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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones