Afrocentricism, or Afrocentricity, is a theoretical and philosophical stance that places pan-African experience at the center of African-descendent people's lives. This stance challenges a dominantly Eurocentric view of civilization, which centralizes European cultural standards and white racial identity. In many parts of the world, people of African descent share a common history of displacement and oppression, as a result of contact with European colonialists and enslavers. This history of colonialism and slavery, as Afrocentrists point out, has allowed Europeans to dominate ways of thinking, and deprived African-descendent people of the freedom to control their own lives. Afrocentrists argue that European dominance required the devaluing of African cultural legacies and perspectives. Afrocentricism, therefore, is an approach to liberating people of African descent from a history of Eurocentric oppression, and to affirming the value of African humanity for African people.
In the United States, Afrocentricism stems back to black nationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As the civil rights movement, which gained momentum in the 1950s and early 1960s, seemed to yield slow advances in the battle for equal rights, black nationalists perceived a more radical approach to continuing the struggle. They actively confronted racism while affirming the value of a black "consciousness," derived from a communal black experience, black cultural aesthetics, and a politics of racial unity and cultural recognition. "Black Power" exemplified an empowerment that was all encompassing—politically, culturally, and spiritually—and referred to a common vision for the community of African Americans.
Afrocentricity, a term defined by Molefi Kete Asante in the early 1980s, continued to develop as an interpretive paradigm within Black Studies departments in academia throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Critics, however, have argued that, by implicating a collective identity that is fundamentally "African," the theory either reduces or discounts the actual diversity of pan-African experience. A tendency in this regard is to either subordinate or ignore gender and sexuality in favor of racial concerns. This tendency does not allow for a thorough investigation of how race is experienced in differing ways across gender lines, nor how pan-African gender issues are related to power within Eurocentric societies. It also does not account for how power dynamics work between African-descendant men and women themselves, irrespective of a white, outsider presence.
One Afrocentric view maintains that, within African cultures, gender relations are cooperative rather than oppositional. Manhood and womanhood are "complementary," making up a reciprocal, non-hierarchical process of definition. Schools of feminism, in this view, all belong to a European perspective that is not only inadequate for addressing the particular realities of African-descendant women, but ignorant of these realities. As early Western feminist thought privileged the conditions of white women, without attending to the ways in which gender is experienced in differing ways across racial lines, "feminism" continues to imply the subordination of African-descendant women, to both European norms generally and to white femininity.
In the United States during the 1970s, emergent modes of black feminism challenged the limited scope of dominant feminist politics that largely ignored many class, racial, and sexual realities of women's lives. Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian feminist poet, created an intellectual and political space for publicly exploring the complexity of her multiple modes of identity. Having taught herself about African history and understanding Africa as her distant homeland, Lorde incorporated an Afrocentric sensibility to her vision of liberation. Such a worldview enabled a politics that was both African and women-centered.
As theorist Patricia Hill Collins has argued, an Afrocentric viewpoint that, at its most extreme, restricts feminine civic involvement and sexuality also neglects the interests of African-descendant women. Attentiveness to the complexities of gender and sexuality elaborates on the Afrocentric impulse to expand, rather than limit, available perspectives of the world.
Asante, Molefi Kete. 1998. The Afrocentric Idea, revised and expanded edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mazama, Ama. 2001. "The Afrocentric Paradigm: Contours and Definitions." Journal of Black Studies 31(4): 387-405.
Nnaemeka, Obioma, ed. 1998. Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc.