The Role of an Afrocentric Ideology
Molefi Kete Asante
Commitment to the Civil Society: The Role of an Afrocentric Ideology in Reducing Religious, Regional, and Ethnic Obstacles to National Integration
Dakar, Senegal, July 27-30, 2009
PROFESSOR Molefi Kete ASANTE
I plan to discuss an ideological framework, that is, a superstructure for continental civic commitment to African nationalism based on the perceived and practical relationships of Africans with each other. In an attempt to minimize the threats of regional, religious, or ethnic obstacles to continental integration and civic commitment to the continental nation I am proposing both intellectual and pragmatic steps for continental integration. Using concrete examples, illustrations, cultural and social behaviors, as well as generative source philosophies, myths, and traditional proverbs as fundamentals for the creation of a new ethic of politics, I seek to advance a deeper perspective on continental citizenship.
My method is based on an extensive survey of African history from the most ancient times, the emergence of United Kemet under the leadership of Mena, the Conqueror, to the creation of the African Union at Sirte in 2002. This is the longest period of civilization in human history, from 3400 BCE to 2002 CE. When I wrote the book, The History of Africa, I occupied myself with the broad outlines of African activities from the standpoint of Africans as agents of progress, change, development, science, art, religion, and politics. Later with Ama Mazama I would edit the Encyclopedia of African Religion with the express purpose of discovering Africa’s most fundamental thoughts about human behavior, the divine, mystery, character, relationships, and will. In addition I have followed the arguments and logic of Pan Africanism from its inception to its contemporary manifestations in the works of Abdoulaye Wade, Muammar Gaddafi, and others. This paper is an extension of such work in which I mold the knowledge I have inherited from these studies and the people who have taught me to provide a framework for a civil society based on the simple idea of us viewing ourselves as agents of history, not marginal to Europe or Arabia, but central to our own historical experiences. Without such a universal African sense of our exceptionalism within the context of our own land and activities it will be nearly impossible for us to overcome the numerous obstacles that stand in the way of a continental state. The requirements for civil society begin with common reasons and emotions about who we are on this broad continent and in our Diaspora.
The Pan African Dream
Our Pan African dream since the 1884-85 Berlin Conference sponsored by Kaiser Wilhelm Von Bismarck and King Leopold has been for the unity of the African continent. Fourteen European nations met, without Africans, from November to February during that cold winter in Germany to divide what they considered to be ‘a magnificent cake” between their countries. What emerged from these self-confident imperial conferees were three important doctrines that would govern European political and military policies toward Africa for more than a century. These were defined as:
The doctrine of the spheres of influence by which Europe established its right to control the African coastline.
The doctrine of effective occupation by which Europe established the idea that it could occupy an entire country by controlling the commerce along the coast.
The doctrine of European protection of its agents, especially missionaries, explorers, and scientists who exploited the African people’s resources.
Resistance and Independence
Yet despite Europe’s attempt to impose absolute hegemony on Africa, our people resisted and created organizations that made Europe’s occupation imperfect and very difficult. After the independence of Egypt and Ghana in l952 and l957 respectively, at the level of African leadership, the call for African unity increased. Gamel Nasser of Egypt, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana pushed for the creation of the Organization of African Unity. The organization had two purposes: (1) the freeing of the continent from colonial domination and the (2) the creation of an African state. The first objective was met but the OAU could not meet the second objective: the creation of the United States of Africa.
Indeed, revolutionaries took up arms in many regions of the continent to fight against the colonial powers. In other regions, although less militaristic, our people used boycotts, demonstrations, and work stoppages to make the occupation of the continent impossible. In the end the entire continent would be rid of the colonial menace. We would experience self-government again and dream of a united Africa. Thus, the African Union has revitalized the dream of millions of Africa’s children for a civil society based on the best values and virtues of our traditions.
Insuring Civic Commitment to a Continental State
It is the aim, therefore, of this paper to demonstrate several operational strategies and tactics for civic commitment that will equip the civil society of the continental African state with a set of principles and aspirations that can be shared by the entire population. This is no easy task, but it is a task that can be achieved with the proper orientation to Africa’s destiny as a major state. This can only be achieved with turn-key, opening and engaging, elements that make things happen.
Thus, the major question that I want to answer is, “How do we insure the civic commitment of a diverse population of African peoples to the idea of national integration?” Put another way, how can African peoples become the African people?
