|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 4-5, 16, 1992
|Author Biography:||Tejumola Olaniyan is a member of the Department of English of the University of Virginia. He is a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities at Northwestern.|
I must admit that I have been extravagantly arbitrary in selecting reading materials for this seminar: bits and pieces from academic and theoretical codifications of Afrocentrism, popular journalistic accounts of its "street" manifestations, reactions to it from diverse institutions (e.g. Euro-American and African-American newsmagazines) and perspectives, instances of its multivocal and heterogenous character even though it is only barely formed ... It appears I was unconsciously hoping to provide readers with as wide angle a view as possible (in one seminar) of the subject. Now I can see that I have unwittingly succumbed to an illusion. No extravagance can arrest within its scope the perpetually bursting seams of the social, and wide angles, as filmmakers and photographers know too well, are one of the most potent props of such a reactionary illusion. I hope the selections themselves, in their aporetic character about what constitutes worthy ends and appropriate means, subvert my unconscious conservative desires by loudly announcing the impossibility of having any "complete" grasp of a social phenomenon.
Many "theories" have been put forward to understand Afrocentrism, the most common being that it is no more than Eurocentrism in black clothing. This is a profound truth as well as a profound lie. First, the truth. There could be no Afrocentrism without Eurocentrism. They are both locked in an intricate specular embrace in which difference resides more in the "visible" paraphernalia than in the "invisible" supporting structures. Thus for every Roman aqueduct and Gothic cathedral, there must be found parallel African "feats." And we can be sure that were an Afrocentric to be President of the U.S. today, the White House (what an already culpable designation!) would promptly—and for good reasons—become African House. No, it is not how history is represented that matters but simply a question of additional representations. Molefi Asante is always quick to (a) deny borrowing structures from Eurocentrism and (b) delink Afrocentrism from "race," emphasizing that whatever link exists is only coincidental. As palpable evidence, he is eager to run off a list of those he considers as black Eurocentrics though he has never been as equally eager to admit of the possibility of white Afrocentrics. Leonard Jeffries's spurious theory of "ice people" and "sun people" nauseates us even as it also reminds us that he stands in the good company of European greats such as Hegel, Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Mill, etc. and their shadows in a myriad of current permutations such as christians/pagans, civilized/barbaric, citizens/natives, westerners/tribes, cultures/tribes, and so on. He is merely reading these figures upside down. A confessed Afrocentric at a recent conference took me up on this reading. "What if Afrocentrism is a mere inversion?," he queried. "You see, that's the problem with you people [I suppose he means people like me who are trying, with little success yet, to think of power in more subtle ways]. Why must it always be us, black people, that are expected to always think and act correctly? After all these centuries of oppression, I think we have a right to be wrong, to make mistakes, to be nasty. First tell the other side to play fair." I think there is some point in this—the implication, rather than the content, of what he said—after all, in moments of great social ferment like the one we are going through, revolts against domination will not always follow our "well thought-out" and "theoretically sound" outlines: "politically correct" "revolutionary plans" and "truly resistant identities" fashioned in the context of our—the rule, not the exception(s)—interminably dreary and routinized back-patting seminars and lectures. To be nasty, if I read my friend correctly, includes to be racist, because the other side is racist. Sartre is very correct then in his famous censure against the afrocentrism of Negritude—that it is an anti-racist racism. It "is the low ebb in a dialectical progression," he says, an antithetical low ebb in which "the theoretical and practical assertion of white supremacy is its thesis." Without Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism is devoid of many basic epistemological premises.
But Afrocentrism is not simply black-faced Eurocentrism. As a counter-discourse, it dares Eurocentrism to glimpse a space it (Eurocentrism) is structurally incapable of contemplating. It is the horizon of hope of Eurocentrism as a dominant discourse to become hegemonic, so that it passes itself off as natural, and becomes unconscious of its own construction—genesis amnesia, in Bourdieu's phrase. Afrocentrism insistently questions this eloquent certitude and emphasizes instead the necessarily contingent status of the Eurocentric. The latter's claims to seamlessly account for all experience is embarrassed by a force and passion that is not only disconcerting and negative but also practically ectopic. Why should the African-American remain in subjection and still count time as B.C. and A.D., Asante queries. For the genuinely Afrocentric in America, the timemark is 1619, the year of African arrival in America for the "beginning again." Thus 1601 is none other than 18 B.B.A. (Before the Beginning Again) and 1992 373 A.B.A. (After the Beginning Again). I think we are right to snigger at this apparently futile twitch, though we must not forget that our sniggers are less about the twitch than a complicit homage and fatalistic surrender to the continuing force and power of Eurocentrism and its ability to universalize what is patently a self-centered i.e. ideological, formulation.
