Pride and Prejudice

Dinesh DSouza is the John M. Olin fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from his new book, The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, just published by the Free Press.

Vol. 6, American Enterprise, 09-01-1995, pp 51.

At Bunche Middle School in southwest Atlanta, teacher Carolyn Huff argues that the mathematical wisdom of ancient Egypt can help her students solve algebra problems. Huff claims that the standard algebra textbook misleads students because it does not credit Egypt with discovering ways to represent unknown variables. Long before the Greeks used the x and the y, she says, Egyptians around 4,500 B.C. thought of representing variables with the word aha. Yet when Huff proceeds to write a series of fractions on the board, the students are stumped. Huff argues that their ignorance is beside the point. What's important, she says, 1s for students to acknowledge the racial heritage of what she calls "aha calculus." As for simple arithmetic, Huff admits, "I know they don't really understand fractions."

Ethnic groups in America have long taken pride in their various heritages. But this process has been taken to new extremes by what is known as Afrocentrism. Radical Afrocentrism asserts all sorts of dubious claims for Africa's past, at the expense of truth and, sometimes, the current needs of African Americans. Worse, contemporary Afrocentrism is often based less on celebration of black achievements than on anger and resentment toward other peoples.

Afrocentrism and other "multicultural" programs repudiate European institutions, including Western scholarly norms, and embrace instead an alternative "black reality." This Afrocentric approach is pervasive in inner-city schools in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Washington, DC., and elsewhere. It even appears in mixed-race, middle-class suburbs like Prince George's County, Maryland, where a speaker at an Afrocentrism conference told how melanin, the coloring agent in skin, helps blacks "speak and read faster," as well as "glide in the air like a Magic Johnson or hit top speeds like Florence Joyner."

D. C. Schools Superintendent Franklin Smith hired consultant Abena Walker for $250,000 to develop a pilot Afrocentric program for the students in his charge, who rank among the nation's poorest achievers. Walker trains teachers at an un-accredited institution called Pan- African University, which she founded and from which she awarded herself her own master's degree. The outline for her elementary-school education program calls for harnessing the power of Nommo, or African "word magic," because "to control Nommo is to control the generation and transformation of sound, energy, thoughts, and action." Walker acknowledges that her approach does not emphasize traditional academics: "We feel that academics, that's the easy part, because our children are just brilliant." But Russell Adams, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard, the capital's historically black university, disagrees. He has attacked Walker's brand of Afrocentrism, complaining that "neophytes" and "dilettantes" are jeopardizing the education of young people with claims that fail to "sort out historic fact from fiction."

Afrocentrism is not limited to schools: it is increasingly the official ideology of rap musicians, community activists (including the Nation of Islam), and black prisoners. Afrocentric claims routinely make their way into mainstream black literature. In Lerone Bennett's Bette the Mayflower: A History of Black America, for instance, Bennett finds "parallels between African philosophy and modern subatomic physics. " In Why Black People Tend to Shout, Ralph Wiley credits blacks with inventing the phonograph and the cotton gin, and with pioneering open- heart surgery -- claims that are not historically accurate.

Who are the Afrocentrists? Many of them are American black nationalists from the 1960s who have given themselves new names and African accents in order to promulgate what they believe to be a distinctive African worldview. Molefi Asante is probably the leading Afrocentrist in America. Head of the African Studies Department at Temple University, he is also an architect of several school programs designed to transform the traditional curriculum in an Afrocentric direction. "Deify your ancestors," Asante exhorts. He adds that "a total rewrite of the major events and developments in the world is long overdue. Our facts are in our history; use them. Their facts are in their history; and they have certainly used theirs. All truth resides in our own experiences. "

As a consequence of this relativized view of truth, Afrocentrists seem unabashed about teaching young black students information that is judged dubious, even preposterous, by mainstream scholars. Nor are Afrocentrists noticeably chagrined by an absence of professional training in the specialized fields from which their confident claims are drawn. While a few leading Afrocentrists are recognized scholars, many are political activists, ministers in the Nation of Islam, laboratory technicians, musicians, social workers, and self-taught former convicts.