I believe that the answer to this question resides in an ideological structure that must be historically discovered, culturally maintained, and politically buttressed by the masses of African people. It cannot be something imposed from above, but must be found in the authentic lives of the people as they maintain their own sense of dignity.
What I will do is to establish the bases for the campaign for civic commitment demonstrating how this campaign functions to create national consensus, and then discuss the turn-key nature of the concepts. Our African culture tends to be open, exposed, and lived existentially wherever we are on the continent. Therefore we know what the obstacles are to a continental nationalism and we have the courage and the will to confront those obstacles in the name of our ancestors. Although genetically Africa is the world’s most diverse continent, the characteristics that make possible a national civil society are not based on biology alone; in fact, no successful modern nation can be based on biological determinism. Yet the stubborn obstacles to our national integration must be confronted in the open as our culture is lived in the open.
Obstacles to National Integration
I do not need to spend time reiterating the obstacles that have been stated as problems for continental unity, but I will list the principal debating points in the interest of all of us sharing the same page in the book: regionalism, ethnic chauvinism, and religious faith. Cynics often cite these areas as great stumbling blocks to continental unity. I happen to be of the opinion that what can connect us is far greater and stronger than what can divide us. You might say that I am a firm believer in the idea of Africa in the same way that Garvey, Diop, Nkrumah, and others saw it as the best possibility for humanity because the values that are found in the masses of African people have rarely been integrated into our political deliberations and institutions. I guess this was a task left for me to try to do. Ngugi has said, “to control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-determination” (Thiong’o, 1986: 16). When we claim our own national consciousness from the organic involvement with the peoples liberation struggles, we will have regained our civic footing. Our history is full of the proper stories and symbols of achievement. What did we fight for but our land, our right to self-governance, and the right of all humans to be treated with dignity, which is the element that protects our commitment to diversity.
Bases for the Civic Commitment
As a civic commitment the ideological configuration for the African citizen in a continental state is distinguished by seven characteristics found in the most successful African societies such as Ancient Kemet during the 18th Dynasty under the Kamosians, the Ghana Empire that lasted for 1500 years from 300 BCE until it was overcome by Sundiata in 1242 CE, the Monomotapa Kingdom that built hundreds of stone cities in the south of the continent, and the fabled Kingdom of Axum of the 7th through the 10th century of the Common Era. Other examples are too numerous to mention but are just as important in the restructuring of our historiography, as I will demonstrate.
These are the seven emerging minimum bases for continental civil society:
(1) There must be an active and genuine promotion of African culture as determined by symbols, motifs, rituals, education, scripts, proverbs, and ceremonies.
Let me be clear about this necessity. The establishment of the United States of Africa will demand that people give allegiance to a much larger community than they have ever realized. This is true even though Europeans regularly consider all Africans to be of one country. We are at the historic crossroads where this has to become the African reality. A promotion of African culture from the simplest institutions to the most complex must be our objective every day of our lives. The state, therefore, must have at its disposal the most active propaganda cadre to affirm the value of African symbols, rituals, scripts, and so forth that enrich the lives of the people and bring us together as one nation. If we examine the problems of disunity in any one of the states inherited from the Berlin conference we see that the source is often lack of proper appreciation of common objectives and consequently the minimizing of the roles of others. Every person in a continental African state must have his or her dignity protected; this should be the fundamental core of the political and juridical system.
(2) There must be an emotional attachment to the subject-place of Africans in any social, political, economic, architectural, literary, or religious phenomenon with implications for gender and class consideration.
There is nothing arrogant about this characteristic of the state, but there is something clearly meant to produce a citizenry ready to defend its homeland. No one should be permitted to marginalize any African in any situation. Our collective response to being placed on the periphery of world history must be total rejection of that position. We must always be prepared to reject the rejecters. There is a sense that some Asians, Europeans and Americans are comfortable with a weak Africa because it means a weak African people. This is no longer acceptable given the realities, economic and political, in these times. We must have a belief that we are in the center of our own history. Let us begin with new maps of the world where all of the maps place Africa in the center of the world. This is what every nation does anyway and now the continent will soon become one nation. So let the business people, and geographers, who are in cartography produce what we need to teach the children of Africa. Let us create universities that are Afrocentric, not Eurocentric, where the central narrative from the past to the future is Africa. This would mean that the column of information standing at the center of the hypostyle hall of knowledge in most African universities will no longer be headed by information about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Julius Caesar, Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry, the Navigator, Alexander the Greek, Goethe, Dante, Milton, Joan of Arc, Victoria, Shakespeare, St. Peter’s Cathedral, Einstein, Hegel, Sartre, Napoleon, Stonehenge, the Bible, and so forth.