Thus Afrocentrism discloses Eurocentrism's fiction of inevitability and intrinsic self-evidence, and thus authorizes a counter-discursive space, giving form to the truth which holds that no discourse is capable of hegemony with a totalitarian completeness. This is where I locate the great value of counter-discourses like Afrocentrism: as counter-hegemonic practices, they are, as Richard Terdiman would say, "the emergent principle of history's dynamism ... the force which ensures the flow of social time"; "situated as other [they] have the capacity to situate: to relativize the authority and stability of a dominant system of utterances which cannot even countenance their existence. They read that which cannot read them all." (The logic I have outlined is not limited to Eurocentrism-Afrocentrism relationships alone. Witness, for instance, the systematic and thoughtful unscrambling Afrocentrism—male-dominated and homophobic—is currently receiving from the discourse of many black women writers and scholars.) This is where Afrocentrism goes beyond Eurocentrism. This is no doubt the great insight of Fanon in his simultaneous justification and condemnation of Negritude: that it is important for the psycho-affective equilibrium of the black but that it is also a potentially straight road to a blind alley. Sartre then is very wrong: his stricture against Negritude, a parochial and vulgar marxist exegesis(an approach which, to be fair to him, he thoroughly deconstructed in some of his later works), lacks the subtlety and productive ambiguity found in Fanon and which also underpin Achebe's own reported riposte that an anti-racist racism is in the absence of everything else a good antidote to white racism. It is also this imaginative subtlety that you will find in many works of Soyinka, the greatest exponent and critic of the project of registering an "African world-view" that I know.
Thus it is in the nature of counter-discourses to be a qualitative advance over the dominant, no matter how slight, no matter how easily (re)incorporated into the dominant—in fact, the need for incorporation is evidence of the advance I am talking about. Counter-discourses are still caught within a binary grid, their politics mainly inversionary but, as Derrida would say, this is an indispensable though limited stage toward the deconstruction of hierarchy. If I am to concretely locate the "advance," I will point to the quintessentially relativist character of counter-discourses. Asante's rallying cry, "Pluralism without hierarchy," is fundamentally anti-imperialist. Were this to be the European motto in the 18th and 19th centuries, there would have been no Empire. To fully appreciate the point here, just compare the Asante signature tune with the blissful self-righteousness characteristic of many a missionary or colonial administrator. In other words, most anti-Eurocentric Afrocentric discourses rarely propose their own superiority and conversely, European inferiority. Their major weapon has always been different but equal: we are not heathens, we have our own religions and deities; we are not barbaric, we have our own cultures, etc. Let me quickly say that this is not necessarily out of any altruism on the part of these counter-discourses—in fact, the dream is always to take over the master's house, not to dismantle it. Witness the result of political nationalism in most erstwhile colonized countries—but out of a structural lack in their composition. Born in the flaming kiln of history, they emerge with a permanently scared "psyche." They are born already aware of difference, thus they are denied the luxury and comfort of Lacan's "mirror phase," that phase of growth in which "we"—both corporeal and discursive bodies—imagine ourselves not only as the center of the universe but the universe itself. The moment of birth, normally unknown and unrememberable for others, becomes for these subordinate discourses witnessed and unforgettable. They are thus doomed to constantly acknowledge their own contingent character, unlike Eurocentrism whose image of itself as essential was little challenged for centuries. This is why counter-discourses can only dream (futilely suturing the lack) but can never yarn grand narratives. Anti-colonial Afrocentric nationalist discourses reached this ironically liberating and anti-expansionist insight since its birth in the early decades of this century, an insight which is only now being discovered by current poststructuralist thought.
