Journal of Near Eastern Studies, April 2002 v61 i2 p152(5)
Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe?
(book review) by Alexander H. Joffe.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2002 University of Chicago Press

By RICHARD POE. Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing, 1997. Pp. xxii + 554 + 15 figs. $28.

Afrocentrism is a form of “ethno-nationalism” with deep roots in African-American and Afro-French traditions. Is it simultaneously a long overdue perspective on the place of Africa in the development of world civilizations, an indirect means for helping African-Americans contend with hegemonic Euro-American culture, and a direct assault on “Western” civilization, including rationalism and science. (1) Within the tradition there are any number of trends or variants, one of the most unusual being “Egyptocentrism.” Poe’s volume is, in many respects, a typical example of this latter genre.

Undoubtedly, it is tempting to read no further. But the subject of Afrocentrism will not simply go away, nor should it, since it captures much of what is wrong, and right, with both “Western” scholarship and its many critiques. Hysteria abounds on both sides of a yawning intellectual and social divide; how could it not? Afrocentrism kills and butchers sacred cows left and right. Sadly, the present volume does not contribute; it only further obfuscates.

This study is as breathless, lopsided, haphazard, and misinformed as can be imagined. Written in an excited, journalistic style, the book has a nonlinear structure. Unlike an academic presentation, it has a decided story arc. The rhetorical posture of the book stands explicitly against that of conventional scholarship, an enterprise that Poe regards as part of the problem and not the solution. Poe is a unique contributor to Afrocentric literature in that he is white; unfortunately, he simply parrots scholars from that and parallel traditions, primarily Martin Bernal. (2) In terms of methodology, there is the typical conflation of history, archaeology, myth, and literature, all seamlessly and uncritically woven into a single narrative. Homer, Herodotus, Pausanias, the Parian marble, the Mit Rahina inscription, the Book of Enoch, and numerous other texts are read literally and harmonized effortlessly. There is also the typical paranoia, primarily about conspiracies to withhold knowledge (not unfounded concerns to African-Americans) and to deprive Africa of its glorious Egyptian past.

The plot is complex and involves a host of the usual suspects. In brief, the book suggests that Sesostris founded a colony in Colchis from which Europeans, hitherto headhunting, cannibalistic, wicker-man burning, blue-painted types, learned civilization. The story covers much familiar ground and many familiar faces. The sphinx and the police artist Frank Domingo, Mark Lehner and John Anthony West, Count Volney, and Herodotus all make appearances early on. Later there are innumerable twists and turns, Karl Jung’s visit to Buffalo, the Nubian king Sesostris’s Twelfth Dynasty empire on the Black Sea, Michael Jackson’s Egyptian themed video, Frederick Douglass, the pre- Hispanic “city” of Cahokia, Daidalos, Kekrops (= Kheper-Ka-Re), Necco circumnagivating Africa, Thor Heyerdahl and Barry Fell, Ivan Van Sertima, Cyrus Gordon, Danaos establishing Egyptian colonies in Greece in 1511 B.C., cocaine mummies, Minyan kings and the Early Helladic pyramid at Amphion, the Master Race theory, Merlin, Arthur, the Qustul incense burner, Michael Crichton’s Harvard undergraduate thesis on Naqada skulls, and so on.

The middle of the book takes what seems at first glance a strange detour, from Egyptian control of Boeotia, to Egyptian and Phoenician mysteries, and then the origins of Freemasonry. As Poe notes, King Solomon’s initiation into the mysteries of the Great Architect of the Universe and the Phoenician cult of Ptah has no support in Egyptian documents. But that Phoenicians felt “culturally subservient to Egypt is reflected in the Report of Wenamun. Therefore there can be no doubt that Ptah ruled over the arts and crafts of Phoenicia.” Was Socrates a Master Mason? Did he trace his lineage back to the “sons of Daedalus” and the cult of Ptah? Was there a reason why Christopher Columbus flew the red cross of the Knights Templar on his sails; were they too followers of Ptah? The well-known history of nineteenth- century African-American Freemasonry, discussed by scholars such as Wilson Moses, mutates and becomes unrecognizable, as history elides into myth and back again. And like much of the Egyptocentric version of the Afrocentric critique, the secret or hidden history, locked away in Templar cemeteries in Scotland or elsewhere, is touted as a key to understanding. The invocation of the Masons simply carries this presentation over the edge into the antic realm of Graham Hancock and the X-Files.

