Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Healing the Wounds of Africa's Distorted Past


Eurocentric Map of Africa
 Several years ago, I took a visiting professorship at a popular New England college.  Its bucolic campus, nestled amidst fir trees and fragrant walking trails, promised a serenity of the mind and soul.  But to my dismay, I had inadvertently stumbled into an intellectual minefield.   Vehement arguments constantly erupted between Eurocentric and Afrocentric scholars regarding whether the ancient Egyptians were black, whether Socrates was really white, and for that matter, whether Christopher Columbus was a genocidal conquistador rather than a national hero.


The “Eurocentrics, ” composed of traditional classicists, scholars of Greece and Rome, asserted that the African continent lay outside the sphere of intellectual development.  They conveniently lopped Egypt and North Africa off maps of the continent.
 The  “Afrocentrics,” on the other hand, insisted that the Greece and Rome were an extension of Africa and that Northern Europeans had no history, other than that of pagan tribes and cave dwellers. 
As an African historian, perhaps I should have jumped  into the middle of this debate.   But this  judging, avenging, conflict model of the humanities saddened me because I no longer believed that it could ever lead to truth.  However, it certainly did generate animus, hostility, resentment, hurt feelings and elaborate intellectualizations aimed at covering that fact.  Indeed, the goal of inner peace, developing the intellectual and life skills that would help individuals live in harmony with one another and the natural environment,  seemed as alien to a Humanities education as did mud-wrestling.

Black Athena

The works of classicists who study the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome have traditionally shared common approaches and perceptions, which is now popularly known as "Eurocentrism".  Until recently, the approach of these scholars had no label at all because it had been taught as the scientifically arrived at, objective and unbridled  "truth".  The advent of Afrocentrism three decades ago articulated by such scholars as Cheikh Anta Diop, John Henrik Clark, Yosef ben-Jochannan and committed to resurrecting the ancient glories of Egypt and the African continent, came into immediate conflict with the prevailing model.  Was it perhaps possible that the Afrocentrists in their racially-focused exaggerations were actually mirroring the biases of traditional classicists?  That is, Eurocentrists insisted on presenting the history of Western civilization as though ancient Greece and Rome had developed in an intellectual bubble devoid of outside (particularly African) influences.  However, In 1987, Cornell Professor Martin Bernal detonated a bundle of intellectual dynamite in the sedate midst of the Classics establishment, by publishing the first volume of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.  A second volume appeared shortly thereafter offering archaeological and documentary evidence in support of his thesis.  Bernal’s works posit that contemporary classicists have been employing a specious “Aryan” model of Greek civilization, which overlooks previous scholarly evidence suggesting that the ancient Greeks had been influenced or “civilized” by the Egyptians (Africans) and Near Eastern Semites.  While scholars will no doubt dissect, analyze and argue the pros and cons of Bernal’s work for decades to come,  what is perhaps most revealing is the vehemence and intellectual indignation with which the academy  and interested lay persons continue to debate their respective positions.  


While Bernal and many Afrocentrists have suggested that racism lay at the nub of Africa's devaluation, it appears that more subtle forces may actually have been at work. For one, Eurocentric scholars tend to share some of the same common misconceptions about the African continent prevalent within the larger society. That such would be the case is understandable given the fact that Eurocentric classicists are as much victims of the academy's previous neglect of African History as has been the American public at large.    However, it is precisely these faulty and stereotypical premises relating to Africa that taint the quality of contemporary Eurocentrists' research, undermine the validity of their conclusions, and sink them in the very same quagmire as their Afrocentric adversaries.    

For example, a common Eurocentric belief is that "black" as a term applied to a racial grouping, actually defines or describes a particular grade of skin pigmentation rather than a socially constructed and fluid categorization based on the social/political needs of the group imposing the classification. The corollary to that belief becomes the notion that Africa's division into North and Sub-Saharan, that is, white and black, has a biological rather than merely socio-political basis.

The Hamitic Hypothesis

Nineteenth and early twentieth‑century scholars employed a construct known as the "Hamitic hypothesis" as a means of attributing the existence of sophisticated states in Africa to non-Africans.  According to this myth, a purported migration of Caucasian "Hamites" was responsible for whatever "civilizing" influences the African continent evolved.  Not only did the Ancient Egyptians come to be described in this manner, but the list continued to expand as archaeological research uncovered important ancient state systems in other African regions as well.  Before it was finally debunked, the Hamitic hypothesis had come to encompass the Bugandans, Berbers, Ethiopians, Nubians, Fulani and virtually every other African ethnic group, of whatever gradation of skin pigmentation, for whom historical research revealed sophisticated state systems and literary tradition, of which indigenous Africans were presumed racially incapable.      Undoubtedly, the most irrational if not elucidating aspect of this once fashionable Hamitic myth was the complete reversal in meaning of the term "Hamite" itself.  That is, prior to the nineteenth century, Westerners had employed the term "Hamite" in a deprecating manner to refer to Africans.  These so‑called Biblical descendants of Ham (even though the Bible makes no such mention of them in this way), were accursed with dark skin and kinky hair to punish Ham's son Canaan for looking upon his father's nakedness.  Even though Europeans recognized the fact of a gradual lightening of skin pigmentation as one preceded from the equator to the African Mediterranean, they notated the difference by referring to dark, medium or light-skinned "Negroids".    We might also remember that Northern European culture labored under such a cultural preoccupation with blond, blue eyed "fairness" in complexion that one American scholar of the nineteenth century saw the necessity to remind his readers that dark-skinned races like the French were incapable of the sophistication needed to establish democratic government.

