Afrocentrism (also Afrocentricity) is a cultural ideology, worldview mostly limited to the United States and is dedicated to the history of Black people. It is a response to global (Eurocentric/Orientalist) racist attitudes about African people and their historical contributions and revisits their history with an African cultural and ideological focus. Afrocentricity deals primarily with self-determination and African agency and is a Pan-African ideology in culture, philosophy, and history.
Afrocentrism can be seen as an African-American inspired ideology that manifests an affirmation of themselves in a Eurocentric-dominated society, commonly by conceptualizing a glorified heritage in terms of distinctly African, foreign origins (where foreign is anything not indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa). It often denies or minimizes European cultural influences while accenting historical African civilizations that independently accomplished a significant level of cultural and technological development. In general, Afrocentrism is usually manifested in a focus on African-American culture and the history of Africa, and involves an African Diaspora version of an African-centered view of history and culture to portray the achievements and development of Africans who have been marginalized by other races of people (usually Arabs and whites).
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. In strict terms Afrocentrism, as a distinct academic ideology, reached its peak in the 80's and 90's. Today it is primarily associated with its advocate Molefi Asante.
Proponents of Afrocentrism support the claim that the contributions of various African people have been downplayed or discredited as part of the legacy of colonialism and slavery's pathology of "writing Africans out of history" Critics of Afrocentricity accuse it of pseudo-history, reactionary, and therapy.
The term "Afrocentrism" dates to 1961 or 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).
History of Afrocentrism
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.
— Dr. 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. 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 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.
Afrocentrics have been accused of regularly denying, mitigating, or outright ignoring, or reinterprets certain negative aspects of Africans; most notably the selling of African slaves by other Africans to the Europeans, the Rwandan Genocide, and the ongoing struggles against rape and violence in many African nations today, generally placing blame for these atrocities directly or indirectly on the Europeans and Arabs, and denying any serious culpability on part of Africans. Some observe that this trend is not unique to Afrocentrics but many national or ethnocentric-based ideologies.
Aspects of Afrocentrism
In 2000, Molefi Kete Asante, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University gave a lecture at the University of Liverpool entitled "Afrocentricity: Toward a New Understanding of African Thought in this Millennium," in which he presented many of his ideas:
- Africa has been betrayed by international commerce, by missionaries and imams, by the structure of knowledge imposed by the Western world, by its own leaders, and by the ignorance of its own people of its past.
- Philosophy originated in Africa and the first philosophers in the world were Africans.
- Afrocentricity constitutes a new way of examining data, and a novel orientation to data; it carries with it assumptions about the current state of the African world.
- His aim is "to help lay out a plan for the recovery of African place, respectability, accountability, and leadership."
- Afrocentricity can stand its ground among any ideology or religion:Marxism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or Judaism. Your Afrocentricity will emerge in the presence of these other ideologies because it is from you.
- Afrocentrism is the only ideology that can liberate African people.
Asante also stated:
|“||As a cultural configuration, the Afrocentric idea is distinguished by five characteristics:
However, Wilson J. Moses, says "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.
Afrocentricity and African-Centered share similar roots, and objectives, but are very different because African-centered only refers to the worldview inherent in African people (African and centered); which is natural and evident in all cultures. It therefore deals with cultural pedagogy, but is different from Afrocentrism which is an ideology, not only a worldview. The premise behind African-Centered Education is the notion that human beings can be subjugated and made servile by limiting their consciousness of themselves and by imposing certain selective aspects of alien knowledge on them.
The term "mis-education" was coined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to describe the process of systematically depriving African Americans of their knowledge of self. Dr. Woodson believed that mis-education was the root of the problems of the masses of the African-American community and that if the masses of the African American-community had been given the correct knowledge and education from the beginning, they would not be in the situation that they find themselves in today.
The problem concerning formal education is seen by Afrocentrists to be that African-American students are taught to perceive the world through the eyes of another culture, and unconsciously learn to see themselves as an insignificant part of their world. An Afrocentric education does not wish to isolate Africans from a Eurocentric education system. It wishes to assert the autonomy of Africans and encompass the cultural uniqueness of all learners. A school based on African values, eliminates the patterns of rejection and alienation that engulf so many African-American school children, especially males.
The movement for African-centered education is based on the assumption that a school immersed in African traditions, rituals, values, and symbols will provide a learning environment that is more congruent with the lifestyles and values of African-American families. People who disagree with this point of view note the achievements of many African Americans educated according to contemporary United States and European standards, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and other intellectuals of the early 20th century, as well as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others of the later 20th and 21st century.
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".
In 1966 Maulana Karenga of the US Organization created Kwanzaa as the first specifically African American holiday. 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."
Race and Pan-African identity
Afrocentricity contends that race exists primarily as a social and political construct – that is, that race is important because of its cultural rather than its biological significance.[dubious ] Many Afrocentrists 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 hold 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 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 what they deem older, 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 North African populations are 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 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 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.
Some critics of Afrocentrism note that the Afrocentric designation of Southeast Asians and Melanesians as "African diaspora" is made without reference to the self-identities of the peoples in question. They may not identify themselves as African, as they have tens of thousands of years of history in the places where they live, like people of Papa New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In the largest sense, all humans are descended from ancestors in Africa but cultures and civilizations have aisen around the world that distinguish themselves as separate. Anthropologists note that modern man is the product of evolution of populations in many different areas of the globe after the migrations out of Africa.
Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas 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.
Afrocentrism and Ancient Egypt
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 or Africoid people and that the various invasions on Egypt resulted in the Africanity of Ancient Egypt becoming diluted, resulting in the modern diversity seen today.
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. It should also be noted that Egyptians themselves did not refer to themselves as 'Black' as they had no conception of 'race'. S.O.Y. Keita, a biological anthropologist studying the controversy however, 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. Recent DNA studies have results indicate these ancient individuals such as the Amarna mummies inherited some alleles that today are more frequent in populations of Africa than in other parts of the world
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."
Criticism of Afrocentrism
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.
|“||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 contend that some Afrocentric historical research is grounded in identity politics and myth rather than scholarship. 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. Similarly, African-American professor Clarence E. Walker, who teaches history at the University of California, Davis, has described Afrocentrism as "a mythology that is racist, reactionary, essentially therapeutic and is eurocentrism in black face."
Mary Lefkowitz, Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, has rejected George James's theories about Egyptian contributions to Greek civilization as being faulty scholarship. She notes that he used sources that predated the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. He failed to acknowledge that many of his theories were overturned by the evidence of later findings. She contends that ancient Egyptian texts show little similarity to Greek philosophy. Lefkowitz also pointed out 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. Because of such fundamental errors of fact, Lefkowitz has criticized Afrocentrism as "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 noted 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.||”|
- Demonizing categorically all white people, without careful differentiation between persons of goodwill and those who consciously perpetuate racism.
- Adopting multiculturalism as a curricular alternative that eliminates, marginalizes, or vilifies European heritage to the point that Europe epitomizes all the evil in the world.
- Gross over-generalizations and using factually or incorrect material is bad history and bad scholarship.
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. Similarly, Owen Alik Shahadah defends the historical need for the Afrocentric world view while also warning that "Continually viewing history through a modern racial lens distorts the historical timeline and creates academic anachronism." 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.
— Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: Transforming African American Politics
Some Afrocentrists agree in rejecting those works which critics have characterized as examples of bad scholarship. Adisa A. Alkebulan notes 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."
Eugene D. Genovese, in his work The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War, states that the decadence within American society is not only the consequence of modern liberalism but its actual agenda, and that the cultural elites who control American campuses mean to destroy Western civilization (p. 132). Genovese attempts to demonstrate mistreatment of things and thoughts Southern by America’s cultural elite, and he links this to a concerted culture war.
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- Robert Todd Carroll (2003), The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, New York: John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-27242-6 (paperback).
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- The Case Against Afrocentrism - Tunde Adeleke - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. 2009-09-18. Retrieved 2012-08-21.
- Ibrahim Sundiata, "The Argument We Are Really Having", American Historical Review, (1996).
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- The Removal of Agency from Africa by Owen 'Alik Shahadah.
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- August Meier, "Review: Mary Lefkowitz, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History", Journal of American History, December 1996.
- Maghan Keita, Race and the Writing of History: Riddling the Sphinx, p. 7.
- Eugene D. Genovese, 'The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War, Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1995. – see review at Findarticles.com.
- Ani, Marimba (1994). Yurugu: An African-centered Critique of European Thought and Behavior. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press. ISBN 0-86543-248-1.
- Asante, Molefi Kete (1988). Afrocentricity (rev. ed.). Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press. ISBN 0-86543-067-5.
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- Houston, Drusilla Dunjee (1926). Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire. Oklahoma: Universal Publishing Company. online copy
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- Bailey, Randall C. (editor) (2003). Yet with a steady beat: contemporary U.S. Afrocentric biblical interpretation. Society of Biblical Literature.
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- Binder, Amy J. (2002). Contentious curricula: Afrocentrism and creationism in American public schools. Princeton University Press.
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- Henke, Holger and Fred Reno (editors) (2003). Modern political culture in the Caribbean. University of the West Indies Press.
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- Konstan, David. "Inventing Ancient Greece: [Review article]", History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 2. (May, 1997), pp. 261–269.
- Lefkowitz, Mary (1996). History Lesson: A Race Odyssey. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-12659-X.
- Lefkowitz, Mary (1996). Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-09837-1.
- Lefkowitz, Mary R. and Guy MacLean Rogers (editors) (1996). Black Athena Revisited. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-4555-8.
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- Afrocentricity by Molefi Kete Asante, asante.net
- Afrocentrism | A Dying Pseudohistory or an Asset?
- "The Afrocentric Hustle" Stanley Crouch comments on the emergence of Afrocentric thought in the African American community.
- 'Were the Ancient Egyptians Black or White' Biblical Archaeology Review for September– October, 1989. Frank Joseph Yurco's perspective on the race controversy of the ancient Egyptians.
- Afrocentrism: The Argument We're Really Having by Ibrahim Sundiata
- Building Bridges to Afrocentrism by Ann Macy Roth, for the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center
- Safari Scholarship Reinvents History by Ilana Mercer
- Afrocentric websites