Afrocentrism or Afrocentricity is a world view that emphasizes the importance of African people in culture, philosophy, and history. Fundamental to Afrocentrism is the assumption that approaching knowledge from a Eurocentrist perspective, as well as certain mainstream assumptions in the application of information in the West, has led to injustices and also to inadequacies in meeting the needs of Black Africans and the peoples of the African diaspora.
As an ideology and political movement, Afrocentrism has its beginnings in activism among Black intellectuals, political figures and historians in the context of the US American civil rights movement. Molefi Kete Asante describes Afrocentricity as a "systematic nationalism." According to its critics afrocentrism is grounded in identity politics and myth rather than scholarship, not as a coherent political ideology but as a set of tactics in the "culture wars".
Afrocentrists commonly contend that Eurocentrism has led to the neglect or denial of the contributions of African people and focused instead on a generally European-centered model of world civilization and history. Therefore, Afrocentrism is a paradigm shift from a European-centered history to an African-centered history. More broadly, Afrocentrism is concerned with distinguishing African achievements apart from the influence of European peoples. Some Western mainstream scholars have assessed some Afrocentric ideas as pseudohistorical, especially claims regarding Ancient Egypt as contributing directly to the development of Greek and Western culture. Contemporary Afrocentrists may view the movement as multicultural rather than ethnocentric. The leader of this category is Francis Ohanyido an African philosopher and poet whose concerns are more on quality leadership and developmental issues. According to US professor Victor Oguejiofor Okafor, concepts of Afrocentricity lie at the core of the disciplines such as African American studies.
Modern afrocentricity has its origins in the work of African and African diaspora intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Afrocentricity has changed over time. Aspects have been hotly debated both outside and within Afrocentric circles.
Afrocentrism developed first as an argument among leaders and intellectuals in the Western Hemisphere. It arose following social changes in the United States and Africa due both to the end of slavery and expansion of British colonialism. Wanting to further establish their own identities in freedom, African Americans left white-dominated churches to establish their own. They pulled together in communities and often migrated to restore their families. African Americans eagerly sought education. They withdrew women and children from fieldwork as much as possible, the men received the right to vote and participate in public office, and their leaders took more active public roles despite severe discrimination and segregation.
By the late 19th century, the United Kingdom had become a superpower. Through the century Britain and France governments, travelers, scholars, artists and writers increasingly turned their attentions to Africa and the Near East as places of exploration (both physical and intellectual), settlement, exploitation of new resources, and playing out of their longstanding rivalries. They completed the Suez Canal in 1869, simplifying ship passage between Europe and the Far East. Based on their self-appraisal of the value of technology, industrialization, Western infrastructure, and culture, these European nations assumed their superiority to the peoples and cultures they encountered in Africa.
Blyden used that standpoint to show how the traditional social, industrial, and economic life of Africans untouched by "either European or Asiatic influence", was different and complete in itself, with its own organic wholeness. In a letter responding to Blyden's original series of articles, Fante journalist and politician J.E. Casely Hayford commented, "It is easy to see the men and women who walked the banks of the Nile" passing him on the streets of Kumasi. Hayford suggested building a University to preserve African identity and instincts. In that university, the history chair would teach
Universal history, with particular reference to the part Ethiopia has played in the affairs of the world. I would lay stress upon the fact that while Ramses II was dedicating temples to 'the God of gods, and secondly to his own glory,' the God of the Hebrews had not yet appeared unto Moses in the burning bush; that Africa was the cradle of the world's systems and philosophies, and the nursing mother of its religions. In short, that Africa has nothing to be ashamed of in its place among the nations of the earth. I would make it possible for this seat of learning to be the means of revising erroneous current ideas regarding the African; of raising him in self-respect; and of making him an efficient co-worker in the uplifting of man to nobler effort.The exchange of ideas between Blyden and Hayford embodied the fundamental concepts of Afrocentricism.
