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Afrocentrism (also Afrocentricity) is an approach to the study of world history that focuses on the history of people of recent African descent. It is in some respects a response to global (Eurocentric) attitudes about African people and their historical contributions; it seeks to counter what it sees as mistakes and ideas perpetuated by the racist philosophical underpinnings of western academic disciplines as they developed during and since Europe's Early Renaissance as justifying rationales for the enslavement of other peoples, in order to enable more accurate accounts of not only African but all people's contributions to world history. Afrocentricity deals primarily with self-determination and African agency and is a Pan-African point of view for the study of culture, philosophy, and history.
Afrocentrism is a scholarly movement that seeks to conduct research and education on global history subjects, from the perspective of historical African peoples and polities. It takes a critical stance on Eurocentric assumptions and myths about world history, in order to pursue methodological studies of the latter. Some of the critics of the movement believe that it often denies or minimizes European, Near Eastern, and Asian cultural influences while exaggerating certain aspects of historical African civilizations that independently accomplished a significant level of cultural and technological development. In general, Afrocentrism is usually manifested in a focus on the history of Africa and its role in contemporary African-American culture among others.
What is today broadly called Afrocentrism evolved out of the work of African-American intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but flowered into its modern form due to the activism of African-American intellectuals in the U.S. civil rights movement and in the development of African-American Studies programs in universities. However, following the development of universities in African colonies in the 1950s, African scholars became major contributors to African historiography. A notable pioneer is the professor Kenneth Dike, who became chairman of the Committee on African Studies at Harvard in the 1970s. In strict terms Afrocentrism, as a distinct historiography, reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Today[when?] it is primarily associated with Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henrik Clarke, Ivan van Sertima and Molefi Kete Asante. Asante, however, describes his theories as Afrocentricity.
Proponents of Afrocentrism support the claim that the contributions of various Black African people have been downplayed or discredited as part of the legacy of colonialism and slavery's pathology of "writing Africans out of history". Major critics of Afrocentrism include Mary Lefkowitz, who dismiss it as pseudohistory, reactive, and obstinately therapeutic. Others, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, believe that Afrocentrism defeats its purpose of dismantling unipolar studies of world history by seeking to replace Eurocentricity with an equally ethnocentric and hierarchical curriculum, and negatively essentializes European culture and people of European descent. Clarence E. Walker claims it to be "Eurocentrism in blackface". Asante has however argued that scholars such as Lefkowits and Walker have made straw-man arguments by using the term Afrocentrism as an umbrella term that wrongly includes his varying school of thought, Afrocentricity.
The term "Afrocentrism" dates to 1962. The adjective "Afrocentric" appears in a typescript proposal for an entry in Encyclopedia Africana, possibly due to W. E. B. Du Bois. The abstract noun "Afrocentricity" dates to the 1970s, and was popularized by Molefi Asante's Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (1980). Molefi Kete Asante's theory, Afrocentricity, has been one developed in academic settings and may incorporate the terms Afrocentric to describe scholarship and Afrocentrists to describe scholars, but does not use Afrocentrism. According to Asante, though the two terms are often confused to mean the same, Afrocentrists are not adherents of Afrocentrism. This has caused confusing notions about who is considered an Afrocentrist, as various scholars who may or may not be associated with Asante and his works have been erroneously given the title, even by other academics. Asante has written that Afrocentricity and Afrocentrism are not the same and neither do they share the same origin:
By way of distinction, Afrocentricity should not be confused with the variant Afrocentrism. The term “Afrocentrism” was first used by the opponents of Afrocentricity who in their zeal saw it as an obverse of Eurocentrism. The adjective “Afrocentric” in the academic literature always referred to “Afrocentricity.” However, the use of “Afrocentrism” reflected a negation of the idea of Afrocentricity as a positive and progressive paradigm. The aim was to assign religious signification to the idea of African centeredness. However, it has come to refer to a broad cultural movement of the late twentieth century that has a set of philosophical, political, and artistic ideas which provides the basis for the musical, sartorial, and aesthetic dimensions of the African personality. On the other hand, Afrocentricity, as I have previously defined it, is a theory of agency, that is, the idea that African people must be viewed and view themselves as agents rather than spectators to historical revolution and change. To this end Afrocentricity seeks to examine every aspect of the subject place of Africans in historical, literary, architectural, ethical, philosophical, economic, and political life.
