Afrocentricity is a theory that emerged in the early 1980s in the United States within the academic context of African-American studies. Afrocentricity was articulated by Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African-American studies at Temple University and creator of the first Ph.D. program in African-American studies in the nation, in three major essays published between 1980 and 1990.
Like most theories, Afrocentricity has come to be associated with different thrusts, some of which may even be contradictory or incompatible with the original definition of Afrocentricity. However, at its core, Afrocentricity is a theory concerned with African epistemological relevance, also referred to as centeredness or location. The ultimate goal of Afrocentricity is the liberation of African people from the grips of Eurocentrism. The primary and indispensable mechanism to achieve this goal is the fostering of African intellectual agency.
Historical and Intellectual Context
African-American studies academic units came into existence as a result of great political pressure on European institutions of higher learning in a demand for space for the African voice and experience in the late 1960s, during the Black Power movement. No longer satisfied to be culturally disenfranchised and to feel alienated from the classroom (Asante, 1990), African-American students and community activists brought to the fore of the discussion the question of educational relevance for black people, arguing for a culturally inclusive and sensitive curriculum apt to produce scholars in tune with and committed to the betterment of their communities (Karenga). One of the major characteristics of black studies, therefore, has been a dual concern for academic matters and the life conditions of African-Americans, with African-American studies scholars expected to be scholar-activists.
However, if the political mandate of African-American scholars is clear, their intellectual mission has, on the other hand, been clouded with conceptual confusion since the very beginning. Particularly vexing has been the issue of the relationship between African-American studies and the Western academe, with much debate over the status of African-American studies as a full-fledged independent discipline, or rather a field of studies, devoted to the Black experience and yet operating within the confines of Western intellectual thought. At the core of this issue, however, lies the question of Eurocentrism, with the degree to which one seems willing to challenge European intellectual hegemony determining one's position in the debate over the intellectual status of African-American studies.
Eurocentrism is understood as the interpretation of all reality from the Western perspective, especially as it emerged during the European Age of the Enlightenment. That perspective developed both internally, with the development of a metaparadigm specific and relevant to Europe; and externally, in opposition to "others," especially African people. Hence there are at least four assumptions of that European meta-paradigm that have played a major and negative role as far as black people are concerned: (1) all human beings evolve along the same line; (2) the European experience is universal; (3) Europeans are superior; and (4) "others" are defined by their experiences with Europeans. In other words, the European metaparadigm rests among other things on the belief in the superiority and universality of the European experience.
Indeed, in that linear and evolutionary schema of thought, the West claims that when it talks about itself, it is also ipso facto talking about all human beings. The history of all women, men, and children in the world supposedly naturally coincides with that of Europeans. The latter are thus implicitly or explicitly held to be the universal norm by which African intellectual, cultural, and social "progress" will be evaluated. However, if all human beings share a common essence, it is also obvious that they have not all reached the same stage of development. Indeed, it is rather clear, from reading European writers, that Europe precedes the rest of humankind, and time after time it is suggested that Africans must emulate Europeans in order to put an end to their inferior condition.
The expected outcome of such emulation has been a process of mental conversion (Mudimbe, 1988), predicated upon the belief that only through a careful imitation of Europeans would Africans improve their lot. While the ontological reduction of the colonized had been well understood as a necessary part of colonialism, the implications of the conversion process, on the other hand, had not been fully appreciated. This may be precisely because the early African critiques of European colonialism (e.g., Frantz Fanon) still functioned within a fundamentally European conceptual framework, such as Marxism. Hence what was challenged was not Western modernity per se, but its abusive practices. Europe's tacit advancement of its own culture as some "no-man's cultural land"—its implicit claims to cultural neutrality and universality—was rarely questioned for it was not construed as problematic.
Such an approach, which was to be expected during those early days, would not allow one to understand the colonization process as the systematic imposition of the European worldview, grounded in a specific time and place yet parading as universal, on people whose cultural and historical experiences were quite different.
Afrocentric Organizing Principle and Concepts
Europe's attempted occupation of practically all human space resulted in Africans being considerably removed from their own cultural base to be relegated to footnote status, to the periphery, the margin of the European experience and consciousness. This mental disenfranchisement is held responsible for Africans often not existing on their own cultural and historical terms but on borrowed European ones. Africans are dislocated and, having lost sight of themselves in the midst of social decay, find it exceedingly difficult to orient themselves in a positive and constructive manner, a most difficult plight. Relocation is the remedy suggested by Afrocentricity. Only when Africans become centered, that is, when they consciously and systematically adopt ways, attitudes, and behaviors that are germane to their own cultural traditions and historical reality, can they hope to achieve freedom. In other words, African freedom is predicated upon the conscious activation of one's Africanness, that is, ultimately, with the exercise by African people of their own agency.