In the United States, writers and editors of publications such as The Crisis and The Journal of Negro History sought to counter the prevailing view that Sub-Saharan Africa had contributed nothing of value to human history that was not the result of incursions by Europeans and Arabs. Authors in these journals theorized that Ancient Egyptian civilization was the culmination of events arising from the origin of the human race in Africa. They investigated the history of Africa from that perspective.
Afrocentrists claimed The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933) by Carter G. Woodson, an African- American historian, as one of their foundational texts. Woodson critiqued education of African Americans as "mis-education" because he held that it denigrated the black while glorifying the white. For these early Afrocentrists, the goal was to break what they saw as a vicious cycle of the reproduction of black self-abnegation. In the words of The Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, the world left African Americans with a "double consciousness," and a sense of "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."
In his early years, W.E.B. Du Bois, researched West African cultures and attempted to construct a pan-Africanist value system based on West African traditions. In the 1950s Du Bois envisioned and received funding from Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah to produce an Encyclopedia Africana to chronicle the history and cultures of Africa. Du Bois died before being able to complete his work. Some aspects of Du Bois's approach are evident in work by Cheikh Anta Diop in the 1950s and 1960s. Diop identified a pan-African protolanguage and presented evidence that ancient Egyptians were, indeed, black Africans .
Du Bois inspired a number of authors, including Drusilla Dunjee Houston. After reading his work The Negro (1915), Houston embarked upon writing her Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire (1926). The book was a compilation of evidence related to the historic origins of Cush and Ethiopia, and assessed their influences on Greece.
The work of Cheikh Anta Diop became very influential. In the following decades, histories related to Africa and the diaspora gradually would incorporate a more African perspective. Since that time, Afrocentrists have increasingly seen African peoples as the makers and shapers of their own histories.
You have all heard of the African Personality; of African democracy, of the African way to socialism, of negritude, and so on. They are all props we have fashioned at different times to help us get on our feet again. Once we are up we shan't need any of them any more. But for the moment it is in the nature of things that we may need to counter racism with what Jean-Paul Sartre has called an anti-racist racism, to announce not just that we are as good as the next man but that we are much better.
—Chinua Achebe, 1965
Tejumola Olaniyan writes that Chinua Achebe easily might have included Afrocentrism in his list of "props." In this context, ethnocentric Afrocentrism was not intended to be essential or permanent. It was a consciously fashioned strategy of resistance to the Eurocentrism of the time. Afrocentric scholars adopted two approaches: a deconstructive rebuttal of what they called "the whole archive of European ideological racism" and a reconstructive act of writing new self-constructed histories.At a 1974 UNESCO symposium in Cairo titled "The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Decipherment of Meroitic Script", Cheikh Anta Diop brought together scholars of Egypt from around the world.
Key texts from this period include:
Some Afrocentric writers focused on study of indigenous African civilizations and peoples, to emphasize African history separate from European or Arab influence. Primary among them was Chancellor Williams, whose book The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. set out to determine a "purely African body of principles, value systems (and) philosophy of life".
In the 1970s, several scholars advanced theories that the complex civilizations of the Americas were the result of trans-oceanic influence from the Egyptians or other African civilizations. Such a claim is the primary thesis of Ivan van Sertima's book They Came Before Columbus, published in 1978. These hyper-diffusionist writers seek to establish that the Olmec people, who built the first highly complex civilization in Mesoamerica and are considered by some to be the mother civilization for all other civilizations of Mesoamerica, were deeply influenced by Africans. Van Sertima himself contended that the Olmec civilization was a hybrid one of Africans and Native Americans. His book, published by a major publishing house, received broad exposure. While Van Sertima rejected the notion that his findings were driven by Afrocentrism, the book received a friendly reception among Afrocentrist proponents. His theory of pre-Columbian American-African contact has met with opposition in academia, with some Mesoamericanists charging Van Sertima with "doctoring" and twisting data to fit his conclusions, and with inventing evidence. However, archaeological finds over the last two decades in South America of rock art and human skeletal remains suggest to some scholars and academicians an ancient, pre-Columbian presence of "Australoid" or "Negroid" peoples in the New World who came from Australia and Melanesia earlier than the Asian ancestors of current Native American populations.