Afrocentrism has its origins in the work of African and African diaspora intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, following social changes in the United States and Africa due both to the end of slavery and the decline of colonialism. Following the American Civil War, African Americans in the South gathered together in communities to evade white control, established their own church congregations, and worked hard to gain education. They increasingly took more active public roles despite severe racial discrimination and segregation. American and African intellectuals looked to the African past for a re-evaluation of what its civilizations had achieved and what they meant for contemporary people.
The combination of the European centuries gives us about four to five hundred years of solid European domination of intellectual concepts and philosophical ideas. Africa and Asia were subsumed under various headings of the European hierarchy. If a war between the European powers occurred it was called a World War and the Asians and Africans found their way on the side of one European power or the other. There was this sense of assertiveness about European culture that advanced with Europe's trade, religious, and military forces.— Molefi Asante, "De-Westernizing Communication: Strategies for Neutralizing Cultural Myths"
As an ideology and political movement, Afrocentrism had its beginnings in activism among black intellectuals, political figures, and historians in the context of the US American civil rights movement.[page needed] According to U.S. professor Victor Oguejiofor Okafor, concepts of Afrocentricity lie at the core of disciplines such as African American studies. But Wilson J. Moses claims that Afrocentrism roots are not exclusively African:
Despite the fulminations of ethno-chauvinists and other prejudiced persons, it remains a fact that the contributions of white scholars, like Boas, Malinowski, and Herskovits, were fundamental to that complex of ideas that we designate to days as Afrocentrism...Students of African and African American history have long appreciated the irony that much of what we now call Afrocentrism was developed during the 1930s by the Jewish American scholar Melville Herskovits— Wilson J. Moses, Historical Sketches of Afrocentrism
In 1987, Martin Bernal published his Black Athena, in which he claims that ancient Greece was colonized by northern invaders mixing with a colony established by Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). A major theme of the work is the alleged denial by Western academia of the African and (western) Asiatic influence on ancient Greek culture.
Main article: Afrocentricity (book)
In 2000, African American Studies professor Molefi Kete Asante, gave a lecture entitled "Afrocentricity: Toward a New Understanding of African Thought in this Millennium," in which he presented many of his ideas:
Asante also stated:
As a cultural configuration, the Afrocentric idea is distinguished by five characteristics:
- an intense interest in psychological location as determined by symbols, motifs, rituals, and signs.
- 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.
- a defence of African cultural elements as historically valid in the context of art, music, and literature.
- a celebration of centeredness and agency and a commitment to lexical refinement that eliminates pejoratives about Africans or other people.
- a powerful imperative from historical sources to revise the collective text of African people.
However, Wilson J. Moses, said of Asante: "His second book, The Afrocentric Idea (1987), was a creative and in some respects brilliant but rambling theoretical work, much influenced by the revolution in "critical theory" that occurred in American intellectual life during the late 1970s and early 1980s." Some also assert that the definition of Afrocentricity has never sat still long enough to be properly described and accurately critiqued.
Main article: Afrocentric education
Afrocentric education is education designed to empower peoples of the African diaspora. A central premise behind it is that many Africans have been subjugated by limiting their awareness of themselves and indoctrinating them with ideas that work against them. To control a people's culture is to control their tools of self-determination in relationship to others. Like educational leaders of other cultures, proponents assert that what educates one group of people does not necessarily educate and empower another group–so they assert educational priorities distinctly for the Africans in a given context.
