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Author: David William Cohen
Title: In my father's house
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: In my father's house
David William Cohen

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 15, 1992
Author Biography: David William Cohen is in Anthropology and History at Northwestern, and is Director of the Program of African Studies.

In My Father's House


Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, London: Methuen, 1992; New York: Oxford University Press, 366pp.

In her recent film Finding Christa, Camille Billops draws her audience into a rich, expressive, and intimate space as she explores the rediscovering of a daughter given up, at four years old, for adoption in 1961. In drawing us through conflicted familial and emotional issues surrounding the broken and reconstituted relations with her daughter, Billops (who made the film with her husband James Hatch) has us traveling where few films take their audiences. She challenges us by raising questions whether we belong in this privileged space, and by showing us how, when one enters this space, all kinds of issues—identity, values, private histories, authority—open up.

In his most recent work, which draws upon writings and experience over a number of years, Anthony Appiah takes his readers on a similar journey through an intellectual autobiography that begins with reflecting on Africa's contemporary culture and closes with the conflicted burial of his father.

Raised in an Anglo-Ghanaian family in the environs of Kumasi, Appiah's extended kin stretched from the West Country of England to the court of Asante and, over time, from the United States to Nigeria, to Norway, and to Botswana. In his preface Appiah remarks that "If my sisters and I were 'children of two worlds' no one bothered to tell us this; we lived in one world, in two 'extended' families divided by several thousand miles and an allegedly insuperable cultural distance that never, so far as I can recall, puzzled or perplexed us much."(ix) It is within this tension, between his own sense of "the world as a network of points of affinity" (ix) and another sense—not his own—that he must find himself as one thing or another—European or African—that this important book finds its raison.

As the chapters unfold, one finds the reappearance in different dress of similar structures of reflection, composed around observed or recognized tensions between positions, but positions never quite symmetrical, and tensions never quite stable. Appiah brings critique to the mission of constituting an "African philosophy," challenging the truth-claims and exploring the mythologies of "Africa's metaphysical solidarity," but at the same time he reflects on both the force and value of anthropological, historical, philosophical, and also political work that has sought to realize a working sense of solidarity. Over several chapters, the author traces out the experience of intellectuals in Africa as they have struggled to produce an African cultural identity both grounded and universal, one that will touch essential meanings within recognized tradition and at the same time turn back a Western process of cultural domination in which many of them were formed as authorities, intellectuals, and scholars. The key to this discussion is Appiah's view that "most of us who were raised during and for some time after the colonial era are sharply aware of the ways in which the colonisers were never as fully in control as our elders allowed them to appear."(9) The spaces for discourse opened up by this doubled-recognition—that there were breaks in colonial cultural domination and that there is a generational break in the regard of colonialism—are opportunities for philosophical and cultural production, and much of the body of In My Father's House is given over to the discussion of a range of work of intellectuals and cultural producers developing within this period. Drawing insights from critical readings of literature, literary criticism, anthropology, history, and philosophy, Appiah suggests the power of thickened discourse among an ever-enlarging number of voices and sites. One might offer that it is in this sense, or through this process that is simultaneously political, cultural, and social, that the author sees so much promise in the re-address and enlargement of philosophical and Pan-African traditions.

With each trajectory of discussion in the book, Appiah attempts to introduce a productive instability to the debates and discourses of a particular field. He does so to demonstrate—and also facilitate—that it is possible to choose "what it will mean to be African in the coming years."(286)

In a most powerful epilogue, "In My Father's House," Anthony Appiah narrates the conflicts that surrounded his father, Joe Appiah, in death. Anthony relates how he felt drawn, with his sisters, to enforce his father's codicil which excluded his father's abusua, matri-clan, from carrying out the funeral rites ... against the wishes of powerful figures around the Asantehene. Like Billops' Christa, the epilogue takes readers where they have not been before. We are "admitted to court" in the sense of seeing the Asante court in action from the perspective of one in conflict with many of the powers that be, and with their claims to authority over the definition and execution of cultural tradition. We see the choreography of culture at the Asante center and the ways in which history, culture, and politics are inscribed onto the conflicted and unspeaking dead body. At the same time, we are admitted to a still more intimate discourse on the author's search to understand who his father is, what his life means, and what his words, as codicil, were attempting to accomplish. As with the project of the book, there cannot be any unified and stable answers to questions of such magnitude and value. But, whether they are directed to the memory of a father's life or the distillation of a sense of culture or of Africa, they hold the promise of knowing oneself and more confidently finding and affirming directions on a map still not clearly drawn.

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