One important point to salvage in Afrocentrism, then, is its relativism. I say "salvage" because Afrocentric propositions most often turn its radical relativism to little more than benevolent absolutism i.e. a relativist proposition of pure difference: "To Each His Own Truth," as Claude Wauthier titles a chapter of his extensive pioneering account of anti-colonialist Afrocentric nationalist discourses. As Afrocentrism continues to catalyze curricular revisions in many American school systems today, the challenge is at least to guard against the degeneration of relativism and so prevent ghettoization, and at most to revision and theorize relativism itself as a mode of intercultural transactions. Toward both objectives, I propose Fanon as one of our ground-clearers and guides—and we might just as well start with the following delicious formulation:
"To us, the man who adores the Negro [undue narcissism by the black, paternalist/maternalist benevolence by the white] is as 'sick' as the man who abominates him [self-hatred by the black, virulent racism by the white]."
I. Selections from M. K. Asante, Afrocentricity (1980. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1988).
II. Selections from Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990).
III. M. E. Dyson, "Melanin Madness," Emerge February 1992.
IV. "African Dreams," Newsweek September 23, 1991.
V. "Afrocentrism in a Multicultural Democracy," American Visions 6.4 (August 1991).
VI. Fela & Egypt 80 band—xerox copies of 2 LP jackets.
VII. Title and content pages of Kemet and the African Worldview, eds. Maulana Karenga and Jacob H. Caruthers (Los Angeles: University of Sankofe Press, 1986).
VIII. "Introduction" to the proposed discussion, a text prepared by Tejumola Olaniyan.
This report is a combination of transcribed and abstracted remarks, as well as edited, extended, and clarified comments submitted by participants after the discussions.
Tejumola Olaniyan: I will be very brief in my opening remarks, since you have already read my long introduction to the extracts. Let me try out this idea of Afrocentrism as one in many of contemporary counter-hegemonic discourses—feminism, gay-lesbian rights, the rainbow discourses of the peoples of color, and so on. My point is how to understand the character of these variegated responses. Perhaps we should explore Michel Foucault's identification of three realms of power relations: domination, exploitation, and subjection. According to him, the maintenance of the first two demands some measure of violence or brute force, while freedom and choice is crucial to subjection. In fact, it is on this basis that Foucault defines power as the ability to act on the action of others, to act on how people exercise their supposedly free choice. Foucault thinks that unlike subjection which is on the rise in the West today, domination and exploitation as systems of power are declining, so that the great struggles today are therefore subjectivity struggles or struggles against subjection. How does this help us to understand the present so-called 'minority revolution'—with its large emphasis on reformation of consciousness, self-representation, and reclamation of subjectivity, and to what extent is Foucault too absolute in his distinctions?
My last point is, let us pay attention to the moment of codification of Afrocentrism, as opposed to the recognition of similar sentiments locatable extensively across time and space. What is the politics of this codification at this point in time? That is all I have to say for now.
Abu Solomons: I would like to draw attention to a section of Teju's essay:
"Sartre then is very wrong: his stricture against Negritude, a parochial and vulgar exegesis (an approach, which to be fair to him, he thoroughly deconstructed in some later works), lacks the subtlety and productive ambiguity found in Fanon and which also underpin Achebe's own reported riposte that an anti-racist racism is in the absence of everything else a good antidote to white racism ... Thus it is in the nature of counter-discourses to be a qualitative advance over the dominant, no matter how slight ..."
This conclusion seems to suggest that in the absence of any other "suitable" counter-hegemonic discourse an "anti-racist racism", presumably Afrocentrism, is acceptable since it fills unoccupied intellectual space. I question the assumption of this notion simply because other counter strategies which seriously challenge racism do exist vis. non-racialism and anti-racism.
Teju: I don't think there is any assumption of a void, since we are in fact dealing with one of such forms of resistance. It is neither the only form of resistance nor the most effective, but it is the subject of our discussion today. Simple.