The black church in the United States developed out of the creolization of African spirituality and European-American Christianity; early members of the churches made certain stories their own. During the antebellum years, the idea of deliverance out of slavery, as in the story of Exodus, was especially important. After Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy, their hope was based on deliverance from segregation and other abuses. They found much to respond to in the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, and shaped their churches by the growth of music and worship styles that related to African as well as European-American traditions.
Twentieth-century "Africentric approaches" to Christian theology and preaching have been more deliberate. Writers and thinkers emphasize "Black presence" in the Christian Bible, including the idea of a "Black Jesus".[page needed]
In 1966 Maulana Karenga of the black separatist US Organization created Kwanzaa; which became the first specifically African American holiday to be widely observed amongst African Americans. Karenga rejected liberation theology and considered the practice of Christianity anti-thetical to the creation of an African-American identity independent from white America. Karenga said his goal was to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
Many Afrocentrists[who?] seek to challenge concepts such as white privilege, color-blind perspectives, and race-neutral pedagogies. There are strong ties between Afrocentricity and Critical race theory.
Afrocentrists agree with the current scientific consensus that holds that Africans exhibit a range of types and physical characteristics, and that such elements as wavy hair or aquiline facial features are part of a continuum of African types that do not depend on admixture with Caucasian groups. They cite work by Hiernaux[page needed] and Hassan that they believe demonstrates that populations could vary based on micro-evolutionary principles (climate adaptation, drift, selection), and that such variations existed in both living and fossil Africans.
Afrocentrists have condemned what they consider to be attempts at dividing African peoples into racial clusters as new versions of discredited theories, such as the Hamitic hypothesis and the Dynastic Race Theory. These theories, they contend, attempted to identify certain African ethnicities, such as Nubians, Ethiopians and Somalis, as "Caucasoid" groups that entered Africa to bring civilization to the natives. They believe that Western academics have traditionally limited the peoples they defined as "Black" Africans to those south of the Sahara, but used broader "Caucasoid" or related categories to classify peoples of Egypt or North Africa. Afrocentrists also believe strongly in the work of certain anthropologists who have suggested that there is little evidence to support that the first North African populations were closely related to "Caucasoids" of Europe and western Asia.
In 1964 Afrocentric scholar Cheikh Anta Diop expressed a belief in such a double standard:
But it is only the most gratuitous theory that considers the Dinka, the Nouer and the Masai, among others, to be Caucasoids. What if an African ethnologist were to persist in recognising as white only the blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians, and systematically refused membership to the remaining Europeans, and Mediterraneans in particular—the French, Italians, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese? Just as the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries must be considered as two extreme poles of the same anthropological reality, so should the Negroes of East and West Africa be considered as the two extremes in the reality of the Negro world. To say that a Shillouk, a Dinka, or a Nouer is a Caucasoid is for an African as devoid of sense and scientific interest as would be, to a European, an attitude that maintained that a Greek or a Latin were not of the same race.
French historian Jean Vercoutter has claimed that archaeological workers routinely classified Negroid remains as Mediterranean, even though they found such remains in substantial numbers with ancient artefacts.
Some Afrocentrists[who?] have adopted a pan-Africanist perspective that people of color are all "African people" or "diasporic Africans," citing physical characteristics they exhibit in common with Black Africans. Afrocentric scholar Runoko Rashidi writes that they are all part of the "global African community." Some Afrocentric writers include in the African diaspora the Dravidians of India, "Negritos" of Southeast Asia (Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia); and the aboriginal peoples of Australia and Melanesia.
A few Afrocentrists[who?] claim that the Olmecs of Mexico were a hybrid society of Native American peoples and Africans. Mainstream historians of Mesoamerica overwhelmingly reject that view with detailed rebuttals.
