The production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” currently playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre is set among the Olmecs of ancient Mexico, and the cast is entirely African-American. One might mistake this for a misguided attempt at surrealism, but the program tells us otherwise: “Although the Olmec origins are still a mystery to us, archaeological evidence indicates that Africans made their way to the New World thousands of years before European colonizers and formed the civilization’s foundations.” In fact, we are told, “The Africans who made their way to Mesoamerica thousands of years ago created a prodigious civilization.”
Indeed, something is prodigious here, but I’m afraid it isn’t just the accomplishments of the ancient Olmecs. Claims that Africans “created” complex societies in ancient America may come as a surprise to those who have studied the archaeological evidence, as that evidence indicates nothing of the sort. But these claims will come as no surprise to those familiar with popular strains of archaeological fraud that look beyond the Americas for the origins of complex American societies. The Afrocentric pseudo-history accompanying the Rep’s “King Lear” takes its place in a long, ignoble history of fanciful theories involving Vikings, Phoenicians, lost tribes of Israel, refugees from Atlantis or the lost continent of Mu, and of course those ever-popular extraterrestrials. What these theories have in common is the assumption that Amerindians on their own could not have risen above the level of “savagery,” which is the level to which they were assigned by racialized theories of cultural evolution during Europe’s colonial expansion. Only outsiders, it was held, could explain the existence of “high culture” among the savages. The racism underlying this assumption is one of the hardiest of Eurocentrism’s many weeds, and what we see on display at the Yale Rep is merely a newer, Afrocentric variety. Unfortunately, the Afrocentric narrative is neither more credible nor less offensive than the Eurocentric predecessors on which it is modeled.
Director Harold Scott and lead actor Avery Brooks credit Ivan Van Sertima as the primary source for their ideas regarding the Olmecs. In his 1976 book “They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America,” Van Sertima argues that African voyagers came to America around 700 B.C., conquered the “less advanced” natives and introduced them to the arts of civilization. For their part, the conquered indigenes came to “revere” their African overlords. Van Sertima’s theory has been debunked elsewhere. What should be stressed here is that Van Sertima has no grasp of Mesoamerican religion or cosmology and even seems a bit confused by the region’s chronology and cultural geography. Methodologically he is unscrupulous; works of art supporting his argument are held to be realistic portraits of Africans; those that don’t are too “stylized” to be analytically useful. His narrative proceeds with a willful indifference to archaeological data; it relies mostly on secondary sources, most of which were discredited or outdated even before he wrote his book in the 1970s.
But evidence and logic have little to do with the Afrocentric argument that the Olmecs were African. The impetus here is racial chauvinism. Van Sertima’s narrative of conquerors carrying civilization to grateful natives should seem familiar: it was — and remains — one of Europe’s self-aggrandizing myths, used to justify colonization and slavery across the globe. That fantasy has now been assigned to black actors, but nothing else has changed. Eurocentric methods, categories and norms are put to Afrocentric ends. Van Sertima’s statement that the ancient Americans were “less advanced” bears the stamp of Eurocentric theories of cultural evolution. Many of his secondary sources come from this same tradition: they are Eurocentric attempts to prove that “Caucasian” Egyptians founded ancient American “civilizations.” Van Sertima merely replaces “Caucasian” with “black,” “Nubian-Egyptian.” In this case Afrocentrism is just what scholars such as Gerald Early claim it to be: Eurocentrism in blackface.
Contrary to the crackpot fantasies of Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists, archaeological research in Mesoamerica suggests, unequivocally, that indigenous cultures developed in situ. To date no artifacts from across the seas have been found in controlled archaeological context in Mesoamerica; no transfers of technology from Africa or Europe, such as metallurgy or the wheel, were present when the Spaniards arrived, and none have been excavated. What we do find, however, is ample evidence for cultural change, from hunter-gather societies, to villages, to cities. It is a history of population growth accompanied by increasing social complexity. There are no sudden, mysterious florescences, no ex nihilo creations requiring recourse in diffusionist myth-making. The ancient Mesoamericans, it turns out, were much like humans everywhere: sometimes noble, sometimes savage, often ingenious; they created art and cities and elaborate philosophical systems. And they did it all on their own.
Unfortunately the program for “King Lear” tells another story, one that is an affront to the First Peoples of the Americas. Worse, that affront is now being distributed to New Haven schools as part of the Rep’s outreach program. It is a sure bet that nobody associated with this production would tolerate claims that Africans did not build Great Zimbabwe; but apparently the legacy of Native Americans is still available to be plundered. None of this is as bitter as the original Eurocentric version, but that hardly makes it palatable.
James Terry is a graduate student in the History of Art Department.