Afrocentrism and the distortion of Greek history
(Translation into English by Filippaios)
(Translation into English by Filippaios)
On February 1993 in the College Wellesley of Massachusetts a lecture was given regarding the ancient Egyptian civilization. The speaker, Yosef A. A. Ben Jochannan was presented by the event organizers as a “distinguished Egyptologist”. During his lecture Jochannan more or less supported that the ancient Greeks practically stole their civilization from Egypt, that philosopher Aristotle went to Alexandria along with Alexander the Great to visit the library which Aristotle eventually sacked in order to write his works.
During questions, a professor of classical studies named Mary Lefkowitz asked the lecturer why he would claim something like that when Alexandria acquired its great library well after the death of Aristotle, and moreover, the Greek philosopher never visited Egypt. Jochannan refused to answer, accusing Lefkowitz for empathy and negative stance towards the opinions of the black population. After the lecture many students accused Lefkowitz for racism and a one way comprehension of history. Indeed, what is happening in the American universities?
Afrocentrism is an ideological movement with historical and political extensions, which has spread through many universities across the Atlantic especially during the 90s. It is a branch of a new wave of political correctness that swept the American society during the last decade.
The supposed basic core of the beliefs of afrocentrism is shaped as thus: Mother of civilization – especially of Western civilization – is the continent of Africa and the carriers of civilization are the African nations. Many high level societies were formed in Africa long before the white nations appeared in the foreground of history. Ancient Egypt was but a part of the black African civilization and also the Egyptians themselves were blacks (Negros) from an anthropological point of view.
The African civilization of Egypt influenced the Greek world and the birth of classical civilization significantly, since the ancient Greeks borrowed, or more appropriately “stole” their religion, science and philosophy, the artistic and mental achievements, from the ancient Egyptians, Canaanites and the Phoenicians. Great figures of the ancient world, such as Socrates, Cleopatra or Jesus Christ were blacks. But also in the more recent years the world famous musician Ludwig van Beethoven and empress Josephine of Austria. By and large, the whole of white western civilization or at least its noblest expressions are owed to the black people of Africa. Regardless of how unreal all of these sound, many members of the academic community and of other educational degrees in the United States have adopted them fully and have included them in their teaching program.
Apart from the basic core of teachings, Afrocenrtrism reaches to even more extreme and unhistorical views. Jochannan claims that Plato drew out his philosophical opinions from the Egyptian priesthood which had developed a complete system of ideas. In reality Plato never visited Egypt and the relative literature regarding the Greek - Egyptian philosophy under Hermes Trismegistus was developed during the first centuries after Christianity, 500 years after the death of Plato. Jochannan also mentions, as it was initially stated, that Aristotle went to Egypt where he studied the various Egyptian documents in the library of Alexandria. These manuscripts he translated in Greek and then re-published them as his own. One small detail the afrocentrist writer ignores is that the library of Alexandria started to be built during 300-290 BC from Ptolemy of Lagos, years after the death of Aristotle (322). The Stagirite absolutely never visited Egypt.
Cheikh Anta Diop in the book “Civilization or barbarism: An authentic anthropology” supports that even the inventor Archimedes stole (words referring to stealing are often used by afrocentrists) his mathematical knowledge from the Egyptians. Other afrocentrist writers assure us that that the discovery of America was due to the Africans, which had arrived on the continent well before Colombus, declaring the start of the Mesoamerican civilizations. Moreover, melanin, the substance with which the color of the skin is determined, makes black people superior both spiritually and physically to the whites. Thus, afrocentrism attracts immiscibly racist assumptions for which the other side is often blamed.
Writer Francis Welsing supports the manichaeistic cultural scheme that separates mankind into two wide categories: The Sun People and the Ice People. The first are naturally all blacks which have the calmer and civilized character, they also have a much evolved sense of community. The Ice People, the white race, are still into the mentality of the cave people. They tend to be expansive, separate the world, installing patriarchal systems and import the feeling of individualism and of the small group of common interests. The exaggerations of afrocentrism are indeed various and many, but it would be more appropriate to investigate the conditions that led to the birth of such views.
Origins and the historical descent of afrocentrism.
Afrocentrism appeared in a more specific and concentrated form during the 90’s in the United States. During this period, the American society –already a mixture of white Anglo-Saxons, blacks, Hispanics and various other nations and religions- was orientated towards the idea of multiculturalism. Under the guise of democratic equalization of all groups of the populations and minorities, the perspective of relativity and subjectivity of historical events arose. No more was there a single truth, just subjective statements; there was no solid history, just a sum of narrations. Every group of the population could (and should) construct its own historical background. In this way the self-awareness would be obtained and its distinguished character would be preserved.
