Books: Careful with those balls on the Xmas tree

Afrocentrism by Stephen Howe Verso pounds 15
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The Independent Culture
You may not have realised this, but when you take the balls off your Christmas tree and burn the tree you are enacting a symbolic destruction of black male genitalia: the whole rationale of Christian symbolism is a white consciousness of genetic inferiority and a consequent desire to destroy the breeding capacity of the black race. At any rate, that is an approximate summary of the views of the Afro-American writer Frances Cress Welsing.

This is the kind of loopiness that Anglo-American commentators have in mind when they attack "Afrocentric" history, and Stephen Howe has the Welsings of the world firmly in his sights in this sharply argued, frenetically readable survey of the field. Howe takes the view that modern Afrocentrism is a misguided and at times wicked distortion of the historical record, perversely combating white racism by adopting its criteria and inverting them - asserting the superiority and achievements of the black races, and the unfitness of the white races to govern themselves. Along the way, Howe systematically exposes a host of myths, including Martin Bernal's "Black Athena" thesis, which maintains that all of Western civilisation is rooted in the supposedly black African culture of ancient Egypt (and the Sphinx's nose, when it was still there, was flat and negroid). By the way, don't be misled into thinking that these beliefs represent an American aberration: I've heard intelligent people in this country discuss the blackness of ancient Egypt as if it were incontrovertible fact.

Not surprisingly, when it was first published last year this book was greeted with rousing cheers from the Bryan Appleyards of this world. But as Howe points out, most public critics of Afrocentrism have relied on newspaper reports for their polemics; his offering, based on meticulous research, is far more nuanced. He traces the movement's roots back to the early 19th century, when Afro-American autodidacts attempted to provide an alternative view of black history from the one imposed by their white masters; and however scathing his analysis, he is always sensitive to the underlying motives.

Indeed, what fuels his indignation is the conviction that this new mythology is an enervating distraction from the real economic difficulties that face black people. Afrocentrism isn't only a useful rubbishing of a dismayingly popular set of fantasies, but an eloquent testimony to the historian's belief that truth is paramount. As it says in the Bible: the truth shall make you free.