“More recently, The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones has gone on an antiracism crusade by coming up with the 1619 Project.”
allowed to lie in the name of anti-racism? It appears so. If you do not cry watching the television version of Alex Haley’s Roots, your heart is made of stone. However, unfortunately, Haley invented many points in his book, even though he tried to pass his narrative as a reliable and thoroughly-researched history.s one
More recently, The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones has gone on an antiracism crusade by coming up with the 1619 Project. Whether that year—or 1776—was the real founding of the United States is a matter of debate. But, what is clearly false is that the American Revolution was chiefly about protecting slavery. Hannah-Jones has advanced this lie, and The New York Times has quietly retracted making this false historical claim. Yet, Hannah-Jones defiantly keeps pushing her agenda, truth be damned.
This is new wine in old wineskins. There is a regrettable, long history of spurious historical claims, all with the alleged purpose of countering racism. Afrocentrism is surely the most pathetic case. If you are a black schoolchild, and you are constantly told that your ancestors have always been brute savages, your self-esteem will likely suffer. Then, when you find out that, in fact, Africa had some important civilizational achievements (such as, say, Great Zimbabwe) but are told that the people who built it actually belonged to the white race (as the so-called Hamitic hypothesis claimed), the insult is even greater. In the history of Western education, this has been all too common.
However, instead of pushing back with real historical information so as to counter racist narratives, some pseudohistorians have come up with wild, absurd theories that amount to a simple turning of the tables. This is what Afrocentrism is all about. The movement began with a 1954 book by one obscure Guyanese author, George James, with the title Stolen Legacy. James took for granted that ancient Egyptians were black. That claim in and of itself was very questionable, but James did not care to elaborate on it. His greater claim was that Greeks stole philosophy from Egyptians. In his strange story, Aristotle looted Alexandria’s library and claimed for Greeks all the knowledge that had originally been Egyptian. And so—since the Egyptians were black—the real origin of Western civilization is black. Whites were just cultural vultures.
The Left’s current obsession with cultural appropriation largely derives from the theses of those such as James. In this narrative, whites steal cultural products from darker-skin people—not unlike the claims made in Stolen Legacy. Yet, James’ theories do not hold any water. Alexandria’s library was built long after Aristotle’s death. Yes, Egyptians had some influence on Greek art (and possibly religion), but this was no theft; it was just the natural diffusional flow of any cultural encounter. Even so, when it comes to philosophy, there is little (if any) trace of Egyptian influence among the Greeks.
James opened a can of worms. Another pseudo-historian, Cheikh Anta Diop, published in 1955 Nations negres et culture. Unlike James, Diop tried to prove at greater length that ancient Egyptians were black. He claimed that the language of ancient Egyptians was related to Sub-Saharan languages; this is simply not the case. He also claimed that Egypt formed a cultural whole with Nubia and Ethiopia (indisputably, black nations). Again, this is dubious. Of course, there were Nubian immigrants in Egypt. They would easily be assimilated and, thus, become Egyptians, just as they also did in Rome or Greece. But, their numbers were never very high. There may be black-looking people in Egypt today, but, overall, Egyptians—as a whole—resemble far more the peoples of North Africa (i.e. neither black nor white). In the strange tellings of Afroncentrists, ancient Egyptians were all black, and the current racial make up only came to be with the Arab invasions. But, again, this is a very inaccurate claim; the Arab invaders were not too numerous, and it can be safely argued that the physical appearance of Egyptians today did not differ much from that of pharaonic times.
For some strange reason, in this grand Afrocentrist myth, Cleopatra VII is a big trophy. Hollywood portrays a blue-eyed Jesus when, in fact, he was probably brown-skin. So, you might think that the real Cleopatra did not look like Elizabeth Taylor and, in fact, was black. That is what Afrocentrists like to claim. They are wrong. Perhaps Cleopatra VII did not look like Taylor (Cleopatra’s charms apparently did not rely so much on beauty, and her nose famously did not help), but she was certainly not black. Cleopatra descended from the Ptolemaic Greek dynasty; those rulers lived isolated from the local Egyptian population and went to great lengths so as to preserve their bloodlines (sibling marriage was the norm, as Cleopatra herself practiced it).