Reasoning is by suggestion of likelihood, and by association, as in the case of Joseph Greenberg’s reconstruction of the Afroasiatic homeland and Diodorus Siculus’s statement that the Ethiopians were “first of all men,” which along with the Egyptian “love of cattle that bordered on the fanatical” and ancestor worship proves that “Egyptian culture can indeed be traced to the heart of Africa.” Finally, there is syllogism. One outstanding example is the assertion that the Babylonian Talmud (somewhere) relates that Ham castrated Noah in his sleep, who responded with a curse on his son, Canaan, saying they will all be born black. The Bible sees Phoenicians as the sons of Ham. Therefore the Babylonian Talmud regards Phoenicians as black, and the Jews saw the Egyptians as related to Ethiopians. Unintentionally, the book begins to read like a low-rent version of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (London, 1989). All of this is presented with grave seriousness and endorsed by a jacket blurb from Martin Bernal and a foreword by the dean of Afrocentric extremism, Molefe Asante.

As always, omissions and citations are telling. The issue is not whether journalists can write about a particular subject, but standards of evidence on which scholars and laypeople must insist. Poe speaks of a continuing desire to write an historical novel set in Egypt, but seems unaware of Norman Mailer’s massive Ancient Evenings (Boston, 1983). Fundamental works such as Walter Burkett’s The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, Mass., 1992) are cited only from secondary sources. Long-outdated and dubious sources take center stage, such as Claude Schaeffer’s Stratigraphie comparee (Oxford, 1948) as the authority on Anatolian metallurgy. But the overall pattern is of suspicion and disdain for mainstream scholarship. Citations are therefore drawn largely from a parallel literature, indeed, a parallel universe, dominated by an intellectual stream from Budge to Diop to Bernal.

Explicit in the Afrocentric critique, and the stories told by Bernal, Poe and others, is an unselfconscious inversion of Orientalism. Africa, and in particular Egypt, take the place of Europe as the source of all knowledge and wisdom, and diffusionism is the sole mechanism of cultural contact and change. In the Egyptocentric genre Egypt is also the root and essence of a homogeneous Africa. Some Afrocentric trends further propose uniquely African “ways of knowing,” holistic, integrative, emotive, as opposed to Eurocentric knowledge, which is cold and rational. It further demands that this putative knowledge is the only way of knowing Africa or the world. Though it resembles postcolonial approaches in demanding that Africa’s past be understood by and for Africans, Afrocentrism generally parts company with postcolonial theory on the question of relativism. (3) For most believers, however, Afrocentrism is an absolute, totalizing system, and Poe’s story has a predictable brittleness, a house of cards. But because it is totalizing, it is unassailable, and to critcize it would simply confirm the paranoid view of a conspiracy to deprive black people of their history. And so, it persists, part folk history, part anti-intellectualism, part paranoid style in American politics.

It is again tempting either to dismiss all this outright or to shudder in horror, as many classicists have in particular, regarding these critiques as the end of Western civilization. Afrocentrism has been a particular thorn in the side of conservative critics, who see it in part as a Garvey-like form of separatism but mostly an assault on “Western” values and culture, that is to say, the putative Judeo- Greco-Christian foundations of Anglo-European culture and its prerogatives. The response of Poe and others is not simply to hold up any old version of the past as an object of pride, rather to reorder the course of social evolution from the Bronze Age onwards in order to sacralize Egypt as the “winner.” In this respect, it deserves to be said that, paraphrasing the late-night entertainer David Letterman, social evolution is an exhibition, not a competition, please, no wagering. Much of the response to Afrocentrism has therefore been highly charged and is now, as Poe points out, inextricably bound up with contentious American issues of multiculturalism and affirmative action. Not surprisingly, modern Egyptian society and indigenous Egyptology have little regard for these concerns. It is another sad irony that Martin Bernal’s revisionism has provoked the mainstream far more than anything by black scholars and writers, many of whom have been autodidacts and easily dismissed. (4) How then are scholars of antiquity to respond?

