A Quick Reading of Rhetorical Jingoism: Anthony Appiah and his Fallacies

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/11/2009

The critics of Afrocentricity, running away from Africa-centeredness, tend to commit the most serious flaws in scholarship. Indeed, they are so eager to support the eurocentric foundation of their knowledge base that they disregard facts and run quickly to empty flourishes. One of the latest attempts to tackle the international Afrocentric movement is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a half Ghanaian and half British commentator, a fact which tends to be concealed because he has recently begun to use an African first name more than Anthony which he used most of his life and has adopted the telling habit of reminding the reader that he is "black", something he needs to do because he often writes and speaks like he is white. This is very much like Dinesh D'Souza's tactic of insisting that he is colored, in order to be able to more "objectively" bash blacks. Appiah teaches philosophy at Harvard University and is a member of the Department of Afro-American Studies headed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I believe that Marcus Garvey and Chancellor Williams were correct in their analyses of those Africans who harbored so much self hatred that they spoke out violently against other Africans. Just as it is sometimes important to point out if a writer is white or black, it is also very important to know the psychological and cultural location of a writer who is assumed to be black by the public but who sees himself as neither black nor white, which means he has refused to deal with his own identity in any definite terms. All humans live in some culture, that of their fathers or that of their mothers, or somebody else's mother or father.I am certainly not of the opinion that one should deny someone place because he or she is the child of an interracial or intercultural union. On the other hand, a person who claims not to be black should be questioned from the angle of his or her cultural location, not as a black person. In the United States one is forced to choose because the cultures are so vastly different in their projects and in their histories, something Appiah may not be adequately aware of since he seems such a poor student of African American history.

Appiah establishes himself squarely in the anti-African camp while parading as an African scholar. He uses the claim of being African in much the same way as Clarence Thomas seemed to use the fact of his blackness as a shield to attack Africans. Both must be viewed as white in their orientations, selections, attitudes, purposes, and interests, however you look at their orientations, because they are both engaged in an attempt to destroy and cut the heart out of the African liberation movement. This is not an attack on whites who escape the burden of their brutal history vis-a-vis Africans but on the African-descended individuals who take on the burden of the whites who have victimized blacks.

In an obscure article called "Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism" in an obscure journal called Sapina Journal (January-June, l993, Vol 5, No. 3) Appiah argues that the Afrocentric movement is so established that it may now be called a paradigm. He is correct in this observation insofar as a paradigm suggests that an entirely new perspective on data is necessary. However, Appiah's purpose is not to praise this new paradigm but to distort the idea.

Appiah has a problem with this Afrocentric "paradigm," indeed, he has a problem with any Africa-centered approach to knowledge, preferring what he sees as the "universal" approach to knowledge. One only has to read "white" or hear "European" where he writes or claims "universal" as an approach. By taking the position he takes he is only delaying the moment of Afrocentric realization. Nevertheless, Appiah has waded into the shallowest parts of the Afrocentric ocean which is itself something of value. And even here he is out of his depths. Appiah claims that Afrocentricity has two basic elements, one critical (negative) and the other positive. The critical or negative thesis, he says, argues that Western scholarship is hopelessly Eurocentric. The positive thesis argues that African civilization was at the beginning of human civilization.

From this construction, an incorrect and limited construction to be sure, of the Afrocentric orientation, Appiah goes on to discuss what he sees as problematic in the construction. But he has started from a false point, an inadequate understanding of what it is he is criticizing.

The "two" elements , critical and negative, are not central components of Afrocentric theory. Appiah's attempt to put words in the text that do not have any basis in fact is cute but not the aim of my Afrocentric project or that of others I know. Indeed, he appears to be the worst type of anti-African, a black who hates the African part of himself and who consequently underestimates the intellectual scholarship of Africans. The only African scholar that Appiah seems to like is the one who hired him, Henry Gates. In both of their locations, as determined by language, attitude, and direction, they are often off-center as far as the African and African American intellectual project is concerned. My work probably represents the worst nightmare of Anthony Appiah. I am centered, cultured, and a devotee of my own traditions. Of course it is nonsense to imply, as Appiah seems to want to imply, that this means that I am antagonistic toward other cultures.

Appiah seeks to cast his attacks on Afrocentricity in a philosophical vein, hiding behind the respectability he believes he finds in his method. But the truth will always out. He has a problem with African people viewing themselves as agents. Consequently, he seeks to turn the rightside wrong. There are several inaccuracies that he parades in Sapina that are enough to make the journal and his attack on Afrocentricity suspect. He is either ignorant of the movement he is criticizing or a very devious writer. In either case what he has written bears little resemblance to Afrocentric theory.

Here are just a few of the inaccurate statements he makes in his article:

l. "These values are often now taught in the version developed by Maulana Karenga and associated with the invention of a feast called "Kwanzaa", designed to provide an African celebration to go with Christmas and Hanukkah."

