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Friday, July 15, 2011


Lest one imagine that the myth of darkest Africa survives only in movies and reprints of Victorian fiction, let me draw on the researches of Lawrence Levine. With a scholarly reserve of which I fear I am not capable, Levine gently chastises a number of contemporary historians for "an ungenerous defensiveness when the United States and Western civilization are compared to other cultures." Levine writes: "African cultures, [Arthur] Schlesinger tells us, are based on 'despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism.' The 'principal offerings' of 'Central African culture,' the philosopher Lewis S. Feuer wrote recently, have been 'disease and massacre.' Similarly, the celebrated historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in defense of what he termed 'Europa­centric' history, advised those undergraduates who were asking for courses in African history that 'there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely dark­ness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.'" It is difficult to imagine prominent scholars being so willing to exhibit their ignorance with such bland self-confidence on any other topic. It is as though, when it comes to the doings of Black people, one need not bother even to exercise an elementary precaution against making a fool of oneself.

A variant of the call for African Studies has been the proposal to establish programs that study what is called the African Diaspora. There are good historical and demographic grounds for taking the African Diaspora as a unit of study. As many as ninety percent of all the Africans seized and transported to the Western Hemisphere during the four centuries of the slave trade ended up in the Caribbean or Central and South America, not in the Northern Hemisphere. The actual volume of the slave trade has been difficult to pin down, with estimates ranging from ten to twenty-five million men, women and children forcibly transported to the New World, but there is widespread agreement that only a small fraction of the captives were brought to North America.

To be sure, there is a rather odd problem conceptually with the notion of African Diaspora studies. The best archaeological, paleontological, and genetic evidence has established decisively that the human species, homo sapiens sapiens, appeared in its current genetic form in Africa somewhere between one hundred and two hundred thousand years ago, and then spread by a series of migrations across the entire globe. Thus all human beings are members of a diaspora originating in Africa, the only ground for distinction being a matter of when in the hundred millennia of our existence a particular dispersal took place. By the way, Europeans seem to have migrated out of Africa rather later than the peoples of the American continents.

Strictly speaking, therefore, the entire university curriculum should be gathered under the rubric "African Diaspora." But in this, as in so much else concerning human beings, the social, the cultural, and the conceptual trump the merely physical or natural. When the Berkeley Department of African American Studies announced a doctoral program in African Diaspora Studies, it probably did not have in mind the writings of Confucius, the rise of Christianity, the economy of ancient India, or the varieties of pre-Columbian art.

But neither African Studies nor Studies of the African Diaspora is the appropriate locus for the telling of the true American story, because although each of them has contributed to that story, neither focuses on America.

A more plausible candidate is the school of Black Studies that goes by the label Afrocentricity. These are scholars, led by Temple University professor Molefi Asante, who claim to tell the story of African Americans, but from the perspective of Africa. For a good many years, Afrocentricity was the most influential [and the most controversial] of the intellectual enterprises that called themselves Black Studies or Afro-American Studies. Asante established the very first doctoral program in Afro-American Studies at Temple, and the students who have come through that program now teach across the country in a great many Afro-American Studies departments. Asante's ideas deserve a good deal of careful attention.

Molefi Asante and his followers, like the old radio character The Shadow [Lamont Cranston,] seem to have the power to cloud White men's minds. My informal survey of the flood of anti-Black Studies screeds, tracts, and diatribes suggests that as much as nine-tenths of it is triggered by Asante's Afrocentrism. As we might expect, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. grew rather apoplectic at the thought of Afro­centrism, and apparently considered it a major threat to Western Civilization and The American Dream. In The Disuniting of America [1993 -- later revised and enlarged, in 1998], Schlesinger devotes a good deal of space to Afrocentrism, particularly as it has affected the formulation of school curricula. Schlesinger is enamored of the Melting Pot myth of immigrant incorporation into American society, despite the fact that it has long since been debunked, and he views with alarm the impact of Afrocentrism on the health of the society. "I am constrained to feel," he writes somewhat disingenuously [since he seems thoroughly inclined to believe what he is supposedly being compelled to accept] "that the cult of ethnicity in general and the Afrocentric campaign in particular do not bode well either for American education or for the future of the minor­ities." Leaving to one side the question whether "the minorities" either want or need Schlesinger's solicitude, or indeed can stomach it, I confess that it is a constant astonishment to me that scholars of his bent can write this way without so much as a flicker of recognition that the texts and stories they ingested as students and have regurgitated as professors are themselves also celebrations of a cult of ethnicity -- the ethnicity of the northern European settlers.

