A culture-war squall occurred recently over a Netflix series about Cleopatra, who is played by a black actress. The biggest protest came not from ancient historians calling out fake history, but from Egypt, where a lawyer filed a complaint with the public prosecutor alleging that the casting promotes “the Afrocentric thinking . . . which includes slogans and writings aimed at distorting and erasing the Egyptian identity.”
It seems that Egyptians, rightfully proud of their ancient civilization and its Greco-Roman history, don’t appreciate “cultural appropriation” and “stolen legacies”––crimes that “woke” identity-politicians and activists are so quick to caterwaul about––any more than the “woke” Stasi do. I guess like free speech, for the “woke” it’s “cultural appropriation” for me, but not for thee.
Behold the “woke” egregious double standards, and the fake history like the “1619 Project” that has corrupted academic history for political power and financial gain. A similar offense was committed against Israeli actress Gal Gadot a few years ago, when the Wonder Woman star was cast as Cleopatra. Her offense? Being “bland” and “too pretty,” and especially “white.” One “journalist” despicably Tweeted, “shame on you, Gal Gadot. Your country steals Arab land & you’re stealing their movie roles”––two lies in one smear.
So, an Israeli can’t portray a descendent of Macedonian Greeks, who were typically fairer than southern Greeks, because a historically challenged “journalist” thinks Cleopatra was an Arab? Christian, Greek, and Roman Egypt didn’t become an Arab nation until 645 A.D. with the Muslim conquest and subsequent occupation of Egypt, which continues to this day.
Usually I wouldn’t bother with such patent ignorance, but it reminds me of an early example of “cancel culture” and fake history: the vicious public assaults on Wellesley College classicist Mary Lefkowitz for challenging and exposing the historical distortions and racialist politicization wrought by Afrocentrism. The mainstreaming of this identity-politics propaganda, and its respectable place in academic history, have provided the impetus for the historical canard that Cleopatra was of African ethnicity.
The story begins with Martin Bernal’s 1987 Black Athena, the first of four volumes. Bernal, by training a sinologist, was an amateur scholar of ancient history, his book’s main focus being the supposed neglect of Afro-Egyptian and Semitic cultures’ influences on Classical Greece. What propelled his work into the culture wars was its hijacking by Afrocentrism, an old fringe idea that the ancient Egyptians were ethnically African, and that the “Greek miracle” that founded Western Civilization was in fact a “stolen legacy” from Africans––a myth that goes back to a historical novel published in 1731.
Despite Afrocentrism’s dubious claims contradicted by reams of historical evidence, Bernal was happy to have allies like Leonard Jeffries, a black-studies professor at the City College of New York, and a promoter of a racist and anti-Semitic strain of Afrocentrism. The controversy over Afrocentrism, and Jeffries’ initial support of Bernal’s work helped make Black Athena a staple of black-studies programs, which are typically obsessed with black identity-politics, and dubious racialist history that promote ideas like Critical Race Theory.
Bernal’s thesis was most famously challenged in the Nineties by Mary Lefkowitz, a classicist at Wellesley College. Her 1992 review of Bernal’s book in the New Republic, “Not Out of Africa”; a book of the same name in 1996; and a collection of essays called Black Athena Revisited published the same year, comprised a devastating dismantling of Bernal’s amateurish research and tendentious arguments––which perforce was also a critical analysis of Afrocentrism and the “stolen legacy” charge.
A year after her essay “Not Out of Africa,” Lefkowitz had publicly challenged Afrocentrism with a bravery few academics can muster. In February 1993 she attended Wellesley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial lecture given by Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan. As Lefkowitz wrote later, “Posters for the event described Dr. ben-Jochannan as a ‘distinguished Egyptologist,’ and indeed that is how he was introduced by the then President of Wellesley College.”
