Greg Moses
Copyright 1996
First Presented at the
National Association for African American Studies, 1995

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"Afrocentricity as a Quest for Cultural Unity:
Reading Diop in English"

For the past few years, I have enjoyed reading and teaching the work of Cheikh Anta Diop. His work was first called to my attention about ten years ago, and I have gradually read the books that constitute his translated works in English: The African Origin of Civilization, Black Africa, Precolonial Black Africa, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, Civilization or Barbarism, and Van Sertima's edition of Great African Thinkers. Each of these books is a remarkable revelation itself, but taken together, they present a kind of stellar constellation in contemporary scholarship. If it was Asante who brought us the word Afrocentrism, then it must have been Diop who, before the word, brought us the light.

But first, why would a white scholar take interest in Afrocentricity? Well, the first dictum of philosophy is to know yourself, and Afrocentricity helps me to know myself.

The Journal of Religious Thought, in its 50th anniversary issue, has defined Afrocentricity as an "affirming mode of racial pluralism" (Cain Hope Felder, p. 5). Thus, "the central concern of Afrocentricity is to advance the position of African people in the world by affirming their identity and contributions, and by unmasking the biases and limitations of Western culture" (Cheryl J. Sanders, p. 11).

The goal is not to replace "white" history with "black" history, or "white" mathematics with "black" mathematics, but rather to promote a more plausible view of the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences as products not of white culture only, but of human culture, more broadly considered and valued than white elitist intellectuals would traditionally allow. Thus, Afrocentric scholars espouse a much more inclusive valuation of human diversity, rejecting the exclusive, imperialistic, and dehumanizing aspects of Eurocentric claims to universalism in cultural and intellectual life. (Sanders, p. 12)

Afrocentricity is the idea that Africa and persons of African descent must be seen as proactive subjects within history, rather than as passive objects of Western history. Afrocentricity means reestablishing Africa and its descendants as centers of value, without in any way demeaning other people and their historic contribution to world civilization. (Felder, p. 47)

Although these definitions accurately represent Afrocentricity's pre-occupation with black history and culture, even with affirming black identities and contributions, it is a mistake to reason that Afrocentricity should hold no interest for white folks. As the above definitions make clear, Afrocentricity provides a fresh perspective on humanity in general, especially in a cultural milieu where the term "humanity in general" tends to refer to white folks.

In a minute, I want to summarize what I take to be some interesting and important meanings of Diop's work, but first I want to linger a little more on the problem that Afrocentricity poses to white people. There is a complex dynamic at work when Afrocentricity touches white America. Witness for instance the CSPAN vision of Khallid Muhammad speaking at Howard University. It was a rare moment of exposure. Afrocentricity in your face. Clearly, it was too potent for the patient, and caused a kind of overdose reaction. Nobody was able to focus on the compelling thesis of that speech, since we were all caught off guard by the details. But the thesis was as sound as the tongue lashing. A black holocaust has occurred, and if history were an even-minded pursuit, then the black holocaust would be accorded its status as an infamous horror of human history. But we have a whole psychology of dealing with the Jewish holocaust which has allowed us to demonize the Nazi Germans in a way that we are not prepared to demonize ourselves. And I think Mr. Muhammad knows very well the kind of psychological turbulence he causes when he insinuates that white Americans are the moral equivalent of German Nazis. It was a provocation, and he knew it.

To the point of this paper, however, what is curious to me, is the way that various other forms of Afrocentricity, no matter how carefully presented, are taken to be provocations by various white critics. As chief example of white America's tendency to get provoked I would like to examine the curious history of The New Republic. Perhaps my sampling is not scientific, since I do not subscribe to or follow the publication with regular interest, but two issues especially stand out. First, there was the "Race on Campus" issue which was translated by the cover artist as an arm-wrestling match between a sweaty white hand and an imposing black hand. "Race on Campus" equals a one-on-one macho competition which produces exactly one winner and one loser. I have on disc a long complaint about that issue, which I will append to this paper, but the very next February, in time again for black history month, The New Republic flashed another cover, this time ridiculing Afrocentric scholarship.

The Feb. 10, 1992, article by Mary Lefkowitz was boldly titled, "Not out of Africa: The origins of Greece and the illusions of Afrocentrists." Now, Professor Lefkowitz is, I presume, a serious white person, responding to serious Afrocentric scholarship, but it is interesting to see how she nevertheless treats Afrocentricity as a provocation. These are her words:

Now classicists in the late modern world have more than enough grounds for paranoia. We are reminded daily that our subject is useless, irrelevant, boring-all the things that, in our opinion, it is not. But now a new set of charges has been added. Not only students, but also the many academic acolytes of Martin Bernal's influential theories about "the Afroasiatic roots of Western civilization," and Bernal himself ask us to acknowledge that we have been racists and liars, the perpetrators of a vast intellectual and cultural cover-up, or at the very least the suppressors of an African past that, until our students and our colleagues began to mention it, we had ourselves known nothing about. (p. 30)