Afrocentricity further stresses agency as an African cultural imperative. Indeed, in African culture, ancestral traditions must be preserved and transmitted out of respect for one's personal and collective ancestors. Asante therefore defines Afrocentricity as "a frame of reference" generated by Africans themselves, based on African cosmology, axiology, aesthetic, and epistemology: "Afrocentricity is the study of the ideas and events from the standpoint of Africans as the key players rather than victims. This theory becomes, by virtue of an authentic relationship to the centrality of our own reality, a fundamentally empirical project" (1991, p. 172). Asante further insists that while one may argue over the meaning of Africanness, one cannot argue, as an Afrocentrist, over "the centrality of African ideals and values" for African people (1990, p. 6), thus identifying the notion of cultural, and more specifically, epistemological centeredness as the Afrocentric organizing principle. In addition to this major principle, Afrocentricity includes a set of unquestioned propositions that it inherited from its intellectual and ideological antecedents, namely, Garveyism, the negritude movement, Fanonism, Kawaida, and Cheikh Anta Diop's historiography. Those propositions can be listed as follows: African people must be conceived as agents and victors; a Pan-African perspective is essential; a deep commitment to African people and Africa is necessary; there exists an African cultural matrix common to all African people with different surface manifestations; culture is primary and all-inclusive; Africans must reconnect with African culture for genuine African freedom to be; African cultural rebirth is necessary; the colonizer within the African psyche must be killed; and finally, Nile Valley civilizations (in particular, ancient Egypt, or Kemet) are the foundation of African culture and will serve as a model upon which to elaborate new bodies of thought and action relevant to African contemporary needs. Those principles, which are primary both chronologically and logically, function very much as Afrocentricity's premises.
Afrocentricity as the African-American
The implications of Afrocentricity for African-American studies have been considerable. Indeed, Asante argues that only when African-American studies scholars center themselves mentally and intellectually in the African cultural and historical experience will genuine African-American studies come into existence. Until then, Asante maintains, Eurocentric studies of African people and phenomena will continue to parade as African-American studies, with the latter existing only as a subfield of European studies. First, Afrocentricity insists, it must be realized that any idea, concept, or theory, no matter how "neutral" it claims to be, is nonetheless a product of a particular cultural and historical matrix. As such, it carries specific cultural assumptions, often of a metaphysical nature. Hence to embrace a European theory or idea is not as innocent an academic exercise as it may seem. In fact, it is Afrocentricity's contention that unless African scholars are willing to reexamine the process of their own intellectual conversion, which takes place under the guise of "formal education," they will continue to be the easy prey of European intellectual hegemony. What is suggested, instead, is that African intellectuals must consciously and systematically relocate themselves in their own cultural and historical matrix, from which they must draw the criteria by which they evaluate the African experience. Their work must be informed by "centrism," that is, "the groundedness of observation and behavior in one's own historical experiences" (Asante, 1990, p. 12). Africology is the discipline to which those who study African people and phenomena from an Afrocentric perspective belong.
Thus it can be said that Afrocentricity emerged as a new paradigm to challenge the Eurocentric paradigm responsible for the intellectual disenfranchisement and the making invisible of African people, even to themselves in many cases.
In that respect, Afrocentricity therefore presents itself as the African-American studies metaparadigm. As such, it includes three major aspects: cognitive, structural, and functional. The cognitive aspect involves the metaphysical foundations—such as the organizing principle and set of presuppositions that were outlined above, a methodology, methods, concepts, and theories. The structural aspect refers to the existence of an Afrocentric intellectual community, such as is found at Temple University. Finally, the structural aspect of the Afrocentric paradigm refers to the ability of the latter to activate African people's consciousness and to bring them closer to freedom, the ultimate goal of Afrocentricity. Hence Asante concludes that what can be called the discipline of African-American studies itself is intimately linked to the development of Afrocentricity and the establishment in the late eighties of the Temple doctoral program, the first Ph.D. program in African-American studies in the United States.
The Temple Ph.D. program in Africology was immediately successful, as hundreds of national and international applicants sought admission in order to be a part of the Afrocentric epistemological watershed. Although the program has suffered serious setbacks since its inception, there can be little doubt about its influence on African-American studies. Over four hundred dissertations employing the Afrocentric paradigm have been defended, at Temple and at other institutions. Indeed, the Temple Ph.D. program opened the path for the creation of other African-American studies Ph.D. programs in the United States in subsequent years.
Afrocentricity and Its Critics
As could be expected, however, Afrocentricity's growing paradigmatic ascendancy over African-American studies also prompted serious critiques, which fall within five broad categories. First, critics have disagreed with some of Afrocentricity's premises, in particular the notion of an African essence that undergirds the notion of center. This criticism is often heard in poststructuralist circles, since the very idea of a center is antithetical to the poststructuralist paradigm. Often associated with this criticism is the additional claim that in its search for Africanness, Afrocentricity does not allow for cultural change. In fact, some argue, Afrocentricity's inability to deal adequately with cultural change prevents it from understanding that being African today also means being at least partly European as a result of colonization and widespread Westernization. Afrocentricity, then, is perceived as too restrictive and incapable of grasping the dialectical complexity of modern African identities. While he denies being an "immutabilist," Asante's response has been that Africans need a place to stand in order to challenge oppressive White structures and systems of knowledge and therefore cannot afford postmodern, evanescent, fluid selves. In any case, any discourse on identity is necessarily essentialist. Afrocentrists also point out that far from denying the Westernization of many Africans' consciousness, they recognize it as a destructive force that must be circumvented.
Second, some have taken issue with Afrocentricity's main category, culture. black feminists and black neo-Marxists advance gender and social class, respectively, as the primary contradiction in African-American life. With regard to feminism, however, Afrocentric scholars who tackle gender issues question the relevance of feminist philosophical and political assumptions for African people, including African women. Concerning the question of class, while it is quite feasible and necessary to articulate an Afrocentric economic theory, Afrocentricity maintains that race/culture remains the most socially relevant category in American society.
Third, Afrocentricity has also been criticized for making untenable historical claims, especially in relation to ancient Egypt. This argument, probably the most publicized, has stemmed from European classicists who, having subscribed to the Greek Miracle theory, became disturbed by two related developments associated with the spread of Afrocentricity: first, credit was being taken away from Europe for the great civilizations of the Nile Valley (in particular, Egypt); and second, as a consequence the original intellectual achievements of Greece itself were revisited and diminished. For instance, it was pointed out that many Greek philosophers had studied for long periods of time in ancient Africa, and were in reality indebted to their African teachers for many of their ideas. Therefore many European scholars in the United States and Europe proceeded to refute those "Afrocentric" claims. However, it must be noted that the debate over the racial identity of the early Egyptians predates the emergence of Afrocentricity by several decades and is not, therefore, an issue germane to Afrocentricity per se. It must be more correctly understood within the context of Diopian historiography, which places Egypt at the beginning, both chronologically and conceptually, of African civilization. In fact, several of the scholars associated with this thrust, such as Martin Bernal, have never claimed to be Afrocentric.
Fourth, Afrocentricity has also been criticized for intellectual bad faith because of wrong attributions and associations. For instance, Afrocentricity has been associated with biological-deterministic arguments (such as that around melanin) that were never part of its premises.
Finally, criticism of an ideological nature has been voiced. In one instance, Afrocentricity has been blamed as reversed Eurocentrism. Some scholars contend that Afrocentricity merely seeks to replace one geopolitical hegemonic center, Europe, with another hegemonic one, Africa. However, as even a cursory reading of Asante's texts would reveal, Afrocentricity is fundamentally nonhegemonic and welcomes the existence of a multiplicity of cultural centers. It is precisely that position that allowed Afrocentricity to challenge Eurocentrism in the first place. Some have also contended that Afrocentricity undermines the very fabric of American society. By emphasizing the Africans' prerogative to be human as Africans, Afrocentricity is said to threaten the unity of American society, including the American academe. However, Afrocentrists remark that the unspoken fear is not so much about a shattered national unity (which, given racism, could have never truly existed) but about the threat that Afrocentricity poses to Europe's self-serving monopoly over reason.
While Afrocentricity continues to exercise a significant influence in the United States, it has also been receiving increased attention in Europe and Africa, where a vigorous intellectual movement has emerged informed by Afrocentric tenets and referred to as the "African Renaissance," thus creating the possibility for Afrocentricity to be transformed into a Pan-African school of thought in the years to come.
See also Black Atlantic ; Black Consciousness ; Eurocentrism ; Negritude ; Orientalism: African and Black Orientalism ; Pan-Africanism ; Philosophies: African .
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——. Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990.
——. The Afrocentric Idea. Rev. and expanded ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
——. "The Afrocentric Idea in Education." Journal of Negro Education 60 (1991): 170–179.
Conyers, James L., Jr. ed. Afrocentricity and the Academy. London: McFarland, 2000.
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Gray, Cecil Conteen. Afrocentric Thought and Praxis: An Intellectual History. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.
Karenga, Maulana. Introduction to Black Studies. Inglewood, Calif.: Kawaida Publications, 1982.
Lemelle, Sydney J. "The Politics of Cultural Existence: Pan Africanism, Historical Materialism, and Afrocentricity." In Imagining Home: Class, Culture and Nationalism in the African Diaspora, edited by Sidney J. Lemelle and Robin D. G. Kelley. New York: Verso, 1994. A Marxist critique of Afrocentricity.
Mazama, Ama, ed. The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2002.
Mudimbe, V. Y. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Okafor, Victor Oguejiofor. Towards an Understanding of Africology. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 2002.