“But I knew” Lefkowitz, continues, “from my research in Afrocentric literature that he was not what scholars would ordinarily describe as an Egyptologist, that is a scholar of Egyptian language and civilization. Rather, he was an extreme Afrocentrist, author of many books describing how Greek civilization was stolen from Africa, how Aristotle robbed the library of Alexandria, and how the true Jews are Africans like himself.”
Note the carelessness and cowardice of the college president’s office and the history faculty that failed to vet the speaker. But that shouldn’t surprise us. We have seen over the past 30 years how only conservative or non-“woke” speakers are scrutinized for political incorrectness or professional competence, then “cancelled,” or, if allowed to speak at all, shouted down and otherwise disrupted and abused.
But Lefkowitz didn’t stay silent after the speaker finished: “I asked him during the question period why he said that Aristotle had come to Egypt with Alexander, and had stolen his philosophy from the Library at Alexandria, when that Library had only been built after his death. Dr. ben-Jochannan was unable to answer the question, and said that he resented the tone of the inquiry. Several students came up to me after the lecture and accused me of racism, suggesting that I had been brainwashed by white historians.”
Lefkowitz’s brave question and challenge of an intellectual mountebank ignited a scorched-earth response by black-studies and Afrocentric ideologues and activists. The incident soon became a national front in the culture wars. The vitriol ranged from the truly obscure black-studies professor Wilson Jeremiah Moses’ dismissal of Lefkowitz, a highly respected classical scholar, as an “obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department”; to Khalid Muhammad of the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam––whose support was welcomed by the many black-studies professors–– who viciously smeared Lefkowitz as a “homosexual” and a “hook-nosed, lox-eating . . . so-called Jew.”
The same thuggish ignorance also came from high-profile activist and race-baiters outside the academy. In a 1994 talk delivered at a college (sic!), notorious race-hustler Al Sharpton opined, “We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.” Lefkowitz continued to be harassed and smeared for several years, as she documents in her 2005 memoir History Lessons.
Included in the onslaught was a defamation lawsuit connected to a Wellesley Africana Studies professor’s bullying of a white Jewish student, which Lefkowitz wrote about in an article. Among the Africana Studies professor’s books is the “objectively” (in the Marxist meaning) anti-Semitic The Jewish Onslaught. One of the canards of the Nation of Islam is the “secret relationship” between blacks and Jews who the NOI claims dominated the slave-trade. Lefkowitz’s lawsuit dragged on for five years before being dismissed. By the way, Lefkowitz, a classic liberal, helped found what became the Africana Studies department in which the professor taught.
The significance of this controversy and its aftermath are its portents of the future we now inhabit–– the sacrifice of professional ethics and integrity in order to promote politicized and racialized ideological preferences; and its legitimizing of vicious ad hominem attacks and question-begging epithets like “racist” as the preferred method for misdirecting uncomfortable scrutiny from shoddy scholarship, incompetent professors, and patent nonsense––a technique, as we see today, which has spread from a fringe ideology like Afrocentrism, to prestigious academic departments and, of course, the mainstream media and popular culture.
Another lesson to be learned are the intellectually corrosive postmodern fads that have colonized not just universities but popular culture, federal agencies, and K-12 curricula. The juvenile antirealism, relativism, two-bit Nietzschean dismissal of truth and objectivity, reduction of all value and meaning to a contrived racialist identity, and amoral “any means necessary” political tactics––all comprise the “woke” ideology that has infested all our institutions, but especially education, creating a never-ending tournament of lies destroying our politics and culture.
Finally, Lefkowitz’s travails remind us how rare moral courage is in our universities, and the price exacted for displaying it. Lefkowitz’s efforts obviously couldn’t slow down, let alone stop, the corruption. But her efforts and her intellectual integrity shined a light on the degradation of learning and critical thought in America, and its replacement by slavish conformism and deference to authority.
That so many people didn’t listen or take seriously enough Mary Lefkowitz’s brave resistance, doesn’t diminish her achievement, or excuse the widespread cowardice and “betrayal of the clerks” who should know better than to empower patent lies, fake history, and illiberal ideas.