Truth be told, if there is a problem, it is partially our own making. Even fifty years ago, educated laypersons could find reliable histories or handbooks of Egypt and the ancient Near East by authors such as Breasted or Olmstead. The decline of middle-range scholarship has unhappily coincided with a general decline of educational standards and growing disinterest in nonsensational approaches to the past. While such scholarship and writing does exist, it is infrequently rewarded by the rarified standards of academia and is drowned out by the exigencies of modern marketing (which has also managed to co-opt more than one respectable scholar). (5) Hence we have the continued presence of Budge, that avatar of sensationalism, whose publications will go on forever in the free-floating world of the public domain. Into the void has rushed a progression of latter- day mystics, crypto-scientists, journalists, and cable TV producers, the sons of Edgar Cayce, British Israelites, and P. T. Barnum.

That Afrocentrism is of utility to some African-Americans is an example of how communities respond to racism, by breaking the power/knowledge nexus and constructing culture, which includes a glorious if largely mythical African past. Like many writers, Poe is preoccupied with the issue of whether the Egyptians were “black” which is apparently equivalent here to “African.” He ascribes a similar obsession not only to obvious racists in and out of academia, but modern Egyptology in particular. Perhaps because he is white he does not fall over the edge into melanin-related triumphalism but appears to argue on several sides of the issue that “black” and “white” are nineteenth-century Western constructs and that according to those constructs Egyptians are Africans. While wholly predictable in the context in which it was written and for the intended audience, all this is, again, a kind of sad and ironic inversion of Victorian evolutionism.

With all this, however, it must be asked whether Afrocentrism is really any more pernicious than the still implicit American mythologies of Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock, finding either a continent empty of inhabitants or helpful natives eager to provide corn and learn the ways of firearms, alcohol, and Christianity. The founding mythologies of every major religion and sect through those of the twentieth century are no less fantastic, nor are the stream of fundamentalist and apocalyptic visions that fill the radio and television airwaves every night. It is impossible to escape the feeling that the visceral response of mainstream scholars and cultural commentators to Afrocentrism is motivated in part by race, if nothing else, the challenge posed to the studied, politically correct color blindness of academia. The reactions of African- American scholars to Afrocentrism are therefore a welcome tonic. (6)

The elements of the Afrocentric critique that point to pervasive racism in past scholarship are undeniable but the more substantive contribution, which sees Egypt in African and Mediterranean contexts, has progressed further than might be realized. Another of the many ironies surrounding Afrocentrism is that in the years since Black Athena, Mediterranean scholarship has proceeded to demonstrate a web of interconnections that were of profound importance to the development of Aegean societies. Works such as C. Lambrou- Phillipson’s Hellenorientalia: The Near Eastern Presence in the Bronze Age Aegean, ca. 3000-1100 B.C. (Goteborg, 1990), S. Morris’s, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton, 1992), and Burkert’s Orientalizing Revolution have simply shown that no culture, even Greek, is “pristine” or virginal. One need only to consult, for example, the Poznan conference volumes edited by Lech Krzyzaniak and others to see how far mainstream scholarship has come in understanding the prehistoric origins of Egypt, including its African elements. That this point on the polythetic nature of culture has to be made repeatedly shows how heavily invested scholars become in “their” culture area. In the end, we may certainly oppose the teaching of Egyptocentric approaches in publicly funded schools and still accept that Afrocentrism may have utility as a belief system that stands in opposition to Anglo-European culture. But how can twenty-first century American scholars and American society build on this?

