Asante, Molefi Kete 1942–
Molefi Kete Asante 1942–
Scholar, educator, writer
A leading authority on African culture and philosophy, Molefi Kete Asante is probably best known for his pioneering work on the theory of Afrocentricity. As the founder of the Afrocentric movement, he calls for a more global and comprehensive view of human beings and their behavior—an alternative to the traditional Eurocentric model of anthropology. According to Asante in his 1987 book The Afrocentric Idea, European culture has been viewed as “the center of the social universe” for centuries. At the same time, however, he holds that Africa, not Europe, “is at the heart of all African American behavior.” Afrocentricity introduces a “new perspective” to the realm of anthropological study and insists that “there are other ways [than from a Eurocentric point of view] in which to experience phenomena.” As Asante explained in a Newsweek interview: “It’s a very simple idea. African people for 500 years have lived on the intellectual terms of Europeans. The African perspective has finally come to dinner.”
Asante’s distinguished career in the fields of education, communication, and anthropology spans nearly three decades. He has occupied teaching posts at Purdue University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1984 he joined the staff of Temple University, becoming professor and chair of the school’s Department of African American Studies. The author of nearly three dozen books, Asante is among the most prolific African American scholars of the century. In addition, he is credited with establishing the first doctoral program in African American studies in a university department.
Asante grew up in the southern United States at a time when racial tension was mounting throughout the region. Born in 1942 in Valdosta, Georgia, to Lillie and Arthur Lee Smith, he attended the Nashville Christian Institute—one of the few black church boarding schools in the South—and returned home for summers and holidays. During school breaks he helped out in the Georgian cotton and tobacco fields, and at the age of 12 he secured his first paying job, working as a shoe-shine boy. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Asante revealed that he quit that job after only one day because a white customer spit on his head.
Although neither of his parents finished elementary school, they furnished their inquisitive son with an atmosphere of freedom, support, and encouragement to pursue his intellectual
Born Arthur Lee Smith, Jr., August 14, 1942, in Valdosta, GA; name legally changed to Molefi Kete Asante, 1973; son of Arthur Lee and Lillie B. (Wilkson) Smith; married second wife, Kariamu Welsh; children: Kasina Eka, Daahoud Ali, Molefi Khumalo. Education: Southwestern Christian College, A.A., 1962; Oklahoma Christian College, B.A. (cum laude), 1964; Pepperdine College (now University), M.A., 1965; University of California, Los Angeles, Ph.D., 1968. Religion: Christian.
Purdue University, Lafayette, IN, assistant professor of communication, 1968; University of California, Los Angeles, assistant professor, 1969-70, associate professor of speech, 1970-73, director of Center for Afro-American Studies, 1970-73; State University of New York at Buffalo, professor of communication, 1973-84, chair of department, 1973-79; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, professor and chair of Department of African American Studies, 1984—; lecturer;writer. Fulbright professor, Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communication, 1981-82. Founder, National Afrocentric Institute. Consultant to public school systems in Detroit, MI, Baltimore, MD, and Camden, NJ. Guest on television news and talk shows.
Member: International Communication Association, African Heritage Studies Association (vice-president), National Council for Black Studies (vice-president).
Selected awards: Honorary degree from University of New Haven, 1976; named U.S. Department of State Scholar-Diplomat in African Affairs, 1978; outstanding communication scholar, Jackson State University, 1980; William Wells Brown Award for Black Writers, 1981.
Addresses: Office —Department of African American Studies, Temple University, Gladfelter Hall, 8th floor, 12th St. and Berks Mall, Philadelphia, PA, 19122.
interests. “My parents always recognized that I was different,” Asante admitted to CBB. “They believed in the spiritual elements that came out of African culture. They said, for instance, that I was born with a veil over my face, which is a symbol of luck and intelligence.” Despite their lack of formal academic training, Asante’s parents possessed a type of wisdom that fueled their son’s thirst for knowledge. “My father was perhaps the most brilliant person I’ve ever met,” declared Asante. “I get my curiosity and quest for knowledge from him. From my mother,” he continued, “I get a sense of the joy of life and the value of communication and interaction with human beings.”