Tim Burke: If I read Teju's opening statement correctly, one of the distinctions he is drawing is between seeing Afrocentrism as a counter-hegemonic tactic of great effectiveness and seeing Afrocentrism as a set of truth-claims, many of them questionable. I, too, am attracted to it as a tactic—it produces the spectacle of panicked practitioners of Eurocentrism waving their metaphorical dicks around, defending their supposed invention of civilization—but I also feel obligated to address Afrocentrism's claims to truth, to not do so would be contemptuous in some way, and those truth-claims are often disturbing.
Carolyn Hamilton: In distinguishing analytically between tactic and truth-claims, is one pre-determining the structure of the debate?
Sandra Richards: Whose Afrocentrism is one speaking about? That is, I think we must not use the term as though it refers to concepts about which there is consensus. From the readings that were provided, we can see that Molefi Asante's articulation of Afrocentrism is different from that of Katrina Hazzard-Gordon or Wilson J. Moses, to cite only two of the scholars interviewed in the American Visions article: for example, Hazzard-Gordon charges that in certain respects, Afrocentrism is a regressive step that does not pay adequate attention to material conditions; presumably, Asante would vigorously disagree. Moses dates the concept back to Blyden in 1866, while Asante states that the concept originated in the 1960s.
In sum, if in stating reservations we as scholars neglect to specify what we mean by the term, then I suspect that what we are really engaged in is a game of power relations that functions so as to discredit other scholars without helping African peoples advance.
Ivan Karp: One can refer to the broad spectrum of 'Afrocentrisms'. This was not unique to Africans and African-Americans but one can see similar programs of formulation of redemptive ideologies with the historical development of Zionism. One of the interesting questions is to see the sorts of resistances, tensions, and arguments within such movements, and one could ask how Afrocentricity encloses, and develops through, specific interior resistances.
Tim: In regard to the observation that there are different or multiple Afrocentrisms, I agree, though we may also want to look at areas of commonality. However, we should also note that in some Afrocentrisms, like Asante's, we are offered a genealogy of Afrocentric thought which completely elides the differences between various texts offered as the sources of the given Afrocentrism, say Garvey and DuBois.
Tony E. Momfremier: in referring to Frank Kermode's review article in the Sunday New York Times (February 23, 1992), attention has to be brought to the way that Afrocentrism and related programs are being attacked by those who see themselves as defenders of the canon, defenders of the faith, and who reflect an immense distaste or dislike for Afrocentricity, and these attacks set up a situation in which they have to be answered. But one also has to note that in a Hegelian sense Afrocentricity is developing and being refined and clarified by the very debates within.
Luise White: Indeed, Afrocentricity has caused more terror in the academy than anything else. One has to think about the way in which the Western civilization curriculum in the university is talked about and not talked about. If anyone were serving on a curriculum committee, they would recognize that Western civilization is coming back into business because of the challenges to it. Inevitably and unfortunately, what constitutes knowledge, invention, and discovery become colorized. We can well ask why Afrocentricity has caused such outrage? One perspective is that it has caused outrage because it takes the best of Western civilization and describes it as African in the first place. It does show the flaws and warts of Western civilization ... but, it is bizarre because it shows the problems of either centrism of Afrocentric and Western civilization approaches.
Tim: This brings to the table a debate at the African Studies Association meeting in St. Louis. What was discussed there was the question of how to teach history in the lower schools. In response to what he saw as the Afrocentric presentation of the African past as emperors and kings, a man who identified himself as a Somalian raised the question of where he comes in as an African because he doesn't accept this Afrocentric representation of Africa because he grew up hating kings because his own people found themselves conquered and oppressed by kings. Then another person stood up and noted the problem for those who see such teaching about Africa as important: that is, if the history of Africa is not going to be presented as a pageant of kings, princes, and emperors, then it is like a 'unilateral disarmament,' in which the 'other side'—the teaching of Western civilization—continues to present the Western kingdoms and Louis the XIV, while teachers of Africa present stuff like class, local history, the production of difference, which one might argue ends up being totally uninteresting and inaccessible to the children.
