Jeffries, Leonard 1937–
Leonard Jeffries 1937–
Leonard Jeffries and his ideas about race, history, and cultural politics have caused a raging controversy both in the halls of academia and in American society at large. Vilified in some quarters as a racist and demagogue, Jeffries has also been hailed as an educator who uses his classroom to raise the consciousness of African Americans. His career as chairman of the Department of African-American Studies at the City College of New York has “given a sense of urgency to the notion of expanding African-American studies in classrooms everywhere,” according to Emerge correspondent Michael H. Cottman. “It also has highlighted the growing concern for … black scholars who are now subject to ridicule and branded as incompetents and anti-Semites, as well as being second-guessed by those who object to blacks reexamining world history and offering a dramatically different perspective on the African impact on society.”
In his capacity as a college professor and also as a speaker in public forums, Jeffries has stood as an exponent of several controversial theories: that the presence of different levels of melanin—a skin coloration pigment—has caused biological and psychological differences between blacks and whites; that the slave trade was run and financed by wealthy Europeans, including Jews; and that Africa’s role as a force in the creation of modern Western civilization has been systematically undermined by white, Eurocentric historians.
“We’re talking about the African origin of human kind, the African evolution of society, the African civilization in the Nile Valley, the African fusion of culture with other people, the stolen legacy of the Greeks, the African foundation of Christianity and Islam, the African factor in Islam, the development of Africa in Europe and the development of Africa in the New World,” Jeffries commented in Emerge. “But there is an intellectual dishonesty when people really don’t like what is being taught here. Nobody wants to deal with the real issues.”
For espousing what he feels are the “real issues,” Jeffries has been portrayed in the press as a racist using questionable scholarship to attack whites, especially Jews. New York magazine contributor John Taylor contended that Jeffries “would never have been given administrative responsibility and authority had he not been black. And, of course, he would have been hounded off campus, if only by black students, had he been a white racist making comparable crazed comments about African-Americans.” A New York Times editorial called Jeffries’s stewardship of black studies at the City
Born January 19, 1937, in Newark, NJ; son of Neola Jeffries; married; wife’s name, Rosalind (an art historian). Education: Lafayette College, B.A. (with honors), 1959; Columbia University, master’s degree, 1965, Ph.D., 1971.
Operation Crossroads Africa, group leader for community development projects, 1962-65; program coordinator for West Africa, 1965-69; City College of the City University of New York, instructor in political science, 1969-71, professor of black studies, 1972—, chairman of Department of African-American Studies, 1972-92 and 1993—. Professor of black studies, San Jose State College, 1971-72.
Member: African Heritage Studies Association.
Selected awards: Grants from Whitney and Rockefeller foundations for graduate study, 1966-71.
Addresses: Home —Teaneck, NJ. Office —Department of African-American Studies, City College of the City University of New York, 138th and Covant St., Room 4150, New York, NY 10031.
College of New York “an embarrassment, [with the] students condemned to an academic ghetto.” For his part, Jeffries asserts that his teachings are only disturbing because they are the truth and are sometimes hard to hear. He explained in Emerge that he is part of “the larger awakening of African peoples in terms of their real history…. There is an African primacy to human experience.”
Jeffries further described himself and his mission in New York magazine: “I am the consummate scholar…. I had a million-dollar white-boy education and a billion-dollar African education…. I consider myself an African Renaissance man. Musician, artist… athlete … godfather—I just help everybody, white, black, blue, or green. I know who I am.”
Leonard Jeffries was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, the older of two sons in a close-knit blue-collar family. “It was an extraordinarily happy home,” he recalled in New York. “I grew up with the idea of becoming a lawyer to save the race in the civil-rights movement and to be mayor of Newark.” Like other black youngsters coming of age in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jeffries faced racism from his white schoolmates as well as from some of his teachers, but he buried his rage and strove to excel. He was popular enough to be elected president of his grammar school class and later president of his high school class.
