A review by Marsha Pearce “The poet John Ashbery once said that once we discover that life cannot be a perpetual orgasm, the best we can expect is a pleasant surprise.
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Not all narratives have equal value
A book about an academic controversy might seem esoteric and irrelevant to even the intelligent lay reader in T&T, but this account by Mary Lefkowitz, a historian specialising on ancient Greece, is relevant to us in two ways: first, two of her protagonists are Trinidadian and, secondly, the issues she addresses have already taken root here.
In a nutshell then, Lefkowitz found herself being targeted as a racist in the 1990s for contradicting the Afrocentrist thesis that Greeks stole their philosophy from the ancient Egyptians.
From a purely historical point of view, this is not a controversial statement, because the basis of the Afrocentrist claim is that Aristotle got his ideas from the library at Alexandria but, as Lefkowitz points out, that library was built long after Aristotle died.
One man who was spreading this historical canard was the late Anthony Martin, who was born in Trinidad and who a few years before his death published a book on Caribbean history. “It was not historical reality that mattered to Tony Martin or his faction. What mattered to them was simply race,” Lefkowitz notes.
One organisation which propagates such historical falsehoods is the Nation of Islam, which is represented in Trinidad and Tobago by David Muhammad who has a radio show and promotes his CDs and writings. Rewriting history is a necessary task for Black Muslims, says Lefkowitz, in order to “to keep people’s attention away from the slave trading that continued long after the outcome of the American Civil War put a stop to the transatlantic slave trade. The traders in this case were not Europeans or Jews but Arabs, and this is a bit of embarrassment for an organization that calls itself the Nation of Islam.”
At Wellesley College, Martin was joined in his attack on Lefkowitz by another Trinidadian, literature professor Selwyn Cudjoe, who is best known here as a PNM apologist. “Ironically, in their quest to find racism in everything they disapprove of, race professionals like Cudjoe, Martin, and (Jeremiah) Wilson too easily turn themselves into professional racists,” Lefkowitz writes.
“Often the charges the race pros make against their opponents could be more fairly used to characterise themselves. They are the demagogues, the seekers for public intellectual status, the ones who are concerned with the present rather than the past.” (Cudjoe, for example, has attacked Indo-Trinidadians with claims like Indian teachers refusing to teach black children.)
These ideas, as well as such attitudes, have already penetrated the nation’s classrooms, with secondary school students being taught, for example, that Africans came to the New World before Columbus. And that has happened because there are historians at UWI who promote such nonsense. Nor is the propagation of falsehoods confined to the History Department: even in UWI’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, there are lecturers who deny that biological evolution is scientifically valid, while lecturers outside this Faculty are now claiming that vaccinating children is harmful.
“All narratives do not have equal value, because there are such things as facts. Narratives are only ‘equal’ in the sense that all narratives are equally deserving of a hearing,” says Lefkowitz.
This is a principle that we would do well to heed, if only for the pragmatic reason that economic development is impossible without intelligent citizens.