Palpable Inventions

Posted on July 8, 2015 in Essays

Review of Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism, Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998)

Did Napoleon mutilate the nose of the Great Sphinx because he thought it looked too ‘African’? Is the star Sirius B a storehouse of energy and information transmitted to earth specifically to people whose bodies are rich in melanin (the chemical which pigments skin)? Are Christmas trees, chocolate bars, baseballs, Spanish bulls (and what’s done to them by way of chopping, biting, thwacking and impaling) all symbols of black male genitalia? Were the first white women lepers who fled to the Caucasus and coupled with jackals to produce the white race? Do surnames like Dunn, Grey and Douglas, and place names like Dublin and Blackpool, indicate concealed African origins? Were the Mende people of West Africa the first to navigate to Peru? Did Egyptians build Stonehenge? Is AIDS the outcome of a genocidal white conspiracy to eliminate Africans? More to the point, do you believe these are serious questions, requiring patient and scholarly rebuttal?

Stephen Howe’s subject is Afrocentricism which, he says, comes in two varieties. The first is an interest in Africa and its culture reinforced by the belief ‘that Eurocentric bias blocked or distorted knowledge of Africans and their cultures’. This has been around for some time, most effectively expressed over the last four decades in the rise of the new academic discipline of African history. It is the second or ‘stronger version … a far more cohesive, dogmatic and essentially irrational ideology’ which has developed over a much longer period which is his subject. He doesn’t add, but it is his premise, that this second form of Afrocentricm is dangerous. The parallels he invokes are with Germany in the 1930s and Serbia in the 1990s.

African history has claims to being the senior African discipline these days, and if a discipline is to be judged by the number of books which are a joy to read and which no person claiming to be informed about the world can afford to ignore, then African history passes the test handsomely. But it is very much a product of post world war 2. It wasn’t around in the nineteenth century when the first black intellectuals were trying to make sense of their heritage. What confronted them instead was a mass of European writing which, since the beginning of the slave trade had, as Howe says, ‘quite seriously posed the question whether Africans were human at all.’ Even the scholarship of the period, with the rise of the new science of anthropology, was hooked on notions of evolutionary human progression – the savage, the primitive and the barbarous eventually evolving into civilised bourgeois ‘man’. On this ladder, Africans like other non-Europeans, occupied the lower rungs, and anthropology’s interest in them was, as Edward Tylor put it, ‘that savages and barbarians are like what our ancestors were and our peasants still are’.

How were nineteenth century black intellectuals to respond to this? Early on, Howe focuses on the key figure of Edward Wilmot Blyden who was born in St Thomas in the West Indies in 1832 but lived much of his life in Sierra Leone. Even before the European Scramble for Africa, Blyden formulated the essential problem faced by people of African descent. Should they argue that they are identical with Europeans but unequal in achievement? Or should they proclaim an equal but distinct identity? Blyden’s preference was for the latter option. It is a formula which perhaps works better in theory than in practice and, like many black writers, Blyden sometimes seemed to be asserting both options simultaneously (by the end of his life he was praising British colonialism for advancing Africans). But its attractions were obvious. In a single phrase, social Darwinism with its ‘heart of darkness’ Africa was rejected. ‘The two races’, Blyden wrote, ‘are not moving in the same groove with an immeasurable distance between them, but on parallel lines’.

A similar impulse lay behind the rise of the religious movement known as Ethiopianism. The term was first used formally by a South African ex-Wesleyan minister called Mangena Mokone, who founded his Ethiopian Church in 1892. To African Christians throughout sub-Saharan Africa, denied an equal role in the churches of the various missionary societies and looking for more African expressions of Christianity, the name Ethiopia had irresistible appeal. Linking the Biblical story of the baptism of the Ethiopian by Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8, 28-40) with such texts as ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God’ (Psalm 68, 31), they marked out an alternative tradition to the one which condemned them as sons of Ham to be perpetual ‘servants of servants’ (Genesis 9, 25). After the defeat of an Italian army at Adowa in 1896 by the actual Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, the only African country to withstand the ‘Scramble’, the term took on a powerful political dimension. Ethiopian movements played a part in political rebellions such as the Bambata rebellion of 1906 and John Chilembwe’s Nyasaland rising of 1915. Meanwhile, intellectuals like Blyden and the Ghanaian Casely-Hayford were able to draw on Homer and the myth of Prester John to build the term into a symbol of pan-Africanism, linking it with independent black churches in the United States and with the ‘back to Africa’ movement. By 1911, when Casely-Hayford published his Ethiopia Unbound, the name had become shorthand for every conceivable African aspiration. Though the term itself has largely dropped out of use since the 1960s, ‘Ethiopia’ as an idea remains a powerful force behind the British Rastafarian movement which, for all its utter lack of interest in any actual post-revolution Ethiopia, remains the most powerful expression of Afrocentricism in Britain. It is a good example of myth overtaking and suppressing reality, and it is a curious feature of Howe’s book that he mentions this strong Afro-British expression of his central theme only in passing.

