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A short defence of Afrocentrism

in the light of Stephen Howe's 1998 book

by Wim van Binsbergen

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[ the text below is a contribution by Wim van Binsbergen to a debate on Afrocentrism, published in Politique Africaine, Nov. 2000 ]


Stephen Howe’s book[1] is in the first place a contribution to intellectual history, and as such it is an excellent piece of scholarship. Its breadth of argument and the depth of reading supporting it are most impressive. Afrocentrism is one of the first books to map out in detail, from its remoter origins to its contemporary ramifications and high-profile manifestations, one of the most significant intellectual and political movements of the world today.

                        Unmistakably the author intends his book to constitute Afrocentrism’s definitive denunciation. His motivation is alarm over what he (with many others, foremost Mary Lefkowitz)[2] sees as the sell-out of intellectual and moral values for the sake of Black, mainly African American, consciousness-raising.

                        One cannot help agreeing with Howe’s (and Lefkowitz’s) identification of the deficiencies endemic to that genre: the poor scholarship; the amateurish, autodidactic approach to grand historical and comparative themes without systematic use of obvious sources and obvious methods; the Afrocentrist authors’ manifest and deliberate isolation from current debates and current advances in the fields of scholarship they touch on; and the occasional lapses into Black racism. On all these points Howe has very sensible things to say.

                        However, where Howe and I fundamentally disagree is with regard to the extent of dismission that Afrocentrism calls for. For Howe, Afrocentrism is largely what in our Marxist days we used to call false consciousness: a view of reality which is systematically distorted and which can be explained from the historical trajectory traversed, in recent centuries, by the collectivity holding these views. Where Howe finds Afrocentrism by and large intolerable it is because, in the context of the politics of identity on which the postmodern world revolves, it is no longer politically correct, yea it is more and more even politically impossible, to publicly ignore or dismiss the Afrocentrist claims; hence their increasing influence in the U.S.A. educational system. For Howe (p. 6), as for me, the central issue here is explicitly the truth value of Afrocentrism.

                        Howe asserts himself as one primarily interested in the politics of history writing, but he fails to elaborate on the formidable philosophical question of what constitutes truth in historical analysis. If yet he insists on calling the Afrocentric version of history, mythical, he sadly misses the opportunity of exploring the possibly mythical dimensions of mainstream historiography. 

                        For Howe the truth value of Afrocentrism is zero, in other words Afrocentrism is entirely mythical. For me,[3] very much to the contrary, Afrocentrism (despite its endemic defects) does contain a kernel of truth, in the form of testable hypotheses about the possible contributions which Africans may have made towards the world-wide development of human culture. Such a position has important political and critical implications. For if there is even the remotest possibility that some of the Afrocentrist tenets (however unscholarly in their present elaboration and substantiation) might yet be confirmed when restated in a scholarly manner and investigated with state-of-the-art scientific methods, then the wholesale dismissal of Afrocentrism cannot simply be the positive, enlightened gesture Howe (or Lefkowitz) claim it to be. Such dismissal risks to be a confirmation of the status quo, a continuation of the processes of exclusion to which Black people, inside and outside Africa, have been subjected for centuries. Here there is a political role to be played by the odd person out: the scholar and polemicist who for lack of Black or African antecedents cannot be suspected of being on a mere conscious-raising trip, and who yet, for respectable scholarly reasons, defends views similar to or identical with those of the Afrocentrists. Martin Bernal’s has been such a case, inevitably denounced by Howe.

                        Historiographic usage offers a number of ready answers to the fundamental question: By what method and with what validity and reliability do we construct images of the past?  For Howe, and for many historians like him who situate themselves in the empiricist tradition while being suspicious of an over-reliance on systematic theory, a central methodological approach is that of ‘common sense’, an appeal to the self-validating effect of simple everyday logic and common (i.e. North Atlantic, Western) everyday concepts. Inevitably (since everyday common perspectives are by definition intersubjective, shared with others and recognised to be so shared) a common sense appeal would favour the paradigms as taken for granted in a given discipline at a given moment of time.

