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

[ Dr. Molefi Kete ASANTE ]

So the problem of Africans being moved off of terms is a world wide issue. It is not simply an American or a British issue, it plagues Africans in Canada as well as those in Australia. It raises its head everyday in South Africa and Nigeria, in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Everywhere we are confronted with the possibilities of being moved to the margins, yet the task of our generation is to resist hegemony from morning till night. We can only do it, however, by seeking the subject place in everything. We remain one of the few people who have allowed others to become experts on our history and our ancestors; this is the source of our confusion. The Ghanaian often refers you to Rattray for information on Asante customs and some Nigerians still believe that Lady Lugard’s A Tropical Dependency says everything about Nigeria.

Afrocentrists take a strong view that racial, sexual, gender, and class discrimination and exploitation must be condemned outright and forthrightly. All Afrocentric analysis is a critique on domination. Furthermore, all Afrocentric analysis is a critique on hierarchy and patriarchy because the analysis stems from all forms of oppression.

(3) a defense of African cultural elements as historically valid in the context of art, music, and literature.

Since Europe has asserted Greece as the standard by which it judges and evaluates all things cultural, Africa finds it difficult, within this context, to speak of its own classical art, music, and literature. To say beautiful and mean only a European conception is to distort reality. It is only one conception. Michelangelo’s David is one way to look at a man, it is not the only way. The ritual dances of hegemony are often dazzling in their portrayal of Europe as the standard by which all others should be judged. The rhythms, however, are jagged, and imprecise.

To say classical art, classical music, or classical dance, cannot mean only European art, music, and dance, and be meaningful in the world context. Any cultural form worthy of emulation is classical for a particular history. There is every reason to speak of classical Akan or classical Yoruba or classical African American forms of art, dance, or literature as there is to speak of any European form. The problem here with our understanding is the deafening tones of white insistence on its own values as universal when in fact they are regional, particular, though exported internationally. As King Lobenguela puzzled over the Scottish missionaries interest in bringing their god to the Ndebele, he said to Moffat, "we have our own god, Nkulunkulu, and you have yours. Why do you want us to have yours?" Of course, Samuel Huntington said that the European world was not smartest or brightest but the most "willing to use violence to bring about its political will." King Lobenguela’s time was short; soon he had a flood of whites in his kingdom teaching "servants to be obedient to your masters."

(4) a celebration of "centeredness" and agency and a commitment to lexical refinement that eliminates pejoratives about Africans or other people.

There is an Australian poem that was taught in successive editions to primary school children in that country which reminded white Australians that

"We won our land from a nerveless race,
Too mean for their land to fight;
If we mean to hold it we too must face
The adage that might makes right."

This is how people are uprooted against their wills. But Europe makes no apologies to these peoples and whites have made no apologies in the United States for robbing the indigenous nations of their lands. In Africa, they sought to rob the land but found it overpowering and the people resilient on the land of their ancestors, yet Europe left an entire continent moved off of center, off of its own terms, and has repeatedly spoken of a failed Africa, a tired Africa, a HIV-infected Africa, a sick Africa, a despised Africa, and an Africa that cannot get its act together. Of course, for us, Africa must be convinced to do three things: (1) return to a strong sense of cultural identity, (2) create international networks of Africans on the continent and trans-continentally to cooperate on a global level, and (3) place emphasis on teaching children to leap-frog old technologies and finding ways to exploit the new information possibilities with vigor.

In this way we will celebrate centeredness and agency and not dismiss our own ethnicities, histories, and lessons to embrace others. All Africans, wherever in the world, have made valuable contributions to their countries, whether in the West or in Africa, and must be viewed and must view themselves as accountable, responsible agents in the world, not to be acted upon, but to act. Thus, it means that we must build institutions everywhere in our image and in our interests. One thing that happens to a people who lose their god, is that they lose their institutions, their reasons for being, and their language, and you cannot find the proper strength to build institutions until you rediscover your cultural center. Of course, we have many infusions into the African cultural stream and those infusions must be recognized, given voice, and seen as a part of creating a new African reality. Nothing remains exactly the same, but over time changes are often cosmetic, external, not core changing. Wood may remain in water for ten years, but wood will never become a crocodile.

We have been condemned for seeking lexical refinement, but that is exactly the role of any philosophy, to clarify issues, to discover the hidden pitfalls, and to steer people around dangers. You cannot refer to Black Africa and White Africa, you must not speak of Africa South of the Sahara, you should not talk of issues in the West and East as if there is no South, you will encounter an Afrocentrist if you speak of pygmies, Hottentots, and Bushmen. You cannot allow African agency to be assumed by Europe in the construction of science, history, or art. Why should a Nigerian write that Mungo Park discovered the Niger River? Did Livingstone really discover Victoria Falls or did someone bring him to Musi wa Tunya and he declared out of his own arrogance that he would rename it Victoria Falls? We have a big job, but it will be done this millennium.

(5) a powerful imperative from historical sources to revise the collective text of African people.

Whether we are on this side or the other side of the Atlantic we are an African people. There is no real reason to posit some hypothetical Black Atlantic. The Atlantic is neither black nor white, it is a deep blue. It is an ocean, and an ocean is neither a barrier to human interaction nor is it necessarily a consolidater of the human experience. We remain African though we become Jamaicans, African British, Haitians, African Americans or African Costa Ricans.

We must learn from each others experiences. It is the imposed isolation that has kept us from our true undestanding of ourselves. When the Haitian intellectual Antenor Firmin in 1895 wrote his famous book, The Equality of the Human Races, he was defending all black people, those in the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, and Nigeria, against racist assaults and bias commentary.