It was only after the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1798 as Edith Sanders pointed out in her essay "The Hamitic Hypothesis:  Its Origin in Time" that Europe began to uncover the magnificent remnants of ancient Egyptian civilization.  The European realization that ancient Egypt pre-dated Greece and Rome, prompted an amazing taxonomic shift.  Suddenly their terminology for the race of people referred to as "Hamites" was metamorphosed from light‑skinned Negroids to dark‑skinned Caucasoids.   

As a consequence of this shift in racial categorization, Europeans also began asserting that Africa should be sharply divided into two distinct racial zones, "Hamitic" or Caucasian North Africa and black Sub-Saharan Africa.  That superficially imposed  division of the African continent is still employed by Eurocentrists today to  amputate North Africa from the rest of the continent, and metaphorically affix it to "Caucasoid" Europe.     

It is also commonly believed in Humanities circles that Afrocentric scholars possess an emotional identification with Africa and Egypt while Europe-centered scholars engage in objective research devoid of a comparable emotional investment in the intellectual primacy of Greece and Rome.  Indeed, Afrocentric scholars seldom hide the fact that they intend for their work to be employed to boost the self-esteem of African-Americans, especially alienated young blacks living in the inner city.  For this reason, they become vulnerable to the charge that such a strong emotional investment in seeing the world in a particular way clouds their ability to analyze material with accuracy.  And this is no doubt true.   What is not readily admitted in this exchange, however, is the fact that Eurocentric scholars while painting themselves as dispassionate observers are actually as emotionally invested in believing in the primacy of Greece and Rome and using it as a metaphor for America's current racial hierarchy.  While sophisticated academic training of the Eurocentrists makes the methods they use less subject to public scrutiny, the fact of the matter is that such ethnic identifications penetrate to the core of the debate on ancient Greece and Rome versus ancient Egypt and Africa.  The reasons that this should be so relate to a powerful, but seldom articulated process by which European Americans have historically become assimilated into the mainstream of American society. 

The Conferring of "Whiteness"

Over the course of the last two hundred years, each European immigrant group as it has applied, metaphorically, for membership into the American mainstream has not needed to petition the academic establishment for inclusion into the Americanized version of the western civilization textbook.  Rather, these Euroethnics have passed through a crucial, but largely unconscious and peculiarly American process that contemporary sociologists have come to term the "whitening" ritual.  Noel Ignatiev has detailed this process for Irish Catholics who a century ago were often referred to as the "niggers" of Europe in his book, How the Irish Became White.  Karen Brodkin Sacks in tracing the history of her American Jewish family noted a similar process in her essay "How Did Jews Become White Folks?"

As such, immigrant groups have gained upward mobility in jobs at the expense of lower-caste blacks, acquired a command of the English language, in some cases Anglicized their surnames, over time gained access to elite universities, and intermarried with American Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  They have also, and most importantly, absorbed as an artifice of the "whitening" ritual, a strong metaphorical identification with Greece and Rome in place of petitioning for inclusion of the most significant elements of their nation-specific, Old World intellectual traditions within the structure of the academy. 
When scholars like Professor Cheryl Johnson‑Odim asks that ancient Egypt be allowed "to stand for the rest of Africa," since "what we are really talking about here is symbolism anyway," she is not merely arguing for cultural acceptance. Prof. Johnson-Odim is also alluding to the fact that European immigrants to America of non-Anglo-Saxon origin have for more than a century employed precisely that symbolism for themselves vis-a-vis Greece and Rome.  The only real difference is that as "whites", being members of the normative white majority, they did not even have to ask for society's acceptance of such an innocent but powerful metaphor.

Americans of African descent, on the other hand, do not  have the option of "becoming white".  They do, however, have the option of examining the metaphorical basis of Western civilization and correcting errors and faulty assumptions that debase the contributions of their African continent of origin to the collective history of the west.

"Who are We?"

Eurocentric scholars are no doubt pained by the Afrocentric assaults that impugn their scholarly intentions as "racist" and diminish the glories of ancient Greece and Rome.  And yet if these Europe-centered scholars look more closely they will also see that in engaging in this intellectual battle the Afrocentrists are both mirroring the tactics of their adversaries as well as attempting to hide their own emotional wounds, the deep festering ones that come from social rejection and devaluation.  As a consequence, the Afrocentrists are subjecting Europe to the same intellectual indignities that western scholars have historically visited upon Africa. 

Rather than continuing to perpetuate this intellectual bloodletting, we would be well-served to learn to identify the concealed emotional investments parading as objective arguments, which fuel all sides of the debate.  For, if the only tool we possess for knowing who we really are and our soul’s true purpose is the artificiality inherent in much of written history, we are truly lost indeed. 
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