One of the most widely used Afrocentric texts is the African-American Baseline Essays, a teaching manual used in public schools in Portland, Atlanta, Detroit, and elsewhere. The scientific sections of the African- American Baseline Essays were authored by Hunter Adams, who lists himself as a "research scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago." But according to the information office of Argonne, Adams is in fact a technician whose job is to collect environmental samples. Although identified as "Dr. Hunter Adams" in the baseline essays, Argonne's spokesman reports he has a high school degree only and "does no research at Argonne on any topic."

Afrocentrists openly reject scholarly and scientific techniques as a form of Western "tricknology," and use "legends" and "religious cults" as evidence instead. Accuse Molefi Asante of promulgating myths and he responds, "We act mythically. . . . All people have a mythology, " and black Americans need to "reconstruct our mythology." A myth "can be considered a form of reasoning and record-keeping by providing an implicit guide for bringing about the fulfillment of the truth it proclaims," argues Wade Nobles. Myths state "truth rather than fact."

To see the sort of truth radical Afro-centrists prefer to mere fact, consider the dramatic contrast between some of the central claims of Afrocentric scholars on the one hand, and mainstream scholars (black and white) on the other.

* Afrocentrists argue that early Egypt was a Negroid culture, and that all human civilization thus derives from African culture. Two widely cited sources for this claim are Martin Bernal's Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Western Civilization, and Chancellor Williams' s The Destruction of Black Civilization. Williams writes that Egypt was "not only all-black, but the very name of Egypt (Kemet) was derived from the blacks."

In fact, African American scholar Frank Snowden says, Kemet has nothing to do with skin color: it refers to the "black land," that is, to the fertile soil watered by the Nile, in contrast to the red land of the desert. Similarly, archaeologist Kathryn Bard says it was conventional in Egyptian art to paint men in a dark-red ochre and women in a light- yellow ochre to distinguish them. This artistic convention is mistaken by Afrocentrists, who use it to claim that Egyptians were Negroid.

Egyptologists have known for a long time that ancient Egypt was a multiracial civilization. Anthropologist Frank Yurco argues that the ancient Egyptians, like their modern descendants, "varied in complexion from the light Mediterranean hue to the darker brown of upper Egypt, to the darkest shade around Aswan where, even today, the population shifts to Nubian." Egypt maintained cultural contacts both to the north and the south, and was a genuinely diverse society in which no importance was attached to race, Yurco adds.

* Even before Egypt, Afrocentrists maintain, black Africans produced an extensive literature. "Africans themselves invented writing," insists Williams. Unfortunately, Williams says, virtually all evidence of this literary accomplishment is lost. Ancient African philosophy was likewise advanced, according to Afrocentrists. "It reads like if you' re reading Jean-Paul Sartre or Heidegger or Kierkegaard," maintains author Ivan Van Sertima. "It is very complex."

Actually, there is no evidence for early African writing and literature, and Afro-centrists have produced no samples of ancient African theoretical reflection. Indeed Kwasi Wiredu, a leading contemporary African philosopher, writes that "the African philosopher has no choice but to conduct his philosophical inquiries in relation to the philosophical writings of other peoples, for his own ancestors left him no heritage of philosophical writings."

* Afrocentrists claim that in addition to the architectural achievements of ancient Egypt, black Africans built other structures unrivaled in the ancient world. "Africans constructed a national system of reservoirs, " remarks Williams, some of them "doubtless at sites not yet excavated. " Moreover, they produced "magnificent stone and brick palaces, temples, churches, cathedrals, wide avenues lined with palm trees, government buildings, public baths, water supply systems. The Arab scholars [who traveled through sub-Saharan Africa] were properly amazed at a way of life so superior to that of their own homeland."

In fact, the medieval Arab travel literature on southern Africa is highly mixed. It contains some respectful observations about the character of the people, but it reports none of the architectural wonders claimed by the Afrocentrists, and includes scornful references to many practices Arab writers found primitive. These references are edited out of Afrocentric literature.