If there is a single substantive lament to come out of all this, it is not for the oxen that have been gored, the transgressed upon authority of classical texts and classicists, the misrepresentations of Egypt, even the unvarnished racism, but rather that the debate over Afrocentrism is yet another opportunity missed. The question should be how to write better history, more balanced history, in short, to create world history, something inclusive rather than exclusive, integrative rather than divisive. (7) Long associated with scholars such as William McNeill and the late Marshall Hodgson, world history has been revitalized in recent years and has contributed useful counterbalances to Eurocentric perspectives on such matters as world economic systems (see, for example, J. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350 [Oxford, 1989]). Scholars of preclassical antiquity, however, have been generally absent from such efforts and in their place have rushed model-happy historical sociologists (see S. Sanderson, ed., Civilizations and World Systems: Studying World-Historical Change [Walnut Creek, California, 1995]) and, of course, Afrocentrists and other extremists.

As Ann Macy Roth points out in her sensitive essay, “Building Bridges to Afrocentrism: A Letter to My Egyptological Colleagues,” the phenomenon of Afrocentrism presents an opportunity to engage students and expand interest in the ancient world. (8) These engagements are more likely to come in the form of classroom and individual encounters rather than in debates with Afrocentrism’s proponents or in one-sided diatribes. The point must be made that the mainstream view is more interesting not just because it is more likely to be true, but because it is more complex, because it has methodologies that test data against one another rather than merely harmonize them into a master narrative, and because it is an open-ended--and open- minded--inquiry rather than an expose. Making these points to students both black and white, accustomed to seeing the world in totalizing terms, courtesy of the education and entertainment provided by nationalist states and global capitalism, will not be easy. But if academia does not begin to reward engagement, rather than confrontation, it will become even more marginal to discussions of what society as a whole should look like and where it should go.

Scholars of the ancient Near East and Africa are unlikely to consult this volume, but they avoid it, and the issues it raises, at their peril.

(1) A comprehensive but relentlessly scathing overview of Afrocentrism is Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London, 1998). For a more sensitive discussion of Afrocentrism in African-American history, see Wilson J. Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge, 1998). For an excellent brief discussion, see Michael L. Blakey, “Race, Nationalism, and the Afrocentric Past,” in P. R. Schmidt and T C. Patterson, eds., Making Alternative Histories: The Practice of Archaeology and History in Non-Western Settings (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1996), pp. 213-28. All are better informed and balanced than Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York, 1996).

(2) The title of Poe’s book apparently echoes that of Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, originally published as Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris, 1952).

(3) See, generally, Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York, 1998). See also the reviews of C. C. Lamberg- Karlovsky, “Politics and Archaeology, Colonialism, Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Archaeology, Parts 1 and 2,” Review of Archaeology 18/2 (1997): 1-14; 119/1 (1998): 35-47. For conflicts between Afrocentrism and other Third World cultures, see G. B. Haslip-Viera, B. Ortiz de Montellano et al., “Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima’s Afrocentricity and the Olmecs,” Current Anthropology 38/3 (1997): 419-41, and B. Ortiz de Montellano, G. Haslip-Viera, and W. Barbour, “They Were Not Here before Columbus: Afrocentric Hyperdiffusionism in the 1990’s,” Ethno-history 44/2 (1997): 199-234. See the response in M. K. Asante, The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism: An Afrocentric Response to Critics (Trenton, New Jersey, 1999).

(4) See, for example, the criticisms in M. Lefkowitz and G. M. Rogers, eds., Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill, 1996).

(5) Anyone who has tried to teach an undergraduate course on the ancient Near East and Egypt has encountered the problem: to use an awkward and expensive compendium, such as Kuhrt, or fall back on the warhorses, such as Roux.

(6) See, for example, Gerald Early, “Adventures in the Colored Museum: Afrocentrism, Memory, and the Construction of Race,” American Anthropologist 100/3 (1999): 703-11.

(7) On the subjects of world and global history, see the essays in Philip Pomper et al., eds., World History: Ideologies, Structures, and Identities (Oxford, 1998), and B. Mazlish and R. Buultjens, eds., Conceptualizing Global History (Boulder, Colorado, 1993).

(8) Originally published in the Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt 167-68 (1995). The essay is available at African_Studies/Articles_Gen/afrocent_roth.html.

ALEXANDER H. JOFFE Boston University

Named Works: Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe? (Book) - Reviews