Like What Our Peasants Still Are

Landeg White

  • Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe
    Verso, 337 pp, £22.00, June 1998, ISBN 1 85984 873 7

Did Napoleon mutilate the nose of the Great Sphinx because he thought it looked too ‘African’? Is the star Sirius B a storehouse of energy and information transmitted specifically to people whose bodies are rich in melanin? Are Christmas trees, chocolate bars, baseballs, Spanish bulls (and what’s done to them by way of chopping, biting, thwacking and impaling) all symbols of black male genitalia? Was the white race produced by women lepers who fled to the Caucasus and coupled with jackals? Do surnames like Dunn, Grey and Douglas, and place-names like Dublin and Blackpool, indicate concealed African origins? Were the Mende people of West Africa the first to navigate to Peru? Did Egyptians build Stonehenge? Is Aids the outcome of a genocidal white conspiracy to eliminate Africans? More to the point, do you believe these are serious questions, requiring patient and scholarly rebuttal?

Afrocentrism, says Stephen Howe, comes in two varieties. The first is an interest in Africa and its culture reinforced by the belief ‘that Eurocentric bias has blocked or distorted knowledge of Africans and their cultures’. Although it has been around for some time, it has been most effectively expressed over the last four decades in the rise of the new academic discipline of African history. It is, however, the second or ‘stronger version ... a far more cohesive, dogmatic and essentially irrational ideology’, developed over a much longer period, which is the subject of his book. He doesn’t add, but it is his premise, that this latter form of Afrocentrism is dangerous. The parallels he invokes are with Germany in the Thirties and Serbia in the Nineties.

African history has claims to being the senior African discipline nowadays, and if a discipline is to be judged by the number of books which are a joy to read and which no person claiming to be informed about the world can afford to ignore, then African history passes the test handsomely. But it is very much a product of the last fifty years. It wasn’t around in the 19th century, when the first black intellectuals were trying to make sense of their heritage. What confronted them instead was a mass of European writing which, since the beginning of the slave trade, had, as Howe says, ‘quite seriously posed the question whether Africans were human at all’. Even the scholarship of the period, with the rise of the new science of anthropology, was hooked on notions of evolutionary progress among humans – the savage, the primitive and the barbarous eventually evolving into civilised bourgeois ‘man’. On this ladder, Africans, like other non-Europeans, occupied the lower rungs, and anthropology’s interest in them was, as Edward Tylor put it, ‘that savages and barbarians are like what our ancestors were and our peasants still are’.

How were 19th-century black intellectuals to respond to this? Early on, Howe focuses on the key figure of Edward Wilmot Blyden, who was born in St Thomas in the West Indies in 1832 but lived much of his life in Sierra Leone. Even before the European Scramble for Africa, Blyden formulated the essential problem faced by people of African descent. Should they argue that they are identical with Europeans but unequal in achievement? Or should they proclaim an equal but distinct identity? Blyden’s preference was for the last option. It is a formula which perhaps works better in theory than in practice and, like many black writers, Blyden sometimes seemed to be asserting both options simultaneously (by the end of his life he was praising British colonialism for advancing Africans). But its attractions were obvious. In a single phrase, Social Darwinism with its ‘heart of darkness’ Africa was rejected. ‘The two races,’ Blyden wrote, ‘are not moving in the same groove with an immeasurable distance between them, but on parallel lines.’

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