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Dr. Molefi Kete Asante On Afrocentricity, f. Toward the African Renaissance: A New Africa

By RBG Street Scholar on September 27, 2009

by: Molefi Kete Asante

Text re-post from:http://www.worldagesarchive.com/Reference_Links/Afrocentricity.htm

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante On Afrocentricity, f. Toward the African Renaissance: A New Africa

Is an intellectual perspective deriving its name from the centrality of African people and phenomena in the interpretation of data. Maulana Karenga, a major figure in the Afrocentric Movement, says, “It is a quality of thought that is rooted in the cultural image and human interest of African people.” The Afrocentric school was founded by Molefi Kete Asante in the late 20th century with the launching of the book, Afrocentricity, in which theory and practice were merged as necessary elements in a rise to consciousness. Among the early influences were Kariamu Welsh, Abu Abarry, C.T. Keto, Linda James Myers, J. A. Sofola, and others. Afrocentricity examined some of the same issues that confronted a group calling themselves the Black Psychologists, who argued along lines established by Bobby Wright, Amos Wilson, Na’im Akbar, Kobi Kambon, Wade Nobles, Patricia Newton, and several others. African American scholars trained in political science and sociology, such as Leonard Jeffries, Tony Martin, Vivian Gordon, Kwame Nantambu, Barbara Wheeler, James Turner, and Charshee McIntyre, were greatly influenced by the works of Yosef Ben-Jochannon and John Henrik Clarke and had already begun the process of seeking a non-European way to conceptualize the African experience prior to the development of Afrocentric theory.

On the other hand, Afrocentricity finds its inspirational source in the Kawaida philosophy’s long-standing concern that the cultural crisis is a defining characteristic of 20th century African reality in the diaspora just as the nationality crisis is the principal issue on the African continent. (Developed by Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Kawaida is defined briefly as “an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.”) Afrocentricity sought to address these crises by repositioning the African person and African reality from the margins of European thought, attitude, and doctrines to a centered, therefore positively located, place within the realm of science and culture. Afrocentricity finds its grounding in the intellectual and activist precursors who first suggested culture as a critical corrective to a displaced agency among Africans. Recognizing that Africans in the diaspora had been deliberately deculturalized and made to accept the conqueror’s codes of conduct and modes of behavior, the Afrocentrist discovered that the interpretative and theoretical grounds had also been moved. Thus, synthesizing the best of Alexander Crummel, Martin Robinson Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Larry Neal, Carter G. Woodson, Willie Abraham, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Cheikh Anta Diop, and W. E. B. Du Bois in his later writings, Afrocentricity projects an innovation in criticism and interpretation. It is therefore in some sense a paradigm, a framework, and a dynamic. However, it is not a worldview and should not be confused with Africanity, which is essentially the way African people, any African people, live according to the customs, traditions, and mores of their society. One can be born in Africa, follow African styles and modes of living, and practice an African religion and not be Afrocentric. To be Afrocentric one has to have a self-conscious awareness of the need for centering. Thus, those individuals who live in Africa and recognize the decentering of their minds because of European colonization may self-consciously choose to be demonstratively in tune with their own agency. If so, this becomes a revolutionary act of will that cannot be achieved merely by wearing African clothes or having an African name.


Among contemporaries the works of Karenga, Abarry, Nantambu, Chinweizu, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, J. A. Sofola, Ama Mazama, Aboubacry Moussa Lam, Terry Kershaw, Walter Rodney, Leachim Semaj, Danjuma Modupe, Errol Henderson, Runoko Rashidi, Charles Finch, Nah Dove, Marimba Ani, Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Theophile Obenga, and Oba T’shaka have been inspiring in defining the nature of the principal Afrocentric school of thought. The principal motive behind their intellectual works seems to have been the use of knowledge for the cultural, social, political, and economic transformation of African people by suggesting the necessity for a recentering of African minds, in a way that brings about a liberating consciousness. Indeed, Afrocentricity contends that there could be no social or economic struggle that would make sense if African people remained enamored of the philosophical and intellectual positions of white hegemonic nationalism as it relates to Africa and African people. At base, therefore, the work of the Afrocentric school of thought is a political one in the sense that all social knowledge has a political purpose. No one constructs or writes about repositioning and recentering merely for the sake of self-indulgence; none could afford to do so because the African dispossession appears so great and the displacing myths so pervasive that simply to watch the process of African peripheralization without taking any correction action is to acquiesce in African decentering.

