REWRITING HISTORY

It's in the area of history that PC has scored its largest successes. The reading of history is never static. There is no such thing as the last word. And who could doubt that there is still much to revise in the story of the European conquest of North and South America that historians inherited? Its basic scheme was imperial: the epic advance of civilization against barbarism: the conquistador bringing the cross and sword: the red man shrinking back before the cavalry and the railroad. Manifest Destiny. The notion that all historians propagated this triumphalist myth uncritically is quite false; you have only to read Parkman or Prescott to realize that. But after it left the histories and sank deep into popular culture, it became a potent myth of justification for plunder, murder and enslavement.

So now, in reaction to it, comes the manufacture of its opposite myth. European man, once the hero of the conquest of the Americas, now becomes its demon; and the victims, who cannot be brought back to life, are sanctified. On either side of the divide between Euro and native, historians stand ready with tarbrush and gold leaf, and instead of the wicked old stereotypes, we have a whole outfit of equally misleading new ones. Our predecessors made a hero of Christopher Columbus. To Europeans and white Americans in 1892, he was Manifest Destiny in tights, whereas a current PC book like Kirkpatrick Sale's The Conquest of Paradise makes him more like Hitler in a caravel, landing like a virus among the innocent people of the New World.

The need for absolute goodies and absolute baddies runs deep in us, but it drags history into propaganda and denies the humanity of the dead: their sins, their virtues, their failures. To preserve complexity, and not flatten it under the weight of anachronistic moralizing, is part of the historian's task.

You cannot remake the past in the name of affirmative action. But you can find narratives that haven't been written, histories of people and groups that have been distorted or ignored, and refresh history by bringing them in. That is why, in the past 25 years, so much of the vitality of written history has come from the left. When you read the work of the black Caribbean historian C.L.R. James, you see a part of the world break its long silence: a silence not of its own choosing but imposed on it by earlier imperialist writers. You do not have to be a Marxist to appreciate the truth of Eric Hobsbawm's claim that the most widely recognized achievement of radical history "has been to win a place for the history of ordinary people, common men and women." In America this work necessarily includes the histories of its minorities, which tend to break down complacent nationalist readings of the American past.

By the same token, great changes have taken place in the versions of American history taught to schoolchildren. The past 10 years have brought enormous and hard-won gains in accuracy, proportion and sensitivity in the textbook treatment of American minorities, whether Asian, Native, black or Hispanic. but this is not enough for some extremists, who take the view that only blacks can write the history of slavery, only Indians that of pre-European America, and so forth.

That is the object of a bizarre document called the Portland African-American Baseline Essays, which has never been published as a book but, in photocopied form, is radically changing the curriculum of school systems all over the country. Written by an undistinguished group of scholars, these essays on history, social studies, math, language, and arts and science are meant to be a charter of Afrocentrist history for young black Americans. They have had little scrutiny in the mainstream press. But they are popular with bureaucrats like Thomas Sobol, the education commissioner in New York state-- people who are scared of alienating black voters or can't stand up to thugs like City College professor Leonard Jeffries. Their implications for American education are large, and mostly bad.

WAS CLEOPATRA BLACK?

The Afrocentrist claim can be summarized quite easily. It says the history of the cultural relations between Africa and Europe is bunk--a prop for the fiction of white European supremacy. Paleohistorians agree that intelligent human life began in the Rift Valley of Africa. The Afrocentrist goes further: the African was the cultural father of us all. European culture derives from Egypt, and Egypt is part of Africa, linked to its heart by the artery of the Nile. Egyptian civilization begins in sub-Saharan Africa, in Ethiopia and the Sudan.

Hence, argued the founding father of Afrocentrist history, the late Senegalese writer Cheikh Anta Diop, whatever is Egyptian is African, part of the lost black achievement: Imhotep, the genius who invented the pyramid as a monumental form in the 3rd millennium B.C. was black, and so were Euclid and Cleopatra in Alexandria 28 dynasties later. Blacks in Egypt invented hieroglyphics, and monumental stone sculpture, and the pillared temple, and the cult of the Pharaonic sun king. The habit of European and American historians of treating the ancient Egyptians as other than black is a racist plot to conceal the achievements of black Africa.

No plausible evidence exists for these claims of Egyptian negritude, though it is true that the racism of traditional historians when dealing with the cultures of Africa has been appalling. Most of them refused to believe African societies had a history that was worth telling. Here is Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History : "When we classify mankind by color, the only one of the primary races...which has not made a single creative contribution to any of our 21 civilizations is the black race."

No black person--indeed, no modern historian of any race--could read such bland dismissals without disgust. The question is, How to correct the record? Only by more knowledge. Toynbee was writing more than 50 years ago, but in the past 20 years, immense strides have been made in the historical scholarship of both Africa and African America. But the upwelling of research, the growth of Black Studies programs, and all that goes with the long-needed expansion of the field seems to be plagued by movements like Afrocentrism, just as there are always cranks nattering about flying saucers on the edges of Mesoamerican archaeology.