                        It has been Bernal’s merit[4] to make us aware of the immense historical and political significance of one such historiographic paradigm, whose demolition has been the purpose of his Black Athena project:

(a) ‘Greek classical culture was essentially independent from any inputs from the Ancient Near East (Anatolia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia)’.

In connection with Afrocentrism, three other such historical paradigms have been dominant throughout the second half of the twentieth century:

(b) ‘Ancient Egypt, although situated on the edge of the African continent, was essentially a non-African civilisation whose major achievements in the fields of religion, social, political and military organisation, architecture and other crafts, the sciences etc., were largely original and whose historical cultural indebtedness lay, if anything, with West Asia rather than with sub-Saharan Africa’

(c) ‘Ancient Egypt did not have a profound, lasting, and therefore traceable impact on the African continent, particularly not on sub-Saharan Africa’

(d) ‘Contemporary Africa is a patchwork quilt of numerous distinct local cultures, each supported by a distinct language and each giving rise to a distinct ethnic identity, in the light of which broad perspectives on continental cultural continuity going back to the remoter past much be relegated to the realm of ideology and illusion’

Phrased in this way, these paradigms, although largely taken for granted by the scholars working in their context, are in principle testable hypotheses. Although they are not intrinsically ideological, unmistakably they well attuned to a hegemonic North Atlantic perspective on the world. They postulate a world which is neatly compartmentalised; incomparably more so than would be suggested not only by the globalising experience of our own time, but also by the demonstrable spread of agricultural techniques, weaponry, musical instruments, languages, belief systems including world religions, formal systems such as board games, divination methods, myths and symbolism, across the African continent and in considerable (though painfully understudied) continuity with the rest of the Old World, and even the New World. Under such compartmentalisation, a whole mythical geopolitics comes into being: the mystery and mystique of Europe — more recently: of the North Atlantic in general — can be maintained as a solid ideological power base for colonialism and postcolonial hegemony; Egypt, Africa, African cultures, remain the ultimate other, to the North Atlantic, but also to one another; a conceptual and geopolitical ‘divide and rule’ keeps them in their subordinate place vis-?vis the North Atlantic; and the basic flow of achievement is defined as going from north to south, while the hegemonically undesirable idea of counter-flows in a northerly direction is ruled out. These may be testable hypothesis, but they are very close to geopolitical myths.

                        If our four paradigms (a) through (d) can be demonstrated to have considerable hegemonic ideological potential (not to say that they are downright Eurocentric and racist), their inverses are likely to have a similar but opposite ideological charge. These inverses would stress historical cultural continuity:

(ainverse)           between Greece and the ancient Near East including Ancient Egypt;

(binverse)           between prehistoric cultures situated on the Africa continent south of the Tropic of Cancer (23?7’ North), and Ancient Egypt;

(cinverse)           between Ancient Egypt and latter-day African cultures;

(dinverse)           between latter-day African cultures even regardless of the influence of Ancient Egypt.

It is my contention that the paradigms (ainverse) through (dinverse) contain a healthy and serious critique of hegemonic misconceptions, and therefore in themselves are to a considerable extent, demonstrably true. It now so happens that these inverse paradigms are among the central tenets of Afrocentrism, which therefore can no longer be relegated to mere false consciousness and Black consciousness-raising, but deserve to be admitted to the central halls of scholarship. To dismiss these inverse views as ‘myths’, as Howe does in the subtitle of his book and throughout, is not only doing them injustice, but also means myopia: the potentially mythical nature of the dominant paradigms is insufficiently brought to the fore.