Ivan: At the ASA I also ran into a fascinating discussion of a paper that said that assertions of Swahili identity are only strategies, and that people who call themselves 'Swahili' really share little or nothing in common. Unfortunately for the presenter, a member of the audience stood up and reacted negatively, identifying himself as 'Swahili', and noting that whenever he meets another African they identify one another as 'African' or 'Swahili' and offering that when he hears this sort of paper on African identity he starts thinking about deconstruction, saying 'Any time I hear these things I try to transpose them into a paper that deconstructs French cultural identity ...' One of the things I like about Afrocentricity is that it challenges the notion that there are some people who construct identities and there are other peoples who deconstruct them. It also challenges the claims to expertise.
Carolyn: What do we do when we have good and bad on the table? Something that is effective in the short-term may not be effective in the long-run. It's important to think about the differences between long-term and short-term in mobilization of identity.
Abu: I have a few serious problems with Asante's views, which at times lack the intellectual rigor which is necessary to be convincing. Two examples of such problems:
Firstly, the problems of marginality and exclusivism which appear to taint his vision. He subjects the authenticity of Islamic texts (in fact, the Koran) to a materialist explanation in a most unstrategic manner. This in fact will result in marginalizing "Sunni" Muslims from the fold of Afrocentrism. It is silly to underestimate the power of religion. Also, his understanding of the"umma"—the world Muslim community, is incomplete. The concept of "umma" extends far beyond the boundaries of Arabia.
Secondly, his homophobic statements are, to say the least, disturbing and there are indications in his treatise that Afrocentrism offers an appropriate "antidote" for homosexuality. This, I find, needs to be qualified. On its own it sounds naive.
Is there a way to reappropriate what has been appropriated without becoming exclusive?
Teju: Abu's complaint about exclusivity is a stereotypic complaint about Afrocentrism. What does one mean by exclusivist? This should be clarified. Remember I put this concretely on the table in my introduction.
Abdullahi Ibrahim: I read Asante's texts with an eye to the kind of intellectual claims Afrocentrism would require of me as an African Muslim. To be a true Afrocentric in Asante's view, I have to give up Islam: a reality inscribed in my mind and on my body—as far as history can have any meaning. To Asante's request, I have one response: I cannot. Period. To avoid creating an impasse of this magnitude to meaningful African practices, African historical interactions and experiences with the world, often bitter and humbling, must be endorsed. The effect of these experiences leave their imprints even on Njia, which Asante proposes as a forum for African spirituality. Njia for example meets on Sundays or any other day. As an African Muslim, I am curious to know why Sunday is privileged. Mentioning "Sunday" could be defended as a "slip of tongue," but who said that slips are not culturally informed?
David William Cohen: I am thinking about several points. First of all, one notes the debates in Romania and other parts of eastern Europe concerning the association and meaning of such things as eastern and western orientations to culture and politics. What is the status of 'Western civilization' and the 'Eurocentric' in this context? In regard to the discussion of exclusivity, proponents of Afrocentricity are not attempting to create a closed community; in fact, they are pushing very hard the general dissemination and adaptation of multicultural curriculum, including Afrocentric approaches, in school systems as redressing education generally, and the example here is the Afrocentric curriculum of the Portland school system, which cannot be said to be a '95% black school system.' It is substantially, I think, a white population. There, white students as well as black are studying Afrocentric curriculum. The adoption by Portland of this curriculum is aimed at redressing education more generally, not to create a black nationalist community, recognizing the multicultural basis of American society, intervening in what seems a homogeneous orientation to representing America. There may be or are other curricular contributions emphasizing Native American and Hipanic-Americans, as well. It is a small point but if we lock on to this as simply a black nationalist approach—that is only relevant to African-Americans—we miss all the rest, the ways in which this is an approach, a contribution, to remaking the whole ideological system in which there are other beliefs, practices, systems of culture, tenets ...
Tim: This connects back to Teju's point that Afrocentricity has to be understood within a pluralism that defines America. This can be gotten from Asante's works in which he asserts a universalist impulse. He does not say that "If you are white you should stop reading now!" Having said that, the fact that there is an attempt to create a universalist ground, one should also talk about the relativism that Teju mentioned. Sometimes we should take this relativism apart, because one sees this as simultaneously ingenuous and disingenuous, because Asante, while proclaiming relativism, also suppresses pluralism.
Teju: The point that Tim is raising now is part of the problematic that I pointed out earlier in saying that we should focus on the moment of codification of Afrocentrism. Because the point is, can you codify without excluding? You can take examples from all ideologies and religions. With all codifications come inclusions and exclusions.
Sandra: I would like to return to Carolyn's earlier comment about short-term strategies and long-term results and connect it with comments that Professor Sylvia Wynter of Stanford made when she was here. She talked about Afrocentrism as being a kind of Duvalierism in which all kinds of atrocities can be committed in the name of blackness.
If while we recognize the potential of Afrocentrism to be used in that negative manner, we nonetheless assert its value particularly for young people in the process of identity formation, then Afrocentrism may be an appropriate short-term strategy. Yet, there is the problem: How do you create a symbolic discourse that has an effective resonance, that helps to construct a concrete identity that allows young people to prosper, even while you know that there are flaws, even while you know that eventually this identity will have to be deconstructed with all the attendant psychological and emotional pain?
Dan Wideman: I feel that in the debate about Afrocentrism as a counter-hegemonic or hegemonic discourse, many things get lost. I taught Afro-centric black history to high school students who are mostly black with some Hispanics, and their response was not one of being proud, rather the attitude was basically of questioning, for example, "You mean white people didn't make these pyramids." The point wasn't that black students were given a sense of pride ... In the process of learning very few of the kids claimed an African identity ... rather they developed a questioning attitude to existing discourses and representations of heritage and history. This questioning attitude developing from this form of teaching is very important. In my own experience, Afrocentricity did not lead to the false sense of identity or false pride that people say can happen, or that may need to be deconstructed later.
Teju: Let us question here, in relation to what Dan has said, if high school education is not inherently conservative, with high school teaching 'what is,' rather than encouraging the student's critical skills and awareness. It would be great if all this could lead to a profound pedagogical reorientation.
Tim: Our orientation to slay the dragon, to do things a different way than they are done out there, is, in a sense, a habit at the moment.
Kathy Kelly: Originally I was thinking that these are the myths of history and then we are taught the truths, and the myths are overthrown, and is not this the process of teaching? Isn't this overthrowing quite conventional? Are we really at odds with the ways of teaching that are being done? I hope or expect that we will not be confronted by the major identity crisis sometime out in the future.
Nahum Chandler: Teju, I found your opening written remarks extremely rewarding. In general, what I especially like, if I read you properly, is that your reading of Afrocentrism is an affirmation rather than a defense. However, I would like to raise a question about how you speak of "lack." Now, I quite like your reading here in a certain sense. It resonates with my own inclinations. However, I'm uncomfortable with the word or concept "lack" for two reasons. First, its genealogy in European discourses such that it seems to me not able to bring certain assumptions about an autonomous subject fully or radically into question. I'm referring, of course, to the locus of this word or concept in the discourses of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud, but beyond the specifically psychological, to Christian theological discourse of "God" and to philosophical discourses, such as Hegel's understanding of Geist. In whatever specific sense, in each case there seems to be an ultimate reference to a subject who is utterly and totally self-possessed, autonomous. With reference to such a subject, any identity formed with less than true (or, ultimately, total) knowledge or on the basis of radical self-possession is understood as formed by lack; as constructed out of a failure or lack. I dwell on this because it seems to be a theme that is quite widespread in discussions of African-Americans and discourses about persons whose subject positions are constructed in sites of subordination. In this form, however, the concept seems to depend too much on what I summarize as "a conservative Hegelian subject." Secondly, inscribing the question of lack as a problem, simply within the frame of the historicized moment (which is always an analytic and not a 'real') seems to limit the general radicality of its implications. At stake in the problem of Afrocentrism is, it seems to me, a dramatization of an analytic (as well as an existential and practical-social) need to rethink the character of the construction of identity in general. The rethinking must know no limits. The problem is not first of all psychological. It opens onto another kind of structure. I sometimes speak of the ultra-transcendental; at once "historical" and "otherwise." This sort of "structure" is such that we would have to rethink all our understandings of structure. It formulates, here, that which allows for (to turn a phrase) the sort of cognitive dissonance or structural break we're speaking of here. It is such an opening which allows us to have a sort of perspective on society or context in which we are historically inscribed that would be other than what is hegemonic or "predominantly naturalized" in that society or context. So it seems to me that the structure in question is not initially (logically or structurally) a problem of the psyche.