I am convinced that the constituent elements for our recentering are rooted in four general areas of inquiry:

* Cosmology-- nature of beingness, Ontology, Mythology;
* Axiology--nature of ethical values;
* Epistemology--nature of knowledge, proofs, methods; and
* Aesthetics--nature of creative and economic motifs.

But what are we up against in promoting a mature understanding of how knowledge is constructed in the West to encourage racism? Often we are up against strange and bleak careerists who are writing as if they are writing out of our experiences when, in fact, their aims are totally distinct from the recentering of Africans in a human place.

Periodically there appears a book that runs counter to the wisdom of experience in the African American community. Against Race by the sociologist Paul Gilroy is just such a book. Gilroy, a British scholar, who teaches at Yale University, made a reputation in the states with the postmodern work, The Black Atlantic. I see this book as a continuation of that work’s attempt to deconstruct the notion of African identity in the United States and elsewhere. Of course it runs squarely against the lived experiences of the African Americans. The history of discrimination against us in the West, whether the United States or the United Kingdom or other parts of the western world, is a history of assaulting our dignity because we are Africans or the descendants of Africans. This has little to do with whether or not we are on one side of the ocean or the other. Such false separations, particularly in the context of white racial hierarchy and domination, are nothing more than an acceptance of a white definition of blackness. I reject such a notion as an attempt to isolate Africans in the Americas from their brothers and sisters on the continent, and of course, to continue the separations of Africans in Britain from each other. It is as serious an assault and as misguided as the 1817 Philadelphia conference that argued that the blacks in the United States were not Africans but "colored Americans" and therefore should not return to Africa. To argue as Gilroy does that Africans in Britain and the United States are part of a "Black Atlantic" is to argue the "colored American" thesis all over again. It took us one hundred and fifty years to defeat the notion of the "colored American" in the United States and I will not stand idly by and see such misguided notion accepted as fact at this late date in our struggle to liberate our minds. We are victimized in the West by systems of thinking, structures of knowledge, ways of being, that take our Africanity as an indication of inferiority, something to be overcome. I see this position as questioning the humanity and the dignity of African people. Despite what looks like acceptance of Africans on a political level, it is racist at the core, because it is an acceptance of what whites find acceptable, that is, the idea that certain blacks are no longer Africans. The easiest and quickest way in the United States to assume that position is to say that "you never left anything in Africa" or "you are not an African nor a black but an American" or to say "Africa never did anything for me." You become immediately accepted as an honorary white.

It should be clear that Gilroy’s new book, Against Race is not a book against racism or racialism, as perhaps it ought to be, but a book against the idea of race as an organizing theme in human relations. It is somewhat like the idea offered a decade or more ago by the conservative critic, Anne Wortham in her reactionary work, The Other Side of Racism. Like Wortham, Gilroy argues that the African American spends too much time on collective events that constitute "race" consciousness and therefore participates in "militaristic" marches typified by the Million Man March and the Million Woman March, both of which were useless in his mind. The only person who could make such a statement had to be one who did not attend. Unable to see the awesome power of the collective construction of umoja within the context of a degenerate racist society, Gilroy prefers to stand on the sidelines and cast stones at the authentic players in the arena. This is a reactionary posture. So Against Race cannot be called an anti-racism book although it is anti-race, especially against the idea of black cultural identity whether constructed as race or as a collective national identity.

Let us be clear here, Against Race is not a book against all collective identities. There is no assault on Jewish identity, as a religious or cultural identity, nor is there an attack on French identity or Chinese identity as collective historical realities. There is no assault on the historically constructed identity of the Hindu Indian, nor on the white British. Nor should there be any such assault. But Gilroy, like others of this school, see the principal culprits as Afrocentrists who retain a complex love of African culture, consciousness of African ancestry, and belief in Pan Africanism. In Gilroy’s construction or lack of construction, there must be something wrong with African Americans because Africa remains in their minds as a place, a continent, a symbol, a reality of origin and source of the first step across the ocean when they are really not African. But Gilroy does not know what he is talking about here. This leads him to the wrong conclusions about the African American community. The relationship Africans in the Americas have with Africa is not of some mythical or a mystical place. We do not worship unabashedly at the doorsteps of the continent although we have an active engagement with all that it means. Are we always conscious of it? Of course not! You will not find all African Americans walking around the streets of Philadelphia or Chicago or Los Angeles thinking about engaging Africa, yet we know almost instantly that when we are assaulted by police, denied venture capital or criticized for insisting on keeping Europe out of our consciousness without permission that Africa is at the center of our existential reality. We are most definitely African, though modern, contemporary, Africans domiciled in the West.

Actually Gilroy spends a considerable amount of time in this book explaining how race, a false concept, "is understood." He writes "Awareness of the indissoluble unity of all life at the level of genetic materials leads to a stronger sense of the particularity of our species as a whole, as well as to new anxieties that the character is being fundamentally and irrevocably altered" (p. 20). I do not know how Gilroy can move from this position to indict the African people as the carriers of this anxiety about "race," clearly a concept that was never promoted by African people in this country or on the continent. It is essentially an Anglo-Germanic notion, manufactured and disseminated to promote the distinctions between peoples and to establish a European hierarchy, as well as a hierarchy among Europeans themselves. We have no business with any kind of hierarchy; our business for this millennium is the recentering and reordering of the African world’s priorities based on a firm acceptance of Africa’s on role in securing the mutuality of the human destiny.

When a new generation looks upon us, may they look upon this generation of Africans with the pride that comes from knowing that there have been those who stood for truth and right when it was easier to melt into the crowd of turncoats. May that new generation take up the same battles and go from victory to victory until we wipe all forms of human degradation from the face of the earth.

Molefi Kete Asante

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