Review: History lesson: A Race Odyssey

A new book reveals what happened when a female Jewish student asked a male black professor an innocent question

By Mary Lefkowitz
Yale University Press, £18

However malevolent or misguided those British proponents of an academic boycott of Israel might have been in recent years, they rarely reached the nadir of American academic politics.

This is evident from Mary Lefkowitz’s History Lesson: A Race Odyssey. Deeply shocking, it also sounds a warning bell: we should not dismiss the possibility of it happening here. On an autumn night in 1991, a Jewish student, Michelle Plantec, was walking through the dormitories of the prestigious, all-women Wellesley College, just outside Boston, when she came across a middle-aged man on one of the staircases.

As all students in Wellesley’s residential accommodation are obliged to do when they see an unescorted male visitor (and Plantec was an officer of the dormitory), she asked him: “Excuse me, sir, who are you with?”


This innocent question triggered an astonishing episode of hatred, lies and confrontation, which led to Michelle Plantec having a nervous breakdown and leaving Wellesley College, losing a year out of her medical studies. The man was Tony Martin, a black professor in Wellesley’s Africana Studies department. Martin, who retired from Wellesley as an emeritus professor in June 2007, interpreted Plantec’s routine inquiry as an act of racism.

Mary Lefkowitz, at the time of this incident, was one of the best-known classics professors in the country, with more than 30 years of experience. It came to her attention that Martin was then teaching his students that Greek culture had been stolen from Africa, and that Jews were responsible for the slave trade.

Lefkowitz naively tried to challenge these bizarre notions, and found herself in a sinking swamp of allegations and counter-claims. When she heard of the Plantec case, she tried to defend the unfortunate student, only to discover that Martin had drawn half the faculty into a gluey web of political correctness.

One dean of studies even suggested that Martin had his truth, while Mary Lefkowitz had hers. Cross Tony Martin, she discovered, and you were a racist. Much worse, from her point of view, was Martin’s repellent obsession with Jews. Lefkowitz’s spirited defence of academic truth led to a five-year-long lawsuit against her by Martin, which was finally dismissed in 1999. The Anti-Defamation League funded Lefkowitz’s defence, leading her, as she confesses in the book, almost to tears when the ADL told her: “You are not alone.”

In History Lesson, she painstakingly unravels what happens when an aggressive political agenda takes precedence over objective scholarship. Tony Martin’s reputation remained intact in certain circles, with thousands of black caucus students believing in his “Afrocentric” theories, which postulate that all Western culture and philosophy is ultimately derived from Africa, and that the West thus owes reparations. The book has all the hallmarks of a thriller, and is grippingly told. The terrible cost, however, as Professor Lefkowitz’s fellow academic Deborah Lipstadt could attest, is incalculable.

Jenni Frazer is the JC’s news editor

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011