Friday, 27 June 2014 00:00

Afrocentricity and the Critical Question of African Agency

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African people have often been made invisible by 500 years of Eurocentric oppression and suppression. Eurocentrism, for the sake of our discussion here, is defined as the interpretation of all reality from the Western perspective, especially as it emerged during the so-called European Enlightenment period.

That perspective developed both internally, with the development of a meta-paradigm specific and relevant to Europe; and externally, in opposition to “others,” especially African people.Thus, there are at least four assumptions of that European meta-paradigm which have played a major and negative role as far as Africa people are concerned: 1) all human beings evolve along the same line; 2) the European experience is universal; 3) Europeans are superior; and 4) “others” are defined by their experiences with Europeans. In other words, the European meta-paradigm, rests among other things, on the belief in the superiority and universality of the European experience.

European social sciences, informed as they are with Eurocentric assumptions, have played a major role in making Africans secondary, even to ourselves. It is my purpose in this paper to review social sciences’ approach to African phenomena, and argue for an Afrocentric corrective, namely, the exercise by African people of our agency in all arenas, especially the intellectual/mental one.

Social Sciences’problematic treatment of Africa

In his brilliant essay on “social science as imperialism,” Claude Ake (1979) had already observed that much of what passes for scientific, objective studies of Africa, is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt at maintaining Africa under European yoke. Indeed, by imposing an analytical framework that creates mental and conceptual dependency upon Europe by presenting the latter as both norm and ideal model, thus fostering feelings of African inadequacy and inferiority toward Europe, European social scientists enable the exploitation of Africa by Europe. But this  is not all, since in a very concrete way, social scientists also engage in pro-capitalist propaganda, hence facilitating the integration of African societies into global capitalism. Ake focused his analysis on political science, sociology and economics, revealing how, in fact, the concept of development reigns supreme in the Eurocentric paradigm shared by these disciplines:

First, explains Ake (1979: 109), there is the tendency to classify nations as advanced (developed) and backward, and to present the former as “good” and the latter as “bad, or, at any rate, undesirable. Second, there is the tendency to hold up the Western industrialized countries as the model for the economic development of the underdeveloped countries. Third, there is the tendency to regard the present condition of the underdeveloped countries as a moment in their evolution towards the present condition of the developed countries. Fourth, there is a preoccupation with the possibility of making the Third World countries more like the Western industrialized countries.   

The conclusions drawn by Ake after his review of sociology, political science and economics apply to most if not all other social sciences. Linguistics, for example, is no exception. As I demonstrated elsewhere (Mazama, 2003), although linguistics officially claims that all languages are equal, Language Planning Studies, a field within sociolinguistics whose aims are to address the “language problems” of “developing countries,” postulates nonetheless a linguistic hierarchy reminiscent of the hierarchies established in other social sciences. At the very bottom of the continuum, one finds “preliterate languages,” followed by “unstandardized languages,” “young standard languages,” “archaic standard languages,” “fully developed small group standard languages,” and finally, at the top, “mature standard languages” (Kloss, 1968: 82). Needless to say, most Western European languages, the so-called world languages, belong to the last category. 

Thus, in the context of Language Planning Studies, for a language to become part of the mature standard languages club, it must undergo “development,” the first step of which being the elaboration of an appropriate script, preferably one using the Roman alphabetic conventions. This emphasis on the elaboration of a script for a language to be considered on the path to “maturity,” is part and parcel of the Western “literacy myth,” (Graff 1979), the locus of incredible and extravagant speculation in the West about the liberating effects of literacy.  Indeed, according to many, literacy plays a key role in cognitive, group, and social mobility. The most dramatic effect of the introduction of writing into a particular community, according to the literacy myth, is that only through writing can a community become part of history: In other words, history starts with writing (Goody & Watt, 1977; Stubbs, 1980). Any event taking place prior to the use of writing by a particular group is dismissed as “prehistorical” (Prieswork & Perrot, 1978: xxi). The criterion of transmission of knowledge through the written medium has certainly been used to disqualify Africa as a place where any meaningful history could have occurred, as pointed out by Keita (1977: 141):

Until quite recently it was generally believed that the concept of history was alien to African societies. Barring unsubstantiated stereotypical views about African society in general, evidence of the argument that African peoples were traditionally ahistorical was produced by pointing to the fact that there was no tradition of written history in Africa.