In his (1992) article "Eurocentrism vs. Afrocentrism", US anthropologist Linus A. Hoskins wrote:
The vital necessity for African people to use the weapons of education and history to extricate themselves from this psychological dependency complex/syndrome as a necessary precondition for liberation. [...] If African peoples (the global majority) were to become Afrocentric (Afrocentrized), ... that would spell the ineluctable end of European global power and dominance. This is indeed the fear of Europeans. ... Afrocentrism is a state of mind, a particular subconscious mind-set that is rooted in the ancestral heritage and communal value system.
Although Afrocentricity is often associated with liberal or left-wing politics, the movement is not homogeneous. During the 1980s and 1990s, sociological research became increasingly preoccupied with the problem of the "black underclass". Some Afrocentric scholars began to frame Afrocentric values as a remedy for what they perceived to be the social ills of poor African Americans. American educator Jawanza Kunjufu made the case that hip hop culture, rather than being creative expression of the culture, was the root of many social ills. For some Afrocentrists, the contemporary problems of the ghetto stemmed not from race and class inequality, but rather from a failure to inculcate Black youth with Afrocentric values.
Afrocentric ideas also received a considerable boost from the cultural shift known as postmodernism and its privileging of difference, micro-struggles, and the politics of identity. Postmodernism's general assault on the authority and universalist claims of Western "culture" is also a mainstay in many Afrocentric agendas. In turn, postmodern pluralism has begun to permeate Afrocentric thought.
In the West and elsewhere, the European, in the midst of other peoples, has often propounded an exclusive view of reality; the exclusivity of this view creates a fundamental human crisis. In some cases, it has created cultures arrayed against each other or even against themselves. Afrocentricity’s response certainly is not to impose its own particularity as a universal, as Eurocentricity has often done. But hearing the voice of African American culture with all of its attendant parts is one way of creating a more sane society and one model for a more humane world. -Asante, M. K. (1988)
By the end of the 1990s, the ethnocentric Afrocentrism of the '50s, '60s and '70s had largely fallen out of favor. In 1997, US cultural historian Nathan Glazer described Afrocentricity as a form of multiculturalism. He wrote that its influence ranged from sensible proposals about inclusion of more African material in school curricula to what he called senseless claims about African primacy in all major technological achievements. Glazer argued that Afrocentricity had become more important due to the failure of mainstream society to assimilate all African Americans. Anger and frustration at their continuing separation gave black Americans the impetus to reject traditions that excluded them.
Afrocentrists argue that Afrocentricity is important for people of all ethnicities who want to understand African history and the African diaspora. For example, the Afrocentric method can be used to research African indigenous culture. Queeneth Mkabela writes in 2005 that the Afrocentric perspective provides new insights for understanding African indigenous culture, in a multicultural context. According to Mkabela and others, the Afrocentric method is a necessary part of complete scholarship and without it, the picture is incomplete, less accurate, and less objective.
Contemporary Afrocentrists may view the movement as multicultural rather than ethnocentric.They see Afrocentricity as one part of a larger multicultural movement that has begun to shift the focus of historical and cultural studies away from Eurocentrism. Studies of African and African-diaspora cultures have shifted understanding and created a more positive acceptance of influence by African religious, linguistic and other traditions, both among scholars and the general public. For example Lorenzo Dow Turner's seminal 1949 study of the Gullah language, a dialect spoken by black communities in Georgia and South Carolina, demonstrated that its idiosyncrasies were not simply incompetent command of English, but incorporated West African linguistic characteristics in vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantic system. Likewise, religious movements such as Vodou are now less likely to be characterized as "mere superstition", but understood in terms of links to African traditions. Scholars who adopt such approaches may or may not see their work as Afrocentrist in orientation.
