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AFROCENTRICITY: Toward a New Understanding of African Thought in the World

: Toward a New Understanding of African Thought in the World

von Molefi Kete Asante

Africa has been betrayed by international commerce and trade.

Africa has been often betrayed by the new science of the genetics of food, and the unequal distribution of resources.

Africa has been betrayed by missionaries and imams who have called our own priests and priestesses false while holding up Africa’s enemies as our saviors.

[ The Liberation of the African Mind is the key to Black Salvation --Adisa Franklin ]

Africa has been betrayed by education, the Academy, and the structure of knowledge imposed by the Western world

Africa has often been betrayed by its own leaders who have shown a talent for imitating the worst habits and behaviors of Europe.

Africa has often been betrayed by the ignorance of its own people of its past. Africans are, consequently, the most betrayed of contemporary humans.

People so often betrayed must take a serious look at their own approach to phenomena, to life, to existence, to knowledge. The betrayals do not have to continue, nor must we resign Africa to the trash heaps of history as some contemporary Africanists and non Africanists have claimed.

A continent and a people with such incredible potential can rise to meet any challenge, but our thoughts must become truly our own thoughts, separated from the enslaving thoughts of those who have sought racial domination. Of course, when I speak like this, I am speaking of Africa in the context and spirit of Marcus Garvey. I accept that the African world is not merely a geographical entity but a world entity whether by our own making or as is most probable by the making of the assaults and attacks and aggressions against African people. We are found in every continent and we occupy positions of influence in countries as widely separated as Brazil and the United Kingdom.

My aim is to help lay out a plan for the recovery of African place, respectability, accountability, and leadership.

The theme of this conference takes us to the very core of the future of human interaction by seeking to examine Western knowledge, its structure, its relationship to conquest and domination, and its prosecution as an instrument to retain a white racial hierarchy in the world.

We know that Africans have thought about the universe longer than any other people. The people of the world have been black longer than any other color.

In fact philosophy itself originated in Africa and the first philosophers in the world were Africans.

The African tradition is intertwined with the earliest thought.

Yet from the beginning of Europe’s interest in Africa the European writers referred to ancient African works as "Wisdom Literature," in an effort to negatively distinguish African thinking from European thinking. They could not conceive of Africans as having philosophy.

Philosophy was meant, in their minds, to indicate a kind of reflection that was possible only with the Greeks. They constructed a Greece that was miraculous, built on the foundation of a racial imagination that established a white European superiority in everything.

Since philosophy was seen during the neo-classical period of European history as the source of all other arts and sciences, philosophy was the chief discipline. They saw it in the context of Darwinism where even knowledge was structured hierarchically. Indeed, I still remember how in the southern United States, during my childhood, the whites prohibited Africans from operating large machinery because it was considered much too intellectual for blacks.

Numerous European writers glorified the achievements of the mind of the Greeks. A Greek stood at the door of every science in the European mind. There were no secrets that had not been discovered by the Greeks. They owed allegiances to no one. They were immaculate, without blemish, isolated from every other people as the standard by which the world was to be judged.

Whether in art or science, in sculptor or mathematics, in astronomy or literature, they had no equal and were without antecedents.

However, according to the tradition of Western thought, it was in philosophy that the Greeks excelled. As Theophile Obenga says, others may have had religion, stories, wise sayings, and wisdom literature but the Greeks had philosophy. This was the highest of all disciplines and it was only through the minds of whites that philosophy came to the world.

Yet we know that the word philosophy is not Greek, although it came through the Greeks to English and other European languages. Seba, wisdom, the ancient Mdw Ntr word is the earliest example of reflective thinking. In fact, on the tomb of Antef I, 2052 B.C. we see the first mention of wisdom.

The word sophia, wisdom in Greek, is derived from the more ancient word seba, the African word. To say in Greek "philo" is to say brother or lover. One normally says that a philosopher is "a lover of wisdom." But the ancient Africans had come to this understanding long before there was even a nation of Greeks.

Indeed the first serious thinkers or philosophers were not Greeks. This means that not only is the word philosophy not Greek, the practice of philosophy is not Greek, but African.

Thales who lived around 600 BC is usually thought of as the first Greek philosopher. Some claim that it was Pythagoras, who was a younger contemporary of Thales, but I claim, with most Greek scholars that it was Thales since he is said to have told a young Pythagoras "You must do as I have done and go to Egypt to learn philosophy from the Egyptians." Advice which Pythagoras followed and went to Egypt, spending twenty three years at the feet of such venerable African teachers as Wennofer.