This is a deliberate trivialization of the Kwanzaa holiday as a feast and the elevation of Christmas and Hanukkah as somehow of a different order. Is it because he has a problem with the African creation of Kwanzaa, after all both Christmas and Hanukkah represent human creations. All celebrations are made by human beings. A derogatory reference to the most important African American holiday as a "feast" shows the disdain that Appiah holds for African people.

2. "There is something of an irony in the use of Swahili as an Afrocentric language, since hardly any of the slaves brought to the New World can have known it."

Afrocentricity is not a theory just for the African diaspora. In fact, Afrocentricity is fundamentally rooted on the continent of Africa where it has its largest following. Furthermore, Swahili was not been proposed as a Diasporan African language but as a language to unite Africans. It is a very logical choice and the l977 FESTAC colloquium held in Lagos, Nigeria, concluded that it would make an excellent choice for the international African world since it was least attached to a large ethnic group such as Yoruba or Hausa. At any rate, no African slaves were brought to the Americas, only African people were brought here.

3. "Afrocentrists have challenged the old priority of the white Greeks by replacing them with black Egyptians."

It is not true that Afrocentrists have replaced white Greeks with black Egyptians; we do not mind everyone standing in his or her own ground. The Greeks can remain firmly in control of whatever cultural legacy they bring the world. We simply believe that it is important to demonstrate that ancient Egyptians must be seen in the correct light. Egypt is prior to Greece as Greece is prior to Rome. We have not simply replaced the Greeks we have left them in their place and unveiled the Egyptians in theirs.

4. "Martin Bernal is a hero of the Afrocentrists"

Martin Bernal is a hero of the Afrocentrists is inaccurate. This is not to say that Bernal has not made a significant contribution to historical knowledge. But the heroes of the Afrocentric movement are numerous: Cheikh Anta Diop, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, Chinweizu, Marimba Ani, John Henrik Clarke, Kariamu Welsh-Asante, Theophile Obenga, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Maulana Karenga, Wade Nobles, Herbert Vilikazi, Asa Hilliard, Na'im Akbar, and hundreds of others. And any one of these scholars could stand their ground with anyone. Bernal's work, fortunately, and without Bernal intending to, supports the arguments that have been made by African scholars since l916.

5. "Choosing to talk about Egypt and to ignore the rest of Africa and African history, Afrocentrism shares the European prejudice against cultures without writing."

This is an inaccurate conclusion and it misses the point of the discussion about Nile Valley Civilizations. Egypt is to Africa, as Diop said, as Greece is to Europe. This means that it is anterior in many concepts and constructs. To concentrate on cultures that are derived from Egypt without discussing Egypt would be like putting the cart before the horse. If Appiah has a problem with the Afrocentric concentration on cultures with writing then he should initiate a discussion of cultures without writing, this is quite acceptable to Afrocentrists. Of course it is not true that Afrocentrism "shares the European prejudice" because Afrocentrism recognizes language as starting on the continent of Africa. Writing is not first European, it is African first. Why should not Africans be engaged in examining all aspects of the African world.? And in the end, Appiah's objections show that he is unfamiliar with the work on African oral traditions and orature by the outstanding Ghanaian Afrocentrist, Dr. Abu Abarry.

6. "Afrocentrism persists in unanimism, the view that there is an African culture to which to appeal."

It is true that the Temple Circle of Afrocentricity accepts the idea that Africans in Cuba, in Haiti, in Puerto Rico, in Guadaloupe, in South Africa, in Ghana, and in Nigeria respond to the same fundamental stimuli. But Appiah is wrong to speak of Afrocentrists persisting in unanimism. Most of us believe that African cultures represent different micro- responses to the environment but are similar in their broad outlines. To use the bug-a-boo essentialism to describe the process of self affirmation is to mislead the reader. The term essentialism is often used as a term of opprobrium by Appiah and others, and the adjective "mere" has often been applied to essentialism when the critics fear any discussion of ontological bases for culture. In some ways they believe that this might endanger humanity. Essentialism should not be confused with nativism however for essentailism refers to the empirial fact that we are connected to our ancestors, have a certain life story, and can be identified by the stories in which we have participated. On the other hand, nativism believes that biology is the basis of a special dispensation. Appiah, being part white and part black, has found a nativistic analysis of his own in which to attack what he sees as African essentialism. What he really attacks is the right of Africans to speak as Africans because he feels that if Africans choose that right, fundamental to our existence, we then take something away from others but that is not an African way of thinking, that is precisely what we are criticizing. On the other hand, he does not attack "British essentialism" or "European essentialism" in any form.

7. "Afrocentrism has ignored the writing of African scholars other than Cheikh Anta Diop."

