin’s lawsuit, Dean of the College Nancy Kolodny told her, “It’s your problem. The college can’t help you.”) Were they genuinely ambivalent, or were they afraid of what being tarred as “racists” would do to their careers? (They avoided that problem: Keohane went on to the presidency at Duke; Marshall, to Wheaton College in Massachusetts.)

Finally, what did the faculty make of all this? They, after all, have the most at stake. Presidents and students come and go, but a faculty’s reputation for teaching and research are a college’s foundation stones. Did they think Martin’s Afrocentrism might have something to it? This seems unlikely—Wellesley’s History Department decided not to count courses in Africana Studies toward the history major. So on what basis was he allowed to continue not only to teach, but also to berate his opponents in the most personal terms? Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable ideas? Would they give tenure to an anti-evolutionary biologist? Where do they draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior—or do they draw it at all?

Lefkowitz’s story occupies only 160 pages of text, so she could have gone into such issues without making her book too long. I wish she had decided to do so, because nobody has more experience standing at the on-campus intersection of politics and education, race and history, than she does.

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    More Comments:

    Elliott Aron Green - 6/3/2008

    Ronald Fritze,
    I suggest that you get hold of the Penguin edition of Herodotus, which has an index. Look up Thales and Pythagoras and Phoenicians [and/or Gepids] in the index of that edition or in the index of any other edition that has an index. I am too busy to look up the citations at this time. I don't think that it should be hard for you to find them.

    by the way, Diogenes Laertius [Laertios] in his Lives of the Philosophers [or some such title] refers to Herodotus, Duris, and Democritus as mentioning Thales' Phoenician background. This appears in DL's chapter on Thales.

    I would have responded earlier to your query but have had computer problems.

    Ronald Harold Fritze - 5/28/2008

    Actually the review is an accurate reflection of the book's contents. The scholarly issues that Lefkowitz discusses were presented in NOT OUT OF AFRICA which has been thoroughly reviewed. HISTORY LESSONS is the story of her struggles within the contemporary academic scene and on the Wellesley campus. No need for an ancient historian's expertise in that context.

    Ronald Harold Fritze - 5/28/2008

    Your post mentions material from Herodotus, please provide the citations as I would like to check the original.

    James W Loewen - 5/26/2008

    Luther Spoehr never reviews what Mary Lefkowitz writes about the academic issue that made her famous. He just accepts it. This won't do. Lefkowitz minimizes any possible impact from Egypt and Phoenicia/Palestine on Greek civilization. She also minimizes any possible impact from the civilizations upstream from Egypt on Egypt. Is she right? We need a reviewer who knows something about the field to tell us.
    This review does tell us something about the Wellesley College scene. I have heard Tony Martin claim that Jews were active early in the NAACP so they could dominate it, not because they cared about racial justice. Absurd. But parts of NOT OUT OF AFRICA seem equally absurd to me. Maybe HNN can elicit a second review of this controversy, by a scholar of the period. Spoehr is a scholar whose area of expertise is the
    History of American Higher Education.

    Elliott Aron Green - 5/26/2008

    I have seen several statements by Mary Lefkowitz of her opinions on the origins of ancient Greek classical philosophy and mathematics. She ignores contrary evidence in her arguments. I have previously expressed this point in a recent comment here on hnn about her statement [posted on hnn on 4 May 2008] that is seemingly based on her memoirs. I previously made a similar point about her claims in a letter to the TLS about seven years ago, in which I also criticized Martin Bernal. To her credit, Lefkowitz responded to my letter [not convincingly] whereas Bernal did not respond at all [or if he did, his response was not published]. Although I have some severe disagreements with Bernal [particularly in regard to his misrepresentation of what the Church Fathers said about the origins of philosophy and the first practitioners of rational thought --Jews according to Eusebios & Clement of Alexandria], I object to Lefkowitz putting Bernal together in the same pot with some writers who seem to be very reckless, judging by the quotes that Spoehr provides.
    Elliott A Green
    Here is my comment on Lefkowitz' claims as recently made on another thread on hnn:

    I hope that Mary Lefkowitz is getting good exercise beating her straw man. But in order to prove her point, she draws a narrow definition of "textual evidence." Herodotos describes Thales as a Phoenician, Isocrates reports Oriental influence on an early Greek philosopher [in his Busiris]. Aristotle credits the Egyptians with influencing early mathematics. Hermippos and Antonios Diogenes --in the Hellenistic period-- report Jewish influence on Pythagoras. The later writers, Porphyry, Diogenes Laertios, and Iamblichos all give evidence of Jewish influence on Pythagoras when describing the latter's beliefs and practices. Iamblichos reports that Pythagoras's family origin was Sidon and further reports that Pythagoras spent time on Mount Carmel with "the prophets descended from Moschos" [The Israelite prophets Elijah and Elisha, as well as prophets of Baal spent time on the Carmel]. But ML doesn't want to accept Iamblichos, Diogenes Laertios, and Porphyry because they were too late for her taste. But Isocrates and Herodotos were not late. Be that as it may, there were Syrians/Phoenicians involved in the Cynic and Sophist philosophic movements. Then Herodotos reports on a Phoenician clan that was admitted to citizenship in Athens. Then there are the parallels between some Greek legends and Biblical stories [Jephtha's daughter and Iphigenia, for instance]. I could go on.

    If ML wants more graphic evidence, the Louvre had an exhibit last year of relatively recently interpreted Egyptian texts. These included writings on math and medicine, as I recall. Maybe ML could go to Paris and take a look, and perhaps forgo her usual claim that any mention of Oriental influence is "late" [not true] or unreliable for whatever reason.