Afrocentricity: Toward a New Understanding of African Thought in the World

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/4/2009

Africa has been betrayed by international commerce and trade.

Africa has been often betrayed by the new science of the genetics of food, and the unequal distribution of resources.

Africa has been betrayed by missionaries and imams who have called our own priests and priestesses false while holding up Africa’s enemies as our saviors.

Africa has been betrayed by education, the Academy, and the structure of knowledge imposed by the Western world

Africa has often been betrayed by its own leaders who have shown a talent for imitating the worst habits and behaviors of Europe.

Africa has often been betrayed by the ignorance of its own people of its past. Africans are, consequently, the most betrayed of contemporary humans.

People so often betrayed must take a serious look at their own approach to phenomena, to life, to existence, to knowledge. The betrayals do not have to continue, nor must we resign Africa to the trash heaps of history as some contemporary Africanists and non Africanists have claimed.

A continent and a people with such incredible potential can rise to meet any challenge, but our thoughts must become truly our own thoughts, separated from the enslaving thoughts of those who have sought racial domination. Of course, when I speak like this, I am speaking of Africa in the context and spirit of Marcus Garvey. I accept that the African world is not merely a geographical entity but a world entity whether by our own making or as is most probable by the making of the assaults and attacks and aggressions against African people. We are found in every continent and we occupy positions of influence in countries as widely separated as Brazil and the United Kingdom.

My aim is to help lay out a plan for the recovery of African place, respectability, accountability, and leadership.

The theme of this conference takes us to the very core of the future of human interaction by seeking to examine Western knowledge, its structure, its relationship to conquest and domination, and its prosecution as an instrument to retain a white racial hierarchy in the world.

We know that Africans have thought about the universe longer than any other people. The people of the world have been black longer than any other color.

In fact philosophy itself originated in Africa and the first philosophers in the world were Africans.

The African tradition is intertwined with the earliest thought.

Yet from the beginning of Europe’s interest in Africa the European writers referred to ancient African works as "Wisdom Literature," in an effort to negatively distinguish African thinking from European thinking. They could not conceive of Africans as having philosophy.

Philosophy was meant, in their minds, to indicate a kind of reflection that was possible only with the Greeks. They constructed a Greece that was miraculous, built on the foundation of a racial imagination that established a white European superiority in everything.

Since philosophy was seen during the neo-classical period of European history as the source of all other arts and sciences, philosophy was the chief discipline. They saw it in the context of Darwinism where even knowledge was structured hierarchically. Indeed, I still remember how in the southern United States, during my childhood, the whites prohibited Africans from operating large machinery because it was considered much too intellectual for blacks.

Numerous European writers glorified the achievements of the mind of the Greeks. A Greek stood at the door of every science in the European mind. There were no secrets that had not been discovered by the Greeks. They owed allegiances to no one. They were immaculate, without blemish, isolated from every other people as the standard by which the world was to be judged.

Whether in art or science, in sculptor or mathematics, in astronomy or literature, they had no equal and were without antecedents.

However, according to the tradition of Western thought, it was in philosophy that the Greeks excelled. As Theophile Obenga says, others may have had religion, stories, wise sayings, and wisdom literature but the Greeks had philosophy. This was the highest of all disciplines and it was only through the minds of whites that philosophy came to the world.

Yet we know that the word philosophy is not Greek, although it came through the Greeks to English and other European languages. Seba, wisdom, the ancient Mdw Ntr word is the earliest example of reflective thinking. In fact, on the tomb of Antef I, 2052 B.C. we see the first mention of wisdom.

The word sophia, wisdom in Greek, is derived from the more ancient word seba, the African word. To say in Greek "philo" is to say brother or lover. One normally says that a philosopher is "a lover of wisdom." But the ancient Africans had come to this understanding long before there was even a nation of Greeks.

Indeed the first serious thinkers or philosophers were not Greeks. This means that not only is the word philosophy not Greek, the practice of philosophy is not Greek, but African.