Jeffries won a scholarship to Lafayette College and arrived there in 1955 as one of four black students on the campus that year. An honors student almost from the outset of his undergraduate years, he decided to pledge the only fraternity on campus that would accept black members: Pi Lambda Phi, the Jewish fraternity. He was accepted and spent the last three years at Lafayette rooming with Jewish friends and participating actively in the fraternity’s affairs. “The Jews in that frat operated on the African value system—communal, cooperative, and collective,” Jeffries recounted in New York. “It was us against the world. We had very strong relationships because I was the leader…. I was trying to make them men.”
In his senior year Jeffries was named president of Pi Lambda Phi, the first black in history to hold that position in the fraternity. The honor further helped to defray his college expenses by paying for his food and lodging. It also provided Jeffries with an ironic title that amused him greatly. “They called the president a Rex—I had to go through college as king of the Jews,” he told New York. “But I managed it. I managed it. Me and my Jews knew what we were about.”
Graduating with honors in 1959, Jeffries won a Rotary International fellowship to study at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Upon his return to New York in 1961 he enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. As he worked toward his master’s and doctorate degrees, he supported himself by working for Operation Crossroads Africa, a private organization that developed community projects in Africa. Jeffries’s association with Operation Crossroads Africa provided him with opportunities to spend time in Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. In 1965, the year he earned his master’s degree, he became the company’s program coordinator for West Africa.
According to Eric Pooley in New York, Jeffries’s experiences during the 1960s led to his becoming “radicalized and embittered—seeing Africa struggling with problems of development, experiencing the campus ferment of Columbia in the late sixties, reading deeply in black history and thought, [and] working in manpower-training and community-action programs.” Jeffries’s response to these challenges was to join the growing movement on American campuses for a specific program of black studies to serve the needs of a new generation of African-American undergraduates.
Jeffries became a college-level instructor in 1969, teaching political science at the City College of New York. While there, he finished his doctoral dissertation on politics in the Ivory Coast and received his doctorate in 1971. After a year spent teaching black studies at San Jose State College in California, he was offered a challenging and quite prestigious post: he was made a tenured professor of black studies and named chairman of the new African-American Studies Department at the City College.
Jeffries’s appointment was a significant honor. Most scholars spend years publishing papers and books in a quest for tenure on the university level—a tenured professorship is the only truly secure academic position at a university. It is usually awarded more on the basis of published scholarship than upon teaching ability. Jeffries, with his commitment to black studies, his energetic teaching style, and his experience in Africa, proved the exception to that rule.
At the City College Jeffries built a new academic department by recruiting like-minded scholars to his faculty. In addition to his teaching and administrative duties, he led frequent trips to Africa and served in the African Heritage Studies Association, a group of black studies educators working to define their discipline. Michael Eric Dyson noted that throughout his years at the City College, Jeffries has been “a popular figure among black students on campus.” However, the professor has not published any significant original scholarship; his theories are drawn from the work of others and synthesized for classroom presentation. Jeffries told New York: “My students say, ‘Doctor J., why don’t you write?’ I say, ‘I can’t—I’m making history so I don’t have time to write it.’”
Jeffries’s notoriety beyond the boundaries of his field and his college began in 1987, when he joined a state-mandated task force to reduce racism in the public school curriculum. He was a principal contributor to the task force’s final publication, “A Curriculum of Inclusion,” which castigated public school syllabi for Eurocentrism and demanded revisions of history courses to include pre-slave African history and more emphasis upon the accomplishments of African Americans. Meetings held to discuss the findings sometimes became heated, as Jeffries and his associates sparred with Diane Ravitch, a white Jewish member of the task force. In the end, “A Curriculum of Inclusion” was shelved in favor of a more moderate series of suggestions.
