Home Political science
Africa as cradle of civilization
The second thrust of Africanists’ response to Western exceptionalism is a reversion of the claim that Africans have not contributed to civilization. The counter-claim is that civilization and modern science are rooted in Africa. Here again, it is the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop who led the way. He began researching, writing, and presenting on the subject during the mid-1940s. It was a period of rising agitation for decolonization, and Diop’s works provided the intellectual heft. It was also in the shadows of World War II, with all its carnage and savagery in Europe.
Diop didn’t rely exclusively on reanalysis or reinterpretation of existing materials. He did original research in a radio-carbon lab that he established in Senegal. He was thus in the vanguard in research on antiquity. His writings were originally published in French. They became most familiar to the English-speaking world in the mid-1970s to late 1970s, when a collection of chapters from his books were published as The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality* and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa.
While Diop made this case writing from Senegal, George G. M. James, a Guyanese-American scholar, was making much similar argument in the United States. James’ book Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy was first published in 195410 and then reissued by another publisher in 1992.11 It was the immense popularity of this reissue that contributed to an intellectual ferment over Afrocentricity that has hardly abated. James himself didn’t live long enough to participate in this ferment. He died in 1956, about two years after the publication of Stolen Legacy.
Meanwhile, between the late 1980s and early 1990s, Martin Bernal, a British history professor at Cornell University, penned three volumes supporting the Afrocentric thesis. In 1987, Bernal published Black Athena: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985. He followed that up with a second and third volumes in 1992 and 2006, respectively.
Diop, James, and Bernal, respectively, relied on the accounts of early historians and travelers, artifacts, inferences, and conjectures to reach the same conclusions: One, that Egyptians were black Africans. Two, that there was much interface between ancient Egypt and Greece. Three, that Greek scholars and philosophers who visited Egypt took back traditions, artifacts, and ideas that subsequently became pivotal to the Greek civilization. Four, that the indebtedness was acknowledged by early Greek historians and philosophers. Given that ancient Greece is the widely acclaimed origin of Western civilization, they concluded that the credit for that civilization rightfully belongs to Africa.
This recasting of conventional history became prominent in African-American studies and was increasingly being discussed in history and social studies by liberal white professors. The trend dismayed conservative history and classics professors. Most notable among them was Mary Lefkowitz, who was both a professor at and alumna of Wellesley College. Lefkowitz became the most noted critic of Afrocentric historiography by authoring the much-publicized book Not Out of Africa: How ‘Afrocentrism” Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History)2 The main title is a play on Sydney Pollack’s 1985 romance/adventure film “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. But what set the tone for the subsequent eruption of criticism is the subtitle.
Lefkowitz states that the book was inspired by an invitation in 1991 to write a review essay on Bernal’s Black Athena “and its relation to the Afrocentrist movement.”13 In the process, Lefkowitz writes, she realized that she “had been completely unaware ... [that] there was in existence a whole literature that denied that the ancient Greeks were the inventors of democracy, philosophy, and science.”14 And so Lefkowitz became a fierce critic of the contention that Western civilization has its origin in Africa.
Lefkowitz’s use of the term “inventors” to refer to imprecise concepts such as democracy, philosophy, and science says much about her approach to the debate. It is as though these concepts are of comparable exactitude as gunpowder, Arabic numerals, moveable type, Facebook, and the like. Even these technologies are not beyond contention as to origin.
In any case, Lefkowitz’s dismissal of the Afrocentric perspective is not as ironclad as the subtitle of her book suggests. Her primary case against it is that it is based on wrong interpretations and inferences. She concedes that ancient Egypt had a negroid population but counters that other races were there as well. Therefore, what originated from ancient Egypt cannot be presumed to be of black African origin.
Lefkowitz concedes also that Egypt was a major influence on Greek arts and architecture, but she asserts that it is not much more. To her, the greater flow of influence was from the Greeks to the Egyptians. To the extent that the Greeks were influenced by Egyptians the influence was not extensive and it was a case of borrowing rather than stealing. This is evidently a case of semantic quibble.
Lefkowitz’s book expectedly triggered fierce criticisms from Afrocentric scholars and writers. Foremost among them was Molefi Kete Asante, the professor and chair of Temple University’s African-American Studies Department. In comments and reviews, Asante essentially called Lefkowitz’s book a re-assertion of Eurocentric hegemony.
Asante was critical not just of Lefkowitz, but of writers such as George Will and Roger Kimball who wrote rave reviews of Not Out of Africa. “It is a racial argument clearly fast backpedaling,” Asante wrote in a review.
What it indicates is that we have gone full circle from the Hegelian ‘Let us forget Africa’ to a late 20th-century attack on African scholarship by declaring that major influences on Greece were not out of Africa. And as such, it will simply confirm the inability of some scholars to get beyond the imposition of their particularism of Europe.15
Asante himself is the most prolific Afrocentric scholar. Among his most popular works is Afrocentricity,Xb a book whose major contribution is demonstration of the practical implications of the Afrocentric perspective to black people. It digests the thoughts of African-Americans such as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Elijah Muhammed, and African authors such as Diop, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe to establish a philosophy of connectedness and empowerment.
However, the most substantive rejoinders to Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa came in the form of three books that were published soon after: Richard Poe’s Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe?^ (1997); Charles S. Finch’s The Star of Deep Beginnings: The Genesis of African Science and Technology (1998); and Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Origins of Classical Civilization, Vol. Ill: The Linguistic Evidence.
