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The Ancient Greeks stole their culture from Africa. They didn’t just learn from the Africans, or borrow from them. They committed grand — very grand — larceny. Then they hushed up their crime, and Western historians have been labouring to maintain the myth of Greek originality ever since.

Such is one of the major contentions of Afrocentrism, a movement which has gained considerable ground (not least in American universities) over the past 40 or 50 years. It is also the thesis which Mary Lefkowitz subjected to critical scrutiny in her book Not Out of Africa, which was published in 1996.

Professor Lefkowitz is a distinguished classicist, who has spent almost her entire career at Wellesley College in Massachusetts . It was only in the early 1990s, however, that she became aware of what Afrocentrism entailed with respect to classical studies, and of what was being taught in its name at her own university. She was dismayed, and from then on she became increasingly caught up in academic and cultural controversy.

In the Afrocentrist version of classical antiquity, Africans are effectively equated with Egyptians, and Egypt figures in virtually all the historical claims that Lefkowitz examines in Not Out of Africa. There is the claim, for instance, that the Egyptians invaded Greece in the second millennium BC. This would have been a major event, if it had actually taken place, but Lefkowitz assures us that there is nothing — neither archaeological nor linguistic evidence ­— to show that it did. Again, Afrocentrists assert that Aristotle, far from being a master thinker, was not only a plagiarist but a common thief as well — that he derived many of his ideas from books which he stole from the great library at Alexandria. One trouble with this theory is that the library at Alexandria wasn’t founded until 25 years after his death.

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