We must impose our own knowledge at the center of our educational system. Our children must know Imhotep, Amenhotep, the son of Hapu, Duauf, Akhenaten, Hannibal, Hatshepsut, Hanno, the Sailor, Thutmoses III, Amadu Bamba, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nzingha, Nehanda, Langston Hughes, the Pyramids in Kemet and in Sudan, DuBois, Cheikh Anta Diop, Fanon, Menelik II, Sungbo’s Eredo, Kebra Nagast, and so forth.
There is no history and there have been no men or women any greater than the geniuses produced on this continent. There are no places any more sacred than those that have been hallowed by the deeds and presence of our own ancestors. Marcus Garvey had it right, “The white man has out propagandized us.”
Let our universities have students who come from feeder schools that teach the greatness of our collective history. Our men and women who have achieved a place in our memory because of their deeds must be shown to be those who believed in the centrality of Africans within their own narratives.
(3) There must be an active defense of African cultural elements as historically valid in the context of art, music, education, science, and literature.
The civic commitment of the citizen must be to the ideal African cultural elements. If you study art, education, science, literature, philosophy, or mathematics, first interrogate it from the standpoint of African culture. Our sebayet, some say proverbs, must be reintroduced as the cornerstone of our cultural communication. It should be said at some point in time, if we are good politicians and teachers and philosophers, that our masses understand the comprehensive nature of our sebayet. Actually, we have to teach our masses to learn the classical language of the Nile Valley as a source of common ancient symbols. We must not be stuck in the past, but we must not forget the past, we must use it as a resource to insure civic commitment and to build our civil society.
What I am proposing is that the educators of our children interrogate the most ancient documents as well as the epics, myths, and narratives of Africa to discover the wisdom that we have inherited. This is not to reject useful information from other sources, but rather to insure that in the national community we use all of the available knowledge in the world, beginning with that produced by our own thinkers and sages. Others do this and celebrate their philosophers; we are no less than others. The names of Imhotep, Merikare, and Khunanup must become commonplaces among the masses of our people.
(4) There must be a celebration of "centeredness" and agency and an uncompromising commitment to lexical refinement that eliminates pejoratives about Africans.
Our intention must be to reshape language so that all negativity, gathered for five hundred years, against Africa and Africans, is destroyed. This is a national citizenship drive. We must assume that we can eliminate negative references to Africans as we can eliminate the fly. Each one teaches one. Each person becomes a model citizen. We will put the youth to work to obliterate all traces of negativity about Africa. They must see themselves in the service of something far greater than their own immediate lives. They celebrate centeredness by dreaming of greatness for the nation. Terminology introduced into the languages of Africa like primitive peoples, traditional religion, ethno-music, African Slave Trade, Pygmy, Hottentots, Huts, and jungle must be purged as a national effort at this dignity-affirming position. It is true that this continent has the earliest human beings, the earliest civilizations, but there are no primitives in this land. An effort to eradicate the definitions imposed on Africa by Europe will be a primary goal of the civil society. The use of terms like African Slave Trade must give way to European Slave Trade. Our music, religion, dance, and families need no qualifying adjectives that leave Europeans as an imposed universal. Theirs is no more universal than ours. Their dance is as ethnic as ours. Their music is as traditional as ours. Their religion is no more valid than ours. We are all humans and the role of the civil society in an integrated continental national state must be to drive out all forces that would make Africans and blackness pejoratives.
(5) There must be a powerful imperative from innovative research sources to revise the collective text of African people.
Our children must reject notions of African inferiority. I was asked by a sixteen-year old girl at an elite school in West Africa, “What would have happened to Africa if the whites had not come?” I said to her that we would have been much farther along than we are now and we would have not suffered the same psychological and cultural upheavals that we now have. During the days before the invaders we were able to leave all doors unlocked, now that we have had Western civilization we have to double lock our doors. In addition, we are frightened of our own children. Africa would not have been a continent so severely maligned. While we escaped the decimation of the natives of Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas, we became disoriented with the persistence of the physical, cultural, and economic violence against our people.
(6) There must be a massive acceptance of Africa as “The Nation that Embraces Diversity.”