In this sense, to refer to Sandra's question and to Dan and Carolyn's comments, the pedagogical contribution of Afrocentrism is that it can emphasize that "truth" not only is in fact subject to arguments but indeed must be subject to argument. This would be a quite fundamental pedagogical moment. One of the most powerful reproductive moments in the construction of colonial societies, America included, has been precisely that moment when debates about the construction of pedagogy have been foreclosed and not proposed to the student at the initial stages of learning. The debate mobilized around Afrocentrism, if thought and carried out in a certain way, can guard against the simplification of this reproductive limit, because it could ultimately dramatize a kind of self-criticism. Taking off from what you have written, Teju, in this sense, I believe the insight around the problem of "lack" in African American and African discourses can be pedagogically quite radical.
Teju: You are very right about the power of Afrocentrism opening the political debate. About the use of the word "lack" as an affirmation: its use comes up only in questions of identity when difference is encountered and for me this conjectural moment comes up when, from a total sense of yourself you come to realize that there's actually an "other" space out there. I conceive it as powerfully enabling space which guarantees, if mobilized, a recognition and acceptance of difference without resort to hierarchy or to originary claims. I am using "lack" with far greater resonance, not limited to psychology, after all there is no psychology without sociology, so to say. You are right about the genealogy but my deployment is different. I am not aware that the structure is specifically reserved for subjectivities constructed in sites of domination. I believe it is a structure basic to any awareness of difference, though it could be articulated to different ends, and the character of the structure itself changes depending on context and location in terms of social relations. The structure of lack (i.e., recognition of difference) is a sad story for those who are dominating, hence their need to articulate, even with violence, that realization as superiority. It is this articulation that sustained Eurocentrism for so long. For the oppressed, however, what the structure opens up is a radically contingent space that calls all structures, including its own, into question. This is the space that achieved decolonization and the current call into question of all hitherto predominant epistemologies and so on.
Nahum: I accept the fecundity of your formulation and reinscription of the concept of lack. I would propose it in a different way: on the one hand, in terms of European discourses, I would proceed according to Derrida's questions, rather than, say, Lacan; on the other, with regard to African American history—for example, I would call on the way in which African American slaves, as early as the 1680s and through the revolutionary period, question their exclusion as legal or political subjects from the "we" that was understood to constitute the colonial commonwealth, such as Massachusetts, or later the nation, such as the "we" of "We the People" in the Delcaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, not on the basis of lack but of affirmation of their identity. So I would propose a kind of affirmation as radical.
Amanda Kemp: This is on a different point. I've been studying the Black aesthetic movement of the 1960's in the U.S. These poets and playwrights have been opening up a different kind of space and what I felt they were saying is that there's no universalism. Someone said, "What's better, caviar or neckbone?" and she said, "It's all your point of view". You can't deny the possibilities that [Afrocentrism] does open up. You have to teach grammar and secondary school students certain absolutes in helping them to know who they are. The problem is: Who do you place in the center when the class-room is multi-ethnic? We do have to get back to a kind of education that is questioning, with many perspectives. It challenges even the foundations of university education. People have been driven out of the humanities because of the incredible assumption of universalism: questions like, What is the basis on which you make criticism? and, What is criticism? When you constantly find that unspoken hegemonic discourse you either coax it out or you leave the social sciences. Also, what are being touted as new ideas are really things that you can find in black thinkers previously—it's not revolutionary.
Adam Ashforth: Coming from completely outside this Reader's Digest version of this issue, and outside of this culture, all of this is very alien to me but, getting back to Sandra's point about children—I'd almost put in a bid for a very powerful version of Afrocentricity. I'm overwhelmed by the racism in this country. In the discussion going on here, it's kind of an academic [one] in many senses. We're talking about texts for use in schools here but there's a far more powerful reality going on in the city, in the world here. I read a story in the newspaper about a little child who told her mommy, "God doesn't like black people". This is such a tragic statement and for me it's an inescapable conclusion. It can't be countered by school texts. This is a three year old child. It's not just a critical, multi-cultural awareness that must be taught but a center of power. It's not just terms such as "tactic" and "strategy", what's "truth" and not "truth", that needs to be discussed it's something much more urgent.