Asante’s contacts at the Nashville Christian Institute during the mid-1950s also proved influential in his development as a scholar, educator, and activist. The boarding school’s president, Marshall Keeble, taught him the value of discipline and helped to instill in him an ambitious work ethic. And he gained an early understanding of the magnitude of racial discrimination from Fred Gray, an older student who was president of the institute’s alumni association and who later became a civil rights attorney representing Martin Luther King, Jr. Asante told CBB that he was further motivated by the words of Frank Tharp, a high school teacher for whom he held much admiration: “Mr. Tharp told me, ‘Our community needs you. It needs you to be smart, and it needs you to be excellent,’ and that really had a great influence on me.”
Even though Asante eventually earned a doctoral degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, as a youth he never even thought he would be able to attend college. He did realize early on, however, that he wanted to work with people. “Relationships have always been especially important to me,” he told CBB. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Asante became very involved in the civil rights movement. His commitment to equal rights prompted him to participate in the Fisk University student march in Nashville, even though he was still in high school when the campus uprising took place.
A short time later while attending Southwestern Christian College, a small junior college in Texas, Asante met a man from Nigeria named Essien Essien. Warm, gracious, and intelligent, Essien Essien went on to become a doctor. He made a profound impression on Asante, inspiring in the young student a hunger to learn more about Africa. Thus, by the age of 20, Asante had already embarked upon his crusade to delve into the history and culture of the African people.
Asante’s fascination with language and history led him to study the Greek and European classics while in college. After completing his undergraduate studies, he decided to study the African classics as well. Through an intensive study of the ancient Egyptian language and the age-old literature of the African people, Asante began to experience a sense of connection with his own past and culture. Since then he has been to Africa 18 times and even lived there for a year, serving as the director of an English-language journalism curriculum at the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communication in 1982.
Although he wrote poetry in college, Asante considers The Rhetoric of Black Revolution to be his first “real” book. Published in 1969, the book attempts to relate the black experience during the civil rights movement, offering an analysis of what was happening, “what we were asking for, what we were seeking,” he told CBB. Throughout the 1970s, Asante wrote several volumes on the nature of communication across racial lines, including the 1973 study Transracial Communication.
Up until 1973, Asante was known by his birth name, Arthur Lee Smith, Jr. His name change—to Molefi Kete Asante—was prompted by a 1972 visit to the University of Ghana, located in the city of Accra in the western portion of Africa. Asante asked if the university library owned The Rhetoric of Black Revolution. The book turned out to be among the library’s holdings, but the university librarian told him that he thought it had been written by an Englishman. From that point on, Asante felt a need to affirm his pride in his African heritage through the use of an African name. The name “Asante” reflects his own family’s ethnic descent.
The Afrocentric movement originated in 1980 with the publication of Asante’s first book on the subject, Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Asante told CBB that he founded the movement to “examine why it was that we as a people were so disoriented.” He traces the feelings of isolation, confusion, and displacement among black Americans to the initial arrival of Africans in the United States as slaves. As Asante noted in Newsweek, “Afrocentricity believes that in order to have a stable society, we must always have a society that respects difference.” The system of slavery denied Africans of their heritage, their uniqueness, their basic humanness.
The Afrocentric theory attempts to repair the damage of the hundreds of years of mistreatment that Africans have endured at the hands of a Eurocentric society. Afrocentricity “shows how we can get back to a center where we begin to see reality from our own history,” Asante commented during the CBB interview. His entire philosophy centers on one simple premise: “There is nothing more correct for African Americans than to search for and follow our own historical traditions.”
In his 1987 book The Afrocentric Idea, Asante expanded on his original themes, indicating that Afrocentricity proposes “not only a new perspective but a different framework for understanding human behavior.” Melvin Dixon, reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review, deemed it a “useful and provocative study” and applauded Asante’s promotion of “spiritual balance as the key to an Afrocentric ideal in America,” noting “such balance is crucial to our African-American identity.”
