May 17, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 40
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Controversial African studies lecturer retires

Kenneth J. Cooper

MEDWAY, Mass. — Tony Martin, whose teaching about the Jewish role in the Atlantic slave trade led to a national controversy in the 1990s, will retire quietly next month after 34 years as a professor of black studies at Wellesley College.

His retirement on June 30 marks the end of a teaching career that spans almost the entire existence of what is now the Africana Studies Department at the women’s college.

Martin, 65, plans to return to his native Trinidad and continue to write scholarly books and lecture around the world on Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist who is the subject of nine books he has written or edited.

“Marcus Garvey has been the lion’s share of my work,” said Martin during a recent interview at his home on a leafy street in Medway.

But in the files of daily newspapers, the few mentions of his academic specialty are overwhelmed with stories beginning in 1993 about his assigning one Wellesley class readings from a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam, entitled “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Vol. 1.” It attributes a larger role to Jews in the trade of African slaves than some scholars say is justified.

National Jewish organizations condemned Martin, who defended teaching about the Jewish role in slave trade and fired barbs at his critics in a book he self-published in 1993, “The Jewish Onslaught.” One of his targets was Selwyn Cudjoe, a fellow Trinidadian who was then the department’s chairman, who had criticized what Martin was teaching.

“I consider myself in the right, which I considered myself then, and still do,” Martin said. “If it happened again, I would probably react the same way.”

Martin’s biggest on-campus critic was Mary Lefkowitz, a classics professor who is Jewish and has been retired since 2005. She believes Martin went too far.

“Writing ‘The Jewish Onslaught’ was probably not what he ought to have done,” said Lefkowitz, citing what she called the book’s “open anti-Semitism” and personal attacks on Cudjoe and others. “People thought that was not professional conduct.”

Martin called the attacks on him out of proportion to the amount of time the black studies class spent on a topic he added in the fall of 1992, the kind of change he said professors routinely make when they find new information. He blames “the Jewish lobby” for stoking the media controversy about his teaching about Jews and the slave trade.

“Jews were very much involved in the United States of America. They were not the dominant element, but they were an important element,” Martin said. “Some of the most important slave ship owners in American history were Jews. One of the most well-known was a guy called Aaron Lopez just down the road in Newport, Rhode Island.”

LaTrese Adkins, now an adjunct professor of history at Southern Methodist University, was in Martin’s class when he introduced the Nation of Islam book.

“We didn’t spend more than a week or two weeks on that particular subject,” she recalled. “It was not accusatory of the Jewish faith or people.”

Martin and Lefkowitz also clashed over his interpretation that the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations borrowed much from the Egyptians.

“I don’t think the evidence is there for the Afrocentric interpretation of ancient history,” her specialty, Lefkowitz said.

Martin defined Afrocentrism not as necessarily placing Africa at the center of world history, but as “a very insistent demand that black studies had to be [viewed] from what might be loosely called a ‘black perspective,’” instead of being examined as “somebody else’s problem.”

Martin and Lefkowitz have not had a conversation in years, but they do agree on one thing: His significant contributions as a mentor to African American students at Wellesley.

“For a number of women, particularly black women, he made a significant difference for them,” said Lefkowitz, adding many were “devoted” to him.

Martin said that teaching, mentoring and befriending “Wellesley students has been a beautiful experience.”

Azizah Yasin, an attorney who practices family and immigration law, graduated in 1994 from Wellesley, where she took several classes with Martin, her academic adviser.

“He was just a personal favorite of mine because the way he taught enriched my soul,” Yasin said.

In retirement, Martin will live in the hills near the capital of Port of Spain with his wife, Paloma, and infant son, Shabaka, who is named after an Egyptian pharaoh. She is a playwright and poet of note in her native Guyana. It is his first marriage.

He is just completing a biography of Amy Ashwood Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s first wife, and is working on others about two icons in Trinidad: Audrey Jeffers, who founded a women’s group there in 1921, and Kathleen Davis, who was a longtime host of a radio program. Another book will be about Jews who fled the Nazis and settled temporarily in Trinidad, which, as a British colony, had lax immigration laws.

“I don’t necessarily rule out teaching again. I feel as though I’m only 65. I’ve got a lot of teaching left in me,” Martin said. “But I won’t be seeking any teaching opportunities.”

Controversial Wellesley black studies professor Tony Martin, shown here in a photo from 1992, will retire after 34 years of teaching. The majority of his lectures, and the subject of nine of his books, has been the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. (File photo)

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