Monday, November 20, 2006

Re-defining Afrocentrism

It seems to me that Afrocentrism as it is popularly conceived of is dead, or is need of serious re-engineering. To define terms: Afrocentrism in my understanding refers to any culture or set of ideas that hold "Africa" in high esteem, especially from a spiritually redemptive perspective. The referent, "Africa", is often vaguely defined, and varies between different Afrocentric discourses. At times, the emphasis may be placed on Egypt and the Kemitic, at other types the Nubia (presumably because of the darkness of the Sudanese skin), at other times on Ethiopian culture (most notably through rastafarianism), sometimes on the Ashanti or the Akan in Ghana, at other times still on the Yoruba and Ile-Ife. These redemptive discourses were popular during the civil-rights movement and into the 1970's, but have been on the wane ever since, just as the pan-Africanist movement has all but died out.

It turned out that Afrocentrism served the spiritual and emotional needs of the deracinated host group (those in the black diaspora) much more than it met any needs in Africa. There are many narratives of the return home post Alex Haley for diasporic blacks, often via Ghana and the obligatory trip to one of the slave forts, Cape Coast etc. , the most recent notable text being Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun. The experience of the return is often highly complex, with the jubiliant immediacy of being on African soil and confronting 'gates of no return' on the tourist trail tempered by the realisation that one is perceived to be as much a foreigner as any white gum-chewing burger chomping American. The fate of the brave rastafarians who ventured forth to their ancestral homeland in Ethiopia is no less poignant; rejected by and large by the conservative, anti-marijuana host population, the Jamaican immigrants are growing old and the population is not being replenished; some have already left in disappointment.

And so, afrocentrism, while in its many guises has served significant spiritual needs, has done little or nothing for Africa. Given the name, it has been an utter failure, ultimately a form of involuted narcissism. The root cause of the failure was a projected black essentialism: as if diasporic blacks, upon return, would find an ancestral connection across the hiatus of history and the Middle Passage. Instead of any essentialist linkage, the experience was of complexity, fragmentation and contingency. No automatic pathways through the forest emerged. It turns out, a la Gilroy mapping and theorising the journeys of Baldwin, Wright and co, that the Black Atlantic is a criss-crossing of historically contingent journeys, rather than any kind of immediate genetic re-connectivity.

Yet still, there is enormous enthusiasm for Africa, by diasporic blacks and other interested parties alike. There therefore should be a redefinition of what it is to be Afrocentric, away from redemptive (and ultimately unrealistic) essentialist fantasies, in favour of offering genuine support and alignment with contingent realities on the continent.

The Afrocentrism of Band Aid/Live Aid is not what is required. This merely promotes the image of the African-as-victim, in need of the fluffy contributions of pop stars to come to the rescue.

The Afrocentrism of essentialist myth-making is not required either. Afrocentrism 1.0 was just as much an exoticisation as orientalism was for the Victorians.

Afrocentrism 2.0 (for want of a better term) needs to be about creating tangible and meaningful two-way linkages. It needs to be just as meaningful an experience and encounter from the African side as from the Western side. It needs to involve listening, from both perspectives. It needs to be sensitive to historical specificity, and to the myriad African cultures of the continent. Being afrocentric means one is immediately in favour of dropping the debt, strongly against selling arms to fragile or volatile African regimes. It means being in favour of stronger UN mandates in places like Darfur (rather than simply witnessing the carnage). It means creating exchange programmes between African universities across the continent (both for lecturers and students alike) - with the rich Western universities offering free online access to subscription-only archives and journals. It involves African ethnographers doing their research in Western cultures as much as vice versa.

In other words, while it may have just as much spiritual content as afrocentrism 1.0, it needs to be reciprocal and practical at the same time. Enough of fantasising and waxing poetic about Africa. The time is ripe for active engagement with African realities.


Kaunda 8:26 am  

So well said. The reciprocal part is essential. And it's also so feasible with modern communications technologies.

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