* Afrocentrists argue that the ancient Egyptian Negroes produced innumerable inventions and insights that are mistakenly attributed to the modern era. For example, the African-American Baseline Essays claims that black Egyptians developed electricity and built power-driven gliders some 4,000 years ago and "used their early planes for travel expeditions and recreation." Yet except for a few references to bird effigies that are mistaken for gliders, Afrocentrists have produced no evidence for these claims. Certainly they are irreconcilable with the technological backwardness of Africa as observed by Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans on a continuous basis since the late Middle Ages.

* Afrocentrists claim that the Greeks stole most of their philosophy and medicine from Egypt. Wade Nobles writes in African Psychology that "Aristotle's doctrines of immortality, salvation of the soul, and the summum bonum are examples of the ancient African theory of salvation." Molefi Asante writes, "Of course Plato himself was taught in Africa by Seknoufls and Kounoufis," offering no evidence for the assertion. George James argues in his book Stolen Legacy that "all false praise of the Greeks must be removed from the textbooks of our schools and colleges," and students must undergo a "reeducation consisting of a thorough study of the ideas and arguments contained in my book. "

Classical scholars such as Mary Lefkowitz and Frank Snowden have painstakingly investigated these claims and concluded, in Lefkowitz's words, that they are "one part fact, two parts speculation, and three parts outright falsehoods." Contrary to Afrocentric assertions, Lefkowitz maintains, there is no evidence that Socrates and Aristotle went to Egypt or studied there. "The Egyptian Book of the Deadis cited as a source for Aristotle," Lefkowitz says, "but the Book of the Dead is a set of ritual prescriptions about the soul's journey to the next world. It could hardly be further apart from Aristotle's philosophical discussions about human nature." Snowden notes that the Greeks enjoyed amicable relations with blacks but encountered them mainly as mercenaries and soldiers. "The time has come for Afrocentrists to cease mythologizing and falsifying the past," he urges.

* Afrocentrists specifically charge that Greek and Roman armies burned down the library of Alexandria in an effort to appropriate African knowledge and prevent Africans from getting credit, but their accounts of the theft conflict. George James maintains that Alexander the Great looted the library in 333 B.C. and "carried off a booty of scientific, philosophic, and religious books." John Jackson, on the other hand, writes that the library was burned almost three centuries later, in 48 B.C., by invading Romans.

It turns out that both of these accounts are wrong. As Frank Snowden points out, "Most ancient sources suggest that Ptolemy II founded the library long after Aristotle's death in 322 B.C." There is no evidence Aristotle ever visited Egypt, Snowden adds, and even if the library were built earlier, it is unlikely that it would have contained much of a collection at that early date.

* Afrocentrists argue that all other civilizations of the ancient world were either black or owe their achievements to the theft of African ideas. India and China are, in the Afrocentric model, indebted to black ingenuity. "The early inhabitants of India were black," writes John Jackson. "They have Negroid features, dark skin, and woolly hair. " Indeed, those who built the Mohenjo Daro and Harappa civilizations in India were not Indians at all, he claims, but "Asiatic Ethiopians. " Similarly, the great philosophy and art that emerged in China during the Shang dynasty really derives from black Africans. In They Came Before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima argues that it was Africans, rather than Columbus, who discovered America. Scrutinizing artifacts of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mexico to find Negro features, Van Sertima argues that Africans using advanced navigational techniques migrated to produce the mathematical and architectural wonders wrongly attributed to the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs.

No reputable Mesoamerican scholar agrees with these claims, and scholars who are familiar with the archeological evidence say that the Afrocentrists are entirely incompetent in the science of tracing the influence of one society on another. David Grove, an expert on Olmec civilization, says that Afrocentric claims for the black origin of Olmec culture are absurd, and that drawing significance out of the skin tones of Olmec figures is foolish because "the only stone available to them was black stone. The source of the stone is the Tuxtlas mountains, of volcanic origin." The response of experts to books like They Came Before Columbus is typified by the classical scholar whose New York Times review described the work as "ignorant rubbish" by an author whose knowledge of historical techniques is "abysmal."