For the favor of the constantly resurgent political correctness the historical correctness was neglected intentionally. Anything that did not decrease the particular egoism of these groups or did not go against their self-willed historical and political opinions could be characterized as real. The groups of blacks, feminists and homosexuals claimed the revision of history so that the establishment of their dogmatic and pre-formed opinions could be eased.
Classical education of ancient and Greek knowledge yielded considerably as they were replaced in many universities and other institutions by studies of minority group, feminist, gender and gay studies. Especially as far as afrocentrism is concerned, let it be noted that in many schools and universities the teaching of ancient Greek history and language was replaced by myths and traditions of the indigenous African tribes. It was within such a social and political framework of obsession that the defense of the Greek character of Macedonia using historically proven facts was mistaken for an egoistic attempt of blocking the Skopjan point of view.
Well before the 90’s there were many pseudo-literature studies that existed in the gutter of scientific research in which the aspects of the Afrocentrists were stated. However during that period the studies of this kind were enlisted in the same category with books that supported that earth was flat. If one wishes to find the roots of afrocentrism, then he should go back to the 19th century. After the American civil war (1861-1865) the movement against the slavery of blacks was enacted, and it virtually aimed towards the smiting of the political and economical areas of the South. It was during that period that the first assumptions for the African origins of the Egyptian civilization where stated. Writer Frederick Douglas (1817-1895) supported that the ancient Egyptians were normal blacks: “another unfortunate turn coincidence is that the ancient Egyptians were not whites, but undoubtedly they were as black as many of our co-patriots that are now considered genuine Negros.”
Similar were the beliefs of Edwart Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), who had taken classical studies but held firmly to the African point of view. After he went to Egypt in 1866, he ended up to the conclusion that the pyramids could only be the work of black Africans. “This, I thought, was the work of my African forefathers. I thought I heard the sound of these great Africans, as if I felt the vehemence of their restless spirits who had sent civilization to the Greeks. If only my voice could reach every African on earth, I would say to him with great sincerity. Reclaim your glory!”
The belief that the Egyptian civilization was black continued with the amateur historian W.E.B. du Bois (1868-1963), but also with members of the American freemasons with African origin. In this way a utopian apprehension for ancient Egypt was preserved, where the black population achieved greatness in science, literature and philosophy. The same beliefs are distinguished in the work of Marcus Mosya Garvey (1887-1940), black activist and head of para-political organizations of the black community of America. Garvey wanted to use arguments of historical nature for purposes of pure political character.
By believing that the black race is obviously greater than the white, he considered that the white Greeks and Romans stole their civilization from Egypt. In his essay “Who and What is a Negro? -1923)” he writes “Every unprejudiced student of history knows that the Negro ruled the world when whites where merely savages living in caves; that in ancient years thousands of Negro teachers taught in the universities of Alexandria which was then the center of knowledge; that ancient Egypt gave civilization to the world, while Greece and Rome stole its arts and language and took all its glory to themselves.”
These first afrocentrist writers prompted repeatedly their readers to reject without question all white historians, in a very clear demonstration of racial intolerance. Addressing his readers, Garvey mentions that “The current educational system hides the truth for Negros. Read, for example, that the Egyptians where a great race, also the Carthaginians, the Libyans and others, but they will never tell you they were Negros or black. You should therefore go further than the simple recordings of those events and discover the truth that honors your race”.
The misappropriation of important ancient civilizations, like the Egyptian or Carthaginian, concerns a political reading of history and an ideological abuse of scientific data. And like then, the various shown arguments are in essence of political advisability nowadays. In the 19th century and until the full emancipation of the black population of America, the cultural creativity of the black citizens needed to be demonstrated. Today, within the framework of an arbitrary definition of the multicultural, their catalytic contribution in the birth of western civilization needs to be brought forth. According to a detailed study of afrocentrism “chauvinist historians (of Africa) consider the urgency of destroying the aspects that the Western historiography created. The Egyptian history can be called African in a racial sense, if one assumes that the blood of Negros run freely within the vains of ancient Egyptian” (John Markakis, Pan-Africanism: The Idea and the Movement, Ph.D.Dissertation, Columbia University, 1965).