Instead, he concentrates on the American story, which is less about Ethiopia than about Egypt and involves several interlocking claims. First, that Egypt was the source of all human civilisations, antedating Mesopotamia and Western Asia. Indeed, any claims made for the latter two are regarded as racist, questioning Egypt’s pre-eminent position (though claims for Ethiopia as Egypt’s possible mentor are permitted). Secondly, that everything of value in Greek and Jewish culture, all science, philosophy and literature, derived from the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Once again only racist scholarship, in a process of historical ‘whitewash’, denies this process. Thirdly, that Egypt represented the fullest flowering of a cultural system uniting the whole of the African continent in a civilisation which in its concern for family and human values stands in sharp contrast to what Europe and American have made of their Egyptian inheritance. Finally, that ancient Egyptians, the builders of the pyramids, worshippers of Isis and Osiris, and tamers of the Nile, were black – some authors declaring them unambiguously ‘black with curly hair’, others with a more inclusive agenda allowing ‘blackness’ to include Euclid, Plato, Jesus Christ, and Alexander the Great.
This is a bald outline of ideas and claims which vary considerably in detail and in emphasis in the different texts which advance them. Until recently, they were most commonly associated with the fringe figure of Cheikh Anta Diop, the Sorbonne-trained Professor of Egyptology and Prehistory at the University of Dakar, and they were most accessibly expounded in the idiosyncratic chapter he contributed to the UNESCO General History of Africa (Vol.2, ed. Mokhtar, 1981). They have since, however, been given an enormous boost by the controversy surrounding Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (1987), described by one critic as the ‘most discussed book on the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Bible’. Bernal’s contention is that ancient Greece was massively indebted, not just culturally but for its very population to the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and that this was common knowledge until the late eighteenth century since when, for racist motives, scholars have substituted a purely ‘Aryan model’ of Greek origins.

One thing Howe does, usefully, is to demonstrate the long heritage of these arguments in forgotten black authors whose works he resurrects. Beginning with David Walkers Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) and Hosea Easton’s Treatise on the Intellectual Character and the Political Condition of the Coloured People (1837), he surveys some two dozen texts, erudite and eccentric in turn, compiled by the self-taught in opposition to the academy, but popular and influential in their time. They range from witty polemicists like Harvey Johnson, who in 1903 surveyed the failings and follies of white society to conclude by asking whether whites could ever be trusted to govern themselves, to entertaining frauds like J.E. Blayechettai, a popular lecturer on the black church circuit in the 1920s, who claimed to be an Ethiopian prince captured by Dervishes and educated in England. Such figures are not mentioned in any of the standard academic surveys and Howe’s book is original in giving them academic space.

He has little difficulty in disentangling the multiple ironies and contradictions in all this. Arguments about Europe’s debt to Egypt ought, he says, to be arguments about syncretism and cultural exchange, not about racial exclusiveness. If both African and Western culture owe an equal debt to Egypt, it is hard to see why African values should simultaneously be hailed as a humane and spiritual alternative to those of the ‘west’. The insistence on Egypt’s continuing relevance to contemporary America steers dangerously close to racist assumptions that it represented a stagnant civilisation in contrast to the dynamism of ancient Greece and modern Europe. Where once Afro-Americans identified with the Exodus narrative (‘Let my people go’), today’s descendants of slaves seem fixated on the glamorous Pharaohs as symbols of power and conquest – to the point of denying the plight of those they held in bondage.

