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Over the last three decades or so, the production, validation, legitimation, and mediation of knowledge about peoples African and of African descent were subjects of often very heated debate. A significant number of the generations of black academics, independent scholars, and teachers who came of age during the civil rights and black power movements became especially aggressive in their efforts to subject knowledge-production and knowledgemediation to guiding norms of Afrocentrism. While many of the concerns now linked with Afrocentrism have older roots—for example, in the antiracist writings of W. E. B. Du Bois (The Negro, 1915; The Souls of Black Folk, 1903), the rehabilitative historiography of J. A. Rogers (World’s Great Men of Color, 1946–1947), and the works of George Washington Williams (History of the Negro Race in America, 1882)—the predominant steward of Afrocentrism in its modern form has been Molefi Kete Asante, of Temple University’s department of African American studies.
Asante’s call to become Afro-centric—that is, “African centered”—was shaped by twin forces: the politics of knowledge production, mediation, and appropriation, and resurgent black nationalism. The initial focus was on intellectual and political struggles over black studies: that is, on how to define, implement, and sustain systematic studies of black peoples (that is, Africans and peoples of African descent) through the disciplines of history, sociology, political science, psychology, economics, the arts, religion, and literature. Such studies were to be corrective of the denigrating distortions of the histories, lives, achievements, contributions, and possibilities of black peoples perpetuated through centuries of racist, Eurocentric scholarship. Foundational to this corrective work, Asante and others concluded, was the necessity of ensuring that producers and consumers of knowledge of black peoples be “centered” on the values and agendas of black peoples, especially those that originated within the classical African civilizations. A corollary conviction was that the production and consumption of such knowledge must be devoted unequivocally to the liberation of black peoples from Eurocentric constrictions and denials of their humanity. A distinctive contribution made by Asante is his ongoing effort to specify epistemological norms and strategies by which to produce knowledge that is fully and properly Afrocentric.
Thus, Afrocentrism (and its evolving cognates Afrocentricity and Afrology) became a name with multiple references serving several related agendas. On one hand, it referred to epistemological and methodological norms and strategies by which to guide the production of knowledge by, about, and for black peoples. At the same time, the agenda was not merely scholarly: Afrocentric knowledge-production was to give guidance to history-making living in all dimensions of black life—political, sociological, and cultural.
Afrocentrism thus became a complex intellectual, social, political, and cultural movement with substantial impact on proponents and practitioners of black/African/ Africana studies. While the Afrocentric orientation is by no means the only or even predominant guiding commitment, it has been an intellectual and political force to be reckoned with, especially by knowledge-workers of African descent. These scholars have felt compelled either to establish their Afrocentric credentials, or to declare their independence from or opposition to Afrocentrism. Furthermore, Afrocentric critiques of what has passed, and continues to pass, for knowledge about black peoples have compelled more than a few scholars, black and white, to undertake reviews and counter-critiques of their own. Moreover, the Afrocentric movement in the United States has spread well beyond college and university campuses and contestations among professional academics. It has challenged curricula and teaching in primary and secondary schools, with notable impact in a number of cities and states (Portland, Oregon, and New York state, for example).
In reaction to Afrocentrism’s influence, critics have posed a number of important questions: Do Afrocentric commitments render what is produced more ideology and propaganda than “objective truth”? Is Afrocentric knowledge-work limited by the strictures of racialized epistemology and self-defeating methodological circularity? To answer these challenges, and to address Afrocentrism’s potential weaknesses, a number of scholars have sought to refine the concept. Asante has contributed to this refinement through his reworking of the concept of Afrocentricity as Africalogy in Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge (1990). So, too, has Maulana Karenga, in his Introduction to Black Studies (1993). And works by strenuous critics such as Stephen Howe (1998) and Mary Lefkowitz (1997), along with the work of disciplined and deft intellectual historians such as Wilson Jeremiah Moses (1998) have helped to foster healthy reconsiderations and refinements of Afrocentrism.
Irrespective of the excesses and deficiencies of the Afrocentric quest in its various guises, one core insight remains cogent: All modes of knowledge-production and mediation are “centered” on particular historically and culturally conditioned values and interests. Proponents of Afrocentrism have sought to make such interests, values, and commitments explicit in terms of the agendas and communities they serve, while disclosing the racist investments in whiteness and imperialism that have distorted so much of supposedly “interest-free,” “objective” knowledge-production and mediation.
Here, then, is Afrocentrism’s historic contribution: It has compelled us to become more mindful of, and honest about, our “centerings,” and, hopefully, inspired us to work much more openly and diligently for the achievement of a true “objectivity” free of the distorting limitations of invidious ethnocentrisms and racisms.
- Asante, Molefi K. 1980. Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Buffalo, NY: Amulefi.
- Asante, Molefi K. 1987. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Asante, Molefi K. 1990. Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
- Howe, Stephen. 1998. Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. New York: Verso.
- Karenga, Maulana. 1993. Introduction to Black Studies. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
- Lefkowitz, Mary. 1997. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books.
- Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. 1998. Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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