Stolen Legacy: An Introduction
Molefi Kete Asante
When George G. M. James wrote Stolen Legacy in l954 he had no awareness that his little book would become one of the most threatening pieces of literature ever published in the United States of America. Stolen Legacy was not dangerous in the sense that it called for revolution against oppression or that it promoted attacks on white racists. What distinguished the work of George G .M. James was the fact that it struck at the jugular of white Western notions of superiority. James may not have known that his work would have the impact it did on the world, but he knew that it was necessary to set the record straight about the ancient history of philosophy.
One could easily have overlooked James’ contribution to scholarship given the fact that he was a professor at a small African American college in Arkansas, a long way from the fabled halls of ivory or ebony in American education. Pine Bluff was neither Harvard nor Howard, and a professor who taught at the Arkansas school in the l950s was making a sacrifice in the name of education. But this had been the history of George G. M. James. He had come from Guyana, like so many intellectuals before and after, and was completely won over by the epic struggles of Africans in the United States.
James was not only a good teacher but he was an avid reader in the African and European classics. He knew very early in his career that something was wrong with the way the history of philosophy was written by European scholars. They had assumed that philosophy started with the Greeks and had written books establishing a lie as truth. This greatly disturbed the mind of George G. M. James. He was certain that the European writers had it wrong and knew that they knew that the record was distorted.. He saw it as the deliberate falsification of history.
What could he do to re-write the history? How could he contribute to the scholarship surrounding ancient Egypt and Greece? What could his contribution be to the emerging issues that had to be confronted by a new generation of African scholars? This was a massive undertaking that had to be done alongside his tremendous teaching load of at least five courses each semester. George G. M. James was a determined man. He could not allow the falsehoods about philosophy to remain unchallenged regardless of his workload.
Thus, during the turbulent l950s, the era of boycotts, the Klu Klux Klan, major Supreme Court hearings, and organized protests, the quiet scholar gathered his books on Ptahhotep, Merikare, Akhenaten, Amenemhat, Amenemope, Duauf, Thales, Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and sat down at his worn, pine desk to write.
James knew that Egypt predated Greece by thousands of years. He also knew that the great teachers of Egypt, Imhotep, Sonchis, Wennofer, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, and others had not sat around doing nothing for hundreds of years. There was nothing in the ancient record to indicate that the Africans in Egypt waited in a fog until the arrival of the Greeks before they started thinking, reflecting, and acting on the basis of their cognitions. James knew that the major centers of world philosophy long before Homer’s Iliad in 800 BC were the cities of On, Abydos, Mennefer, Waset, and Syene. In these sacred cities, the priests, who were also scribes, assembled to teach initiates the fundamentals of medicine, law, politics, geometry, architecture, sculpture, mathematics, and astronomy.
George G. M. James would plumb this knowledge base and arrive at the most provocative conclusion his research could afford, namely, there is no such thing as Greek philosophy, only stolen Egyptian philosophy.
Outrage white scholars would cry and ask, how could a black man in Arkansas come up with such a crazy idea? Alas, Stolen Legacy became one of the first African American books to be banned from the universities and colleges of America. Few whites would ever see the book and those who saw it would swear that it was part of some infamous plot, preferably by some outside power, to destroy white Western culture. What could be the reason for such venom against a small book? It is because James took seriously the work of the ancient scholars, African and European, in his assessment of the situation and those who responded in anger were actually hostile toward the ancients.
Herodotus, a 5th century BC Greek historian and traveler, had written in Book II of his History that the Greeks borrowed many ideas, concepts, and activities from the ancient Egyptians. They borrowed practices of medicine, philosophy, politics, hygiene, and architecture. Stolen Legacy is powerful in its assault because of the deliberate use of the title to draw attention to the fact that Greeks borrowed and yet the descendants of the early Greeks now claim that they do not know anything about what was borrowed. Consequently, they have stolen the legacy of Africa and now claim that it belongs to them. Ideas such as the wearing of long robes or gowns during academic exercises and the solemn processions for various ceremonies were African, not European, and yet Europe has often claimed these as its own.
When George G. M. James wrote about Stolen Legacy in the l950s he was doing as much as anyone to improve race relations. He knew that the only way race relations would be improved would be when white racial supremacy as a doctrine was overturned. Furthermore, James was convinced by science and history that the way whites had organized information and knowledge about the African world was racist. It was a deliberate attack and assault on the nature of the African person. But it was up to African people to find the methods of social reformation and African redemption.
Where best to discover the source of Africa’s power and energy than in the classical teachings of the African philosophers who lived before Thales, Socrates, or Plato? Thus, he gives to posterity a book of nine chapters that are filled to the brim with information gleaned from the major sources of knowledge in the Western and African worlds. This is not a made-up book; it is not an improper book as one librarian had said to an inquirer when asked why Stolen Legacy was not in the Cornell University library. Well, it is a proper book and given the standards of the l950s it was one of the best books written during that period. It was the primary intention of George G. M. James to overthrow the system that had oppressed Africans by concealing the truth about African history and culture. To expose what the white scholars had tried to conceal, James went into the ancient texts and came out with a profound statement of truth. We are deeply indebted to the courage of George G. M. James for leaving us a legacy of critical thinking and insight.
The following study questions are as relevant today as when George G. M. James wrote Stolen Legacy:
1. What were the aims James had for this project?
2. Who had Africans been taught to idolized as founders and fathers of philosophy and the arts and sciences?
3. What was Europe’s intention vis-à-vis the information that Africa was indeed the continent of the origin of human arts and sciences?
4. How could African people find what James called “social reformation”?
5. What is the meaning of African redemption in the mind of George G. M. James?
6. What were the principal ideas that had to be mastered by the student to achieve the level of consciousness that would bring about African redemption?
7. Why is James’ Stolen Legacy still relevant today?
Molefi Kete Asante, author of Egyptian Philosophers, is professor of African American Studies at Temple University. He is the author or editor of 48 books.