To plow through the the literature of Afrocentrism is to enter a world of claims about technological innovation so absurd that they lie beyond satire, like those made for Soviet science in Stalin's time. Afrocentrists have at one time or another claimed that Egyptians, alias Africans, invented the wet-cell battery by observing electric eels in the Nile; and that late in the 1st millennium B.C., they took to flying around in gliders. (This news based not on the discovery of an aircraft in an Egyptian tomb but on a silhouette wooden votive sculpture of the god Horus, a falcon, that a passing English businessman mistook some decades ago for a model airplane.) Some also claim that Tanzanians 1,500 years ago were smelting steel with semiconductor technology. There is nothing to prove these tales, but nothing to disprove them either--a common condition of things that didn't happen.

THE REAL MULTICULTURALISM?

Nowhere are the weaknesses and propagandistic nature of Afrocentrism more visible than in its version of slave history. Afrocentrists wish to invent a sort of remedial history in which the entire blame for the invention of and practice of black slavery is laid at the door of Europeans. This is profoundly unhistorical, but it's getting locked in popular consciousness through the new curriculums.

It is true that slavery had been written into the basis of the classical world. Periclean Athens was a slave state, and so was Augustan Rome. Most of their slaves were Caucasian. The word slave meant a person of Slavic origin. By the 13th century, slavery spread to other Caucasian peoples. But the African slave trade as such, the black traffic, was an Arab invention, developed by traders with the enthusiastic collaboration of black African ones, institutionalized with the most unrelenting brutality, centuries before the white man appeared on the African continent, and continuing long after the slave market in North America was crushed.

Naturally, this is a problem for Afrocentrists, especially when you consider the recent heritage of Black Muslim ideas that many of them espouse. Nothing in the writings of the Prophet forbids slavery, which is why it became such an Arab-dominated business. And the slave traffic could not have existed without the wholehearted cooperation of African tribal states, built on the supply of captives generated by their relentless wars. The image promulgated by pop-history fictions like Roots --white slavers bursting with cutlass and musket into the settled lives of peaceful African villages--is very far from the historical truth. A marketing system had been in place for centuries, and its supply was controlled by Africans. Nor did it simply vanish with Abolition. Slave markets, supplying the Arab emirates, were still operating in Djibouti in the 1950s; and since 1960, the slave trade has flourished in Mauritania and the Sudan. There are still reports of chattel slavery in northern Nigeria, Rwanda, and Niger.

But here we come up against a cardinal rule of the PC attitude to oppression studies. Whatever a white European male historian or witness has to say must be suspect; the utterances of an oppressed person or group deserve instant credence, even if they're the merest assertion. The claims of the victim do have to be heard, because they may cast a new light on history. But they have to pass exactly the same tests as anyone else's or debate fails and truth suffers. The PC cover for this is the idea that all statements about history are expressions of power: history is written only by the winners, and truth is political and unknowable.

The word self-esteem has become one of the obstructive shibboleths of education. Why do black children need Afrocentrist education? Because, its promoters say, it will create self-esteem. The children live in a world of media and institutions whose images and values are created mainly by whites. The white tradition is to denigrate blacks. Hence blacks must have models that show them that they matter. Do you want your children to love themselves? Then change the curriculum. Feed them racist claptrap a la Leonard Jefferies, about how your intelligence is a function of the amount of melanin in your skin, and how Africans were sun people, open and cooperative, whereas Europeans were ice people, skulking pallidly in caves.

It is not hard to see why these claims for purely remedial history are intensifying today. They are symbolic. Nationalism always wants to have myths to prop itself up; and the newer the nationalism, the more ancient its claims. The invention of tradition, as Eric Hobsbawm has shown in detail, was one of the cultural industries of 19th century Europe. But the desire for self-esteem does not justify every lie and exaggeration and therapeutic slanting of evidence that can be claimed to alleviate it. The separatism it fosters turns what ought to be a recognition of cultural diversity, or real multiculturalism, tolerant on both sides, into a pernicious symbolic program. Separatism is the opposite of diversity.

The idea that European culture is oppressive in and of itself is a fallacy that can survive only among the fanatical and the ignorant. The moral and intellectual conviction that inspired Toussaint-Louverture to focus the range of the Haitian slaves and lead them to freedom in 1791 came from his reading of Rousseau and Mirabeau. When thousands of voteless, propertyless workers the length and breadth of England met in their reading groups in the 1820s to discuss republican ideas and discover the significance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, they were seeking to unite themselves by taking back the meanings of a dominant culture from custodians who didn't live up to them.

Americans can still take courage from their example. Cultural separatism within this republic is more a fad than a serious proposal; it is not likely to hold. If it did, it would be a disaster for those it claims to help: the young, the poor, and the black. Self-esteem comes from doing things well, from discovering how to tell a truth from a lie and from finding out what unites us as well as what separates us. The posturing of the politically correct is no more a guide to such matters than the opinions of Simon Legree.

English 178 Syllabus