White Racial Intellectual Supremacy at Work

This imposition of Europe, under the guise of objectivity and universalism, one must realize, is part and parcel of a narrative of white superiority, a “racial mythology,” based on the “rather strange belief on the parts of whites that they are superior to Africans, that they have a right to establish and maintain a hierarchy over blacks by force of arms or customs or laws or habits” (Asante 2007: 136). It is rather easy to see, however, how this strange belief is inseparable from the self-serving notion that only Europeans are capable of agency, or at least to a much higher degree than other people in the world. 

In his insightful book The Colonizer’s model of the world, Blaut (1993) explains how, starting in the 16th-17th centuries and culminating in the 19th century, Europeans embraced diffusionism to account for their self-proclaimed superiority. According to this metatheory, the world is made up of two parts, one characterized by cultural and intellectual inventiveness, the other by uninventiveness. Quite predictably, the uniquely creative human communities “remain the permanent centres of culture change, of progress” (1993: 14). Consequently, “At the global scale, this gives us a model of a world with a single centre –roughly, Greater Europe- and a single periphery; an Inside and an Outside” (1993: 14). The rest of the world is therefore condemned to consume European intellectual and material products, due to its own creative impotence. Worse yet, the rest of the world is to wait on Europe to be rescued from its cultural and historical lethargy. 

So dormant have the Africans been that some Europeans went so far as to suggest that not only we had failed to progress (that is, to become like Europeans), but we might even have been regressing when Europeans stepped in and saved us from sinking back into sheer bestiality. 

Likewise, Hegel’s theory about Africa’s ahistoricalness was also generated by the diffusionist metatheory paradigm. Since one of the central pillars of this metatheory is that Africans are deprived of agency, it was a foregone conclusion that African history could not exist. It is worth pausing to examine Hegel’s paradigm, given Hegel’s outstanding influence on Western thought, and indirectly then, African thought. As convincingly argued by Tibebu, although repudiated in its most outrageous forms, “the subtext of the discourse on Africa continues to remain essentially Hegelian because Africa is still perceived through the prism of essential otherness” (2011, p. 174).

Hegel explains that what he calls “Black Africa” "has no historical interest of its own,” since “man as we find him in Africa has not progressed beyond his immediate existence.” For Hegel, in fact, the African is best understood as being outside not only the historical realm, but outside the human realm altogether, the African is « animal man»  a « cannibal » by definition (Tibebu 2011, p. 180). Unsurprisingly, Hegel finds great fault with every aspect of African life, for the latter is nothing but a mere reflection of the African state of deleterious consciousness deprivation. Thus, African religion is reduced to sorcery and magic; the African marriage and family are not worthy of the name, but provide simply the context for the sensuous debauchery to which Hegel intimately associates the Africans as « animal men. » It could not be otherwise since, according to Hegel, Africans are incapable of experiencing love, and cannot appreciate life; etc. In fact, in Hegel’s view, the Africans could not have minded being enslaved in the Americas, given their profound disregard for life, including their own! Hegel goes so far as to argue that their enslavement on American soil constituted « a leap forward in Africans’ education for the attainment of absolute freedom » (Tibebu 2011, p. 202).

Thus, within the diffusionist perspective, it is only when Africans encounter Europeans that they truly start to exist as human beings, admittedly retarded ones. This explains labels like “under-developed,” “developing.” Truly, Africans (and other “others”) are defined by their experiences with Europeans. Whether acquiescing or resisting to them, Africans somehow only exist as a result of Europeans’ interventions in our lives, as those brutal and aggressive acts of imposition are always and implicitly assumed to be the defining moments in the African experience. The common division of African history in two periods, “pre-colonial” and “colonial attests to this Eurocentric historiography. European disruption of African societies is assigned a central place in “African” history. The white American historian, Trevor-Ropper (1973: 9) expressed as well as any this idea: “Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Further echoing commonly accepted Eurocentric ideas of social Darwinism and linear universalism, the same author (1973: 9) also stressed how, “Then indeed we may neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe: tribes whose chief function in history, in my opinion, is to show to the present an image of the past from which, by history, it has escaped.” 