Thales who lived around 600 BC is usually thought of as the first Greek philosopher. Some claim that it was Pythagoras, who was a younger contemporary of Thales, but I claim, with most Greek scholars that it was Thales since he is said to have told a young Pythagoras "You must do as I have done and go to Egypt to learn philosophy from the Egyptians." Advice which Pythagoras followed and went to Egypt, spending twenty three years at the feet of such venerable African teachers as Wennofer.

There were several select places where various aspects of philosophy such as social ethics, natural laws, metaphysics, and medicine were taught. One could study at the Temple of Ptah at Men-nefer, at the Temple of Bast at Bubastis, at the Temple of Hatheru at Dendera, at the Ausarion at Abydos, at the Temple of Amen at Waset, at the Temple of Heru at Edfu, at the Temple of Ra at On, and the Temple of Auset at Philae. Indeed, scholars and others could assemble at scores of other sites from Siwa to Esna for intellectual discussion and discourse. No city,however, was as rich in temples and schools as Waset where the temples of Amenhotep III, Seti I, Nefertari, Hatshepsut, Tuthmoses III, Mentuhotep, and the Ramesseum were in full flourishing from the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom period. Kemet, the ancient name of Egypt, was not without a considerable body of thought that had been amassed over many centuries. By the time the Greeks starting coming to Egypt as students in the 7th and 8th centuries the philosophers of Egypt had already created vast libraries of histories, science, politics, and religion.

Here along the Nile River Africans thought about the nature of the universe, the condition of good and evil, human relations, the administration of society, the character of the afterlife, the idea of beauty and the nature of the divine with intense reflection. I am not here interested on the impact Africa had on Europe or the influence that Kemet had on Greece. In fact I believe that it is time we wrest the study of early Africa from any comparison with Europe because Europe is not in the same league with its antiquity. We will become far more insightful about our own cultures as we gain deeper knowledge of our own societies in relationship to continuities, migrations, land tenure philosophy, family relationships, governance, writing styles and techniques, and the nature of morality in African terms.

Perhaps one day the names of the earliest philosophers will be as familiar to us as the names of the Greek philosophers are to us today. Why shouldn’t the world know the names of the philosophers who set the stage for human civilization?

Imhotep, 2700 BC, earliest personality recorded in history. Like the later personalities of Socrates and Jesus nothing of his writing remains, but we know that he understood volume and space, because he was the builder of the first pyramid, the Sakkara pyramid. He was the first philosopher, the first physician, the first architect, and the first counselor to a king recorded in history. The reports of his life and his work on the walls of temples and in papyri indicate the esteem in which he was held.

Ptahhotep, 2414 BC, first ethical philosopher. He believed that life consisted of making harmony and peace with nature. All discourse on the relationship between humans and nature must give credit to the life of Ptahhotep.
Kagemni, 2300 BC, the first teacher of right action for the sake of goodness rather than personal advantage, came upon the human scene as an African philosopher nearly eighteen hundred years before Buddha.
Merikare, 1990 BC, valued the art of good speech. His classical teachings on good speech were recorded and passed down from generation to generation.
Sehotepibre, 1991 BC, the first philosopher who espoused a sort of nationalism based in allegiance and loyalty to a political leader.
Amenemhat, 19991 BC, the world’s first cynic. He expressed a cynical view of intimates and friends, warning that one must not trust those who are close to you.
Amenhotep, son of Hapu, 1400 BC, was the most revered of the ancient Kemetic philosophers. Next to Imhotep, he was the epitome of the philosopher. They people deified him as a god, as they had deified Imhotep, long before Jesus. He was called the most knowledgeable thinker of his day.
Duauf, 1340 BC, was seen as the master of protocols. He is concerned with reading books for wisdom, the first intellectual in philosophical history. Reading he said was the best way to train the mind.
Amenemope 1290 BC promoted the philosophy of manners, etiquette, and success.
Akhenaten, 1300 BC, promoted Aton as the Almighty One God.
All these philosophers were hundreds of years before any Greek philosopher. Indeed, Homer, the first Greek to write something that was intelligible lived around 800 BC. But he was not a philosopher. He traveled and studied in Africa.

