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When is an 'A' not an 'A'?

Books: AFROCENTRISM: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe, Verso pounds 22
ALL IS RACE. There is no other truth." So wrote Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Tancred, or The New Crusade, reflecting the all-pervading importance of race to the Victorian world-view. Until the Holocaust recast the intellectual landscape, race was regarded by most Western thinkers as the principal motive force for human history and progress.

Today, these Victorian ideas of racial difference are being revived by a most unusual source: Afrocentrists, who militantly oppose European ideas as racist, and wish to establish a specifically African way of thinking and being. "All of humanity's historical and social relations [have been] ethnic relations, founded on phenotype," asserted the late Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese writer and leading Afrocentrist. "Humanity has been governed essentially in its development by these ethnic confrontations." According to Diop, "Europeans and Occidentals" deny the reality of race for racist reasons, to "undermine the cultural consciousness of Africans by telling them 'We don't even know what a race is'."

The startling parallels between 19th-century racial science and contemporary Afrocentrism lie at the heart of Stephen Howe's lucid and meticulously researched work. Howe argues that the Afrocentric movement is guilty of reproducing all the central features of outmoded European scholarship, and of replacing one set of myths with another.

Afrocentrism may mean little more than an emphasis on shared African origins among all black people, an interest in African history and culture and a belief that Eurocentric bias has distorted knowledge of Africa. In its stronger versions, Afrocentrism is a more cohesive, dogmatic and irrational ideology, accompanied by a mass of invented traditions, a mythical vision of the African past and a body of pseudoscientific racial theories. At the wilder shores of Afrocentrism lie the works of authors such as Leonard Jeffries, who divides the world into Ice People and Sun People, and Frances Cress Welsing, for whom the Christmas tree, the Washington memorial, cigars, baseballs and Spanish bulls are all symbols of the black male genitalia.

Underlying the various threads of Afrocentrism is a belief in the intrinsic difference between Africans and other "races". Africans are seen as not only physically different but as having a distinct philosophy and way of life. Howe traces these ideas back to European colonial writings which gave rise to the discipline of ethnophilosophy. Ethnophilosophers held that in every culture there is a system of metaphysics, unique to that culture, shared by all its members and unchanging over time. Drawing on such views, Afrocentrists like Marimba Ani claim that Africans possess their own specific system of logic, in which, unlike in European logic, "a thing can be both A and not A at the same time" because "what is contradictory in Euro-American Aristotelian logic is not contradictory in African thought". "Presumably when she hits the 'A' key, she expects her screen to show an 'A' rather than 'both A and not-A'," is Howe's sardonic response. Such claims, he points out, simply pander to European prejudices about inferior African rationality.

A second thread in Afrocentrism is a determination to resurrect African history. Largely, this is a response to the attempts within racial and traditional European thought to portray Africa as a continent without history. But the aim of Afrocentrism is not so much to study African history as to create a myth of the African past. Central to such mythology is the belief that ancient Egyptians were really black Africans and that ancient Greek philosophers stole all their ideas from Egypt. Hence modern Western thought is really derived from ancient African philosophy, a link never acknowledged because of racism. It is an argument that might seem to sit uneasily with the belief that African and European philosophies are incommensurate, but it allows Afrocentrists to claim that ancient Africa was the fount of all civilisation.

Howe expends much time and effort demolishing such claims. He demonstrates how many of these beliefs reproduce the ideas and values of traditional racial thought. He argues trenchantly against the view of historian Wilson J Moses that African-Americans need to create a "positive folk mythology", even if this requires constructing a false history. Such an outlook, Howe points out, regards politics as "a zero-sum game (if 'we' win 'you' must lose) setting ethnic or racial collectivities against one another".

The Africa of the Afrocentrists, Howe observes, "is an imaginary place, without a real human history as well as without a present: not only without hunger, military coups, gender inequality and genocide, but equally without TV stations or traffic jams, human-rights movements and contemporary artistic creativity". In glorifying Africa's past, Afrocentrists often end up disparaging its present inhabitants. Howe points out how often Afrocentrists accept racist claims about the degenerate nature of recent or contemporary African societies.

The major weakness of Howe's otherwise illuminating book lies in its failure to place contemporary Afrocentrism in a contemporary social context. As Howe himself points out in his introduction, "Afrocentrism in its contemporary narrow US sense is largely a deviation or degeneration from the wider tradition of the politics of liberation: perhaps more an index of frustration than of progress." Unfortunately he does not pursue this point, nor relate Afrocentrism to other strands of African-American, anti-racist and emancipatory thought. Yet without this it is often difficult to understand many aspects of contemporary Afrocentrism. The space that Afrocentrism occupies in the imagination of black America has been created largely by the failures of the civil-rights movement and the struggles for equality. The anti-semitism that infuses contemporary Afrocentric thought has been shaped by the changing relations between the black and Jewish communities over the past half-century. A purely historical analysis of Afrocentrism limits our understanding of these issues.

Nor does Howe relate Afrocentrism to other forms of relativist thought so prevalent today. The idea that science, logic and other forms of human thought are culture-bound, and that rationality and universalism are "Eurocentric" concepts, has become commonplace. In this sense Afrocentrism draws upon much wider currents in Western philosophy. Again, the search for identity and origins, and the attempt to create a mythicised past, is not exclusive to Afrocentrism but part of a much wider trend in our age. It is a pity that Howe does not explore these issues, for it would have given greater depth to what nevertheless remains an important and valuable work.