We must create the educational and cultural mechanism that will deliver the national message that Africa embraces diversity. In a nation that has nearly 2000 languages and numerous nationalities, kingdoms, and empires it is un-African to oppose diversity. Indeed to claim that any one element of this vast nation is its leading edge is to practice provincialism. Africa must be for those who embrace diversity. The meaning of this acceptance of diversity is that there should be respect for the historic ancestors of every ethnic and language group that defines itself as African. There are no superior and inferior ethnic communities in Africa. This idea, if it should exist, is merely a false notion imported from outside of our continent.
If the motto of the nation becomes “the nation that embraces diversity,” it means that Africa is set up as the standard for the 21st century and beyond. In fact, as Africans we have the opportunity to assert a narrative of the future filled with human freedom and possibilities. This is a message of leadership; this is not Africa waiting for others to define the Millennium, the New World Order, the Era of Assistance Fatigue, or reacting to the G-20. No, this is Africa taking the leadership to define itself as a society that embraces diversity.
(7) There must be an openness to include all of the achievements and contributions of African people as the collective gift of Africa to humanity.
What this implies is that the African nation in its continental dimension is simply the core of a much larger African world. Those of us who were born outside of the continent and reside in thousands of places around the globe must be seen, as most of us see ourselves, as adding to the historical flow of African life. We have been moved away but we have never been detached as our poets have sang brilliantly of Africa in Jamaica, Haiti, Colombia, Costa Rica, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Brazil, Surinam, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, the United States, Canada, and islands too numerous to mention. It is not just that every time we look at ourselves in the mirror we see the imprint of Africa; it is also because our emotional and psychological attachment to our motherland has never been severed regardless to the brutality we suffered as Africa’s children.
The richness of the Diaspora in every department of human achievement is nothing more than an extension of the richness of Africa. We are African products, however mangled by circumstances and however misguided by Africa’s enemies, and as Africans we count our weaknesses and our wealth as African weaknesses and wealth. Our mothers taught us that blood was thicker than water. When we celebrate Arnaldo Tamayo and Guion Bluford, the first two Africans to fly in space, one as a cosmonaut from Cuba and the other as an astronaut from the United States, because they declared their Africanness, we celebrate ourselves. Their achievements must be placed alongside all other African achievements. What others have done, we can do; what others wish to do, we have done. This is the African condition.
As in previous ages our inventors have added to the stock of human knowledge. When the sage inventors of our villages and towns created new ways to deal with lingering technical problems they were adding to the pan African repertoire of creations. Multiply the activity of men and women of science thousands of times and you have the creative energy of a massive block of human beings who made it possible for African communities to have farming instruments and implements of war. But these are not the only areas of creativity among our people. We have given to the world superior artists, creative novelists, competitive athletes in all sports, wise philosophers, incomparable engineers and space scientists, gifted mathematicians, impressive sailors who have rounded the earth alone, noble historians, and unselfish politicians. The grand names of our military leaders, Mena, Thutmoses III, Ramses II, Hannibal, Nana Karikari, Yenenga, Nzingha, Shaka, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Nanny, Nat Turner, Sundiata, Uthman dan Fodio, Mzilikazi, Lat Dior, Zumbi and a thousand others must be resurrected and remembered by our own historians. We must now embrace our mutual heritage and claim the entirety of our African nationality.
These seven bases for national unity which might be referred to as the civic promotion of African culture, attachment to subject place of Africans, defense of African cultural elements, celebration of centeredness, revising the collective text, acceptance of African diversity, and openness to the Diaspora, function to move Africa toward a common nationalistic agenda. This is the only way to reduce and minimize national antagonisms and regional disputes based upon stereotypes and false images of others. If we take it as our responsibility to protect the least among us, the smallest ethnic units, the most threatened language, the people nearest the brink of destitution, we will advance a new ethic in the historical book of life.
Explain the Functions
The unity of Africa is a necessity for the recovery and maintenance of African dignity. What will constitute the substantive ingredients for a common body polity? What metaphor for the literal state will emerge as the national instrument for what the philosopher, Maulana Karenga calls dignity-affirming integration? What shall we say about the African lion? How shall its deepest character be announced in ways that produce in citizens a sense of togetherness, community, and shared destiny? These are the issues, along with the nuts and bolts of the political system, that must be managed if we are to build civic commitment.