The rest of the article belabors the work of Martin Bernal, certainly the least provocative Afrocentrist imaginable. One even gets the impression that Diop might be one of Bernal's "academic acolytes." In fact, Diop gets a single paragraph of treatment, and then only because it is "Asante's opinion" that Diop is somehow of supreme importance. Thus, in response to Asante's opinion, Professor Lefkowitz gives Diop the following treatment:

In The African Origin of Civilization, a work originally published in French in 1967, Diop claimed that Europeans have consistently falsified evidence that suggests that the Egyptians were black-skinned. He traces Egyptian influence on Greece back to prehistoric times, claiming that Cecrops (a half-snake/half-man whom the Athenians themselves regarded as indigenous) came to Attica from Egypt, and Danaus (who, according to the Greeks, was of Greek descent) taught the Greeks agriculture and metalurgy. According to Diop, Greek mythology reflects the resentment of the Indo-Europeans against this cultural domination. Cadmus was driven out of Thebes; Orestes murder of his mother, Clytemnestra, celebrates the triumph of patriarchy over matriarchy, Aeneas rejects and abandons Dido. The white world rejected the ideas of other cultures as soon as it could-and "this is the meaning of the Aeneid." (p. 31)

From the treatment Diop receives, Professor Lefkowitz seems to indicate that the work of Diop is a provocation too absurd to deserve more than interlinear innuendos of dismissal.

At some other time, perhaps, I will outline the many methodological, scholarly, and logical flaws in the approach which Professor Lefkowitz takes to the body of Afrocentric scholarship. For instance, she presents unschooled hearsay as her opening examples of Afrocentrism, sets Afrocentrism up as chiefly an attack on the character of white scholars, avoids important issues such as human origin itself, and pretends that Egypt has few claims on ancient developments. And just in case one is interested in accuracy, Diop's book was first printed in French in 1955, not 1967 as reported by Professor Lefkowitz, but we begin to split hairs. Important here is the phenomenon of Professor Lefkowitz and the New Republic collaborating on a put-down of Afrocentricity, treating the mildest of the Afrocentrists, Martin Bernal, as provocation for Afrocentrism's exile from intellectual respectability.

Without further adieu, let us recover the work of Diop and present a fair summary of his systematic scholarship. And rather than treat it as provocation, let's seek what might be learned, even by white folks who seek to know themselves.

For the late African scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, the case for an Afrocentric view of the humanities begins 120,000 years ago with the appearance of Omo I, the oldest known homo sapiens, whose fossilized remains have been found in the great lakes region of East Africa. For the subsequent 100,000 years, argues Diop, all humans were black Africans, the white race itself emerging from black stock after long years of relative isolation in the Basque region of Spain. Predating the historical emergence of white people we find already developed explorations of the heavens and earth, evidenced by 30,000-year-old mines and equally ancient paths of navigation and migration. Thus, taking the long view, five-sixths of human history is African history, and afrocentricity is the objective basis upon which any anthropology must build.

Furthermore, as Diop points out, we have it from Plato's testimony that Egypt is the mother civilization, already 10,000 years old at the writing of the Laws, and the world's best model of how a culture might integrate the fine arts into its seasonal rituals. "You Greeks are but children," is what the Egyptians are reported to have said to Solon as they instructed him in ancient Greek history and the legend of Atlantis. If the Greeks reshaped the style of the columned temple, they did not invent architecture, mathematics, myth, or civilization, and it is still a notable fact that the self-evident cradle of Western culture rubs geographical noses with the Nile Delta, across a diminutive Mediterranean basin, begging us to wonder how Egypt could not be considered in intimate historical connection with its prized students from the North.

Diop does not argue that Greek culture is simply a derivative of Egypt. In fact, the emergence of Greek civilization highlights features of what Diop calls northern cradle culture, distinguishable in broad outline from the Egyptian's southern cradle. For Diop, the material conditions of northern life were sufficiently different from southern life, and the isolation of northern people was also sufficient to produce not only a new race, but a new form of culture. Hence, Diop's macro-cultural distinction between northern and southern cradles makes of the Greeks an interesting case of contrasts. As the Greeks championed many of their own northern traits, they nevertheless found in Egypt a superior system of knowledge and education which they appropriated to their own purposes.

Following Diop's macro-anthropology, we note that southern culture is a relatively stable agricultural system in which fertility and womanhood have values which translate into matrilineal clanic traditions. As for northern culture, we observe a relatively nomadic tradition where mobility and fatherhood translate into patrilineal relations of inheritance. The static life and relative fertility of the southern village make possible an inclusive ethic of community, whereas the rigors of nomadic production encourage exclusion and infanticide. In the southern cradle, the dead are buried nearby as eternal companions. In the northern cradle, the dead are burned and left behind. Abraham, the nomad, meets a new god in the South, adopts circumcision, and rejects the sacrifice of Isaac. This last example is not Diop's, although he does suggest that the name Abraham can be fruitfully studied using Egyptian linguistic tools.