Main article: Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories
In the 1970s, Ivan van Sertima advanced the theory that the complex civilizations of the Americas were the result of trans-oceanic influence from the Egyptians or other African civilizations. Such a claim is his primary thesis in They Came Before Columbus, published in 1978. The few hyper-diffusionist writers seek to establish that the Olmec people, who built the first highly complex civilization in Mesoamerica and are considered by some to be the mother civilization for all other civilizations of Mesoamerica, were deeply influenced by Africans. Van Sertima said that the Olmec civilization was a hybrid one of Africans and Native Americans. His theory of pre-Columbian American-African contact has since met with considerable and detailed opposition by scholars of Mesoamerica. Van Sertima has been accused of "doctoring" and twisting data to fit his conclusions, inventing evidence, and ignoring the work of respected Central and South American scholars in the advance of his own theory.
Main article: Ancient Egyptian race controversy
Several Afrocentrists have claimed that important cultural characteristics of ancient Egypt were indigenous to Africa and that these features were present in other early African civilizations such as the later Kerma and the Meroitic civilizations of Nubia. Scholars who have held this view include Marcus Garvey, George James, Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal, Ivan van Sertima, John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams, and Molefi Kete Asante. The claim has also been made by many Afrocentric scholars that the Ancient Egyptians themselves were Black African (sub-saharan African) rather than North African/Maghrebi, and that the various invasions on Egypt resulted in the Africanity of Ancient Egypt becoming diluted, resulting in the modern diversity seen today.[page needed]
Stephen Howe, professor in the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University, writes that contrary to "Afrocentric speculation, depending on undocumented assertions that the relatively light-skinned people of the lower Nile today descend from Arab conquerors rather than earlier residents", the last major synthetic work on African populations confirmed that Arabs didn't physically displace Egyptians, but helped create a wider ethnic identity through the dissemination of relatively small numbers of immigrants.
Scholars have challenged the various assertions of Afrocentrists on the cultural and biological characteristics of Ancient Egyptian civilization and its people. At a UNESCO Symposium in the 1970s, the vast majority of the delegates repudiated the Afrocentric assertions. Zahi Hawass has gone on record as saying that the Ancient Egyptians were not black and Ancient Egypt was not a Black African Civilization. Despite contestations, UNESCO decided to include his "Origin of the ancient Egyptians" in the General History of Africa, with an editorial comment mentioning the disagreement. The ancient world did not employ racial categories such as "Black" or "White" as they had no conception of "race", but rather labeled groups according to their land of origin and cultural traits. However, S. O. Y. Keita, a biological anthropologist studying the controversy, finds simplistic political appellations (in the negative or affirmative) describing ancient populations as "black" or "white" to be inaccurate and instead focuses on the ancestry of ancient Egypt as being a part of the native and diverse biological variation of Africa, which includes a variety of phenotypes and skin gradients. Responding to Hawass' assertion in the press that Egyptians were not Black or that Egypt was not an African civilization, Keita claims that Hawass' statement obscures the reality of research in the Nile valley that paints a very complex picture and that most people familiar with this research would not get up in front of a group to make such a claim so openly.[verification needed]
African-Americans who use the Black Egyptian hypothesis as a source of black pride have been called "the hoteps" (after the Egyptian word hotep). The term has often been used disparagingly by non-hotep African-Americans, some of whom have linked the ideology of the hotep community – which is anti-feminist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic – to the far-right.
Stephen Howe summarizes the development of the Hamitic hypothesis in the 19th and 20th centuries as Eurocentric. He further describes how some Afrocentric writers adopted 'their version' of it. Howe distinguishes three clusters of controversies related to the history of Ancient Egypt. About the third cluster he says that these are "controversies that have been especially salient in relation to the United States, have interacted heavily with sensitive issues of current public policy, and involve questions both wide and fundamentally about the United States."[page needed]
Within Afrocentrism, claims were forwarded involving the contention that African civilizations were founding influences on such distant civilizations as the American Olmec and the Chinese Xia cultures.
Yaacov Shavit, a critic of the movement, summarises its goals in the preface to his book History in Black, in which he states:
Thus, if historical myths and legends, or an invented history, play such a major role in the founding of every national reconstruction, the question that should concern us here is the nature of the distinct style in which black Americans imagine their past. The answer to this question is that radical Afrocentrism, the subject of this study, which plays a central role in shaping the modern historical world-view of a large section of the African-American (or Afro-American) community, is far more than an effort to follow the line taken by many ethnic groups and nations in modern rewriting, inventing or developing collective identity and national history. Rather, it is a large-scale historical project to rewrite the history of the whole of humankind from an Afrocentric point of view. The result is a new reconstruction of world history: it is a universal history.