What Appiah means is that Afrocentrists have ignored other continental African writers, but this, too, is wrong because most of our sources are African. This conceptual slip shows that Appiah seeks, while sitting in an African American Studies department, to demonstrate that Africans or different from African Americans. He is trapped by false logic. There are continental Africans and diasporan Africans. Both are equally African as Jews are Jews and Chinese are Chinese and Europeans are Europeans. Show us other Africans writers who have written as Diop has written and they will become a part of our school. It is a fact that we are a particular school of scholarship and there are African writers that we refer to other than Diop but they too are Afrocentric. If we refer to Marxists like Claude Ake or Samir Amin, it is to critique them in the light of their intellectual and cultural location. If we refer to the works of Ogot, Houtoundji, and Appiah, it is to critique them for being off-centered. V. Y. Mudimbe, whom Appiah does not mention, is a significant scholar in his own right and Afrocentrists do find much that is useful in Mudimbe although, to be sure, Mudimbe has much to learn from the agency of Africans demonstrated in the works of the Afrocentrists.

8. "Molefi Asante has written whole books about Akan culture without referring to the major works of such Akan philosophers as J.B. Danquah, Willie Abraham, Kwasi Wiredu, and Kwame Gyekye."

I wish it were true that I had written whole books on Akan culture. He got me confused with some other Asante, an indication that he has not read my works. Nevertheless, Willie Abraham is one of the sources I use in my own works, particularly his book The Mind of Africa and I count Kwame Gyekye as a personal friend and have benefitted from his analysis. But Kwame Gyekye could have told him that I have never written a book on Akan culture. As a member of the same ethnic group as Kwame Gyekye and as the traditional Kyidomhene of Tafo, Nana Okru Asante Peasah, I would never undertake to write a book about Akan culture without the proper sources. I find it unbelievable that Appiah would make a statement about my research without examining my work or sources.

Appiah confuses Afrocentric theory with Afrocentric practice and discusses Karenga and other Afrocentric scholars in the same contexts as rap artists in an attempt to dismiss the content of Karenga's ideas. Furthermore, Appiah argues that Afrocentrists seek to give children "a diet of celebratory African history" such as the blackness of ancient Egyptians.

I am appalled at the level of ignorance, particularly historical ignorance, that often sits at the very door of the minds of critics like Appiah. The ancient Egyptians were African and black-skinned people, full stop. The evidence for this claim is overwhelming and one has to have accepted the entire corpus of Eurocentric writing without question to dispute it. But alas, to debate Appiah on this question is rather useless since he is not interested in the area of scholarship that would enlighten him on this subject. Let it be said simply, that the evidence of the blackness of the ancient Egyptians has been proven by science, linguistics, and literature.

The fact that Appiah likes Clinton Jean's Behind the Eurocentric Veils: The Search for African Realities, a book that I read and recommended for publication because it was in the Afrocentric school is troubling to me. It means that he clearly has no understanding of the Afrocentric project because Jean, if anything, was squarely in the Afrocentric project in the same way as other Afrocentrist theorists. Prior to his death we talked and discussed the Afrocentric project and if anything, he claimed Afrocentricity as his theoretical orientation. I wrote in support of his work because I believed in his project, which was the same project as mine.

Now that I have gone through the short piece Appiah wrote for the Sapina, let me give you my classification of critics of Afrocentricity.

There are three distinct types of critics:

l. Capitulationists: These critics must condemn Afrocentricity because they are uncomfortable with themselves and do not believe that Africans should be considered agents. They believe that to project their agency is to intrude on European grounds. The operative element is self hatred, that is, the belief that Africans are really nothing but whites in black skin.

2. Europeanized Loyalists: These critics are strictly into Europe; blacks can do no good. Many Marxists and many integrationists might be seen as Europeanized loyalists. For them, any theory has to be developed by Europeans or else it does not have validity. They are strangers to the Afrocentric idea because they have immersed themselves in alien philosophies without knowing African philosophies. They follow their own system of commandments.

Thou shalt not accept an African origin
Thou shalt not mock the white man
Thou shalt not threaten the cultural imperialist
Thou shalt not identify with any Africans
Thou shalt not despise the legacy of the white slave owner
Thou shalt not speak evil of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington
Thou shalt not speak evil of Vladimir Lenin or Karl Marx
Thou shalt not praise other African men and women
Thou shalt not seek to create values for African survival
Thou shalt not work to develop and maintain African identity
Thou shalt not allow anyone to call you African
Thou shalt not quote any African theorists

3. Maskers: These are the critics who are embarrassed by Afrocentrists because we do not seem to honor whites the same way as they do and therefore they do all they can to conceal their identities. Their tragedy is that they seek to please the master, and ultmately they are disappointed or isolated.So the maskers attack Afrocentrists to prove to whites that they are like them. They may not harbor self-hatred but they harbor fear. Frighten that they may lose their careers they are used to attack Afrocentricity.

In the end the entire cabal of attackers simply delays the moment of ultimate consciousness that the Afrocentric orientation to data is not only normal but essential to African sanity.

African symbol