Not Out of Africa

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I picked up a copy of Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out of Africa on a whim, because it was on Pioneer Book’s “Top 100” shelf. It looked like the kind of book I would appreciate more than most people, because it’s a study of African history. I took the book upstairs in the bookstore and read the introduction, then decided it was worth buying and reading all the way through.

I’m glad I did. Not Out of Africa is basically a study of false history. The author is a professor of the classics, particularly Greek. She was concerned when she heard a colleague teaching that the Greeks had stolen all their philosophy from Egypt. As far as Lefkowitz knew, that wasn’t true. In the same lecture, the colleague argued that Socrates and Alexander the Great visited the Library of Alexandria together, took a bunch of ideas, and that’s why Socrates knew so much. When Lefkowitz raised her hand and commented that the Library of Alexandria was not compiled until after Socrates’s death, the lecturer dismissed her comment because he “didn’t like her tone,” and students afterward accused her of racism.

Lefkowitz does two things in this book: first, she takes some myths that have been taught as history and systematically debunks them. Then, she explains why these myths are allowed to be taught in universities across the nation: they make Africans look good. The argument is that the accuracy of the history doesn’t matter, so long as it builds the self-esteem of Black Americans, who need good role models. The problem is that history that’s based on emotion is not history; it’s propaganda. Lefkowitz also points out that the Afrocentrists who support this kind of “history” also focus almost exclusively on making Egypt look good, at the expense of the rest of the African continent. That means overlooking a great many real role models in favor of the African society that’s traditionally most popular with White Europeans. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid?

The introduction and epilogue are mostly about Lefkowitz’s reception with the public, who largely accused her of being bigoted and racist for writing the book or doing the research. If she hadn’t been White, people argued, would she have felt threatened by this kind of Afrocentrist history? Would she have questioned it? Doesn’t the underdog deserve a little credit? Lefkowitz points out that she didn’t question the history because it was about Black people; she questioned it because she was fairly confident it was unfounded. And as a Jew, she feels she has some idea what it feels like to be an underdog.

“The problem with saying that Aristotle stole his philosophy from Egypt,” she argues, “is not that modern Greeks and classicists will be offended; what’s wrong with the statement is that it is untrue.” [1]

I enjoyed this book, because I felt I could actually trust the author. The last third of the book is the “notes” section, and the entire book is extremely thorough in research. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek or African history. I would not, however, recommend it to anyone else. This is definitely much more patterned after a historical treatise than a novel, and if you’re not accustomed to reading long, historical papers, you may not make it through the whole thing. Being largely unacquainted with the ancient Greeks, I struggled through some of the sections. All in all, though, I think Lefkowitz is brave to tackle the subject, and she does it extremely well. ♦

[1] Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 174.

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