The Afrocentrist contends that passion can never be a substitute for argument as argument should not be a substitute for passion. Afrocentric intellectuals may disagree over the finer points of interpretation and some facts, but the overall project of relocation and reorientation of African action and data has been the rational constant in all Afrocentric work. Interest in African people is not sufficient for one’s work to be called Afrocentric. Indeed, Afrocentricity is not merely the discussion of African and African American issues, history, politics, or consciousness; any one may discuss these issues and yet not be an Afrocentrist. Further, it is not a perspective based on skin color or biology and should not be confused with melanist theories, which existed before the Afrocentricity and whose emphasis tends to be on biological determinism. Modupe of Hunter College has posited agency, centeredness, psychic integrity, and cultural fidelity as the minimum four theoretical constructs that are necessary for a work to be called Afrocentric.

Thus, what is clear is that neither a discussion of the Nile Valley civilizations or of developing economic productivity in African American communities, nor an argument against white racial hierarchy, is sufficient for a discourse to be considered Afrocentric. Operations that involve the Afrocentric framework, identified by the four theoretical constructs put forward by Modupe, represent an Afrocentric methodology. As in every other case, the presentation of theory and methodological considerations implies avenues for criticism. Those criticizing Afrocentricity have been taken more seriously when the criticism has been derived from the definitions established by the proponents of Afrocentricity themselves. At other times criticism has devolved into low-level intellectual sniping at points considered irrelevant by most Afrocentrists. For example, the debate over extraneous issues such as whether Aristotle or Cleopatra were black has nothing at all do with Afrocentricity. What is more relevant for the Afrocentrist is the question, “What is the location of the person asking such questions or the location of the person needing to answer them?”


Although a number of writers and community activists growing out of the Black Power Movement had increasingly seen the need for a response to marginality, Afrocentricity did not emerge as a critical theory and a literary practice until the appearance of two small books by the Amulefi Publishing Company in Buffalo, New York. The press published Welsh’s Textured Women, Cowrie Shells, Cowbells, and Beetlesticks in 1978 and Molefi Kete Asante’s book Afrocentricity in 1980. These were the first self-conscious markings along the intellectual path of Afrocentricity, that is, where the authors, using their own activism and community organizing, consciously set out to explain a theory and a practice of social and economic liberation by reinvesting African agency as the fundamental core of African sanity. Welsh’s book was a literary practice growing out of her choreographic method/technique, umfundalai, which had been projected in her dances at the Center for Positive Thought, which she directed. On the other hand, the book Afrocentricity was the first time that the theory of Afrocentricity had been launched as an intellectual idea. The book was written from observations and textual analyses of what intellectual activists such as Welsh, Karenga, and Haki Madhubuti were doing with social transformation in community organizations. Rather than use political organization for the sake of organization, they had articulated a cultural base for the organizing principle. This had a more telling effect on and a more compelling attraction for African people. Based in the lived experiences of African people in the diaspora and the African continent, the Afrocentric idea had to be concerned with nothing less than the relocation of subject-place in the African world after hundreds of years of living on the imposed and ungrounded terms of Europe.

Unlike the Négritude Movement, to which the Afrocentric Movement is often compared, Afrocentricity has not been limited to asking artistic questions. Indeed the cultural question as constructed by the Afrocentrists involves not only literature, art, music, and dance, but the entire process by which Africans are socialized to live in the modern world. Thus, economics is a cultural question as much as religion and science in the construction of the Afrocentrists. This is why Afrocentrists tend to pose three sets of questions: How do we see ourselves and how have others seen us? What can we do to regain our own accountability and to move beyond the intellectual and cultural plantation that constrains our economic, political, and scientific development? What allied theories and methods may be used to rescue those African ideas and ideals that are marginalized by Europe and thus in the African’s mind as well? These have become the crucial questions that have aggravated our social and political worlds and agitated the brains of the Afrocentrists.


