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History Lesson

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

Mary Lefkowitz
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    History Lesson
    Book Description:

    In the early 1990s, Classics professor Mary Lefkowitz discovered that one of her faculty colleagues at Wellesley College was teaching his students that Greek culture had been stolen from Africa and that Jews were responsible for the slave trade. This book tells the disturbing story of what happened when she spoke out.

    Lefkowitz quickly learned that to investigate the origin and meaning of myths composed by people who have for centuries been dead and buried is one thing, but it is quite another to critique myths that living people take very seriously. She also found that many in academia were reluctant to challenge the fashionable idea that truth is merely a form of opinion. For her insistent defense of obvious truths about the Greeks and the Jews, Lefkowitz was embroiled in turmoil for a decade. She faced institutional indifference, angry colleagues, reverse racism, anti-Semitism, and even a lawsuit intended to silence her.

    InHistory LessonLefkowitz describes what it was like to experience directly the power of both postmodernism and compensatory politics. She offers personal insights into important issues of academic values and political correctness, and she suggests practical solutions for the divisive and painful problems that arise when a political agenda takes precedence over objective scholarship. Her forthright tale uncovers surprising features in the landscape of higher education and an unexpected need for courage from those who venture there.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14519-9
    Subjects: History, Education

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Would you mind if I began this book with a little quiz? Which of these statements is most controversial?

    (a) Greek philosophy was stolen from the Egyptians.

    (b) Greek philosophy was borrowed from the Hebrews.

    (c) Greek philosophy was invented by the Greeks.

    The answer is (c), even though it is the only one of these statements that is backed up by strong evidence. The Greeks were indeed the first ancient people to use philosophy; they were the first to use non-theological language to describe first causes. There is no question about that. Thirty years ago no one would have...

  4. CHAPTER ONE A Racist Incident?
    (pp. 15-25)

    Whenever I think about it, which is often, it becomes harder to imagine how Wellesley College could have been the setting for the controversy that I shall describe in this book. But in 1991 an incident took place there that had a long-lasting and corrosive effect on all of us. Most incongruously, it happened in a residence hall built in high College Gothic style on a hill overlooking a tranquil lake. The leaded windows and carved woodwork in the dormitory’s public rooms are intended to draw one away from the present day into an imagined past. It is easy to...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Discovering Afrocentrism
    (pp. 26-44)

    Not long before the incident in Claflin Hall, I had started to work on a lengthy review article. Reviewing books is not usually a dangerous occupation. At worst, one can incur the undying enmity of the author whose work one has regarded with less than wild enthusiasm. But this review soon got me into hot water. The literary editor of theNew Republic,Leon Wieseltier, had asked me to write a review of a new volume of Martin Bernal’sBlack Athenaalong with a few other titles.¹ Bernal was a professor of government at Cornell, by training a sinologist, who...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Two Views of Ancient History
    (pp. 45-57)

    My concern was about the teaching of ancient history, but hard as I tried to keep race out of the discussion, it soon became the central issue surrounding Bernal’s book and my review of it. No doubt the provocative cover of theNew Republicmade that inevitable. Most of the letters I got said nothing about the historical or linguistic questions I had raised. What they cared about was whether Socrates or Cleopatra or other ancients had been black or white. I would have been glad to point out that the color of their skin mattered much less to Cleopatra...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Turning Myths into History
    (pp. 58-81)

    In the ancient world, myths retained their emotive and imaginative power long after people ceased to believe in the literal existence of the traditional gods. Myths coexist alongside of, and despite, philosophy and science, because they offer an immediately accessible, emotional means of understanding forces beyond human control. The idea of a Stolen Legacy expresses deep human resentment against Europeans who had stolen people from Africa and exploited its manpower and natural resources during colonization. Did European exploitation begin in antiquity? Might Western civilization, including the ancient Greek culture that had long been regarded as its foundation, have its roots...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE A New Anti-Semitism
    (pp. 82-94)

    Although the Jewish organizations’ joint statement failed to persuade the college to take any kind of action against Tony Martin, it did have one significant consequence. It became the principal justification for the publication of Martin’s notorious bookThe Jewish Onslaught: Despatches from the Wellesley Battlefront.¹ The first sentence on the back cover reads: “The Jewish attack on Black progress reached Wellesley College in 1993, when more Jewish organizations than you could shake a stick at issued a call for the dismissal of Dr. Tony Martin from his tenured professorship at the elite women’s college.” That sounded a lot more...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Truth or Slander?
    (pp. 95-104)

    Socrates firmly believed that there could be no education without dialogue. He always used the technique of question and answer in his discussions, because it was essential that everyone acknowledge the validity of statements before the discussion could proceed. But at Wellesley—at least in 1993–94—what we mainly saw was confrontation.

    Dialogue, at least in certain circles, had come to mean confrontation, as was implied in the closing slogan ofThe Jewish Onslaught: “Dialogue. Apologies. Reparations.” Was it so certain that dialogue would result in apologies? By “dialogue,”The Jewish Onslaughtevidently meant that one side would speak,...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Reparations?
    (pp. 105-114)

    Determining exactly what had happened in the residence hall in 1991 was just one aspect of what would be a long and demanding process. For five and a half years, until Martin’s lawsuit against me was finally dismissed in 1999, I was on constant call to answer questions. My lawyers had to be able to reach me wherever my travels took me. Lawyers, of course, know how to deal with the pressure of constant interrogatories, briefs, and memoranda, just as academics learn not to panic when they receive a large stack of student papers. But all the legal procedures were...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT A Racist Polemic?
    (pp. 115-130)

    At the same time that I began to learn more about the incident involving Michelle Plantec and Tony Martin, in the summer of 1993, I discovered the source of the myth of the Stolen Legacy. It was a historical novel, a fictional narrative written by a classical scholar who made explicit and specific use of ancient sources. Unfortunately the historical information it presented was almost entirely without value, because it was published in 1731, nearly a century before the decipherment of hieroglyphics made it possible to read sources written in ancient Egyptian and to see what the Egyptians themselves were...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Turning History into Fiction
    (pp. 131-147)

    By now you may well be ready to say: Why put yourself through all this? The people you are defending have been dead for millennia. Most of the people you are trying to talk to won’t listen to you. Or as an anonymous missive put it: “You. You so ugly. Why don’t you sit down and shut up?”

    Here’s why. We owe it to the people of the past to record their history as accurately as we can. We owe it to ourselves to get as close to the truth as we can, whatever that truth turns out to be....

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 148-160)

    Was it worth it? Yes, even if it meant being a defendant in a lawsuit and listening to people say some pretty unkind things about me. In a way, it was rather fun collecting nasty epithets. My favorite is Wilson Moses’ “obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department.”¹ Why throw in the whole field of classical studies? Maybe he didn’t like his high-school Latin teacher.

    But in spite of all that, I learned so much, not just about the Stolen Legacy myth and its origins, but about African-American history, and history generally. Even with all the anguish...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 161-188)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 189-190)
  16. Index
    (pp. 191-202)