The control of African resources is essential for a free Africa and a continent in quest for the narrative of the future. Thus, economic unity and economic freedom walk hand-in-hand. If we encourage massive creative thinking in terms of the continent we will generate billions for the renaissance and regeneration of the continent. Imagine a young woman who seeks to make a name for herself in business gaining a loan from the African National Bank to build textile factories in Casablanca, Nairobi, Cape Town. She would travel and see the extent of the vast nation, learning all of the time about the history and development of the continent. Our resistance to hegemonic intrusion and the attempt at re-colonization of Africa will be marked by our unyielding commitment to our civil society as evidenced by our moral, legal, and economic defense of the homeland. We are able to have a broad civic commitment for the civil society but also to have a microscopic spotlight on the value of each local community.
We must engage in a persistent and consistent propaganda of the value of Pan Africanism as a viable strategy in defense of Afrocentric solidarity. Pan Africanism without the engine of a commitment to the best interest of Africa is without energy and without a thriving ideological focus. To say, “I am a Pan Africanist,” and not to work in the interest of the agency of Africans is to abuse the term Pan African. Actually, I am contending that just to be African should be sufficient to capture the essence of Afrocentric Pan Africanism.
To be African is to believe in two overarching constructs: a narrative of the future and the idea of a Nation Embracing Diversity.
The narrative of the future must engage every civil servant in the continental African nation. Each person must be involved in bringing into existence this comprehensive view of the nation. We will need playwrights to write plays and pageants that employ the ancient and traditional rituals and ceremonies in elevating the thinking of the masses toward the national state. Old enemies and sectional rivals must be seen to be in the same play, the same ritual, the same ceremony, with new characteristics. Where we have seen negative stereotypes and profiles of our neighbors, we must have institutions that elevate the thinking of the masses toward unity. This means that our civil institutions must create awards and incentives for those who work toward the political and emotional integration of the nation. Why not institute a series of $50,000 a year awards to honor those citizens who best demonstrate commitment to one of the seven minimum bases for national integration? This is the narrative of the future.
Civil bureaucracies might create contests for the best ideas for integrating national agricultural methods and knowledge. There might also be elaborate scholarship awards to students who best articulate in their papers the ideas contained in the documents of the national state. Why should not the national intelligentsia be encouraged to produce works that respond to the African condition rather than to the situations in the West? Reward structures must be redirected toward the continent and away from the West so that our scientists will solve problems of the African state. Of course, money must be put in the service of the national integration. Nothing should stand in the way of the African commitment to a civil society engaged in the collective uplift of African people. This is our birthright.
The commitment to diversity is central to the advancement of the civil society and this means that all forms of ethnic chauvinism should be pursued to the extent of the law and punished so as to dictate by law the idea that Africa is the nation that embraces diversity.
One way to make this happen is through photographs of different shades, colors, religious and ethnic groups of African. These posters, whether manually created or digitally established, might be useful in all sectors of the society where recruiting of civil servants is taking place. Consultants who are skilled in diversity education might be employed to teach those who are already employed by the state, as they may have been moved over into the new system, once the continental state is created. Nothing should block the promotion of the narrative of the future and the motto of the nation as one that embraces diversity. Every institution in the state must be so dedicated to these overarching ideas that all citizens are daily reminded of the constituents of unity by creating a narrative of the future and embracing diversity. Where other nations in the world may not have a narrative of the future, Africa will. Where other nations may not embrace diversity, Africa must. We operationalize, that is, make this happen by introducing turn-key activities that engage the citizens in a commitment to the civil society. For example, all science teaching, from the earliest grades in school through universities, must cast Africa as the nation of the future. Children must be encouraged to study scenarios for the future in the sciences. They must be allowed to ask, what if? This is the only way that we will be able to leap frog the difficulties encounter in the West and the rest of the world. We do not need to go through the same steps as others.
He who is against diversity is against the idea of Africa. He who has distaste for his fellow African on the basis of ethnic, religious, or regional feelings is an enemy of the continental African state. This is the only path to our true destiny. Children of Africa hear us today. Listen to our voices and take up your computers, your pens, your agricultural tools, your engineering instruments, and your books, and walk proudly toward the future with one goal, one aim, one destiny, as one people. Nothing is stronger nor more correct than your own commitment to the new civil society. Teach it, study it, embrace it, and rejoice because you have found your family on the continent and in the diaspora, and they are coming together with bond that cannot be broken again by betrayal, ignorance, and greed. We are on the road to resurrect Africa in the image of Africa. Hurry! Onward! Upward!
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Molefi Kete Asante is Professor, Africology, Temple University, and is the author of 70 books, including The History of Africa, Cheikh Anta Diop, Classical African, and African Intellectual Heritage.