* Even Judaism and Christianity are largely plagiarized from African blacks, according to Afrocentrists, who add that Jesus Christ was a Negro. For example, Cain Hope Felder, editor of the African Heritage Study Bible, asserts that Christ was an "Afro-Asiatic Jew" who "probably looked like a typical Yemenire, Trinidadian, or African American of today."

The Bible makes no reference to Christ's skin color or racial features, but Jon Levenson, a leading biblical scholar, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that "the average Galilean was not black. I don' t know of any Jewish groups that were black in the first century." New Testament scholar Robert Funk says that Jesus was probably "swarthy in complexion" like other Semites, but hardly blackor Negroid. Asked by the Washington Post about Felder's theory, Funk sputtered, "That' s just funny. I suppose we'll be claiming next that he was a woman. Or that he was native American. The possibilities are unlimited."

* Afrocentrists even credit Africans with supernatural powers. The African-American Baseline Essays refers to "the extra-terrestrial origin of the Nile." The document also refers to the paranormal and mystical powers of the pyramids, treats Egyptian astrology as valid science, and credits Egyptian Negroes with expertise "as masters of psi, pre-cognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing, and other undeveloped human capabilities."

Bernard Ortiz De Montellano, an Hispanic anthropologist, argues that these Afrocentric claims are classic instances of "scientific illiteracy" that universities should resist being pressed to teach. "Minorities are already greatly under-represented in science and engineering," Montellano writes. "Teaching them pseudoscience will make it much more difficult for these young people to pursue scientific curricula. "

The tragedy of Afrocentrism for blacks is that, in the name of promoting group pride, it provides young people with falsehoods that undercut the accumulation of real knowledge -- and the achievement and self- respect that real knowledge brings. Rather than preparing black students for the challenges of living in modern civilization, Anthony Appiah points out, Afrocentrists instead teach them languages that are hardly spoken anywhere and concepts that are "a composite of truth and error, insight and illusion, moral generosity and meanness."

Despite their interest in the ancient world, Afrocentrists appear to have missed one of the most important lessons we can learn from the ancients -- the acknowledgment of civilizational differences combined with a refusal to reduce these to biological characteristics. "The ancient Egyptian lack of color prejudice should serve as a salutary lesson for us today," Frank Yurco says. "They would have considered this Afrocentric argument absurd, and this is something we could really learn from." Instead, Afro-centrists insist upon projecting their own racial nomenclature and obsession onto the ancients, invoking them to justify contemporary assertions of black militancy.

Afrocentrism is thus both pathetic and formidable. Pathetic because it offers young blacks nothing in the way of knowledge and skills that are required by modern life; formidable, because it offers them racial dynamite instead: a fortified chauvinism, a hardened conspiratorial mindset, and a robotic dedication to ideologies of blackness. The "revolutionary commitment" to which Molefi Asante refers is evident in the hardened gleam in many Afrocentric eyes. Afrocentrists exhibit a virtually cultic pattern of lockstep behavior: everyone dresses alike, and when the leader laughs, everyone laughs. Gradually but unmistakably, Afrocentrists are severing the bonds of empathy and understanding that are the basis for coexistence and cooperation in a multiracial society. Meanwhile, the real needs of blacks -- and the hard work of meeting them -- are being neglected.

ILLUSTRATION: Portrait of an Egyptian, from a mummy found at Hawara, painted about 150 A. D. Afrocentrists insist that ancient Egypt was a Negroid culture. Actually, experts say, it was a multiracial Mediterranean civilization.

ILLUSTRATION: Afrocentrists assert that Jesus Christ was an "Afro- Asiatic Jew" who looked like an "African American of today." Biblical scholars note that the Bible makes no reference to Christ's skin color or racial features.

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