Kung Fu Tzu, 551 BC, the great Chinese philosopher, who believed that humans could make the Way great, lived much later than the African philosophers. But Kung Fu Tzu was a contemporary of
Siddartha Buddha, 563 BC, the Indian philosopher lived about the same time and Isocrates who lived around 550 BC.
Now as an Afrocentrist I approach the construction of knowledge from the standpoint of Africans as agents in the world, actors, not simply the spectators to Europe. Since Afrocentricity constitutes a new way of examining data, a novel orientation to data, it carries with it assumptions about the current state of the African world. One assumes for example that Africans are frequently operating intellectually, philosophically, and culturally off of African terms and therefore are dislocated, detached, isolated, decentered, or disoriented. One assumes also that this state is useful economically and politically for the West and not so useful for Africa and Africans. There is, consequently, a difference in opinions about the value of Afrocentricity. Those who have kept us off center seek to improve their position on our intellectual and philosophical grounds by cutting the ground from under any movement that teaches Africans to view themselves as centered agents in the world, not marginals to Europe.

What are the issues that are so hotly debated by Stephen Howe in his book Afrocentrism or by the French reactionaries Francois-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, Jean-Pierre Chretien and Claude-Helene Perrot in their attacks in the recently published Afrocentrismes. Of course, already I have responded to quite a lot of critics in my book, The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism. But what is it that scares so many white scholars and many black white scholars? As a cultural configuration the Afrocentric idea is distinguished by five characteristics:

(1) an intense interest in psychological location as determined by symbols, motifs, rituals, and signs.

A few weeks ago I was driving down a lone country road deep into the interior of Ghana and came across a small village of six or seven houses and a church. The church was the most beautifully cared for structure in the little settlement and right over the front door was a large picture of a white Jesus. Nothing illustrates for me more than this the intractable problem of misapplied agency, of deep dislocation. There is no referent for this situation except the domination of Europe in the mind of Africa. Nothing else can be said or ought to be said about it. It cannot and should not be gainsaid, argued, or debated, but it must be eradicated.

I believe that signs, symbols, rituals and ceremonies are useful for societies, and furthermore, I accept that societies are held together or disintegrated on the basis of symbols. We go to war over symbols, we fight over proper rituals of respect, and we find our lives enriched by the memories of those who have achieved heroic stature by standing for what we stand for. In the United States we have fought a battle with the State of South Carolina, the first state to declare itself independent of the United States during the Civil War during the last century, now it has become one of the last states to give up the Confederate Flag which stood for slavery, injustice, bigotry, and white racial domination of Africans. Many white South Carolinians have argued that the flag is a symbol of their ancestors’ fight against the government and they believe that it should stand on the grounds of the state capitol. Of course, we Africans, descendants of the enslaved, see it as a symbol of vicious racism. The debate is over the symbol as an engender of hatred and bigotry for a united society or as a particular instrument to encourage repression of a minority. We are clear that the aim of the symbol of the Confederate flag is not community unity, it is divisive, intentionally divisive. Here in the United Kingdom, you know too well the tyranny of racial and religious hegemony and the forcing of particular symbols and rituals of power down the throats of others.

But my aim, back to my point, is to show that the very intense concern the Afrocentrist has with psychological dislocation, that is, where a person’s psyche is out of sorts with his or her own historical reality, is a legitimate issue for any African corrective. You cannot have an African building a church in the heart of Ivory Coast that is larger than St. Peter’s in Rome without wondering what do we Africans think of our own ancestors? A one hundred or two hundred million dollar shrine to an African deity might have changed forever the religious respect for Africa. But a people who do not respect their own gods should not ever expect respect from anyone. I am saying this as one who is not religious. I am talking pure symbolism here, pure rationalism, not irrationality, but common sense. If you are not going to use the money as you should to improve the health conditions of African people, the educational standards, and the economic circumstances, then by God, use it to showcase your own ancestors, not to compete with Rome for who can build the largest European building in Africa.