Tim: I do think that's already on the table somewhat. The sense of the critical thinking program can answer in powerful ways for that 3 year old why that 3 year old sees what is seen. But I think this goes to this assumption which is very important to Asante, of the healing power of many of the Afrocentric claims.
Sandra: When I spoke earlier, I was not looking at identity formation and symbolic discourse solely in relation to the education that occurs in classrooms. Obviously, that is a tremendously important arena, but identity formation and pedagogy occur in other realms—witness the Black Arts movement of the 1960s in the United States.
Tammy Taylor: As a recent graduate of high school coming from an academy supposedly the best in my community, I would say of the United States Education system at large that the fundamental concerns are clearly to educate young people to R-E-A-D and to be able to balance a check book. Anything else is a luxury not currently afforded by the deficit in funding the federal and state government education boards are experiencing. Courses dealing with African-Americans, women or other so-called minorities were offered as electives ... never in an American history, American government, or Western Civilization class.
In speaking of the resurgence of Black consciousness as a mode of resistance, we also need to discuss counter-resistance on the part of the establishment in other forms outside of education.
Abu: There is a great deal of emphasis on the positive role that Afrocentrism can play in education—its potential to reappropriate cultural space in the education realm. This could lead to healing a community which has suffered as a result of a biased and exclusive curriculum. There is no doubt that to transform a biased education system into a more inclusive, open-ended one will surely represent a progression; whether this means re-writing American history textbooks and so on. Conscientizing is a very necessary process but it has to be radicalized, empowering those who have been dispossessed to assume their rightful place in the history of humankind.
Some supporters of Afrocentrism tend to display a rather revisionisteformist tendency, advocating that conscientizing should come first and this will automatically be followed by economic empowerment. In fact education, on its own, cannot redress the problems of poverty and social inequality.
To simply rely on the "positive psychological" effects which Afrocentrism can create is dangerous. It is a tantalizing discourse with an essentially populist appeal—appealing to popular struggles against racism in particular, and if misused could lead to creating euphoria amongst the oppressed.
The fundamental questions which should be asked are: "What are the immediate problems that the oppressed are experiencing in the U.S. at the moment?
- Inadequate Housing
- Lack of education
- Racism and discrimination
What potential does Afrocentrism have, as an ideology, to ultimately solve these problems?
Problems with identity cannot be solved outside of the economic problems which people have to face on a daily basis. Where you live and how you live contribute towards shaping your identity.
Teju: As a closing statement, let me reply to the point you raised. All that you have said is quite true but the question that remains is, are subjectivity struggles incompatible with 'real' economic, social, and political struggles? Even Marx himself enjoins us to always know the difference, in assessing the changes wrought by social revolution, between socio-political changes which we can really measure, and changes in consciousness which are also very crucial to securing long-term change. Are subjectivity struggles any less "real" than real political and economic struggles? This is the question. Thank you.
Adam Ashforth is a member of the Political Science Department of Baruch College, CUNY and a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities at Northwestern University; Tim Burke is a Ph.D. student at The Johns Hopkins University and a fellow of the Institute; Nahum Chandler is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago and a fellow of the Institute; David William Cohen is Director of the Program of African Studies at Northwestern; Carolyn Hamilton is a member of the Anthropology Department at the University of Witwatersrand; Abdullahi Ibrahim is a member of the Institute of African and Asian Studies at the University of Khartoum and a fellow of the Institute; Ivan Karp is with the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is Preceptor of the Institute; Kathy Kelly and Amanda Kemp are graduate students in Performance Studies at Northwestern; Tony E. Momfremier is an independent researcher on African culture based in Chicago; Abu Solomons is a South African Fellow at Northwestern who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Natal and member of the Institute; Sandra Richards is a member of the Departments of Theatre and African-American Studies at Northwestern; Tammy Taylor is a senior at Northwestern in Political Science; Dan Wideman is a graduate student in Anthropology at Northwestern; Luise White is a member of the History Department of the University of Minnesota and a fellow of the Institute.
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