Asante clearly stated in The Afrocentric Idea that “a truly Afrocentric rhetoric … is … wholly committed to the propagation of a more humanistic vision of the world.” Still, a few critics have denounced his views as divisive and inflammatory in nature. In a Newsweek cover story on black history, for instance, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., stated: “What … Asante has been saying, essentially, is that Africa is the source of all good and Europe is the source of all evil.” In the interview with CBB, though, Asante recapitulated his basic position on the topic: “We are not looking for a hegemonic position among races. We are not seeking a position of superiority. We’re simply looking to have all human cultures alongside each other so that everyone is respected.”
Asante feels that the integration of the Afrocentric perspective into the world consciousness is well underway. “The change is massive—in the United States and all over the black world,” he told CBB. “People everywhere are beginning to understand the Afrocentric idea.” In an effort to instill a sense of pride and dignity in a new generation of African Americans, Asante serves as a consultant to several city school districts, working to rewrite public school curriculum. “We can make the curriculum more responsive to African American students by grounding those students in the information presented in the classroom,” he explained to CBB. By incorporating elements of African history and culture into a general study of religion, science, politics, and the arts, students of color “become connected” with the material. Asante added that the inclusion of an Afrocentric perspective in school curricula is fundamental to race relations as a whole and beneficial to all students seeking to understand the racially diverse world in which we live.
As an activist and scholar, Asante is frequently sought after by the television and news media for his views and insights into the growing field of African American studies. In addition, he has continued to explore African tradition and culture through his writings and is particularly proud of his full-color Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans, which he wrote with Mark T. Mattson. Published to wide acclaim in 1991, the atlas delineates significant events in African history, illuminating text with a vast array of maps, illustrations, and various informative graphics. Asante’s other publications include a book on the mass media in Africa titled Thunder and Silence and The Book of African Names, which offers a historical accounting of names in the black community.
Under name Arthur Lee Smith
Break of Dawn (poems), Dorrance, 1964.
The Rhetoric of Black Revolution, Allyn & Bacon, 1969.
Toward Transracial Communication, UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies, 1970.
(Editor with Steve Robb) The Voice of Black Rhetoric, Allyn & Bacon, 1971.
Language, Communication, and Rhetoric in Black America, Harper, 1972.
Transracial Communication, Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Under name Molefi Kete Asante
(With Mary Cassata) Mass Communication: Principles and Practices, Macmillan, 1979.
(With Kariamu Welsh) A Guide to African and African American Art and Antiquities, Buffalo Museum of African and African American Art, 1979.
(Editor with E. Newmark and C. Blake) Handbook of Intercultural Communication, Sage, 1979.
Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change, Amulefi, 1980, third edition, Africa World Press, 1987.
(Editor with A. Sarr Vandi) Contemporary Black Thought, Sage, 1980.
African Myths: New Frames of Reference, ZIMCO, 1982.
(Editor with Kariamu Welsh Asante) African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity, Greenwood Press, 1985.
The Afrocentric Idea, Temple University Press, 1987.
Umfundalai: Afrocentric Rite of Passage, National Afrocentric Institute, 1989.
(Editor with W. Gudykunst) Handbook of Intercultural and International Communication, Sage, 1989.
Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge, Africa World Press, 1990.
(With Mark T. Mattson) Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans, Macmillan, 1991.
The Book of African Names, Africa World Press, 1991.
(With Dhyana Ziegler) Thunder and Silence: The Mass Media in Africa, Africa World Press, 1992.
The Sources of African Tradition.
Author of more than one hundred scholarly articles; chair of the board of educational magazine GRIO; editor of Journal of Black Studies, beginning in 1969.
Asante, Molefi Kete, The Afrocentric Idea, Temple University Press, 1987.
Atlanta Journal, June 16, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1989.
Library Journal, July 1991.
Newsweek, September 23, 1991.
New York Review of Books, March 3, 1988.
New York Times Book Review, January 7, 1990.
Wilson Library Bulletin, September 1991.
CBB spoke with Molefi Kete Asante by phone on April 10, 1992.
—Barbara Carlisle Bigelow
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