Controversies: The Provocative Professor

  • The professor offered the following observations:

    -- "Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people." This was "a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood" by "people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani . . ."

    -- "Rich Jews" operating in Seville and Lisbon and Hamburg and Newport, R.I., and other cities financed the African slave trade.

    -- Whites are "pathological," "dirty," "dastardly, devilish folks."

    Leonard Jeffries, chairman of African-American studies at New York's City College, put on a surreal performance. For long stretches of his speech before an Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival in Albany last month, Jeffries made an intense and affecting case for blacks to study African history and learn the buried side of their own stories in America. But he kept veering obsessively back into a snarling racism. Strange to watch: the intelligent angels of his nature were wrestling with nasty little cretins. The cretins won a few rounds.

    Diane Ravitch, Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education, is a "sophisticated Texas Jew," Jeffries said, "a debonair racist." He repeatedly called her "Miss Daisy." Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who has written against Afrocentrism, is "a weakling . . . slick and devilish." White people, including "very nice white folks," "distort history in what I call racial pathology. They are as diabolical as that." Jeffries sang out falsetto imitations of various Jews and other whites, manic little strokes of mockery and emasculation. Through it all, he invoked the liberating powers of truth. When he was finished, the audience gave him a rather tired standing ovation. He had gone on for almost two hours.

    At first, Jeffries' speech escaped wider public attention. Then NY-SCAN, the state's cable-television channel, broadcast the performance, and the New York Post published a long account of it. That set off an indignant debate that had larger implications.

    The first question: Are Jeffries' moments of flamboyant malice protected as exercises of academic freedom? New York Governor Mario Cuomo was not sure. First he said Jeffries' rant was "so egregious that the City University ought to take action or explain why it doesn't." Cuomo later backtracked and defended Jeffries' "freedom to abuse ((freedom))." New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal was not ambivalent. He placed Jeffries in the dreary international tribe of bigots -- Hindus paranoid about Muslims, white South Africans who proclaim black inferiority, Jew baiters everywhere. In the Washington Post, critic Jonathan Yardley wrote, "Talk such as Jeffries engaged in at Albany has nothing to do with 'ideas' -- it's bigotry, pure and simple."

    But Jeffries had a following well beyond the academic community. When he returned to New York from a trip to Africa last week, nearly 1,000 of his supporters greeted him at John F. Kennedy International Airport -- far outnumbering the handful of mostly Jewish protesters who had turned out. One pro-Jeffries placard said, WELCOME HOME, BLACK PRINCE. A supporter declared, "Jeffries is exposing the big white lie." Another added: "The attack on Dr. Jeffries is an attack on Africa. It's an attack on all of us." The placard that received the loudest applause said, WHITE PEOPLE PUT JEWS IN THE OVEN, NOT JEFFRIES. Later in the week, more than 1,000 people showed up at a pro-Jeffries rally in a Brooklyn church, where they cheered a videotape of his speech.

    The hating part of Jeffries may not represent the opinions of most American blacks. But a cloud of black-white cultural politics -- sometimes ugly, sometimes rather sad -- swirls around him. Possibly the professor subscribes to what might be called the Guidelines of Slur Compensation, whereby every vicious, ignorant remark ever uttered over the centuries by a white American may be repaid by a similarly ignorant viciousness mucked back in the opposite direction. Yin and yang -- every Black Devil has a mirroring White Devil.

    Jeffries serves up outrages of pseudo scholarship that sound sometimes as if they originated in the lodge hall of Amos 'n' Andy's Mystic Knights of the Sea -- a rich irony in which Jeffries, a black foe of racism, makes himself sound like the Kingfish, a racist invention of whites. Blacks are "sun people," Jeffries explains, and whites are "ice people." New York Newsday quoted Jeffries as telling his students last year, "Our thesis is that the sun people, the African family of warm communal hope, meets an antithesis, the vision of ice people, Europeans, colonizers, oppressors, the cold, rigid element in world history." Jeffries believes melanin, the dark skin pigment, gives blacks intellectual and physical superiority over whites.

    If Jeffries were a tenured white professor peddling race hate tricked up as learning, would he be more furiously criticized? Or less? Another C.U.N.Y. professor, Michael Levin, has, outside his classroom, preached the racial inferiority of blacks without being dismissed from his post. Perhaps that is because, as a lone academic crank, he speaks for no coherent movement and has no following. Jeffries marches onstage in all the panoply of Afrocentrism.

    Afrocentrism is a culturally passionate and sometimes intellectually troubling development that is becoming something like a new religion in the African-American community. During his Albany lecture, Jeffries spoke feelingly about the need for black Americans to look into the past for their heroic selves. One important component of Afrocentric scholarship is a political-cultural exercise that attempts to appropriate the civilization of ancient Egypt as a black African phenomenon. Everyone must have his memories. Saul Bellow wrote once that they "keep the wolf of insignificance from the door." If some scholars doubt that Egypt is the black American's true memory, still, maybe memories can be invented.

    The real history of blacks in America, of course, is abundant and rich and suffuses the entire culture: the texture of the U.S. is infinitely more black African than it is French or German or Scottish. And the real history of whites in America is far grimmer than the standard textbook version: it is more than a moral inconvenience that Washington and Jefferson were slave masters, and the national myth has never been rewritten to take full measure of the fact. Indeed, a dirty secret of all humankind is that everyone's roots are primitive and disreputable. The appalling 20th century slaughters accomplished by the European ice people suggest that they have not entirely improved on their cave-dwelling, fur-bearing, head-bashing ancestors.

    Perhaps two spiritual imperatives are at war in the conflict over Afrocentrism and American blacks. On one side is everyone's need to make myths. On the other is the absolute necessity to stop lying.