Europe has had no problem asserting its hegemony over everything on earth. Huntington claimed (p. 81) that the West

Owned the international banking system
Controlled all hard currencies
Provided the majority of the world’s finished products
Exerted moral authority over other leaders
Was capable of massive military intervention
Controlled the sea lanes
Conducted most advanced technical research
Dominated access to space
Dominated aerospace
Dominated international communications
Dominated high tech weapons production
We seek neither hegemony nor domination of others, we abhor the idea that one group should impose its will on others against their wills. Yet it is just this deliberate insistence on the part of whites to hold hegemony over Africans that has caused so much racial friction and unrest. Not only has the time run out on this type of domination, there is no longer a willing audience for it. But the lingering effects of more than three hundred years of psychological and cultural domination have left us off of economic and political terms.

(2) a commitment to finding the subject-place of Africans in any social, political, economic, or religious phenomenon with implications for questions of sex, gender, and class.

The Afrocentrist is committed to the idea that Africans are agents in the world and therefore should not be viewed as spectators. But even more, I recognize that people can be seen as agents, but can have misdirected agency, a problem of immense proportions. You do not have to be white to serve those interests in the United States, you can be black and serve hegemonic interests against blacks. Today, a black ultra conservative serves as vice presidential candidate on the Reform Party ticket with Pat Buchanan, one of the most threatening throwbacks to the Neanderthalian age in American politics. There are always a few wobbly ducks who cackle on command from those who seek hegemony.

So the problem of Africans being moved off of terms is a world wide issue. It is not simply an American or a British issue, it plagues Africans in Canada as well as those in Australia. It raises its head everyday in South Africa and Nigeria, in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Everywhere we are confronted with the possibilities of being moved to the margins, yet the task of our generation is to resist hegemony from morning till night. We can only do it, however, by seeking the subject place in everything. We remain one of the few people who have allowed others to become experts on our history and our ancestors; this is the source of our confusion. The Ghanaian often refers you to Rattray for information on Asante customs and some Nigerians still believe that Lady Lugard’s A Tropical Dependency says everything about Nigeria.

Afrocentrists take a strong view that racial, sexual, gender, and class discrimination and exploitation must be condemned outright and forthrightly. All Afrocentric analysis is a critique on domination. Furthermore, all Afrocentric analysis is a critique on hierarchy and patriarchy because the analysis stems from all forms of oppression.

(3) a defense of African cultural elements as historically valid in the context of art, music, and literature.

Since Europe has asserted Greece as the standard by which it judges and evaluates all things cultural, Africa finds it difficult, within this context, to speak of its own classical art, music, and literature. To say beautiful and mean only a European conception is to distort reality. It is only one conception. Michelangelo’s David is one way to look at a man, it is not the only way. The ritual dances of hegemony are often dazzling in their portrayal of Europe as the standard by which all others should be judged. The rhythms, however, are jagged, and imprecise.

To say classical art, classical music, or classical dance, cannot mean only European art, music, and dance, and be meaningful in the world context. Any cultural form worthy of emulation is classical for a particular history. There is every reason to speak of classical Akan or classical Yoruba or classical African American forms of art, dance, or literature as there is to speak of any European form. The problem here with our understanding is the deafening tones of white insistence on its own values as universal when in fact they are regional, particular, though exported internationally. As King Lobenguela puzzled over the Scottish missionaries interest in bringing their god to the Ndebele, he said to Moffat, "we have our own god, Nkulunkulu, and you have yours. Why do you want us to have yours?" Of course, Samuel Huntington said that the European world was not smartest or brightest but the most "willing to use violence to bring about its political will." King Lobenguela’s time was short; soon he had a flood of whites in his kingdom teaching "servants to be obedient to your masters."

(4) a celebration of "centeredness" and agency and a commitment to lexical refinement that eliminates pejoratives about Africans or other people.

There is an Australian poem that was taught in successive editions to primary school children in that country which reminded white Australians that

"We won our land from a nerveless race,
Too mean for their land to fight;
If we mean to hold it we too must face
The adage that might makes right."

This is how people are uprooted against their wills. But Europe makes no apologies to these peoples and whites have made no apologies in the United States for robbing the indigenous nations of their lands. In Africa, they sought to rob the land but found it overpowering and the people resilient on the land of their ancestors, yet Europe left an entire continent moved off of center, off of its own terms, and has repeatedly spoken of a failed Africa, a tired Africa, a HIV-infected Africa, a sick Africa, a despised Africa, and an Africa that cannot get its act together. Of course, for us, Africa must be convinced to do three things: (1) return to a strong sense of cultural identity, (2) create international networks of Africans on the continent and trans-continentally to cooperate on a global level, and (3) place emphasis on teaching children to leap-frog old technologies and finding ways to exploit the new information possibilities with vigor.