Press coverage of the task force and its goals increased Jeffries’s stature in the black community. He had been a popular speaker for some time on college campuses, but he also began to speak at public events. One such occasion was the Empire State Black Arts and Cultural Festival, held in Albany, New York, in the summer of 1991. Jeffries spoke for two hours, outlining his theories and calling for blacks to become absorbed in their history and culture. The speech also included controversial statements about Diane Ravitch, whom Jeffries called “a sophisticated Texas Jew”; about the role Jews played in the creation of Hollywood’s most brutal film stereotypes of blacks; and about the role wealthy Jews played in the slave trade. When the speech was later played on one of New York’s cable television stations, journalists and some Jewish leaders decried it as racist, irresponsible, and reactionary.
Jeffries had always been controversial, but he suddenly found himself at the center of a raging debate. His followers supported him wholeheartedly; his detractors were equally enthusiastic, picketing his public appearances and demanding his resignation from the City College. Jeffries told Emerge that he became the target of hate mail, crank calls, and even death threats. Bodyguards escorted him around the City College campus. Important politicians such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and former Mayor Ed Koch visited the City College to recommend disciplinary action against the professor. “Soon calls for Jeffries’s resignation became deafening,” wrote James Traub in the New Yorker.
The administration of the City College was not willing to act against Jeffries right away, but when a Jewish student from Harvard University told the press that Jeffries had threatened to kill him during an interview for Harvard’s newspaper, the university president acted. Jeffries was removed as department chairman of the African-American studies department in 1992 but was allowed to continue teaching as a tenured professor. Jeffries promptly sued the school to regain his chairmanship.
In August of 1993 a federal jury concluded that the City College had violated Jeffries’s First Amendment rights of free speech by ostensibly punishing him for the speech in Albany. The college had failed to prove any other violations by Jeffries, including the death threat allegation by the Harvard student. Jeffries was awarded $400,000 in damages and was restored to the chairmanship of the African-American Studies Department in 1994, pending the college’s appeal of the verdict. “They tried to push me out of the way, but this lawsuit, this struggle, was not only a personal victory for me, but it was a victory for the people, Jeffries declared in Emerge. “This [lawsuit] represents a continuation of the struggle for all of us because it’s not over yet.”
As he awaited further litigation, Jeffries continued his assault on what he sees as a white racist view of history and further victimization of blacks by whites. His theories, many of them based on the work of the late Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, include the contention that blacks are the “sun people”—warm, cooperative, creative and communal, and that whites are “ice people”—cold, territorial, and aggressive. A principal contributing factor to black accomplishment is the skin pigment melanin, which Jeffries says has been linked to heightened intelligence and creativity in biological studies.
Diop’s work, Jeffries told Emerge, characterizes melanin as “the phenomenon which helps us establish that there’s only one human race, and that human race is African. Melanin is that phenomenon that comes about as a result of the sun factor…. The value system of the south [sun people], you can look at the spiritual relationship within the human and the cosmic family … you see the male and female principle in harmony and balance, you see nature in harmony and balance, you see the relationship of the sky and the moon and the sun to human development.
Not surprisingly, such assertions have led Jeffries to be labeled a racist in his own right. Commentary contributor Philip Gourevitch calls the professor “a black supremacist who uses his classroom to teach his notion that the skin pigment melanin endows blacks with physical and intellectual superiority.” Jeffries claims that his position is not that extreme, but he makes no apologies for trying to instill black pride and heighten black consciousness in a historical perspective.
“Our aim is to touch the medical programs, the engineering programs, the legal programs, so that these pre-professionals develop personalities with a [conscience] and a commitment to our community that these white folks are not capable of doing,” he asserted in Emerge. “We have to take care of our own people, educate our own people, tell the truth about our history. It’s a God-given mission.”
Commentary, March 1992, pp. 34-38.
Emerge, February 1992, pp. 32-37; March 1994, pp. 26-31.
New Republic, March 2, 1992, pp. 11-12.
New York, September 2, 1991, pp. 33-37; May 24, 1993, pp. 10-11.
New Yorker, June 7, 1993, pp. 42-53.
New York Times, August 5, 1993, p. A-l; August 6, 1993, p. A-28.
Time, August 26, 1991, pp. 19-20; February 14, 1993, p. 16.
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