In recent years Africana Studies or Africology departments at many major universities have grown out of the Afrocentric "Black Studies" departments formed in the 1970s. Rather than focusing on black topics in the African diaspora (often exclusively African American topics), these reformed departments aim to expand the field to encompass all of the African diaspora. They also seek to better align themselves with other University departments and find continuity and compromise between the radical Afrocentricity of the past decades and the multicultural scholarship found in many fields today.
I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. ...[In] our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly. - David Hume 18th century Scottish historian, philosopher and essayist.
By the mid-20th century many such overtly derogatory ideas had been rejected, but Afrocentrists contended that the denial, denigration and appropriation of black historical and cultural achievements made it important to study world history from a new perspective. Thus, Afrocentric scholars have worked to engage the biased methods and approaches used by some European scholars and the European-dominated intellectual community, in relation to all the people of Africa and the diaspora.
Because of bias due to Eurocentrism, scholars sometimes overlooked or denied Africans' agency in the creation of their own histories. For example until recently, Western scholars believed cities such as Dakar, Banjul (Bathhurst), Abidjan, Conakry and others were created by Western colonizers. Although the cities were transformed by colonization (in both negative and positive ways), each of them predated colonization. Similarly, many of the existing economic and institutional patterns in Africa had origins well before colonialism.
Lynn Meskell writes that archaeologists working in Egypt have rarely considered the local and global ramifications of their interpretations of ancient history. According to Meskell, many continue to operate under the residual effects of colonialism. In 1991 Wyatt MacGaffey wrote that the bulk of scholarly work about Africa took for granted a Eurocentric distinction between "savage" and "civilized" peoples calculated to flatter the European and white audience for which it was intended. MacGaffey writes that it has only been since the 1960s that the possibility of writing any history for Africa has been generally admitted.
Nathan Glazer acknowledges that Afrocentricity and multiculturalism have played a role in shaping trends in the teaching of history and the social sciences, but he also stresses that they are not the only cultural movements responsible for the move away from now increasingly obsolete forms of Eurocentrism.
Some Afrocentric writers also include in the African diaspora the "Negritos" of Southeast Asia (Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia; and the Africoid, aboriginal peoples of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.
Afrocentrists who adopt this approach contend that such peoples are African in a racial sense, just as the white inhabitants of modern Australia may be said to be European. In doing so, they ignore the drastically different time frames for migration of whites from Europe to Australia within the last 200 years, and ancient peoples from the African continent to India or Polynesia tens of thousands of years ago.
In 2003, geneticist Spencer Wells' findings confirmed a clear DNA link between indigenous Africans and the Australoid peoples of India, Australia and Southeast Asia, tracing the DNA of San bushmen from southeast Africa to India and on to Australia. Earlier studies showed that some of these darker-skinned ethnic groups cluster genetically more closely with neighboring East Asians than with indigenous Africans, due to millennia of intermingling with one another in relative isolation.
Afrocentrists have adopted a pan-Africanist perspective that such people of color are all "African people" or "diasporic Africans," citing physical characteristics they exhibit in common with Black Africans. Afrocentric scholar Runoko Rashidi writes that they are all part of the "global African community."
Critics of Afrocentrism note that the Southeast Asian and Melanesian peoples did not emigrate out of Africa within any time span that relates them closely to ancient African civilizations. Wells' work indicates that the ancestors of Southeast Asian and Melanesian peoples migrated out of Africa before the ancestors of modern Europeans did. The Afrocentric designation of Southeast Asians and Melanesians as "African diaspora" is also made without reference to the self-identities of the peoples in question, who may not generally consider themselves African.
Afrocentricity contends that race exists primarily as a social and political construct. That is, that race is important because of its cultural rather than its biological significance. Many Afrocentrists seek to challenge concepts such as white privilege, so-called color-blind perspectives, and race-neutral pedagogies. There are strong ties between Afrocentricity and Critical race theory.