After the African writers that evolved their afrocentrism as a reaction to the system of colonialism, the link with the recent re-appearance of the ideology is the book Stolen Legacy -1954 of George James. James was a professor of ancient Greek in middle education. In a quite dangerous statement he said that “the term Greek philosophy is in fact wrong because there is no such philosophy. The Greeks did not have a natural ability necessary for the development of philosophy. The Greek philosophy was not invented by Greeks but by the Blacks of Northern Africa, the Egyptians”. James counters the lack of any evidence what so ever using the argument that there is a white European conspiracy from the antiquity until today, in order to hide the contribution of the black race to civilization.
These points re-appeared renewed in the end of the 80’s causing much discussion and raising the reaction of many known scientists for the first time. This happened with a quite ambiguous book, the Black Athena.
The Black Athena and the forgery of history.
The title itself is provoking: Black Athena : The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization – the first tome was published in 1987, the second one in 1991. Athena, a symbol of the Greek world, of wisdom and of civilization was according to this book, black. The author of this book is Martin Bernal (born 1937), British from Hebrew descent. In reality Bernal is a sinologist, a researcher of the civilization of China and its neighboring people. As he mentions in the prologue of the first tome (The Fabrication of ancient Greece 1785-1985), his only activity with the subject of the origins of the ancient Greek civilization was a result of a personal crisis , that led him to the approach of his Hebrew roots and identity. During this research he examined the contacts between Greek and Semitic people and concluded to certain ideas that the historical, archaeological and linguist science has never acknowledged.
Bernal considers that the 25% of Greek language is of Semitic origin, 25% is of Egyptian origin, it then allows a percentage of 40-50% to be Indo-European. His basic belief is that the ancient Greek civilization is formed firstly from the civilization of Egypt, and secondarily from Canaanites and Phoenicians.
Bernal distinguishes two general categories of interpreting the origin of the Greek civilization. It is about the Ancient Model and the Aryan model (terminology by Bernal). The Aryan model is younger, it was founded in the 19th century mostly by German researchers and it mostly exists until today. It is the theory of the Indo-European origin of the Greek tribes, which came to Greece in the Bronze Age or sooner (various interesting alterations exist about the theory regarding the initial common cradle of the Indo-Europeans).
The Ancient Model, which according to Bernal the ancient Greeks themselves agreed to, wants the ancestors of the Greeks living as passive elements in simple and primitive societies. The evolution of civilization is attributed to Egyptians and Semites foreigners that dominated the Aegean space causing the cultural explosion of the Greek world. According to this way of thinking, the myths for the arrival of Kadmos are interpreted as an Egyptian – Semitic colonization of Boeotia following the founding of Thebes from eastern elements, while the tradition of Danaus that came to Argos from Egypt concerns the import of Egyptian civilization in the Peloponnese.
Bernal considers that an invasion of Semites Hyksos in the area of Egypt during 1700-1600 BC. The Hyksos, despite the fact that they were of Semitic origin, spread the Egyptian civilization in Greece. Bernal surpasses this paradox by using historical analogy to establish his case. During the spreading and territorial expanding of a nomadic population, that population transfers the civilization of countries it conquered. In the 4th and 5th century BC the arrival of the Huns in Western Europe resulted in the spreading of gothic cultural elements, not the Mongol ones. Also the invasion of the Normans in 1066 in England transferred the French culture to England, rather than the Viking culture which was the initial origin of the Normans. Something similar happened with the Hyksos, who transferred the Egyptian cultural practices. Here Bernal seems to be forgetting that the Egyptians hated the Hyksos as intruders and oppressors. Also that the Hyksos were Semites with a different civilization and that between the two groups there was fierce confrontation that led to the final banishment of the Hyksos from Egypt.
The special characteristics of the Greek civilization thus come from the mass influence resulting from the intruding African-Semitic groups. This fact was saved in the traditions of Greeks speaking of heroes from the East and Egypt, in the narration of Plato for Timaeus, references to the ancient Egyptian wisdom, as well as the names of the gods that are mostly of Egyptian origin.
But how is it that this supposed historical reality, that the ancient Greeks themselves acknowledged, was ignored? Was there a lack of scientific research and ignorance or deliberate suppression and lack of evidence? Bernal believes the second. Here enters the Aryan Model for the origin of the ancient Greek civilization. The forming of the Aryan model in the 19th century rejected the Semitic and Egyptian contribution in the forming of the Greek world for racial and anti-semitic reasons. The German philhellene scholars that established the Indo-European theory with their studies rejected all eastern involvement, because according to Bernal, they were moved by racist and Euro-centered motives. Evolving this opinion further, Bernal concludes that “Philhellenism always had Aryan and racist connections”. (Black Athena vol. I,291). He reaches to the point of accusing European scholars of the 19th century for racial prejudice against the Turks, as far as the Greek revolution was concerned, since they defended the Greeks –an ideal European group according to Bernal- against the Asian Turks. It was not by chance that the Black Athena was deified in Turkey from the local historians and a friendly review is hosted in the official web page of the Turkish Foreign Office. (www.mfa.gov.tr/grupa/percept, article by Orhan Kologlou).
The conscious devaluation and depreciation of the eastern civilization has brought according to Bernal a twisting of historical elements. The purpose of this (so far) two-tome book aims, as the writer himself suggests, “to decrease the European cultural arrogance (Time magazine 23/7/1991). It is a working with clear ideological origins and conscious political purposes.
The first dynamic response to the historical theories of Afrocentrism came from Mary Lefkowitz, a Professor of Classical Studies in the Wellesley College of Massachusetts. With a series of publications, articles, reviews and replies to the American and European press as well as the Internet, Lefkowitz disproved with perfectly structured arguments the positions of afrocentrists and of Bernal for the origins of the ancient Greek civilization.
Moreover Lefkowitz published two books for the whole subject in 1996. The first (Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, Basic Books 1996) is her detailed review and critical investigation of various positions of afrocentrist writers and simultaneously a historical documentation of real date. In the second work (Black Athena Revisited, The University of North Carolina Press 1996) brings the scientific thoroughness of Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers and includes various scientific papers from researchers of various backgrounds, archaeologists, historians, linguists, anthropologists. The articles of this tome examine various claims of the Black Athena, rejecting them one at a time.
The impact of these two works has been catalytic for the discussion of afrocentrism in America. These studies highlighted the emptiness of the afrocentrist arguments and of Bernal, and they practically cleared the subject from the academic point of view. Despite all that, the afrocentrists return after their initial retreat. In 1999 the book of an American journalist named Richard Poe was published, called Black Spark, White Fire, underlying the essential contribution of the African civilizations in the development of the European civilization. Poe thinks that ancient Greece accepted a wide colonization of African groups which gave the initiation for cultural creativity. In the end of 2001 Martin Bernal came back with the collective tome Black Athena Writes Back (Duke University Press), where he tries to eliminate the points of various scientists from Black Athena Revisited and rekindle the interest for afrocentrism and its theories that were declining during the last 5 years.
The interpretation of the origin of afrocentrism.
The historical points of afrocentrism were developed as a reaction to two basic factors: the borderline position of the black population in the American society for decades, and the absence of a brightly recorded historical past. What afrocentrism really aims for is to seize the glory of the Greek civilization with indirect means.
It is common in the area of historiography, peoples and population groups that do not have a field of historical references, where they could go back to in order to confirm their confidence, to replace this lack of history with showing their own structured identities within other collectivities, recognized for their cultural contribution, like Hellenism. In our case the African American community has an indigenous disadvantage: it is historically hovering since their presence in America was the result of an adjacent commercial activity of the White Europeans and Arabs of Western Africa, called slavery.
More specifically, the historical and archaeological theories of afrocentrists and of Bernal, reverse consciously or unconsciously the interpreting scheme of cultural diffusionism from a supreme center. This scheme the afrocentrists reject officially as an ideological product of white colonialism and scientific anti-Semitism. They place ancient Egypt in the center of their scheme, since the Egyptian civilization was indeed a highly valued creation. Afrocentrist writers are not mentioned often, at least the wisest of them, in indigenous African civilizations such as the ones in Mali or Rhodesia because the absence of great historical leftovers does not make it easy for them to develop their theory for the African origin of civilization. On the contrary their efforts are focused on the usurpation of ancient Egypt, which is the real key in the whole debate about afrocentrism.
Were the ancient Egyptians black?
The whole discussion about whether or not the ancient Egyptians were black starts most likely from the confusion or a misreading of physical and cultural geography. Geographically speaking, Egypt belongs to the continent of Africa, but it does not belong there from the cultural point of view. There is no unified African civilization, only local displays. All of Northern Africa above the Sahara desert is culturally similar to the Mediterranean world and much less similar to Western and Central Africa. Before the investigation of racial consistency of ancient Egyptians, we should define that the term “black” does not completely relate to the opinions of ancient Greeks and Romans. As white peoples they would call any inhabitant of the Middle East or of Northern Africa that had even the slightest darker skin color as “black” “dark colored” “colored”. In any case the Greeks distinguished between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians (=people with dark look).
Today’s terminology suggests that the Negros (from latin niger) are blacks, and they historically come from the regions beneath the Sahara dessert. Already from the period of the Ancient Kingdom (3100-2270 BC) the blacks inhabited areas far away from Egypt, the area of Nubia (present day Soudan). The Nubians were indeed a black population and as such they are depicted in the Egyptian art. The Egyptians themselves are depicted as different from the Nubians and in contradistinction to them. The science of natural anthropology considers the ancient Egyptians a race of Mediterranean origin which appeared to have, in a considerable percentage, relativity with the white Indo-European nations. (Loring Brace in the collective tome Black Athena Revisited, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1996 and John Baker, Race, Oxford University Press 1974). There was an important percentage of the Egyptian population that resembled white characteristics.
The ancient Egyptian monuments give us many such indications. A mural from the period of the Ancient Kingdom depicts the daughter of Pharaoh Cheops queen Hetep-Heres B, having soft characteristics and blond hair. There are dozens of embalmed bodies widely known as mummies that preserve the Mediterranean anthropological characteristics. Mummies of important individuals, such as of Pharaoh Seti I (1306-1290 BC) have been described by experts to be of Mediterranean type. The case of the embalmed body of Ramses II is well known (exhibited in the Cairo Museum). This mummy has red hair and an anthropological type similar to findings in the European inland. In the same category belong the saved anthropological leftovers of most Pharaohs, especially of the older phases.
A differentiation in the anthropological material and in the yield of characteristics is observed with the declaration to the throne of the foreign dynasty of Nubian princes. In the 8th century BC the Egyptian state was invaded by Nubians, who established the 25th Dynasty (746-655 BC), with Tankhara as the first king. The Egyptians had conscience that they were a different people from their black southern neighbours. This can be also seen in the hieroglyph scriptures depicting the Nubians.
The conquest of Nubia from the Egyptians was complete in 1840 BC from Pharaoh Sesostris III. Sesostris constructed impressive forts in Nubia and in its borders with Egypt in order to defend his kingdom from a possible attack from the black Nubians. The offering column at Semmeh, raised by the Pharaoh characteristically reads “the south border was constructed in the 8th year by the glorious king of Upper and Lower Egypt Sesostris III, to avert any black trying to cross, from water or from land, on ship or any other flock of blacks. Excluded are the blacks coming to trade at Iken or passing through with permission.” (James H. Breasted, History of Egypt, London 1909, 69).
The ancient Egyptians where of Mediterranean origin, Nubians were blacks, as the historical data suggests. The black classical philosopher Frank Snowden urges the afrocentrist writers to study the Nubians as the first black civilization and not as the ancient Egyptians who were something else entirely. Bernal considers that Socrates was of African origin. As evidence he appeals the references of Plato’s and Xenophon’s students that he looked like a Satyr. Also some of the busts that were created after the death of Socrates picture him with a pug nose, wide nostrils and a big mouth, and all these are indications that he was black according to Bernal. In reality the ancient sculptures simply reproduced the ironic observations and the weird comments that spread back then for a man whose ideas attracted public attention. Besides, the ancient Greeks gave rug noses to both Ethiopians and the Scythes that inhabited Southern Russia. If Socrates or one of his ancestors had even slightly dark colored skin that wouldn’t escape the attention of his contemporaries, moreover the attention of the sophists or comedian Aristophanes who satirized Socrates mercilessly.
As far as the question of the anthropological type of queen Cleopatra is concerned, let it be reported that in all known depictions, sculptures and coins, Cleopatra has clearly Mediterranean characteristics. The dynasty of Ptolemy in Egypt had followed the tactic of endogamy while the Greek population kept its distance from the Egyptian residents. The afrocentrists consciously neglect that the dynasty of Ptolemy were princes of Greek origin, not Egyptian. The misconception about Cleopatra came most likely from the selective reading of Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra”. The English poet calls Cleopatra tawny and black. However with these adjectives he does not refer to her origin. Shakespeare had relied on Plutarch’s Antony and knew that Cleopatra belonged to the Greek dynasty: “How good she is and worthy as a queen / born of king from a line of kings” (V. ii 326-27, translation by Vasilis Rotas). The adjective black given to her is due to the metaphorical figure of speech that Cleopatra had the sun as her lover while Antony was away.
Afrocentrism, as an ideological and political component, has a specific origin and use. In its current form it is not but a by-product of multicultural political correctness. These trends tend to abolish objectivity itself and the rational establishment of data. The past is relativized and made into a useful tool for anyone that wants to form a specific picture of history, to satisfy selfish political ambitions.