Poe’s background and motivation for writing Black Spark. White Fire is quite pertinent. His father’s parents were Russian Jews and his mother the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Still, he was raised to eschew ethnic identification. In contrast, his wife is a Greek-American, who immersed herself in that identity. “We live in a Greek neighborhood, celebrate Greek holidays, eat traditional Greek food, and every few weeks, it seems, attend some Greek family get-together.”18 Moreover, his father was an enthusiast of classical antiquity. This all makes Poe’s foray into Afrocentric scholarship—with the active support of his wife—all the more intriguing.
Poe writes that he was motivated in part because Bernal’s Stolen Legacy did not adequately credit Greek civilization to Black Africa.
Moreover, the more he explored the subject, the more he realized the vast evidence yet to be uncovered and articulated. In the painstaking analysis, Poe did not hesitate to take a second look at works that were vilified at the time they were published. And he also made extensive use of records and interviews. Unlike some Afrocentric writers, Poe was meticulous in differentiating between inferences and conjectures.
Poe writes especially on the probability of trans-Atlantic seafaring by Negroid Africans at a time when most historians thought such was impossible. Some of the seafarers apparently settled in the Americas before Christopher Columbus got there, Poe writes. And some may have returned to Africa.
As with much of the book, Poe supports his inferences and conjectures with miniscule but cumulatively compelling evidence. For example, in a chapter titled “The Cocaine Mummies,”19 he examines the probability that cocaine may have been brought to ancient Egypt by Egyptian seafarers. He cites genetic tests of hair and tissues from Egyptian mummies that showed evidence of cocaine use. Given that cocaine was available only in North America, Poe posits the probability that it was taken to Egypt by Egyptian seafarers.
Poe also took specific aim at Lefkowitz’s rebuttal to Stolen Legacy. He writes, for example, that Plato attributes the innovation of numbers, arithmetic, and geometry to the Egyptian god Thoth. And that ultimately inspired the Greek mathematician Pythagoras. “When Plato founded his famous Academy in 387 B.C., he hung a sign over the door saying, ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here,’” Poe writes. “Plato also urged the Greeks to adopt Egyptian styles of art and music, which he found superior to those of Greece.”20
In Volume 3 of Stolen Legacy, Bernal similarly rebutted Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa. He criticized Lefkowitz for engaging in the same selective scholarship and simplistic interpretations that she accused Afrocentric scholars of engaging in. Unlike other Afrocentric scholars, Bernal does not say that Egypt is the pivotal source of Greek culture and civilization. He asserts rather that that source of cultural and intellectual influence has not been given its due. Nor has the Semitic/ Phoenician influence, he argues.
That was not always the case, however, Bernal states. Like other Afrocentric scholars, Bernal notes that ancient Greek leaders of thought such as Plato, Herodotus, and Aeschylus acknowledged their intellectual debt to Egypt. Those acknowledgments were excised from Greek history by 18th- and 19th-century historians, Bernal states. It is no coincidence that that was the era of colonial explorations, colonialism, and the attendant racism. In fact, Appiah writes that the very notion of the West as a cultural entity didn’t “emerge until the 1880s and 1890s, during a heated era of imperialism, and [it gained] broader currency only in the twentieth century.”21
Finch’s Star of Deep Beginnings refocuses the scholarship on the black African influence. “We are being forced to radically readjust our optic on ancient history because more and more we are stumbling upon evidence that shows that Africa is the true crucible of modern human culture,”22 Finch writes. Alluding to the seminal work of the science historian Thomas Kuhn, Finch asserts that there is enough evidence in this regard to warrant a “paradigm shift.”23
Finch mostly explores what career counsellors in high schools and universities refer to by the acronym STEM, that is, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Like other Afrocentric scholars, Finch sees ancient Egypt as a black civilization. However, he transcends arguments to the contrary by tracing early developments in civilization to locales in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the case of mathematics, for example, Finch reiterated what others have written regarding ancient Greece’s indebtedness to Egypt. “The Greeks were unanimous in attributing the origin of mathematics to ancient Egypt, particularly geometry, which the Greeks called the ‘queen of sciences,’”24 Finch writes. However, though the Egyptians may have refined mathematics, Finch traces its origin further South to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The earliest arithmetic system of which we have any record is revealed in the Ishango bone,”25 Finch writes. He was referring to a bone discovered in the Ishango territory of northeastern Congo. On it were carved horizontal lines that were grouped in such a pattern that they could only have represented mathematical computations. Subsequent findings show that “all the numerical patterns seen in the Ishango bone show up in later African mathematical systems,” 26 Finch writes.
As to science, technology, and engineering, Finch points to a number of landmarks and archeological discoveries that demonstrate the extent of competences that existed in ancient Africa. One of the landmarks, of course, is the Sphinx. “There is simply no arguing that it is the most stupendous structure ever raised by human hands,” Finch writes. “It has never failed to strike observers with an overpowering awe and it has embroiled the imaginations of better than 150 human generations.”27
The Sphinx aside, Finch also cites evidence of advanced science and technology in excavated mines and buildings that defy the traditional categorization of human history in terms of paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistory. In any case, much of Africa remains unexcavated, Finch notes. And that means that there is much more to uncover that would force the paradigm shift.
96 Who civilized the Greeks that civilized the West?