Afrocentrists hold that Africans exhibit a range of types and physical characteristics, and that such elements as wavy hair or aquiline facial features are part of a continuum of African types that do not depend on admixture with Caucasian groups. They cite work by Hiernaux and Hassan which they believe demonstrates that populations could vary based on microevolutionary principles (climate adaptation, drift, selection), and that such variations existed in both living and fossil Africans.
Afrocentrists have condemned what they consider to be attempts at dividing African peoples into racial clusters as new versions of what they deem older, discredited theories, such as the "Hamitic Hypothesis" and the Dynastic Race Theory. These theories, they contend, attempted to identify certain African ethnicities, such as Nubians, Ethiopians and Somalis, as "Caucasoid" groups that entered Africa to bring civilization to the natives.
Afrocentrists have also charged that a double standard exists and that Western academics have made limited attempts at defining a "true white". They believe that Western academics have traditionally limited the peoples they defined as "Black" Africans, but used broader "Caucasoid" or related categories to classify peoples of Egypt or certain other African ethnicities.
Afrocentric writer C.A. Diop expressed this belief in a double standard as follows in 1964:
"But it is only the most gratuitous theory which considers the Dinka, the Nouer and the Masai, among others, to be Caucasoids. What if an African ethnologist were to persist in recognising as white only the blond, blue-eyed Scandinavians, and systematically refused membership to the remaining Europeans, and Mediterraneans in particular--the French, Italians, Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese? Just as the inhabitants of Scandinavia and the Mediterranean countries must be considered as two extreme poles of the same anthropological reality, so should the Negroes of East and West Africa be considered as the two extremes in the reality of the Negro world. To say that a Shillouk, a Dinka, or a Nouer is a Caucasoid is for an African as devoid of sense and scientific interest as would be, to a European, an attitude which maintained that a Greek or a Latin were not of the same race.
Afrocentrists believe that European scholars define Black people as narrowly as possible, labeling as the extreme "true Negro" only those peoples living south of the Sahara. They add that all Africans who do not meet the definition of this extreme are allocated to "Caucasoid" groupings, including Ethiopians, Somalis, Egyptians and Nubians (C. G. Seligman's Races of Africa, 1966). Afrocentrists also believe strongly in the work of certain anthropologists who have suggested that there is little evidence to support that these populations are closely related to "Caucasoids" of Europe and western Asia.
For example, French historian Jean Vercoutter has claimed that selective grouping was common among scholars assessing the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians. He has said that workers routinely classified Negroid remains as "Mediterranean", even though archaeological workers found such remains in substantial numbers with ancient artifacts. (Vercoutter 1978- The Peopling of ancient Egypt)
More recent work by geneticists, however, provides evidence that Eurasians likely are descended from populations who migrated north and east out of the Horn of Africa. Hence, certain shared genetic and phenotypical characteristics among Eurasians and Northeast African groups such as Ethiopians and Somalis. Some phenotypical similarities among Somalis and Eurasians exist at a higher structural level, such as orthognathism, tooth size, keen facial features and skull shape and size. According to anthropologist Loring Brace:
When the nonadaptive aspects of craniofacial configuration are the basis for assessment, the Somalis cluster with Europeans before showing a tie with the people of West Africa or the Congo Basin.
Genetic analyses of male DNA in the 21st century have also indicated that Somalis carry considerable E1b1b, a Y chromosome haplogroup characteristic of Northeast African, Berber, Arab, Jewish, Mediterranean and Balkan populations.
Afrocentrists argue against the classification of people they deem indigenous, "Black" Africans as Caucasoid and instead advocate use of the term Africoid to encompass the varying phenotypes of both Negroid and proto-Caucasoid African populations, as well as phenotypically Negroid Australasian populations. They contend that it is more appropriate to name Africans in a manner which reflects their geographical origin, as are Asians, as Mongoloids, and Europeans, as Caucasians.