                        This myopia of Howe’s book is not readily recognised since the execution of its design is largely impeccable. Not being an Africanist himself, he can only be praised for the meticulous way in which he has digested the vast relevant bibliography, offering a middle-of-the-road synthesis in line with the dominant paradigms (a) through (d). He finds little, in the enormous literature he has plodded through, to falsify the dominant common-sense paradigms (a) through (d); but did he search closely enough? To Howe, ‘the actual evidence of ideas about kingship paralleling Egypt’s either in Sub-Saharan Africa or in the Aegean is extremely thin’ (p. 130). On the basis of what kind of authority is such a statement made? My own recent discovery of very extensive Egyptian parallels in the material on Zambian kingship[5] came only after studying Nkoya kingship and myths for twenty years, from the inside, and after far more extensive exposure to Ancient Near Eastern studies than anthropologists and Africanists normally get; this suggests some of the methodological and paradigmatic problems involved. Contrary to what Howe claims, the evidence on parallels between Ancient Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa is massive, though uneven.[6]

                        Howe has simply not spend enough time in the various disciplines his argument touched up, nor looked closely enough once he was there. He misses the feel of the disciplines involved, their internal counter-currents, and some of their most recent developments. For instance, the African origin of mankind is dismissively glossed over in chapter III, but hardly a word here on recent discoveries which have added, to the now generally accepted view that humanisation took place in Africa some three million years ago, the rapidly increasing probability that also the Human Revolution of scarcely fifty thousand years ago, producing modern humans capable of language, art, symbolism, social organisation etc., may well have taken place (in part or entirely) in Africa, from which now hail our oldest finds of animal representations, paint, and sophisticated weaponry like barbed harpoons.[7] Such a probable African background of modern humans (who, in the face of ultraviolet exposure, may well have been black-skinned) provides Afrocentrism with a prima facie case too good to be ignored or dismissed of hand.

                        Howe’s good intentions have not prevented him from endorsing a view of world history which is potentially hegemonic, Eurocentric, and mythical, and which therefore is not preferable to the Afrocentrist alternative he fights.

                        I will overlook Howe’s occasional lapses into polemical overkill. More relevant is that scholarly reputations are readily sacrificed on the altar of Howe’s indignation vis-?vis Afrocentrism, and the more readily, the less Howe knows of their specialist field: Clyde Ahmad Winters, Herodotus, Henry Frankfort, Frobenius, Sergi. These ancient and modern scholars have one thing in common which makes them unwelcome in the common-sense, main-steam paradigmatic world to whose authority Howe appeals. They all had the ability to think across established cultural and geopolitical boundaries, whether this meant explaining the origin of the Persian wars in a complex context encompassing the entire Ancient World, or lumping Egypt and Mesopotamia in one grand argument, or stressing the essential continuity between West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia, when it comes to somatic traits, kinship patterns, languages, and symbolism. Not surprisingly, Howe’s villains appear as intellectual heroes in one of my own books in progress.

                                The case of Frobenius is particularly instructive. The leading Africanist of his generation (early twentieth century), he became the major single inpiration of Afrocentrism. In addition to other allegations (some of which may be only too true but none of which should be treated anachronistically), Howe reproaches Frobenius (p. 116) for stressing outside influences on African cultures. Such alleged emphasis on Frobenius’s part (which amounts to a distortion of his work anyway) certainly does not fit in the Afrocentrist orientation, yet is the inescapable implication of global cultural exchanges percolating since at least the Upper Palaeolithic. In fact, we encounter here a fifth main-stream paradigm:

(e) ‘There have been no substantial non-African influences on African cultures’.

This paradigm happens to be shared by late twentieth century Africanists, and Afrocentrists alike. In my opinion, the hegemonic background of the contention enshrined in this paradigm lies in a combination of two ideological stances. In the first place the North Atlantic tendency to an absolute othering of things African, which does not tolerate them to be polluted by transcontinental connections and thus to be recognised, after all, as part of the wider world. In the second place I see here an attempt at compensation for a guilty feeling about the violation of African dignity in the context of the transactlantic slave-trade and colonialism. Yet Africa has unmistakably been part of the global world of mankind since its African origin, both giving to the wider world, and taking from it; transcontinental exchanges in human culture have been the hallmark of human history, inside and outside Africa.

