Afrocentrism has gained a wide spread throughout African-American academia and pop culture. It claims that the cluster of ideas, beliefs, and tenets of the philosophy provide a corrective to Eurocentric histories of Africa, which diminish and neglect the achievements of the continent before the colonial era. But beneath the populism of Afrocentrism lies an ahistorical image of past greatness without class conflict. This preserves a vague concept “blackness,” a concept created by and for colonizers. Afrocentrism ends up mirroring Eurocentrism by creating parallel narratives about the world that rely on the amorphous concept of race.
Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism each rely on an ahistorical narrative. Whiteness and blackness are amorphous, recent social constructs. In “There is no such thing as western civilisation,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, argues that for the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the world was divided into three parts, Asia, Libya, and Europe, and that it did not occur to him that these names corresponded with different kinds of people, namely Europeans, Asians, and Africans. To him, Egyptians and Persians would be more familiar than Gauls or Saxons. At the time, Herodotus’ writing, Greeks, Romans, Gauls and Saxons, all would have considered themselves to be separate people. At the same time, Igbo, Oromo, Shona, Zulu and Luba would have never considered themselves as “black” or “Africans.” This is a fictional unification that only makes sense under the relatively modern concept of “whiteness” and “blackness,” respectively.
Some, in response, would argue that the concept of “blackness” is needed because it is important to have that concept in order to organize around, and this is often the starting point for many proponents of Afrocentrism. However, this does not address that the concepts of European and African are inherently supremacist concepts. The concepts of European and African position Europeans as more civilized, cultured, intellectual, etc. than the Other (in this situation, Africans). John Drabinski, Professor of Black Studies at Amherst College, argues that Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, is a study in how language is a method of participating in the world, so “speaking the language of the colonized … is to speak the world of the colonizer.” Fanon’s political goal was to decolonize the Third World, both politically and psychologically. Drabinski argues that Fanon’s conclusion deals with what “blackness would be after colonialism.” Even after colonialism, blackness continues to be a concept created by and for those who stand to profit from the misery of the oppressed. Proponents of Afrocentrism are in fact, speaking the language of the colonizer by continuing to enforce the false belief that Africans are inherently different from Europeans.
It should also be noted that both Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism have historically downplayed the role of class and class struggle within their historical narratives. Afrocentricists often point to Ancient Egypt as the birthplace of African civilization, the same way that Europeans have pointed to Ancient Greece. Ancient Athens was an empire that was fueled by slavery where most of its citizens were unable to participate in the democracy that we in the modern day glorify. Similarly, ancient Egypt was a patrimonial state in which everything was owned by the pharaoh and land ownership was the expression of divine providence, and held exclusively by those of the upper class. Peasants, which constituted the largest section of the population, performed obligatory corvée labor, building the pyramids, construction of roads, irrigation canals, quarries, and mines. Guillemette Andreu-Lanoe, curator and director of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre Museum, observed “sentiments” of revolt that appeared during the Middle Kingdom. Many fled the kingdom and those caught were subject to a life sentence of forced labor.
In downplaying the role of class and class struggle, proponents of Afrocentrism often do not assign political significance to it. Molefi Asante’s Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change sees racial identity as homogenous. Within that framework, Asante argues that “a war of class against class… is contradictory to the Afrocentric value which respects differences.” Asante does not understand ancient Africans as farmers who had to meet the requirement of giving more than half of their crop to the government. Nor does he interpret the priests and pharaohs as an exploitative aristocracy. He argues instead that “people of ancient Egypt had different jobs, responsibilities, and duties,” creating a bourgeois fantasy of class harmony where class is a just an occupational status and not a social relation. In doing so, Asante and other Afrocentrists mirror Eurocentrists in stifling radical movements that aim to unite all oppressed people under the guise of racialized homogeneity.
Afrocentrism is inherently essentialist because the concept is poorly defined. What makes someone African? My personal experience only confuses the question more. As an Egyptian, am I African? On first appearance, yes, because Egypt is physically in the continent of Africa, but on further analysis, the answer is more complicated. There is no distinct geographical line that separates perceived Arab nations from perceived black nations. The lines that do exist are created by former European colonizers. The most common criteria for determining race, often on first glance, is skin tone and other physical characteristics. If being African is based on whether or not people generally perceive you as such, many people of African descent who are light skinned or white passing no longer fit the category of African. Race could be defined as having certain racialized experiences. I have not had certain racial experiences, but I have had others. I have been harassed by police and lived in government subsidized housing, both of which are seen as “black” experiences in the modern sense. If race is defined through a collective historical events, Egypt was involved in transatlantic slave trade, albeit not significantly. Am I different from an Ethopian immigrant who would have the same experiences and history? Why is one normally considered African and the other not? Or am I actually African despite the fact that I do not identify as such? When people know that I am Egyptian, I am not discriminated against, often times, I am exoticized. Edward Said’s Orientalism focuses on how the social, economic, and cultural practices of Arab nations have been romanticized by Europeans, and subsequently by Arabs ourselves. Said explains how the Orient is perceived: irrational, psychologically weak, and feminized. I am perceived similarly. This is in direct contrast to how African people are consistently stereotyped, namely masculine, brutish, and unfeeling. Using my experience as an example, it is evident that “African” is an unclear category which falls apart when examined.
Afrocentrism and Eurocentrism are both ultimately stories constructed retrospectively by modern people for specific political purposes. As Fanon would understand it, Afrocentrism is using the language of the colonizer. It uses the same technique of Eurocentrism, namely a narrative that downplays the historical importance of class and class struggle, in order to create the idea of racial harmony and purity. It also perpetuates the colonizer belief that there is such a thing as “African” or “European,” which is used to separate people into “us vs. them” categories, which justify exacting violence against the “other.” These racial categories are often vague and feeble, making it unclear whose political interests should be prioritized. Afrocentricists, ironically, only end up mirroring a European worldview.
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