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.’

A similar impulse lay behind the rise of the religious movement known as ‘Ethiopianism’. The term was first used formally by a South African ex-Wesleyan minister called Mangena Mokone, who founded his Ethiopian Church in 1892. To African Christians throughout sub-Saharan Africa, denied an equal role in the churches of the various missionary societies and looking for more African expressions of Christianity, the name ‘Ethiopia’ had irresistible appeal. Linking the Biblical story of the baptism of the Ethiopian by Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8.27-40) with such texts as ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God’ (Psalm 68.31), they marked out an alternative tradition to the one which condemned them, as sons of Ham, to be perpetual ‘servants of servants’ (Genesis 9. 25). After the defeat of an Italian army at Adowa in 1896 by the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, the only African country to withstand the Scramble, the term took on a powerful political dimension. Ethiopian movements played a part in such political insurgency as the Bambata rebellion of 1906 and John Chilembwe’s Nyasaland rising of 1915. Meanwhile, intellectuals like Blyden and the Ghanaian Casely Hayford were able to draw on Homer and the myth of Prester John to build the term into a symbol of pan-Africanism, linking it with independent black churches in the United States and with the ‘back to Africa’ movement. By 1911, when Casely Hayford published his Ethiopia Unbound, the name had become shorthand for every conceivable African aspiration. Though the term itself has largely dropped out of use since the Sixties, ‘Ethiopia’ as an idea remains a powerful force behind the British Rastafarian movement which, for all its lack of interest in post-revolutionary Ethiopia, remains the most powerful expression of Afrocentrism in Britain. It is a good example of myth overtaking and suppressing reality, and it is a curious feature of Howe’s book that he mentions this strong Afro-British expression of his central theme only in passing.

Instead, he concentrates on the American story, which is less about Ethiopia than about Egypt and involves several interlocking claims. First, that Egypt was the source of all human civilisations, antedating Mesopotamia and Western Asia. Indeed, any claims made for the latter two are regarded as racist, questioning Egypt’s pre-eminent position (though claims for Ethiopia as Egypt’s possible mentor are permitted). Secondly, that everything of value in Greek and Jewish culture, all science, philosophy and literature, derived from the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Once again only racist scholarship, in a process of historical ‘whitewash’, denies this process. Thirdly, that Egypt represented the fullest flowering of a cultural system uniting the whole of the African continent in a civilisation which, in its concern for family and human values, stands in sharp contrast to what Europe and America have made of their Egyptian inheritance. Finally, that ancient Egyptians, the builders of the pyramids, worshippers of Isis and Osiris, and tamers of the Nile, were black – some authors declaring them unambiguously ‘black with curly hair’, others with a more inclusive agenda allowing ‘blackness’ to extend to Euclid, Plato, Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great.

This is a bald outline of ideas and claims which vary considerably in detail and in emphasis in the different texts which advance them. Until recently, they were most commonly associated with the fringe figure of Cheikh Anta Diop, the Sorbonne-trained professor of Egyptology and Prehistory at the University of Dakar, and most accessibly expounded in the idiosyncratic chapter he contributed to the Unesco General History of Africa (Vol.2, 1981). They have since, however, been given an enormous boost by the controversy surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987), described by one critic as the ‘most discussed book on the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Bible’. Bernal’s contention is that ancient Greece was massively indebted, not just culturally but for its very population, to the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and that this was common knowledge until the late 18th century, since when, for racist motives, scholars have substituted a purely ‘Aryan model’ of Greek origins.

One useful thing Howe does is to demonstrate the long heritage of these arguments in forgotten black authors whose works he resurrects. Beginning with David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) and Hosea Easton’s Treatise on the Intellectual Character and the Political Condition of the Coloured People (1837), he surveys some two dozen texts, erudite and eccentric in turn, compiled by the self-taught in opposition to the academy, but popular and influential in their time. They range from the work of witty polemicists like Harvey Johnson, who in 1903 examined the failings of white society, asking whether whites could ever be trusted to govern themselves, to that of entertaining frauds like J.E. Blayechettai, a lecturer on the black church circuit in the Twenties, who claimed to be an Ethiopian prince captured by dervishes and educated in England. Figures like these are not mentioned in the standard academic surveys and Howe’s book is original in giving them scholarly space.

He has little difficulty in disentangling the multiple ironies and contradictions in all this. Arguments about Europe’s debt to Egypt ought, he says, to be arguments about syncretism and cultural exchange, not about racial exclusiveness. If African and Western culture owe an equal debt to Egypt, it is hard to see why African values should at the same time be hailed as a humane and spiritual alternative to those of the ‘West’. The insistence on Egypt’s continuing relevance to contemporary America steers a little too close to racist assumptions that it represented a stagnant civilisation in contrast to the dynamism of ancient Greece and modern Europe. Where once African Americans identified with the Exodus narrative (‘Let my people go’), today’s descendants of slaves seem fixated on the glamorous Pharaohs as symbols of power and conquest – to the point of denying the plight of those they held in bondage.

Writing about Bernal, Howe emphasises the irony of his seeming excessively preoccupied with the ethnic origins of the scholars whose work he criticises, while, on the other hand, showing little interest ‘in the content of the ideas with which Pharaonic Egypt is argued to have influenced the world’. It is essentially a racial inheritance that is proclaimed in Black Athena. As for the simpler question whether Egyptians were ‘black’ or ‘reddish pink’, nothing could demonstrate more clearly the wholly American nature of the controversy. Lerone Bennett, editor of Ebony, expressed what should long ago have been the last word on this. Whatever skin shades are attributed to ancient Egyptians, they would all of them, Pharaohs included, ‘have been forced in the Forties to sit on the back seats of the buses in Mississippi’.

