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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 337-345

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The Politics of Criticism: Not Out of Africa and "Black Athena" Revisited

Maghan Keita
Villanova University

Stephen Howe's Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes and Keith Windschuttles's The Killing of History (1998) illustrate that the issues which many scholars find so contentious in Martin Bernal's Black Athena are still critical elements of the intellectual landscape. They also show--Bernal aside--that the central feature of the discourse is still Afrocentrism, and that the tone of the discourse is still racial. Having said that, Howe and Windschuttle's works demonstrate the possibility and the need to revisit the discourse or discourses in question. So the historian's prerogative is dredged up here in an examination of Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1996), and Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Roger's edited volume, "Black Athena" Revisited (1996). This, too, is a "revisitation of sorts."

Howe's work is one prism for viewing Lefkowitz's celebrated Not Out of Africa. Howe, an "anti-Afrocentrist" by his own definition, is not taken with Lefkowitz's work. The distances which separate him from Lefkowitz, however, are minimized by the historiographic and epistemological issues the two embrace. Both are concerned with who has the right, who is privileged, to participate in the construction of both history and knowledge. If this seems to be an argument only peopled by classicists, Afrocentrists, and their critics, the questions involved in the privileging of certain histories and constructions of knowledge should resonate for world historians when they consider Eric Wolf's title and its implications: Europe and the People Without History. [End Page 337] A critical component of this discourse concerns people assumed to be without voice. This notion becomes one of the most salient ways of characterizing what might be termed "post-discourse": the critiques of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. It is central to questions of new world history and historiographies. It focuses on the ability, the right, the obligation of the world's various peoples to history. Postdiscourse informs us of the ways in which those histories reflect agency on a global scale--temporarily and geographically. It is a discourse that Howe denies to Afrocentrism.

It is Howe's critique of Lefkowitz's that is of primary interest here. In his criticism of Afrocentrism, Howe finds Not Out of Africa a weak ally, if an ally at all. From his position of critic of Afrocentrism, Howe catalogues Lefkowitz's weaknesses in Not Out of Africa with greater credibility than might be acknowledged for any Afrocentrist, alleged or otherwise. Central to Howe's criticism is the intellectual narrowness of Lefkowitz's attack on Afrocentrism. Lefkowitz's treatment of the history of "Afrocentrism's intellectual genealogy" is faulted. Howe equates the work, its "padding," and polemics to the body of material that he and Lefkowitz attack: "She regularly slips into the kind of ethnocentric arguments against which she protests elsewhere." For Howe, Lefkowitz's work is an attempt to use a "steamroller to crack a nut." 1

What is Lefkowitz's task in Not Out of Africa? There are at least two agendas at work. The first is a historiographic agenda aimed at Martin Bernal. It focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on his use of evidence and his reconfiguration of the chronology of the ancient world. Because Bernal is the "strongest," "credentialed," "scholarly" presence that these critics wish to engage, his shortcomings magnify the weaknesses of those who might be associated with him as "Afrocentrists." The second agenda centers on the right (who is "ordained," credentialed) to participate in its construction. It is here that Howe criticizes Not Out of Africa; Lefkowitz's notion of Afrocentrism as a whole is monolithically defined and without nuance or variance. As such she concludes, with detailed reference solely to George G. M. James's Stolen Legacy, that Afrocentrism, Afrocentrists, and the "dangers," "extremes," and irrationalities they embody should be excised from the academy.

The propagation of...