Thus, through a racist and arrogant discourse that claimed European monopoly over cultural and historical agency, European social scientists (as well as others operating within the same paradigmatic confines) contributed to the establishment of a discursive space that effectively places Europe at the center of the world, while relegating Africans to a marginal position. The violence that this process of imposition entails can hardly be underestimated, and nor can its psychological and mental ravages be ignored. What happens here is that Europe attempts to occupy all human space. The European experience becomes the yardstick by which other people’s humanity (or lack of) will be evaluated. Yet, the European experience is nothing more and nothing less than one experience among many. Parading and hiding as “universal” and “objective,” the European cultural and historical experience becomes invisible and infiltrates African people’s consciousness. Its European specificity has become, to a large degree, unrecognizable. Yet, as Molefi Asante remarks, what passes for universalism amounts to nothing more than “Eurocentric ideology” (1998:1), while so-called objectivity is better understood as “a kind of collective subjectivity of European culture” (1998:1). Asante further notes how “The aggressive seizure of intellectual space, like the seizure of land, amounts to occupying some else’s territory and claiming it as one’s own. When this happens, cultural analysis takes a back seat to galloping ethnocentric interpretations of phenomena” (Asante 1998: 10).

What educational institutions, schools or universities, functioning within the Eurocentric premises deliver is not true education, Asante contends, but Eurocentric triumphalist propaganda, “a racist education, that is, a white supremacist education” (Asante 2007: 82). In such a context, the development of history, philosophy, mathematics, writing, arts, religion are automatically, and without any questions, attributed to Europe, as a result of the so-called Greek miracle. Yet, closer scrutiny of the facts would compel advocates of the Greek miracle theory to far more humble and reasonable claims.


The Price of African Negation

One of the consequences of the denial of African agency has been the conspicuous absence of African people, whose presence became invisible even to ourselves, and whose existence was denied: “Africans have been negated in the system of white racial domination. This is not mere marginalization, but the obliteration of the presence, meaning, activities, or images of the African. This is negated reality, a destruction of the spiritual and material personality of the African person” (Asante 1998: 41). Consistent with this denial of Africa was its inferiorization: “With regards to African literature, history, behavior, and economics, the Eurocentric writers have always positioned Africa in the inferior place with regards to every subject field. This has been a deliberate falsification of the record. It is one of the greatest conspiracies in the history of the world because what was agreed upon, tacitly, writer after writer was that Africa should be marginalized in the literature and downgraded when it seemed that the literature spoke with high regard to Africa” (Asante 1998: 45). As a result of this overall obliteration and inferiorization, Africans have often “lost sense of their cultural ground” (2007: 35) and often live in a state of mental and cultural exile. Africans are described as a people who have been “relegated to the fringes of the society” (Asante 1998: 39), “de-centered” (Asante 2003: 5) and “dislocated” as a result of European cultural (and intellectual) imperialism. Indeed, what else could happen to those Africans who internalize the debased Eurocentric image of Africa, who believe in African cannibalism as a natural African condition, who buy into the myth of Christianity’s universalism and worship a white god, or who accept European epistemological categories, such as « underdeveloped,” « nonwhites, » or « Third World »? 


The Afrocentric Methodology for Liberation: The Exercise of African Agency 

It is out of great concern for African disenfranchisement and marginalization in the intellectual arena, as well as other spheres of life, that Molefi Asante (1980) developed the theory of action and liberation known as Afrocentricity, which he explained most recently as seeking to “obliterate the mental, physical, cultural and economic dislocation of African people by thrusting Africans as centered, healthy human beings in the context of African thought” (2007: 120; italics added). The purpose is to “escape from the anomie of fringeness” (1998: 41). Asante believes that it is only in the process of reassuming in a most conscious manner our sense of historical and cultural agency that we, Africans, can hope to put an end to our invisibility, debilitation and powerlessness. Asante’s rhetoric of liberation, through which he attempts to create and reclaim space for African people, therefore stresses the African as actor and victor. In fact, “the Afrocentric idea is unthinkable without African agency,” explains Asante (1998:19) who defines agency as “an attitude toward action originating in African experiences” (2003:3).  More specifically, “An agent, in our terms, must mean a human being who is capable of acting independently in his or her own best interest. Agency itself is the ability to provide the psychological and cultural resources necessary for the advancement of human freedom “ (1998: 40). The Afrocentric African is acting, not acted upon, for she is no longer satisfied to be “the dark toy/ in someone else’s carnival/ or in someone else field/ the obsolete scarecrow” (Césaire, 1957;my translation). Instead, she stands strong and tall in her own center. 

Agency is the activating principle that allows our center to be a true home, that is, a source of nurturing existential paradigms. Africanity is not to be confused with Afrocentricity. Being born in Africa, living in Africa, does not make one Afrocentric, as explained by Asante himself: “Only those who are consciously African, given to appreciating the need to resist annihilation culturally, politically, and economically, can claim to be adequately in the arena of Afrocentricity”(2007:47). Again, one may be culturally exiled although living in Africa. This happens, for example, when one practices alien traditions, such as worshipping foreign gods, or defending and promoting alien concepts. 

The source of agency, as defined Afrocentrically, is consciousness. Agency must be understood as an expression and a manifestation of consciousness. As such, it has particular attributes. For example, it is quantifiable: “What we can argue about in any intellectual discourse is the degree to which Africans are weak or strong agents, but there should be no question that agency exists” (1998: 32). The relative strength or weakness of one’s agency is directly correlated to the development of one’s consciousness. According to Asante, indeed, consciousness develops through time, as one’s awareness increases. Five phases are identified by Molefi Asante (2003: 62): skin recognition, environmental recognition, personality awareness, interest-concern, and Afrocentric awareness. While skin recognition represents the lowest form of consciousness, each subsequent phase is marked by enhanced consciousness and therefore increased agency. 

In addition to being quantifiable, consciousness can also be typified. According to Molefi Asante, there are two types of consciousness, consciousness of victory and consciousness of oppression. Both types correspond to the levels of development identified above. Consciousness of victory represents the highest level, and consciousness of oppression a much lower one. In fact, only the first one qualifies as Afrocentric consciousness, for only a consciousness of victory is capable of being “stimulating in a progressive sense” (2003: 65). Asante thus continues (2003: 65) “No Afrocentric person can ever have merely a consciousness of oppression, pain, and suffering. The present and the future must be lived victoriously. To be conscious of how difficult the European has made one’s life is to be conscious at a very elemental level.”

Another significant attribute of agency is that, while agency is a given, basic human feature, it can be exercised or given up. Asante (1998: 35) talks about those Africans who “had denied, lost, or given away agency in order to become different from our historical selves.” The price for not exercising one’s agency is mental and psychological bondage, even accompanied at times with physical bondage: “When the Afrocentrist says that it is necessary to discover one’s location, it is always in reference to whether or not the person is in a centered or marginal place with regards to his or her culture. An oppressed person is dis-located when she operates from a standpoint, that is, location that is centered in the experiences of the oppressor” (Asante 2007: 42). 

Consciousness being the source of agency, what determines consciousness (that is, Afrocentric consciousness) itself is our relationship with Africa. This relationship develops along a vertical and horizontal axis. In its vertical dimension, consciousness emanates from the quality of one’s relationship with one’s ancestors. Afrocentricity requires a “commitment” to an African “cultural base” (Asante 2003: 62), and ancestral veneration is undeniably a most important pillar of the African cultural base.

The person who fails to develop and maintain a relationship with their ancestors is most dislocated and bound to engage in destructive behaviors as they “will attack mothers and fathers, disparage the very traditions that gave them hope in times of hopelessness, and trivialize their own nobility. The person’s images, symbols, lifestyles, and manners are contradictory and thereby destructive to personal and collective growth and development. Unable to call upon the power of the ancestors, because one does not know them; without an ideology of heritage, because one does not respect one’s own prophets; the person is like an ant trying to move a large piece of garbage only to find that it will not move” (Asante 2003: 3). 

This focus on the ancestors as the originators of consciousness is demanded by African culture itself.  It is the ancestors who are primarily responsible for the welfare and the thriving of the community, by bestowing protection and guidance to the living. They ensure the flourishing of the community by blessing it with fertility. They are also the zealous moral guardians of the social order upon which the society rests. It is not exaggerated to state that the purpose of African life is to become an ancestor, since such a high status is reserved to those who have lived an ethical life, that is, abided by the community’s norms and traditions, thus effectively contributing to its continued and enhanced existence. In the African cultural context, one’s ability, personally and collectively exercised, to maintain harmony, peace and balance in life is largely predicated upon one’s relationship with the ancestors. This is why consciousness of self as an African necessarily entails, according to Afrocentricity, an active and respectful relationship with the ancestors. This is then also why ancestral veneration is posited as the ultimate source of Afrocentric consciousness, which translates into agency. Thus, Afrocentric consciousness is, in the end, a function of our relationship with our ancestors. 

In its horizontal dimension, one’s relationship with Africa includes the embrace of the Pan-African community as one’s community since, in the African context, existence is conceived as first and foremost a social experience. The exercise of agency, as an assertion of African existence, is therefore also primarily a social phenomenon with intended benefits not just for the person exercising agency but for the whole community.  In a political sense, collective consciousness and agency are linked to a commitment to Pan-Africanism. The latter, Asante (2003: 80) observes, “is a political perspective and a political ideology as well as a social theory. The one does not negate the other. Actually when we speak of the political dimensions of the concept we are also talking about how Africans see themselves as social units” (emphasis added). As we engage in the transformation of our consciousness, as a collective rather than an individual affair, “we seek to break out of our isolation and distance and come closer to our African brothers and sisters” (Asante 2003: 91).  


Afrocentricity and Africology

Applying Afrocentricity to the academic arena, Asante suggests that the proper study of African phenomena –assuming that the goal of such study is to help liberate African people’s “suppressed and oppressed truths,” could only be Afrocentric, that is, grounded in the observation of the African experience from the standpoint of African people as agents rather than objects, and as victorious rather than victims: “Africology is defined, therefore, as the Afrocentric study of phenomena, events, ideas, and personalities related to Africa. The mere study of phenomena is not Africology but some other intellectual enterprise. The scholar who generates questions based on the centrality of Africa is engaged in a very different research inquiry than the one who imposes Western criteria on the phenomena” (Asante 1990; 140).

Two important questions are raised here. One is the imperative for the African scholar to realize that scholarship is praxis. As such, one’s scholarship cannot claim to be “neutral,” or “objective”: much to the contrary, it must be consciously oriented in such a manner that it will be of service to the African community, out of obligation to one’s community. Given that Afrocentricity was identified as the indispensable remedy to end our disenfranchisement and inferiorization, African scholars must exercise their own agency, that is, embrace the Afrocentric paradigm.

The second question that is being raised concerns a most critical epistemological issue: the paradigm that one uses is bound to determine the configuration and the outcome of the intellectual inquiry under way. Kuhn, a Western philosopher of science interested in identifying the process through which a particular mode of scientific thought and practice becomes established as an accepted or dominant mode, helped make explicit the existence of premises upon which all intellectual inquiries are necessarily based, thus rendering the idea of scientific neutrality untenable. Any paradigm represents by definition a conscious or unconscious commitment to a set of metaphysical assumptions, beliefs, a particular methodology, certain methods and techniques, etc. This is why, as discussed in the beginning of this essay, the Eurocentric metaparadigm can only produce imperialistic studies, be they economic, sociological, political or linguistic. It is therefore imperative for African scholars to engage in a studies that truly illuminate and enhance African lives.  


References Cited in Text


Ake, C. (1979) Social Science as Imperialism. A Theory of Political Development, Ibadan, Ibadan University Press.

Asante, M. (1990) Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge, Trenton, Africa World Press.

Asante, M. (1998) The Afrocentric Idea, Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Asante, M. (2003) Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change. Chicago, African American Images.

Asante, M. (2003) `African American Studies: The Future of the Discipline`, in Mazama, A. (ed.) The Afrocentric Paradigm, Trenton, Africa World Press.

Asante, M. (2007) An Afrocentric Manifesto: Toward an African Renaissance, Malden, Polity Press.

Asante, M and Mazama, A. (eds) (2009), The Encyclopedia of African Religion, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.

Blaut, J. (1993) The Colonizer’s Model of the World – Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York & London, The Guilford Press. 

Césaire, A. (1960) Ferrements, Paris, Editions du Seuil.

Goody, J. and Watt, I. (1977) `The consequences of Literacy’, in Goody J. (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Graff, H. (1987) The labyrhinths of Literacy. Reflections on Literacy past and present, London, Falmer.

Keita, L. (1977) `Two philosophies of African history : Hegel and Diop’, Présence Africaine, 91: 41-49.

Kloss, H. (1968) `Notes concerning a language-nation typology’ in J. Fishman, C. Ferguson, & J. Das Gupta (eds), Language Problems of Developing Nations, New York, Wiley.

Mazama, Ama. (2003) `An Afrocentric approach to Language Planning’, in Mazama A. (ed.), The Afrocentric Paradigm, Trenton, Africa World Press.

Priestwerk, R. & Perrot, D. (1978) Ethnocentrism and History : Africa, Asia and Indian America in Western Texbooks, New York, NOK.

Stubbs, M. (1980) Language and Literacy: the Sociolinguistics of Reading and Writing, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Tibebu, T. (2011) Hegel and the Third World, the Making of Eurocentrism in World History, New York, Syracuse University Press.

Trevor-Ropper, H. (1968) The Rise of Christian Europe, London, Harcourt, Brace & World.


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