There were several select places where various aspects of philosophy such as social ethics, natural laws, metaphysics, and medicine were taught. One could study at the Temple of Ptah at Men-nefer, at the Temple of Bast at Bubastis, at the Temple of Hatheru at Dendera, at the Ausarion at Abydos, at the Temple of Amen at Waset, at the Temple of Heru at Edfu, at the Temple of Ra at On, and the Temple of Auset at Philae. Indeed, scholars and others could assemble at scores of other sites from Siwa to Esna for intellectual discussion and discourse. No city,however, was as rich in temples and schools as Waset where the temples of Amenhotep III, Seti I, Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tuthmoses III, Mentuhotep, and the Ramesseum were in full flourishing from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom period. Kemet, the ancient name of Egypt, was not without a considerable body of thought that had been amassed over many centuries. By the time the Greeks starting coming to Egypt as students in the 7th and 8th centuries the philosophers of Egypt had already created vast libraries of histories, science, politics, and religion.

Here along the Nile River Africans thought about the nature of the universe, the condition of good and evil, human relations, the administration of society, the character of the afterlife, the idea of beauty and the nature of the divine with intense reflection. I am not here interested on the impact Africa had on Europe or the influence that Kemet had on Greece. In fact I believe that it is time we wrest the study of early Africa from any comparison with Europe because Europe is not in the same league with its antiquity. We will become far more insightful about our own cultures as we gain deeper knowledge of our own societies in relationship to continuities, migrations, land tenure philosophy, family relationships, governance, writing styles and techniques, and the nature of morality in African terms.

Perhaps one day the names of the earliest philosophers will be as familiar to us as the names of the Greek philosophers are to us today. Why shouldn’t the world know the names of the philosophers who set the stage for human civilization?

Imhotep, 2700 BC, earliest personality recorded in history. Like the later personalities of Socrates and Jesus nothing of his writing remains, but we know that he understood volume and space, because he was the builder of the first pyramid, the Sakkara pyramid. He was the first philosopher, the first physician, the first architect, and the first counselor to a king recorded in history. The reports of his life and his work on the walls of temples and in papyri indicate the esteem in which he was held.

* Ptahhotep, 2414 BC, first ethical philosopher. He believed that life consisted of making harmony and peace with nature. All discourse on the relationship between humans and nature must give credit to the life of Ptahhotep.

* Kagemni, 2300 BC, the first teacher of right action for the sake of goodness rather than personal advantage, came upon the human scene as an African philosopher nearly eighteen hundred years before Buddha.

* Merikare, 1990 BC, valued the art of good speech. His classical teachings on good speech were recorded and passed down from generation to generation.

* Sehotepibre, 1991 BC, the first philosopher who espoused a sort of nationalism based in allegiance and loyalty to a political leader.

* Amenemhat, 19991 BC, the world’s first cynic. He expressed a cynical view of intimates and friends, warning that one must not trust those who are close to you.

* Amenhotep, son of Hapu, 1400 BC, was the most revered of the ancient Kemetic philosophers. Next to Imhotep, he was the epitome of the philosopher. They people deified him as a god, as they had deified Imhotep, long before Jesus. He was called the most knowledgeable thinker of his day.

* Duauf, 1340 BC, was seen as the master of protocols. He is concerned with reading books for wisdom, the first intellectual in philosophical history. Reading he said was the best way to train the mind.

* Amenemope 1290 BC promoted the philosophy of manners, etiquette, and success.

* Akhenaten, 1300 BC, promoted Aton as the Almighty One God.

All these philosophers were hundreds of years before any Greek philosopher. Indeed, Homer, the first Greek to write something that was intelligible lived around 800 BC. But he was not a philosopher. He traveled and studied in Africa.

* Kung Fu Tzu, 551 BC, the great Chinese philosopher, who believed that humans could make the Way great, lived much later than the African philosophers. But Kung Fu Tzu was a contemporary of

* Siddartha Buddha, 563 BC, the Indian philosopher lived about the same time and Isocrates who lived around 550 BC.

Now as an Afrocentrist I approach the construction of knowledge from the standpoint of Africans as agents in the world, actors, not simply the spectators to Europe. Since Afrocentricity constitutes a new way of examining data, a novel orientation to data, it carries with it assumptions about the current state of the African world. One assumes for example that Africans are frequently operating intellectually, philosophically, and culturally off of African terms and therefore are dislocated, detached, isolated, decentered, or disoriented. One assumes also that this state is useful economically and politically for the West and not so useful for Africa and Africans. There is, consequently, a difference in opinions about the value of Afrocentricity. Those who have kept us off center seek to improve their position on our intellectual and philosophical grounds by cutting the ground from under any movement that teaches Africans to view themselves as centered agents in the world, not marginals to Europe.

