3 Cheers and a Tiger for Our Race


September 25, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- "Afrocentricity'' is on the cover of papers and news magazines. It used to be the Russians who claimed to have invented everything. Now, for some people, Africa is the font of all knowledge. This upsets people who like to believe that Greece was the font of all knowledge.

Some of the claims for African origins are hilariously wild. But I find them no more hilarious than the people who refute them in the name of objective history and hard evidence. This prosecutorial tone was rarely turned on the claims of white culture.

I once knew a great scholar, a historian of ancient Greece, who would have turned down any kind of bribe to falsify an inscription from the past. But he told me he thought it was a good thing for children to be taught the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which he admitted to be false, in order to instill in children a respect for telling the truth.

He did not recognize how crazy this sounds -- that we have to lie in order to demonstrate our regard for the truth. Actually, what he wanted to instill was respect for authority, the glorification of America's original ruler and, derivatively, of America's current ruling class. Lies on that subject have been common, and they did not have to be told by actual distortion. Omissions can also lie.

When I first started visiting Mount Vernon and Monticello, more than 40 years ago, a quick tour of either place could leave the impression that no slaves were ever seen in the vicinity. It was best not to tell just anyone the truth about our early government.

Frances Fitzgerald and others have traced the multiple untruths taught for most of our history in most of our primary- and secondary-school history books. Children were not told, for instance, that the Mexican War was an act of national theft, though Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant said that at the time.

So when African-Americans tell flattering stories about their past, it is ludicrous to register the kind of shock displayed by historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Boorstin. As recently as in his last major book, Dr. Boorstin was still telling the mythical tale of Columbus defying people who thought the Earth was flat. It would take many a decade for Afrocentrists to come up with even a fraction of the untruths that have been disseminated, down the ages, by Eurocentrists.

It also shows little grasp of history to think of Afrocentrism as brand-new. In claiming inventions normally attributed to ''Western civilization'' in more traditional centers, the Afrocentrists are actually joining the culture they want to show more responsibility for.

In the same way, blacks took from whites and remade the Christian religion forced on them in this country -- using it against the oppressors (making them the pharaoh of captivity) or the informers (making them Judas of the Passion). They were ''distorting'' the message given them, but many scholars of religion think they got closer to the meaning of the Gospel message than did their slavemaster-teachers.

None of this is said to excuse identifiable errors, of which there are many in the early and shallow Afrocentrist efforts. But no one who has accepted or promoted white cultural myths is in a position to be very indignant about those errors. Such people can tell us everything that is wrong with Afrocentrism though they were never able to identify a single thing that was wrong with Eurocentrism.

Excoriation of self-serving legends should be even-handed if it is to merit attention and respect. Otherwise, the denunciation of Afrocentricity becomes a kind of ugly name-calling that serves neither truth nor the cultural values neoconservatives claim to be protecting.

For years, lies have been told about Africa from the other side -- William Buckley, for instance, saying that Africans are incapable of self-government because they are still self-consuming (by cannibalism, either literal or symbolic). For people so long traduced, it is hard to have truth-police formed from the ranks of the cultural obfuscators.

Much good has come out of Africa. My own personal favorite among all the thinkers and writers I know of was an African Berber, St. Augustine. It is true that he was thoroughly Romanized -- just as the rewriters of Christian myth in the American South had been thoroughly propagandized.

But Rome did not give Augustine his genius. God gave him that, and not even Mr. Buckley can take it away.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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