One final word about Schlesinger. Speaking of the emphasis on Africa, and comparing it with, among other things, American Jews' pride in the doings of Israel, he writes: "The glorification of the African past was accompanied by a campaign to replace Anglo 'slave' names with African names, to wear African costumes, to replicate African rituals. LeRoi Jones, who had said in 1962 that 'history for the Negro, before America, must remain an emotional abstraction,' now saw Africa more concretely and changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Arthur Smith became Molefi Kete Asante and called on others to embrace African names."

The sneering condescension in this passage is astonishing in a man who, if nothing else, has led a cosmopolitan life in the academy and in government. The scare quotes around the word slave perfectly encapsulate Schlesinger's moral perspective. Does he think that "LeRoi Jones" and "Arthur Smith" are the names these men would have borne had their ancestors not been seized and enslaved? Does Schlesinger, an American historian after all, know nothing about the origins of the names of the descendants of slaves? How much more nuanced and thoughtful it might have been for him to draw a comparison with names like Schwartz, Applebaum, Ornstein, Schneider, and Weiss, which are German names thrust on Jews forced to live under oppressive regimes. If Mr. Schneider can become Mr. Taylor when he emigrates to America, and Herren Schwartz and Weiss can become Mr. Black and Mr. White, why cannot Arthur Smith become Molefi Asante? Perhaps Arthur Smith found it more difficult to melt in the great American pot because neither he nor his ancestors chose to come here, and because, name change or no, he would immediately be recognized as a descendant of slaves.

1 comment:

Amato said...

It is an interesting fact that by far the most controversial and contested genesis of Black studies, by the mainstream academy, is Asante’s afrocentrism. In part, it’s surely do to the fact that Asante has been the loudest and most polemical voice in the debate on what it looks like on top of the mountain. However, other—in my opinion, more serious—scholars, such as Chancellor Williams, Asa Hillard, and John Henrik Clarke, who many would also call Afrocentric, were rarely free from controversy. So the question becomes, what is about afrocentrism that stirs up such a large pushback both inside and outside the academy?

I don’t think the answer is quite as easy as it seems and I don’t think I have a clear answer to the question. Part of the answer I believe is that it not only challenges the ethical foundation of white America but their cultural foundation. It doesn’t just seek to have African language, music, education, religion, or philosophy incorporated alongside the Western canon, but reexamines what language, music education, religion, and philosophy are. It is a hard pill for scholars who have spent whole careers studying Africanless philosophy, for example, to accept not only that Africans have philosophy that is worthy of study but also that they now have to rethink what philosophy is.

Another, and maybe more important, reason Afrocentrism is received with such hostility is because it reveals that what was thought of as culturally neutral, universal, and therefore indelibly valid in Western society, is actually, as you mentioned professor, a product of northern Europe, and deserves to be scrutinized. Very rarely is the United States Constitution, for example, thought to be a cultural phenomena, disseminating from Europe, that is neither the only nor necessarily the right way of structuring governance. Afrocentricism, I believe, points this out and rejects the idea that people of African descent are less worthy because they did not always govern themselves by a founding document. Indeed Afrocentrism suggests that assimilation to America’s mode of governance can be quite negative because it requires an implicit rejection of the alternative African way.

Well I’ve definitely said enough on this. I would be interested to hear what you think professor Wolff.