Although Diop implores students not to fall into the trap of monumental history, it is not difficult to detect in Diop a romantic chauvinism characteristic of the afrocentric movement. How, for instance, can Egypt hold claim to an enviable tolerance and cosmopolitan nature, when white red-heads are killed on sight, or when there is a detectable black elitism in the Egyptian's self image? In defense of Diop, I can only point out that Diop did not create the culture wars of the world and that his linings of chauvinism are quite mild by comparison to the thrust of entrenched Eurocentrisms these past few centuries. It would be a shame, therefore, if these few passages were used to discredit an admirable body of scientific investigation.

To avoid what Diop calls useless ethno-philosophy, Diop offers two rules of thumb for the Afrocentric excavator-that one's findings be situated critically and diachronically. The critical anthropologist does not investigate cultural products without examination of that culture's class stratifications. The diachronic sanction implores us to see any slice of culture in time as connected to a moving dialectic of development situated in changing material contexts. What Diop prizes most about Egyptian culture is that at one time its myths and its sciences seem to be intensively reciprocal. What saddens Diop most about Plato is that the Greek philosopher failed to understand the deep mathematical logic which undergirded the living priests of the Timaeus. Numerology may be superstitious hand-me-down, or it may be deeply instructive about principles of physics, geometry, or logic. What we have in Plato is evidence of the decline of Egypt's ability to transmit its knowledge with clarity and precision. And for this, Diop lays chief blame at the feet of the Egyptian education system, more bent upon limiting knowledge for elite purposes than sharing knowledge for popular empowerment. Thus, we see how a critical ethic of science and education is embedded within Diop's Afrocentric investigations.

What else do we learn from Diop's Afrocentricity? In addition to the universal unity that Afrocentricity promises to bring to human anthropology, there is a more specific value for those who take Africa as itself a worthy field of investigation. For just as no Western (Eurocentric) scholar would pretend to understand his domain apart from Greece, Diop says we cannot begin to understand Africa if we do not see the unifying influence that Egypt exerts to this day. Who, for instance, would be counted an expert linguist in Europe if he did not know root words from Greece? Then who, asks Diop, may be counted an expert linguist in Africa unless he has knowledge of the foundations of ancient Egyptian? Who would argue that the dead languages of Europe do not live today? Likewise, asserts Diop, in list after list, the dead language of Egypt lives in the myriad tongues of present-day Africa.

Diop's wide-ranging contributions also touch the foundations of political economy. Like the best of his age, Diop is explicitly engaged with the tradition of Marxist dialogue, but his acquaintance with Egypt allows him to raise important historical questions not foreseen by Marxism's Eurocentric perspective. Diop's conclusions are sobering for the many similarities he finds between imperialisms of Egypt and the United States, especially given the enormous stability inherent in these structures. As Diop investigates social revolutions extending into ancient realms, he suggests that the Egyptian empire is not to be dismissed to the realm of an Asian Mode of Production (AMP) unless we understand that the AMP state today has much more relevance to us than does the romantic illusion of the Greek city-state. Afrocentric analysis disabuses us of our heritage as a city on the hill, whether modeled upon Athens or Boston, and instead suggests an unruptured heritage tending toward empire. Alexander the Great crowned Greek achievement by overcoming the limits of the city-state as he conquered his aspiration to become Pharaoh of the civilized world. His city, Alexandria was not an extension of the thesis of the city state, but its antithesis.

Thus Diop gives us a lot to think about, even if we are white. I don't think it really stuck with me that I, too, have black heritage, until I read Diop. No one else hits home with as much force on the point that all humans have African heritage in the strict genetic sense. And there are few scholars as passionate about the cultural consequences of these black origins of humanity and its civilizations. Diop's macro-anthropology may be Copernican in the sense that it precedes exhaustive corroboration, but it is surely a Copernican revolution of our cultural assumptions and likely to be taken as such a provocation for some time to come.
Given the time limits of today's presentation, let me say in closing that I enjoy deploying the provocation of Afrocentricity in the classroom. Nevertheless, I have learned that if I am going to pierce the leathered armor of my many white students, it is necessary to emphasize that Diop's work awaits the kind of verification that will make it authoritative. This is a relief to students who desperately need to believe that their heritage is lily white, but who need time to examine those desperate needs and reconstruct them through patient investigations of their own. I worry only that articles such as those by Professor Lefkowitz will leave these students with the impression that Afrocentricity is a mere provocation for dismissal.

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