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; (2) a commitment to finding the subject-place of Africans in any social, political, economic, architectural, literary, or religious phenomenon with implications for questions of sex, gender, and class; (3) a defense of African cultural elements as historically valid in the context of art, music, education, science and literature; (4) a celebration of centeredness and agency and a commitment to lexical refinement that eliminates pejoratives about Africans or other people; (5) a powerful imperative from historical sources to revise the collective text of African people. Essentially, these have remained the principal features of the Afrocentric theory since its inception in the late 1970s. While numerous writers have augmented the central tendency of the Afrocentric theory, it has remained concerned with resolving the cultural crisis as a way of achieving economic, political, and social liberation. A group of thinkers, including Mazama, Abarry, Modupe, Asante, Aisha Blackshire-Relay, Kariamu Welsh-Asante, Clenora Hudson-Weems, Miriam Maat Ka Re Monges, Katherine Bankole, Cynthia Lehman, Ayi Kwei Armah, Terry Kershaw, Clovis Semmes, Nilgun Anadolu Okur, C. T. Keto, and their students located the terms of Afrocentricity in the vital areas of linguistic, historical, sociological, and dramatic interpretations of phenomena. This tendency has been called the Temple Circle of Afrocentricity. For example, Abarry has examined orature and libation oratory in African cultural history in connective ways, thus avoiding the disconnected discourses usually found concerning Africa. Others, such as Mekada Graham and Jerome Schiele, have concentrated on the social transformative aspects of centrality, believing that it is possible to change the conditions of the socially marginalized by teaching them to see their own centrality and thus empower themselves to confront their existential and material situations.

Afrocentrists believe that there is a serious difference between commentary on the activities of Europeans, past and present, and the revolutionary thrust of gaining empowerment through the reorientation of African interests. There is no rush to discover in Europe the answers for the problems that Europe created for the African condition, psychologically, morally, and economically. Afrocentrists do not shun answers that may emerge in the study of Europe, but what Europeans have thought and how Europeans have conceived their reality all too often lead to further imprisonment of the African mind. Thus, Afrocentrists call for the liberation of the mind from any notion that Europe is teacher and Africa is pupil; one must contest every space and locate in that space the freedom for Africa to express its own truths. This is not a biologically determined position, it is a culturally and theoretically determined one. That is why there are now Afrocentrists who are European and Asian while simultaneously one can find Africans who are not Afrocentric. The new work on Du Bois by the Chinese Afrocentrist Ji Yuan, and the work of Lehman on the Egyptian texts are examples of non-Africans exploring the various dimensions of centeredness in their analyses of African phenomena. It is consciousness, not biology, that decides how one is to apprehend the intellectual data, because the key to the Afrocentric idea is orientation to data, not data themselves. Where do you stand when you seek to locate, that is, interrogate, a text, phenomenon, or person?


The rise of the Afrocentric idea has coincided at a time when Eurocentric scholars seemed to have lost their way in a dense forest of deconstructionist and postmodernist concepts that are challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of the Eurocentric paradigm. Perhaps because of this we have found a deluge of challenges to the Afrocentric idea as a reaction to postmodernity. But it should be clear that the Afrocentrists, too, have recognized the inherent problems in structuralism, patriarchy, capitalism, and Marxism with their emphasis on received interpretations of phenomena as different as the welfare state and the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Yet the issues of objectivity and subject-object duality, central pieces of the Eurocentric project in interpretation, have been shown to represent hierarchies rooted in the European construction of the political world.

Afrocentrists claim that the aim of the objectivity argument is always to protect the status quo because the status quo is never called upon to prove its objectivity; only the challengers to the status quo are asked to explain their objectivity. In a society where white supremacy has been a major component of the social, cultural, and political culture, the African will always be in the position of challenging the white racial privileged status quo, unless, of course, he or she is co-opted into defending the economic, literary, critical, political, social, or cultural status quo. In each case the person will be defending the reality created by Eurocentrists.

It is the subversion of that configuration that is necessary to establish a level playing field. But to claim that those who take the speaker or the subject position vis- ‹-vis others counted as audiences and objects are on the same footing as these others is to engage in intellectual subterfuge without precedent. On the other hand, it is possible, as the Afrocentrists claim, to create community when one speaks of subject-subject, speaker-speaker, audience-audience relationships. This allows pluralism without hierarchy. As applied to race and racism, this formulation is equally clear in its emphasis on subject-subject relationships. Of course, this subject-subject relationship is almost impossible in a racist system, or in the benign acceptance of a racist construction of human relationships as may be found in the American society.