                        Let us be grateful to Howe for giving us a serious scholarly study of the background and contents of Afrocentrism as a case of intellectual history. His devastating political and ideological critique of Afrocentrism has been inspired by the best of intentions, by concern not only for the future of scholarship and education but also by abhorrence at the thought of Black intellectuals retreating into an intellectual ghetto. Contrary to Bernal, who tends to be right for the wrong reasons, Howe can be said to be wrong for the right reasons. His book does not put paid to Afrocentrism; and I am pleased to report that, as a sign of commitment and intellectual integrity on Howe’s part, he was obviously pleased when, at the colloquium where the present argument was first delivered, I stated the case for the possible empirical truth (in ways beyond the scope of the present short note) of some of the most cherished Afrocentrist theses. It is not in the Black ghetto or in its academic counterparts (such as the Journal of African Civilizations and Karnak Publishers, both bastions of Afrocentrism), but in the open, transparent, universally accessible environment of academia itself, that Afrocentrism has to be forced into open debate, and will thus be cleansed from poor methodology, restrictive selection of data, entrenched refusal to take cognisance of existing detached scientific inquiry, and above all, racism. Beyond the unmistakable defects of current Afrocentrism, glows the promise of a bright future, where thanks to Afrocentrism’s inspiring reversal of accepted hegemonic paradigms, we may hope to come much closer to the empirical, demonstrable truth concerning such contributions to mankind’s world-wide culture as have emerged, over the millennia, from the African continent.


[1]             Howe, Stephen, 1999, Afrocentrism: Mythical pasts and imagined homes, London/New York: Verso, first published 1998.

[2]                Lefkowitz, M.R., 1996, Not out of Africa: How Afrocentrism became an excuse to teach myth as history, New York: Basic Books.

[3]             van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97, now being reprinted in expanded form as Black Athena Alive, Hamburg/Muenster: LIT Verlag, 2001; also cf. W.M.J. van Binsbergen, 2000, ‘Dans le troisi鑝e mill閚aire avec Black Athena?’, in: Fauvelle-Aymar, F.-X., Chr閠ien, J.-P., & Perrot, C.-H., 2000, eds., Afrocentrismes: L’histoire des Africains entre 蒰ypte et Am閞ique, Paris: Karthala, pp. 127-150; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., forthcoming, Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World — Beyond the Black Athena thesis.

[4]             Bernal, M., 1987, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization, I, The fabrication of ancient Greece 1787-1987, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; Bernal, M., 1991, Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic roots of classical civilization, II, The archaeological and documentary evidence, Londen: Free Association Books/New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press; cf. his contributions to Black Athena Ten Years After, o.c.

[5]             van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight, o.c.

[6]             Shinnie, P. L., 1971. ‘The legacy to Africa’, in: Harris, J.R., ed., The legacy of Egypt, 2d ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 434-55, espec. pp. 447f.

[7]             Shreeve, J., 1996, The Neandertal enigma? Solving the mystery of modern human origins, New York: Morrow/ Viking, pp. 216f, 257f; Deacon, H. J., 1992, ‘Southern Africa and Modern Human Origins’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B 337 (1992): 177-183; Deacon, H. & J. Deacon, 1999, Human beginnings in South Africa, Uncovering the Secrets of the Stone Age, Altamira Press: Walnut Creek CA; Anati, E., 1999, La religion des origines, Paris: Bayard; French translation of La religione delle origini, n.p.: Edizione delle origini, 1995, pp. 88f; Anati, E., 1986, ‘The Rock Art of Tanzania and the East African Sequence’, BCSP [ Bolletino des Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici ] , 23: 15-68, fig. 5-51; Wendt, W.E., 1976, ‘ ‘’Art mobilier’’ from Apollo 11 Cave, South West Africa: Africa’s oldest dated works of art’, South African Archaeological Bulletin, 31: 5-11. In recent months, I have explored the Afrocentric implications of these finds as part of a book manuscript entitled Cupmarks, stellar maps, and mankala board-games: An archaeological and Africanist excusrsin into Palaeolithic world-views.

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