In this way we will celebrate centeredness and agency and not dismiss our own ethnicities, histories, and lessons to embrace others. All Africans, wherever in the world, have made valuable contributions to their countries, whether in the West or in Africa, and must be viewed and must view themselves as accountable, responsible agents in the world, not to be acted upon, but to act. Thus, it means that we must build institutions everywhere in our image and in our interests. One thing that happens to a people who lose their god, is that they lose their institutions, their reasons for being, and their language, and you cannot find the proper strength to build institutions until you rediscover your cultural center. Of course, we have many infusions into the African cultural stream and those infusions must be recognized, given voice, and seen as a part of creating a new African reality. Nothing remains exactly the same, but over time changes are often cosmetic, external, not core changing. Wood may remain in water for ten years, but wood will never become a crocodile.

We have been condemned for seeking lexical refinement, but that is exactly the role of any philosophy, to clarify issues, to discover the hidden pitfalls, and to steer people around dangers. You cannot refer to Black Africa and White Africa, you must not speak of Africa South of the Sahara, you should not talk of issues in the West and East as if there is no South, you will encounter an Afrocentrist if you speak of pygmies, Hottentots, and Bushmen. You cannot allow African agency to be assumed by Europe in the construction of science, history, or art. Why should a Nigerian write that Mungo Park discovered the Niger River? Did Livingstone really discover Victoria Falls or did someone bring him to Musi wa Tunya and he declared out of his own arrogance that he would rename it Victoria Falls? We have a big job, but it will be done this millennium.

(5) a powerful imperative from historical sources to revise the collective text of African people.

Whether we are on this side or the other side of the Atlantic we are an African people. There is no real reason to posit some hypothetical Black Atlantic. The Atlantic is neither black nor white, it is a deep blue. It is an ocean, and an ocean is neither a barrier to human interaction nor is it necessarily a consolidater of the human experience. We remain African though we become Jamaicans, African British, Haitians, African Americans or African Costa Ricans.

We must learn from each others experiences. It is the imposed isolation that has kept us from our true undestanding of ourselves. When the Haitian intellectual Antenor Firmin in 1895 wrote his famous book, The Equality of the Human Races, he was defending all black people, those in the United States, Brazil, United Kingdom, and Nigeria, against racist assaults and bias commentary.

I am convinced that the constituent elements for our recentering are rooted in four general areas of inquiry:

Cosmology-- nature of beingness, Ontology, Mythology;
Axiology--nature of ethical values;
Epistemology--nature of knowledge, proofs, methods; and
Aesthetics--nature of creative and economic motifs.
But what are we up against in promoting a mature understanding of how knowledge is constructed in the West to encourage racism? Often we are up against strange and bleak careerists who are writing as if they are writing out of our experiences when, in fact, their aims are totally distinct from the recentering of Africans in a human place.

Periodically there appears a book that runs counter to the wisdom of experience in the African American community. Against Race by the sociologist Paul Gilroy is just such a book. Gilroy, a British scholar, who teaches at Yale University, made a reputation in the states with the postmodern work, The Black Atlantic. I see this book as a continuation of that work’s attempt to deconstruct the notion of African identity in the United States and elsewhere. Of course it runs squarely against the lived experiences of the African Americans. The history of discrimination against us in the West, whether the United States or the United Kingdom or other parts of the western world, is a history of assaulting our dignity because we are Africans or the descendants of Africans. This has little to do with whether or not we are on one side of the ocean or the other. Such false separations, particularly in the context of white racial hierarchy and domination, are nothing more than an acceptance of a white definition of blackness. I reject such a notion as an attempt to isolate Africans in the Americas from their brothers and sisters on the continent, and of course, to continue the separations of Africans in Britain from each other. It is as serious an assault and as misguided as the 1817 Philadelphia conference that argued that the blacks in the United States were not Africans but "colored Americans" and therefore should not return to Africa. To argue as Gilroy does that Africans in Britain and the United States are part of a "Black Atlantic" is to argue the "colored American" thesis all over again. It took us one hundred and fifty years to defeat the notion of the "colored American" in the United States and I will not stand idly by and see such misguided notion accepted as fact at this late date in our struggle to liberate our minds. We are victimized in the West by systems of thinking, structures of knowledge, ways of being, that take our Africanity as an indication of inferiority, something to be overcome. I see this position as questioning the humanity and the dignity of African people. Despite what looks like acceptance of Africans on a political level, it is racist at the core, because it is an acceptance of what whites find acceptable, that is, the idea that certain blacks are no longer Africans. The easiest and quickest way in the United States to assume that position is to say that "you never left anything in Africa" or "you are not an African nor a black but an American" or to say "Africa never did anything for me." You become immediately accepted as an honorary white.

It should be clear that Gilroy’s new book, Against Race is not a book against racism or racialism, as perhaps it ought to be, but a book against the idea of race as an organizing theme in human relations. It is somewhat like the idea offered a decade or more ago by the conservative critic, Anne Wortham in her reactionary work, The Other Side of Racism. Like Wortham, Gilroy argues that the African American spends too much time on collective events that constitute "race" consciousness and therefore participates in "militaristic" marches typified by the Million Man March and the Million Woman March, both of which were useless in his mind. The only person who could make such a statement had to be one who did not attend. Unable to see the awesome power of the collective construction of umoja within the context of a degenerate racist society, Gilroy prefers to stand on the sidelines and cast stones at the authentic players in the arena. This is a reactionary posture. So Against Race cannot be called an anti-racism book although it is anti-race, especially against the idea of black cultural identity whether constructed as race or as a collective national identity.

Let us be clear here, Against Race is not a book against all collective identities. There is no assault on Jewish identity, as a religious or cultural identity, nor is there an attack on French identity or Chinese identity as collective historical realities. There is no assault on the historically constructed identity of the Hindu Indian, nor on the white British. Nor should there be any such assault. But Gilroy, like others of this school, see the principal culprits as Afrocentrists who retain a complex love of African culture, consciousness of African ancestry, and belief in Pan Africanism. In Gilroy’s construction or lack of construction, there must be something wrong with African Americans because Africa remains in their minds as a place, a continent, a symbol, a reality of origin and source of the first step across the ocean when they are really not African. But Gilroy does not know what he is talking about here. This leads him to the wrong conclusions about the African American community. The relationship Africans in the Americas have with Africa is not of some mythical or a mystical place. We do not worship unabashedly at the doorsteps of the continent although we have an active engagement with all that it means. Are we always conscious of it? Of course not! You will not find all African Americans walking around the streets of Philadelphia or Chicago or Los Angeles thinking about engaging Africa, yet we know almost instantly that when we are assaulted by police, denied venture capital or criticized for insisting on keeping Europe out of our consciousness without permission that Africa is at the center of our existential reality. We are most definitely African, though modern, contemporary, Africans domiciled in the West.

Actually Gilroy spends a considerable amount of time in this book explaining how race, a false concept, "is understood." He writes "Awareness of the indissoluble unity of all life at the level of genetic materials leads to a stronger sense of the particularity of our species as a whole, as well as to new anxieties that the character is being fundamentally and irrevocably altered" (p. 20). I do not know how Gilroy can move from this position to indict the African people as the carriers of this anxiety about "race," clearly a concept that was never promoted by African people in this country or on the continent. It is essentially an Anglo-Germanic notion, manufactured and disseminated to promote the distinctions between peoples and to establish a European hierarchy, as well as a hierarchy among Europeans themselves. We have no business with any kind of hierarchy; our business for this millennium is the recentering and reordering of the African world’s priorities based on a firm acceptance of Africa’s on role in securing the mutuality of the human destiny.

When a new generation looks upon us, may they look upon this generation of Africans with the pride that comes from knowing that there have been those who stood for truth and right when it was easier to melt into the crowd of turncoats. May that new generation take up the same battles and go from victory to victory until we wipe all forms of human degradation from the face of the earth.

African symbol