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History Lesson: A Race Odyssey by Mary…

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

by Mary Lefkowitz

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The statement that keeps coming to mind while reading Mary Lefkowitz’s History Lesson is “How could anybody possibly be so naïve?”. Dr. Lefkowitz was a distinguished classics professor at Wellesley when, to her astonishment, she discovered that the Africana Studies department was teaching that Socrates and Cleopatra were blank, that Aristotle stole all his ideas from the Library of Alexandria, that all Greek philosophy originated in Egypt, that Egypt had invaded and conquered Greece in the 2nd millennium BC, that many Greek words were loan words from Egyptian, and (although not until later) Jews were responsible for the American slave trade. What she expected on learning this interesting news was a rational academic discussion with traditional politeness and civility; as you might guess, that isn’t what happened.

Professor Lefkowitz found herself vilified in public as a “hook-nosed, sallow-faced, bagel-eating homosexual Jew” (not all at once) and “Left-ko-witch”; she was sued for slander by one of the Africana Studies professors; and Wellesley College generally refused to offer her any support. It didn’t help any that she was treated for breast cancer in the middle of all this. She eventually achieved a partially triumph; the lawsuit was dismissed, and the History Department at Wellesley voted not to allow courses from the Africana Studies department as credit toward a history degree. Nevertheless, the experience must have left her profoundly shaken; History Lesson reads more like a cri de Coeur than a carefully organized narration.

Ironically, History Lesson could be recast as sort of a Greek tragedy; since it has a more-or-less happy ending as far as Lefkowitz was concerned, she’d have to be the antagonist and the protagonist would be Anthony Martin, the Africana Studies professor Lefkowitz took on. Out of my general principle that if I agree with something I’m reading I should take special care to look for flaws, I have a few concerns about Lefkowitz’s writings concerning Martin.

We’re introduced to Dr. Martin as “Anthony Martin”; however, subsequent to that Lefkowitz refers to him as “Tony Martin” or just “Tony”. Perhaps Lefkowitz is trying to show she has no hard feelings against Martin by using a familiar diminutive; but It’s hard to believe she isn’t aware that the use of diminutives was a common way to denigrate blacks. (I do note that Martin’s own books list the author as “Tony Martin”).

She also makes a couple of bizarre – to my feeling – observations during her encounters with Martin. In one case, after Lefkowitz and her husband, another classics scholar, asks some questions of a speaker holding forth on Afrocentrism: “A student who was doing honors work with Tony Martin stood up and apologized to the speaker for our rudeness and pointedly walked out, her high heels clattering across the stage.” OK, I realize that in stressful situations you sometimes notice seemingly unimportant details, but why was it necessary to say the student was wearing high heels?

In another case, Lefkowitz is leaving a Wellesley Academic Council meeting at which Martin read a speech criticizing Lefkowitz and demanding Jewish reparations for black slavery. Lewkowitz is visibly shaken, and several colleagues escort her to her car: “As we walked along talking about what had just happened, we saw that Tony Martin was right behind us, accompanied by an attractive young woman.” Again, I can see that Lefkowitz might be shaken at being denounced at a campus meeting, and concerned about being followed, but what’s the point of describing Martin’s companion?

Then there’s an incident that is cited several times – often in places where it doesn’t seem to be related to whatever else Lefkowitz is talking about. In 1991 Anthony Martin was attending a play reading – Twelfth Night – at a Wellesley woman’s residence hall. He left to visit the men’s room; on his way back he encountered a student in the stairwell. It was standard procedure – in fact, required – for female residence hall students to confront any male they found alone and ask them – politely – what their business was. Martin took umbrage at the question and some sort of incident ensued: depended on who’s telling the story he backed the student against a wall until she feel down while shouting racist epithets at her, or he merely gave her a little lecture about racism. (All parties admit Martin was in the right in being alone – he had asked and received permission to visit the men’s room without the normal student escort). The student involved was so upset by the incident she dropped out of Wellesley. Lefkowitz later attempted to contact the student, but doesn’t make it quite clear why, or why she was interested in the incident in the first place – perhaps to emphasize Martin’s confrontational character.

Lefkowitz never generalizes her experience. She was sued for libel by Anthony Martin, and Wellesley College offered no support. However, she received financial and moral support for four different Jewish groups, and pro bono legal representation from a Boston law firm; the suit was eventually dismissed. Dr. Lefkowitz was a distinguished, tenured professor at one of the Seven Sisters colleges; if she had been an assistant professor at a state university in the Midwest, I expect things would have gone differently.(br>

At the end of her book, as Lefkowitz sums up, she mentions the Michael Bellesiles case. I may be reading too much into her tone, but I seem to see a little reluctance in discussing it; I don’t really expect that Lefkowitz is a staunch Second Amendment advocate. Nevertheless, she states explicitly that although Bellesiles was defended as a victim of the “gun lobby”, he had fabricated and falsified data; and her conclusion is that if academia will censure one of its own in this case, why won’t it do so for professors who teach Afrocentric myth as history?

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the book; I really do feel for what Dr. Lefkowitz went through. It must be especially sad to be in what’s probably the stereotypical Ivory Tower field – Classics – and suddenly find yourself in the midst of race politics. It might have helped to have a compassionate but strict editor who would have gently persuaded her to change a little wording. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 11, 2017 |
I heard about this conflict, several years ago and for a time, followed it. Then, on to other matters it waned in my interest, until I recently found this in a sale of university books. Aha! It's hard to believe an academic--a Ph.D., even--could write a book in so erudite a fashion, easily read, and without pretension or bombast. This is a truly scary story, even if you do not agree with Dr. Lefkowitz and find yourself on the other end of the argument. What was done to her could easily befall another, perhaps even you, in similar circumstances. There is something wrong in American education and this book is an insightful glance at the academic bias that is the problem. I applaud Yale University Press for publishing this work, but it should have been picked up by Wellesley, if only to shine a light upon its own shame. ( )
  rpbell | Nov 3, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 030012659X, Hardcover)

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.


In History Lesson Lefkowitz 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:39 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In this book the author 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 030012659X, 0300151268

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