White supremacy cannot be accommodated in a normal society, and therefore when a writer or scholar or politician refuses to recognize or ignores the African’s agency, he or she allows for the default position, white supremacy, to operate without challenge and thus participates in a destructive mode for human personality. If African people are not given subject place, then we remain objects without agency, intellectual beggars without a place to stand. There is nothing essentially different between this enslavement and the previous historical enslavement except our inability to recognize the bondage. Thus, you have a white-subject and black-object relationship expressed in sociology, anthropology, philosophy, political science, literature, and history rather than a subject-subject reality. It is this marginality that is rejected in the writings of Afrocentrists.


The late Cheikh Anta Diop did more than anyone else to reintroduce the African as a subject in the context of African history and culture. It was Diop’s singular ambition as a scholar to reorder the history of Africa and to reposition the African in the center of her own story. This was a major advance during the time when so many African writers and scholars were rushing after Europe to prove Europe’s own point of view about the rest of the world. Diop was confident that the history of Africa could not be written without throwing off the falsifications of Europe, falsifications that had justified the enslavement and colonization of Africans. Doing this was not only politically and professionally dangerous, but it was considered to be impossible, given the hundreds of years of accumulated information in the libraries of the West.

To begin with, Diop had to challenge the leading scholars of Europe, meet them in their intellectual home arena, defeat their arguments with science, and establish Africa’s own road to its history. The fact that Diop achieved his purpose has meant that the scholars who have declared themselves to be Afrocentrists have done so with the example of Diop marching before in splendor. His key contention was that the ancient Egyptians laid the basis of African and European civilization and that the ancient Egyptians were not Arabs or Europeans, but, as Diop would say “Black Africans,” to emphasize that there should be no mistake. These “Black Africans” of the Nile Valley gave the world astronomy, geometry, law, architecture, art, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. The ancient African Egyptian term seba, first found in an inscription on the tomb of Antef I from 2052 B.C.E., had as its core meaning in the Medu Neter, the “reasoning style of the people.” Beginning with Homer in 800 B.C.E., Greeks came to Egypt, Kemet, the Black Country, to study. Thus, Thales, Isocrates, Democritus, Eudoxus, Anaximander, Anaxigoras, Pythagoras, and many other Greek authors were students of the Africans during the 800 years before Jesus Christ.

What Diop taught his students and readers was that Europe pronounced itself the categorical superior culture, and therefore its reasoning often served the bureaucratic functions of “locking” Africans in a conceptual cocoon that seems, at first glance, harmless enough. Nevertheless, the prevailing positions, often anti-African, were supported by this bureaucratic logic. How can an African liberate himself or herself from these racist mental structures? Afrocentrists take the position that this is possible, and indeed, essential, but can happen only if we search for answers in the time-space categories that are antihegemonic. These are categories that place Africa at the center of analysis of African issues and African people as agents in our own contexts. Otherwise, how can we ever raise practical questions of improving our situation in the world? The Jews of the Old Testament asked, How can you sing a new song in a strange land? The Afrocentrists ask, How can the African create a liberational philosophy from the icons of mental enslavement?


There are certainly political implications here, because the issue of African politics throughout the world becomes one of securing a place from which to stand, unimpeded by the interventions of a decaying Europe that has lost its own moral way in its reach to enslave and dispossess other people. This is not to say that all of Europe is bad and all of Africa is good. To even think of or pose the issue in that manner is to miss the point I am making. For Africans and Native Americans, Europe has been dangerous; it is a 500-years’ dangerousness and I am not now speaking of physical or economic danger, though that history is severe enough, but of psychological and cultural danger, the danger that kills the soul of a people. One knows, I surmise, that a people’s soul is dead when it can no longer breathe its own air or speak its own language, and when the air of another culture seems to smell sweeter. Following Frantz Fanon, the Afrocentrists argue that it is the assimiladoes, the educated elite, whose identities and affiliations are often killed first. Fortunately, their death does not mean that the people are doomed; it only means that they can no longer be trusted to speak what the people know because they are dead to the culture, to the human project. Therefore, Afrocentricity stands as both a corrective and a critique. Whenever African people, who collectively suffer the experience of dislocation, are relocated in a centered place, that is, with agency and accountability, we have a corrective. By recentering the African person as an agent, we deny the hegemony of European domination in thought and behavior, and then Afrocentricity becomes a critique. On the one hand, we seek to correct the sense of place of the African, and on the other hand, we make a critique of the process and extent of the dislocation caused by the European cultural, economic, and political domination of Africa and African peoples. It is possible to make an exploration of this critical dimension by observing the way European writers have defined Africa and Africans in history, political science, anthropology, and sociology. To condone the definition of Africans as marginal and fringe people in the historical processes of the world, including the African world, is to abandon all hope of reversing the degradation of the oppressed. Thus, the aims of Afrocentricity as regards the cultural idea are not hegemonic. Afrocentrists have expressed no interest in one race or culture dominating another; they express an ardent belief in the possibility of diverse populations living on the same earth without giving up their fundamental traditions, except where those traditions invade other peoples’ space. This is precisely why the Afrocentric idea is essential to human harmony. The Afrocentric idea represents a possibility of intellectual maturity, a way of viewing reality that opens new doors toward human understanding. I do not object to viewing it as a form of historical consciousness, but more than that, it is an attitude, a location, an orientation. To be centered is to stand someplace and to come from someplace; the Afrocentrist seeks for the African person the contentment of subject, active, agent place.


Afrocentricity represents a reaction against several tendencies. It spurns the limited analysis of Africans in the Americas as Europeans as well as the notion that Africans in the Americas are not Africans. Rather it concentrates on what Modupe calls the condition-effects-alleviation complex and the global formation. Modupe contends that the communal cognitive will is activated by cultural fidelity to that will and that cultural fidelity to that will is also fidelity to Afrocentricity itself. He is one of the leading proponents of the view that Afrocentric consciousness is necessary for psychological liberation and cultural reclamation.

There are four areas of inquiry in Afrocentricity: cosmological, epistemological, axiological, and aesthetics. Accordingly, the Afrocentrist places all phenomena within one of these categories. Cosmological refers to the myths, legends, literatures, and oratures that interact at a mythological or primordial level with how African people respond to the cosmos. How are racial or cultural classifications developed? How do we distinguish between Yoruba and African Brazilian? How do gender, class, and culture interact at the intersection of science? The epistemological issues are those that deal with language, myth, dance, and music as they confront the question of knowledge and proof of truth. What is the rational structure of Ebonics as an African language, and how does it present itself in the African American’s behavior and culture? Axiology refers to the good and the beautiful as well as to the combination that gives us right conduct within the context of African culture. This is a value issue. Since Afrocentricity is a transgenerational and transcontinental idea, as understood by Winston Van Horne of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it utilizes aspects of the philosophies of numerous African cultures to arrive at its ideal. “Beauty is as beauty does” is considered an African American adage, but similar proverbs, statements, and sayings are found throughout the African world, where beauty and goodness are often equated. Aesthetics as an area of inquiry is closely related to the issue of value. Afrocentrists, however, have isolated, such as in the work of Welsh-Asante, seven senses of the Afrocentric approach to aesthetics: polyrhythm, dimensionality and texture, polycentrism, repetition, curvilinearity, epic memory, and wholism. Welsh-Asante contends that these elements are the leading aspects of any inquiry into African plastic art, sculpture, dance, music, and drama.

A number of Afrocentric scholars have delved into a discussion of ontology, the study of beingness, as another issue of inquiry. This should not be confused with the idea of personalism in the original Afrocentric construction of philosophical approaches to Afrocentric cultural theory (critical methodology) and Afrocentric methodology (interpretative methodology). In earlier writings on Afrocentricity, I contended that the European and Asian worlds might be considered materialistic and spiritualistic, whereas the dominant emphasis in the African world was personalism. This was not to limit any cultural sphere but to suggest the most prominent ways in which large cultural communities respond to their environments. Karenga has identified seven areas of culture. These cultural elements are frequently used by Afrocentrists as well as practitioners of Kawaida when conceptualizing areas of intellectual organization. They are history, mythology, motif, ethos, political organization, social organization, and economic organization. Used most often in the critical analysis of culture, these organizing principles are applied to the social, communication, historical, cultural, economic, political and psychological fields of study whenever a student wants to determine the relationship between culture and a given discipline.


Finally the Afrocentrists have determined that a new discipline, Africology, emerges from the various treatments of data frorn the Afrocentric perspective. Africology is defined as the Afrocentric study of African phenomena. It has three major divisions: cultural/aesthetics, social/behavioral, and policy/action. Under cultural/aesthetics the scholar can consider at a minimum three key epistemic, scientific, and artistic dimensions. In terms of epistemic dimensions, the Afrocentrist examines ethics, politics, psychology and other modes of behavior. The scientific dimensions include history, linguistics, economics, and other methods of investigation. The artistic dimension involves icons, art, motifs, symbols, and other types of presentation.


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