Other critics[who?] contend that some Afrocentric historical research is grounded in identity politics and myth rather than scholarship.[page needed] In The Skeptic's Dictionary, philosophy professor Robert Todd Carroll labeled Afrocentrism "pseudohistorical". He argued that Afrocentrism's prime goal was to encourage black nationalism and ethnic pride in order to effectively combat the destructive consequences of cultural and universal racism.[page needed] Professor of history Clarence E. Walker has described Afrocentrism as "a mythology that is racist, reactionary, essentially therapeutic and is eurocentrism in black face."
Classicist Mary Lefkowitz rejects George James's theories about Egyptian contributions to Greek civilization as being faulty scholarship. She writes that ancient Egyptian texts show little similarity to Greek philosophy. Lefkowitz states that Aristotle could not have stolen his ideas from the great Library at Alexandria as James suggested, because the library was founded after Aristotle's death. On the basis of such errors, Lefkowitz calls Afrocentrism "an excuse to teach myth as history."
In 1994, the Manhattan Institute, a public policy forum, published Alternatives to Afrocentrism, a collection of highly critical essays by, among others, Lefkowitz, Gerald Early, Stanley Crouch, Wilson Moses, and Frank Yurco. Early, an African American, has been especially critical and dismisses Afrocentrism as just another North American experiment in "group therapy," a kind of "intellectual fast food".
In 2002, Ibrahim Sundiata wrote in the American Historical Review that:
The word "Afrocentric" has been traced by Derrick Alridge to the American historian W.E.B. Du Bois, who employed it in the early 1960s. During the 1970s, Molefi Kete Asante appropriated the term, insisting that he was the only person equipped to define it, and asserting that even the holy archangels Du Bois and Cheikh Anta Diop had an imperfect and immature grasp of a concept that finds ultimate expression in his own pontifications. Subsequently, it became a catchall "floating signifier," nebulous, unstable, and infinitely mutable.
Literature and languages scholar Cain Hope Felder, a supporter of Afrocentric ideas, has warned Afrocentrists to avoid certain pitfalls, including:
Nathan Glazer writes that although Afrocentricity can mean many things, the popular press has generally given most attention to its most outlandish theories. Glazer agrees with many of the findings and conclusions presented in Lefkowitz's book Not Out of Africa. Yet he also argues that Afrocentrism often presents legitimate and relevant scholarship. The late Manning Marable was also a critic of Afrocentrism. He wrote:
Populist Afrocentrism was the perfect social theory for the upwardly mobile black petty bourgeoisie. It gave them a sense of ethnic superiority and cultural originality, without requiring the hard, critical study of historical realities. It provided a philosophical blueprint to avoid concrete struggle within the real world.... It was, in short, only the latest theoretical construct of a politics of racial identity, a world-view designed to discuss the world but never really to change it.
Some Afrocentrists[who?] agree in rejecting those works which critics have characterized as examples of bad scholarship. Adisa A. Alkebulan states that the work of Afrocentric scholars is not fully appreciated because critics use the claims of "a few non-Afrocentrists" as "an indictment against Afrocentricity."
In 1996, the historian August Meier critically reviewed the new work of Mary Lefkowitz on Afrocentrism as "Eurocentric". He criticized her book Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History for what he saw as her neglect of the African-American historic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Meier believes she fails to take the African-American experiences into account, to the extent that she "fails to answer the question raised in this book's subtitle".
Maghan Keita describes the controversy over Afrocentrism as a cultural war. He believes certain "epistemologies" are warring with each other: the "epistemology of blackness" argues for the "responsibilities and potential of black peoples to function in and contribute to the progress of civilization."