Mainstream archaeologists and Egyptologists such as Frank J. Yurco and Fekri Hassan have stated that ancient Egyptian peoples comprised a mix of North and sub-Saharan African peoples that have typified Egyptians ever since. They said that the Egyptian people were generally coextensive with other Africans in the Nile valley.
Early Afrocentrists pointed to the work in the 1960s of Czech anthropologist Eugene Strouhal, which described physical, cultural and material links of ancient Egypt with the peoples of Nubia and the Sahara (Strouhal (1968, 1971- Strouhal, E., ‘Evidence of the early penetration of Negroes into prehistoric Egypt)., the analyses of Falkenburger (1947) which show a clear Negroid element, especially in the southern population and sometimes as predominating in the predynastic period. In 1993 C Loring Brace et al wrote "The attempt to force the Egyptians into either a “black” or a “white” category has no biological justification. Our data show only that Egypt clearly had biological ties to the north and to the south, but that it was intermediate between populations to the east and the west, and that Egypt was basically Egyptian from the Neolithic right on up to historic times.
Research by archaeologist Bruce Williams argued for Nubian cultural influence on formation of the Egyptian kingships.
Egyptians themselves called for the inclusion of Egypt in Du Bois's early drafts of the Encyclopedia Africana. The director of the Egyptian Cultural Center in Accra wrote to praise Du Boise for having "maintained faith in the African character of Egypt's achievement," and urging that the Encyclopedia Africana keep Egypt within its Afrocentric focus.
Afrocentrists have claimed a growing scholarly acceptance of Egypt as an African culture with its own unique elements. They cite mainstream scholars like Bruce Trigger, who in 1978 decried that approaches of the past were 'marred by a confusion of race, language, and culture and by an accompanying racism'. and Egyptologist Frank Yurco, who in the late 1990s viewed the Egyptians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Somalians, and others as one localized Nile valley population, that need not be artificially clustered into racial percentages. Afrocentrists have cited 1990s mainstream studies that confirmed the varied physical character of the Egyptian people, and influence on them from other peoples of the Nile (Nilotic influence).
Afrocentrists also claimed that the ancient Egyptians made significant contributions to ancient Greece and Rome during their formative periods. They also claimed that Egyptians were black, as discussed above.
This early Afrocentric view is at odds with conclusions of mid-20th c. Eurocentric scholars such as British historian Arnold Toynbee and hearkens back to the findings of earlier historians. Toynbee believed the ancient Egyptian cultural sphere had died out without leaving a successor. He regarded as "myth" the idea that Egypt was the "origin of Western civilization."
There are accounts in the historical record dating back several centuries, in which writers noted Egypt's contributions to Mediterranean civilizations.
Other critics of the Afrocentric approach in the study of history include the late Egyptologist Frank Yurco, and African-American history professor Clarence E. Walker who has stated that Afrocentrism is: "a mythology that is racist, reactionary, essentially therapeutic and is eurocentrism in black face."
Cain Hope Felder, a Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Howard University and supporter of Afrocentric ideas, has warned Afrocentrists to avoid certain pitfalls. These include:
Nathan Glazer writes that although Afrocentricity can mean many things, the popular press has generally given most attention to its most outlandish theories. Glazer supports many of the findings in Mary Lefkowitz book Not Out of Africa but also recognizes that Afrocentricity may, at times, take the form of legitimate and relevant scholarship.
Often, the work that critics of Afrocentricity call "bad scholarship" is also rejected by Afrocentrists. Adisa A. Alkebulan writes that critics have used claims of what she calls "a few non-Afrocentrists" as "an indictment against Afrocentricity."
Robert Todd Carroll in The Skeptic's Dictionary refers to Afrocentrism as "pseudohistorical", and argues that the prime goal of Afrocentrism is to encourage black nationalism as well as ethnic pride in order to effectively combat the destructive consequences of cultural and universal racism.