Pharaohs in cyberspace

Sociological Notes

Stephen Howe
Sunday 21 June 1998 23:02

ALL HUMAN groups, it seems, share a compulsive need to create myths about their own origins and histories. They range from the harmlessly eccentric - all those depressingly popular books about lost civilisations and ancient Egyptian secrets - to the frighteningly destructive. Invented or distorted histories, rival visions of the past, underpin ethnic conflict from Belfast to Bombay, Jerusalem to Johannesburg, guaranteeing the reproduction of inherited prejudice across generations.

All this is as very old. It is at least as old as recorded history, repeated ever since ancient Greeks, Hebrews and Egyptians created stories about their own special virtues, their neighbours' special wickedness or inferiority.

What is new is that today, some sophisticated intellectuals champion myth over history; because it is supposedly more open-ended, more liberating, and through it one hears the voices of the oppressed and excluded. Others claim children from different groups in plural societies should be taught different, even antagonistic versions of history; in the name of multiculturalism, or in the interests of fostering group pride and solidarity.

Also new is the way that, via modern technologies and population movements, what were once local stories about the past are now globalised.

Browsing the websites of movements like Holocaust-denying "revisionists", the USA's white supremacist "Christian Identity", or India's savagely anti-Muslim "Hindutva" organisations, one encounters terrifying underworlds of mythicised pseudo-history. The stories they tell bear no relation to the researches of genuine scholars in those fields - but the scholars' words are almost drowned by the fantasists', in the new information media.

One of the strangest of these myth-making movements, proliferating on the Internet as well as in print media and the education system is Afrocentrism. There are hundreds of websites devoted to wild ideas about innate African superiority, the African origins of absolutely everything, and so on: certainly far more than there are dealing with Africa's real history.

Afrocentrism is less dangerous than some of the other bogus "historical" movements colonising the Net. Unlike them, few of its advocates call for violence against other groups. Nor, on the whole, do the movement's devotees - members of still underprivileged minorities - have the power to do much harm to others. The damage Afrocentric fake history can do is mainly to its intended audience, not to their supposed enemies.

In other ways, though, Afrocentrism is no less disturbing and damaging than rival historical myths. This is partly because of the tragic irony that a structure of illusion and reverse racism has taken hold among some of the very people who have suffered most from others' prejudice. It is partly because, unlike most other ethnocentric fantasies, it attracts sympathy in liberal and leftish quarters.

And it's partly because Afrocentric fantasy threatens to fill a gaping hole where true knowledge of Africa should be. The global mainstream of education and communication has only very recently - and very partially - struggled away from old racist assumptions about Africa: that it's basically historyless and cultureless. Meanwhile, poverty and technological underdevelopment mean that continental African voices barely feature in the global conversation of the Web. Now the new mass of ahistorical fabrications about Africa claim to correct the old ones but actually reproduce many of their worst features. If we go straight from the legend of the Dark Continent to the fable of Pharaohs in cyberspace, the main loser will be Africa itself.

Stephen Howe's `Afrocentrism: mythical pasts and imagined homes' has just been published by Verso.

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