Blinded by blackness

February 27, 1998

Socrates and Beethoven were black, and whites are genetic mutants say some Afrocentric scholars. Stephen Howe on an inverted racism

The history of Africa and Africans has probably been subject to more bias,distortion and sheer ignorance than any other major theme in humanity's past. Challenge to those biases has been one of the 20th century's great intellectual revolutions. But, alongside the challenge, has arisen a counter-mythology, "Afrocentrism", which ranges from pseudo-historical romance to full-blown reverse racism.

Afrocentrism, as practised in North American universities, offers a mostly fictional history of Africa and its diaspora, centred on bizarre ideas about ancient Egypt and Nubia. In its looser sense, it may mean little more than pride in shared African origins or interest in African history and culture. But recently a more cohesive, dogmatic and irrational ideology has appropriated the label, an ideology influential mainly in the United States but with offshoots elsewhere, including Britain.

The central tenet of Afrocentrism is that every important feature of "civilisation", everywhere in the world, is of African origin. In ancient Egypt came the fullest flowering of the African cultural system:a system distinct from and superior to that of Eurasian societies in its matriarchal, spiritual, peaceful and humanistic character. Ancient Greece and, hence, all European civilisation took everything of value usually claimed to be theirs from African-Egyptian culture.

Most Afrocentrists also believe that this superior culture has been passed down, undiluted, to diasporic peoples of African descent. Thus, African-Americans are a distinct nationality - with their own civilisation,values, belief system, social practices and language ("Ebonics"). These are superior to those of other groups and especially to those of European-descended peoples.

On the wilder fringes of Afrocentrism, stranger ideas circulate. Not only the ancient Greeks, but also the biblical Jews, were black Africans: modern Jews and Greeks are impostors on a grand scale. The civilisations of India, China, Japan, Europe and the precolonial Americas were created by African voyagers. Ancient Africans had scientific and technological knowledge equal to or far in advance of the modern world. A striking range of figures not usually thought of as "black" - from Socrates or the prophet Mohammed to Beethoven, Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln - were actually Africans.

In the US, such ideas have become central to the furious rows over multiculturalism in education, the media and government policies. Public controversy has centred particularly on the inroads Afrocentrism has made into the American education system. Numerous public school authorities have introduced Afrocentric schools in predominantly black districts. Attempts to introduce Afrocentric perspectives into other schools' curricula has led to political battles at national level. There are dozens of Afrocentric private schools, and Afrocentric perspectives dominate the teaching of African and African-American studies in some major universities.

The issue has generated a mass of polemical literature, most as ill-informed as it is strident, from figures as diverse as art critic Robert Hughes and classicist Mary Lefkowitz, professor of humanities at Wellesley College. The controversies have also reflected a sadly typical kind of US parochialism. Argument has rarely been about what schoolchildren and students should know of the world, but about rival visions of Americanism.

In Europe, the impact has been far less powerful - and romantic Afrocentrism seems to have strikingly limited appeal within Africa itself. But, even in Britain, Afrocentric ideas are taking hold in some quarters - as a glance at bookshop and library shelves in some inner-city areas, or at some local authorities' "black history" materials, testifies.

Africans' innate superiority, some say, comes from the magical powers of melanin, the chemical that pigments skin. People with high melanin levels are physically, mentally and spiritually superior to others: they even have hidden psychic powers. White people's fear of the melanin-rich led Europeans to persecute Africans throughout history, culminating in the present, deliberately created "Aids-Holocaust". Whites are "ice people" and blacks "sun people", their collective personalities determined by long-ago evolutionary pressures. Africans maintained a sociable, life-affirming character from their hospitable, original environment; whereas in the hostile climate and circumstances of the North, whites developed a correspondingly individualistic, selfish, aggressive disposition.

For some of the more extreme Afrocentric publicists, whites are not even fully human, but are genetic mutants or throwbacks to the Neanderthals. Afrocentrists see themselves as opposing western "decadence", upholding the integrity of the black family and family values. There is typically a fierce opposition to feminism and an even fiercer prejudice against homosexuals. In some quarters, anti-Semitism supplements the general hostility to whites; in others, anti-Arabism predominates in this rich but distasteful stew of ideas.

The best-known version of Afrocentric historical revision is that put forward in Martin Bernal's multi-volume work in progress, Black Athena. The first volume was published in 1987, the second in 1991; two more volumes and a general overview of ancient history are promised. Bernal is British-born, of Irish and American parentage, and was long a fellow of King's College, Cambridge. He is now a professor at Cornell University. Bernal does not advocate the wilder theories. His writings proclaim a revolution in views of the ancient world: that "Greek" civilisation was really Egyptian and Phoenician. His is perhaps the most scholarly of these accounts - though specialists have punched huge holes in every aspect of his argument, and many have deplored his apparent obsession with race.

By far the most important influence on Afrocentric thought, however, is the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop. He studied nuclear physics and Egyptology at the Sorbonne, then was head of Dakar University's radiocarbon laboratory from 1961 until his death in 1986. His work focused on the character of ancient Egypt as a black African civilisation, the continuity of its cultural influences across the continent and the centuries and the African origins of world civilisation. He also tried to prove that ancient Egyptian was the root of all African languages.

Like Bernal, Diop was more rational than most writers in this vein; but his vision of history is no more solidly grounded than Bernal's. He is perhaps best seen as an idiosyncratic and anachronistic metahistorian on the lines of Arnold Toynbee or Oswald Spengler. But for enthusiasts, his authority is absolute.

A mass of other recent writers, most of them Afro-Americans, has pressed Afrocentric claims: prominent exponents include Marimba Ani, John Henrik Clarke, John G. Jackson, George James, Leonard Jeffries, Ron Karenga, Chancellor Williams, the more eccentric (and more nakedly racist) Frances Cress Welsing and Yosef Ben-Yochannan and, the most effective and influential self-publicist of all, Molefi K. Asante. Some of these are serious if eccentric scholars, some are fantasists and monomaniacs, a few are simply charlatans.

The roots of such thinking, however, go back much further. Many of the themes can be found in black American pamphleteering from the past 150 years and more. Others derive from various cranky Victorian, mainly British writers: bizarre figures such as Godfrey Higgins, Gerald Massey and Albert Churchward, long forgotten elsewhere, have their works reprinted, praised and treated as gospel by Afrocentrists.

A surprising amount is taken from Masonic, Hermeticist and Rosicrucian tradition. And a great deal reproduces the fantasies of 19th-century European racial "science", simply reversing the positive and negative values attributed to black and white, Europe and Africa.

Afrocentrism brings to light a long-flourishing intellectual underworld of largely self-taught enthusiasts. Here, impulses of racial uplift, religious or mystical leanings, political activism and autodidact scholarship intermingle. It is a world with striking similarities to that of English plebeian radicalism, delved into by historians such as Christopher Hill, or even the worlds unearthed in Carlo Ginzburg's work on medieval European popular philosophy. The story of Afrocentrism and its ancestors is a fascinating chapter in the history of ideas, whatever else it may be.

Politically and educationally, however, it is a disaster. So far as Afrocentrism provides an impassioned corrective to past American and European disparagement of Africa, it may have some useful, ground-clearing function. But what it offers in replacement is a new myth - an imaginary Africa without a real human history and without a present.

Worse, Afrocentrism has a monomaniac insistence on the centrality of race to all questions about human society. Modern scholarship in all fields since 1945 has questioned, if not flatly denied, the reality of the concept of race. There have only been two real exceptions to this. One is on the ultra-right, with the overtly racist "science" of a handful of scholars. The other is the Afrocentric tradition. What is most disturbing is that so many liberal and radical academics, who rightly scorn the first,express ignorant enthusiasm or condescending indulgence towards the second.

Stephen Howe teaches at Ruskin College, Oxford. His book Afrocentrism is published by Verso in May.

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