What are the issues that are so hotly debated by Stephen Howe in his book Afrocentrism or by the French reactionaries Francois-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, Jean-Pierre Chretien and Claude-Helene Perrot in their attacks in the recently published Afrocentrismes. Of course, already I have responded to quite a lot of critics in my book, The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism. But what is it that scares so many white scholars and many black white scholars? As a cultural configuration the Afrocentric idea is distinguished by five characteristics:

(1) an intense interest in psychological location as determined by symbols, motifs, rituals, and signs.

A few weeks ago I was driving down a lone country road deep into the interior of Ghana and came across a small village of six or seven houses and a church. The church was the most beautifully cared for structure in the little settlement and right over the front door was a large picture of a white Jesus. Nothing illustrates for me more than this the intractable problem of misapplied agency, of deep dislocation. There is no referent for this situation except the domination of Europe in the mind of Africa. Nothing else can be said or ought to be said about it. It cannot and should not be gainsaid, argued, or debated, but it must be eradicated.

I believe that signs, symbols, rituals and ceremonies are useful for societies, and furthermore, I accept that societies are held together or disintegrated on the basis of symbols. We go to war over symbols, we fight over proper rituals of respect, and we find our lives enriched by the memories of those who have achieved heroic stature by standing for what we stand for. In the United States we have fought a battle with the State of South Carolina, the first state to declare itself independent of the United States during the Civil War during the last century, now it has become one of the last states to give up the Confederate Flag which stood for slavery, injustice, bigotry, and white racial domination of Africans. Many white South Carolinians have argued that the flag is a symbol of their ancestors’ fight against the government and they believe that it should stand on the grounds of the state capitol. Of course, we Africans, descendants of the enslaved, see it as a symbol of vicious racism. The debate is over the symbol as an engender of hatred and bigotry for a united society or as a particular instrument to encourage repression of a minority. We are clear that the aim of the symbol of the Confederate flag is not community unity, it is divisive, intentionally divisive. Here in the United Kingdom, you know too well the tyranny of racial and religious hegemony and the forcing of particular symbols and rituals of power down the throats of others.

But my aim, back to my point, is to show that the very intense concern the Afrocentrist has with psychological dislocation, that is, where a person’s psyche is out of sorts with his or her own historical reality, is a legitimate issue for any African corrective. You cannot have an African building a church in the heart of Ivory Coast that is larger than St. Peter’s in Rome without wondering what do we Africans think of our own ancestors? A one hundred or two hundred million dollar shrine to an African deity might have changed forever the religious respect for Africa. But a people who do not respect their own gods should not ever expect respect from anyone. I am saying this as one who is not religious. I am talking pure symbolism here, pure rationalism, not irrationality, but common sense. If you are not going to use the money as you should to improve the health conditions of African people, the educational standards, and the economic circumstances, then by God, use it to showcase your own ancestors, not to compete with Rome for who can build the largest European building in Africa.

Europe has had no problem asserting its hegemony over everything on earth. Huntington claimed (p. 81) that the West

* Owned the international banking system
* Controlled all hard currencies
* Provided the majority of the world’s finished products
* Exerted moral authority over other leaders
* Was capable of massive military intervention
* Controlled the sea lanes
* Conducted most advanced technical research
* Dominated access to space
* Dominated aerospace
* Dominated international communications
* Dominated high tech weapons production

We seek neither hegemony nor domination of others, we abhor the idea that one group should impose its will on others against their wills. Yet it is just this deliberate insistence on the part of whites to hold hegemony over Africans that has caused so much racial friction and unrest. Not only has the time run out on this type of domination, there is no longer a willing audience for it. But the lingering effects of more than three hundred years of psychological and cultural domination have left us off of economic and political terms.

(2) a commitment to finding the subject-place of Africans in any social, political, economic, or religious phenomenon with implications for questions of sex, gender, and class.

The Afrocentrist is committed to the idea that Africans are agents in the world and therefore should not be viewed as spectators. But even more, I recognize that people can be seen as agents, but can have misdirected agency, a problem of immense proportions. You do not have to be white to serve those interests in the United States, you can be black and serve hegemonic interests against blacks. Today, a black ultra conservative serves as vice presidential candidate on the Reform Party ticket with Pat Buchanan, one of the most threatening throwbacks to the Neanderthalian age in American politics. There are always a few wobbly ducks who cackle on command from those who seek hegemony.

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