By far the sharpest of the ironies is the extent to which Afrocentrism continues to promulgate one of the oldest prejudices about Africa: namely, the hypothesis that light-skinned people of Egyptian origin spread across Africa in ancient times as a ruling élite (with well-shaped noses) and subsequently degenerated as a result of their interbreeding with primitive peoples. Sir Harry Johnston, explorer and linguist, was the first commisioner for South Central Africa and the first to popularise what has become known, for short, as the Hamitic hypothesis, but it features, too, in the writings of 19th-century French and German theorists, such as Delafosse and the half-mad Leo Frobenius, and its influence and longevity have been extraordinary. Diop was convinced that the famous soapstone carvings from Great Zimbabwe were Egyptian falcons. Seligman’s Races of Africa, in which all African achievement from the Benin bronzes to Zimbabwe is presented as evidence of Arab or Phoenician or Aryan influence, was still in print in the Sixties, after influencing virtually every major figure in anthropology from Malinowski to Audrey Richards. Roland Oliver, who in the Fifties pioneered the serious study of African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, has recently identified diffusionism as the biggest intellectual obstacle to be overcome in winning recognition for the new discipline. It is astonishing that black American writers should be giving it fresh impetus – and adopting Frobenius as a hero. But then, as Howe points out, the last thing Afrocentrists are interested in is African history, or indeed, any contemporary African reality. One of the saddest statements cited here is Diop’s assertion in 1981 that thanks to the emancipation of women and to an African ideal of human worth, ‘moral and material misery’ are unknown on the continent ‘to the present day’.

Howe admits that most bookshops contain a shelf or two of similarly crazy stuff: texts about the lost wisdom of ancient civilisations, myths of racial origin drawing on Masonic and Egyptian materials, stories of lost continents, books about astrology and the sphinx, Stonehenge, the Bermuda triangle, and the relation of all of these to the Book of Revelation. He acknowledges the political, cultural, even religious fervour animating much of it, so that ‘to complain of the lack of coherent social theory ... is almost beside the point.’ He knows that the other side of the story – racist theories about darkest Africa and African incapacity – has had a longer life. He shows an attractive sympathy for those autodidacts with their huge but indiscriminate erudition who, working without academic support and in defiance of contemporary academic trends, tried to build an identity for ‘the coloured races’ in the face of bigotry. He draws interesting parallels between ‘the lonely, self-taught, obsessional activity’ of black intellectuals concerned with historical and racial retrieval, and the English Nonconformist radicals of the 17th and 18th centuries described by Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson. He pauses, for example, over the Black Panther leader David Hilliard’s painful account of his attempts to understand Frantz Fanon (‘I’m lost. I have the dictionary in one hand, the book in the other, and I can’t get past the first page’).

Yet acknowledgments such as these are incidental in a long and detailed book which argues overwhelmingly that Afrocentrism is a bad thing. Having invoked Hill’s Levellers and Muggletonians and Thompson’s incipient working class as persuasive analogues, Howe doesn’t go on to celebrate the Afrocentrists as offering a rich and challenging alternative to the all too obvious failings of the academic mainstream. Instead, he sees their efforts as culminating in the ethnic nationalism he deplores – at times with a sarcasm that seems misplaced. When Jerome Schiele innocently remarks that in traditional African philosophy ‘there is no perceptual separation of the individual from other people,’ he is savagely put down with the comment: ‘a bit confusing when one is trying to eat, or put on one’s shoes’.

The attempt to prove Afrocentrism dangerous fails. No battalions are being mobilised by this literature, ready to embark on programmes of ethnic cleansing. Howe advances Papa Doc’s Haiti as an example of the damage Afrocentric ideas can cause in practice. But Haiti’s dictatorship was sustained by the Cold War, not by Afrocentric propaganda. He bewails the fact that a particularly unpleasant book by Frances Cress Welsing sold some forty thousand copies within a few months of publication. A handful of his polemicists hold university positions, but mostly in Black Studies departments, those sealed academic ghettos created by Affirmative Action. He describes with dismay the disrupted African Studies Association conference at Montreal in 1969, when a self-elected black caucus threatened some delegates with assault. But he doesn’t identify any lasting damage to scholarship, least of all to the work of serious black scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Paul Gilroy, Manning Marable and Cornel West (to pick names at random). Though a few of the books he describes are undeniably nasty in their anti-semitic and psychosexual bigotry, he also tells us how that bigotry has been exposed for what it is by – yes – the same black scholars from whose observations several of Howe’s most effective barbs derive.

In his closing paragraphs, he characterises as ‘more wildly and culpably wrong’ than anything else in his book John Fiske’s contention that while Afrocentric writers are at times overtly racist it is a ‘weak racism’, lacking any imperialist programme. It is intended only ‘to strengthen African Americans in their daily lives’, with the additional function of making whites uneasy with their ‘whiteness’. Against this, Howe declares ringingly that ‘no one is or can ever possibly be “empowered” or “strengthened” by believing in lies and fantasies.’ These are the words of a political philosopher, not a historian, the type of philosopher, moreover, who focuses on truth as something written, not as something experienced. Were the slaves who sang, ‘When I get to heaven I’m gonna put on my shoes/I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven,’ wrong to find comfort in such self-evident myth?