Much has been made of the name Egyptians used for their own country, kemet. The name, indeed, means “black.” As the cases of “niggardly” and “blackmail” prove, overzealous antiracists are eager to racialize words that have nothing to with race, so Afrocentrists claim kemet as proof that ancient Egyptians were black. But historians have ample proof that the blackness of kemet refers to the color of the fertile ground in the Nile Valley—not the skin color of Egyptians.
Neither James nor Diop were respectable scholars. But Martin Bernal was a professor at Cornell University, and he wrote a series of books seemingly supporting Afrocentrist claims. In more academic language (and without the conspiracy-mongering tone of James’ claims about outright theft), Bernal argues that Greek civilization derived from Egypt. He relied extensively on etymologies that most historians have debunked. The title of his most famous book was Black Athena. Athena is important in Bernal’s argument because—according to him—Athena was originally the Egyptian goddess Neith. This claim has also been debunked by historians: there may be superficial resemblances in both goddesses—but not to the extent to warrant the claim that Athena was originally Egyptian. Furthermore, Bernal seemed to care little about the race of ancient Egyptians, but the fact that he used “black” in the title was surely a clever ploy to pander to Afrocentrists, who are eager to say that everything in Greek culture was originally black.
Today, there is much discussion about what cultural appropriation even means. Perhaps white college students should not be wearing sombreros in Halloween parties. Perhaps Elvis was wrong to dance like African Americans did. Those are difficult calls, and the conversation should be opened. However, if activists want any credibility, they should begin by denouncing Afrocentrism as the ultimate case of cultural appropriation. Afrocentrists prey on modern Egyptians by claiming that all the wonderful things that are found in their country were actually built by black people. In other words, Afrocentrists want black people to culturally appropriate that which belongs to Egyptians, simply dismissing them as the descendants of invaders who had nothing to do with pharaonic achievements. Who are the real vultures?
The case for Afrocentrism collapses under any scrutiny. But, predictably, in the absence of empirical support, Afrocentrists need to play the race card to stay in business. So, any debunker of these absurd claims will be labeled a racist. As Afrocentrists see it, to reject their dubious theses amounts to oppressing black people. That is the sad case of the most notorious critic of Afrocentrism, Mary Lefkowitz. In her books, she patiently deconstructs the claims of Afrocentrism. In Lefkowitz’s work, there is not one single sentence that could be read as racist; all she does is describe what ancient Egyptians were truly like, with very compelling evidence. Yet, as far as Afrocentrists are concerned, she is an evil, racist woman. In fact, I once conducted a discussion with Lefkowitz on Youtube, and I was shocked by the number of hateful comments that viewers left against her.
You might think that with all the debunking done by both white (Yaacov Shavit, Ronald Fritze) and black (Gerald Early, Henry Louis Gates) scholars, Afrocentrism would just be a relic of the past. Yet, this is not so. All in the name of “decolonizing the curriculum,” students at many schools are still taught that Aristotle was a thief, that Cleopatra looked very black, and so on. The lure of turning the tables against racism—and simply inverting the Hamitic theory by now claiming that everything great among the Greeks and Egyptians was built by blacks—is too powerful.
For that reason, I am not optimistic that the damage done by Nikole Hannah-Jones can be fully contained. Even if The New York Times retracts its coverage, readers have already been fed the narrative that the American Revolution was all about slavery. Yet, I still take comfort in speculating that—had scholars not engaged in debunking Afrocentrism—its lure would have been even greater. So, even though the damage has been done, scholars need to engage Hannah-Jones and debunk her dubious claims, for the integrity of historical truth.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80