On Bernal, Howe emphasises the irony that while on the one hand he seems excessively pre-occupied with the ethnic origins of the scholars whose work he criticises, on the other he shows little interest ‘in the content of the ideas with which Pharaonic Egypt is argued to have influence the world’. What is being proclaimed in Black Athena is essentially a racial inheritance. As for the simpler question about whether Egyptians were ‘black’ or ‘reddish pink’, nothing could demonstrate more clearly the wholly American nature of this controversy. Ebony editor Lerone Bennett expressed what should long ago have been the last word on this. Whatever skin shades are attributed to ancient Egyptians, they would all of them, Pharaohs included, ‘have been forced in the forties to sit on the back seats of the buses in Mississippi’.

By far the sharpest of these ironies is the manner in which Afrocentricism continues to promulgate one of the oldest prejudices about Africa – namely, the hypothesis that light-skinned people of Egyptian origin spread across Africa in ancient times as a ruling elite (with well-shaped noses) and subsequently degenerated through their interbreeding with primitive peoples. Sir Harry Johnson, explorer and linguist who was the first governor British Central Africa (later Nyasaland) first popularised what has become known, for short, as the Hamitic hypothesis, but it features, too, in the writings of nineteenth century French and German theorists, such as Delafosse and the half mad Leo Frobenius, and its influence and life span have been extraordinary. Diop was convinced that the famous soapstone carvings from Great Zimbabwe were Egyptian falcons. Seligman’s Races of Africa, in which all African achievement from the Benin bronzes to Zimbabwe is presented as the evidence of Arab or Phoenician or Aryan influence, was still in print in the 1960s, after influencing virtually every major figure in anthropology from Malinowsky to Audrey Richards. Roland Oliver, who in the 1950s pioneered the serious study of Africa history at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, has recently identified diffusionism as the biggest intellectual obstacle to be overcome in winning recognition for the new discipline. It is astonishing that black American writers should be giving it fresh impetus and that they should be adopting Frobenius as a hero figure.

But then, as Howe points out repeatedly, the last thing Afrocentrists are interested in is African history, or indeed, any contemporary African reality. One of the saddest statements quoted in this book is Diop’s 1981 assertion that due to the emancipation of women and an ideal of human worth, ‘moral and material misery’ are unknown in Africa ‘to the present day’.

This is a thoughtful and well-researched study, and it contains within itself many of the points which a reviewer would wish to emphasise. Howe admits that most bookshops contain a shelf or two of similarly crazy material, texts about the lost wisdom of ancient civilisations, myths of racial origin drawing on Masonic and Egyptian materials, stories of lost continents, books about astrology and the sphinx and Stonehenge, the Bermuda triangle, and the relation of all of these to the Book of Revelation. He acknowledges the political, cultural, even religious fervour animating many of these texts so that ‘to complain of the lack of coherent social theory … is almost beside the point’ (p.94). He knows that the other side of the story – racist theories about darkest Africa and African incapacity – has had an even longer life span. An attractive feature is his evident sympathy for those autodidacts with their huge but indiscriminate erudition who, working without academic support and in defiance of contemporary academic trends, tried to build a identity for ‘the coloured races’ in response to the prevailing bigotry. He draws interesting parallels between ‘the lonely, self-taught, obsessional activity’ of black intellectuals concerned with historical and racial retrieval, and those English non-conformist radicals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries described by such historians as Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. He pauses, for example, over Black Panther leader David Hilliard’s painfully honest account of his attempts to understand Franzt Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (‘I’m lost. I have the dictionary in one hand, the book in the other, and I can’t get past the first page …. I might as well be reading in a foreign language’).

But acknowledgements such as these are incidental in a long and detailed book which argues overwhelmingly that Afrocentricism is a bad thing. Having invoked Hill’s Levellers and Muggletonians and Thompson’s incipient working class as persuasive analogues, he doesn’t go on to celebrate them as offering a rich and challenging alternative to the all-too-obvious failings of the academic mainstream. Instead, he presents their efforts as culminating in the ethnic nationalism he deplores – at times with a sarcasm that strikes this reader as misplaced. An innocent remark by Jerome H. Schiele to the effect that in traditional African philosophy ‘there is no perceptual separation of the individual from other people’ is savagely put down with the comment, ‘a bit confusing when one is trying to eat, or to put on one’s shoes’. There is rather too much of this, especially towards the end of a book with which the author seems to have become somewhat dispirited.

Nor does he succeed in proving Afrocentrism to be dangerous. No battalions are being mobilised by this literature, ready to embark on programmes of ethnic cleansing. He instances Papa Doc’s Haiti as an example of the damage Afrocentric ideas can cause in practice. But Haiti’s brutal dictatorship was sustained by the cold war, not by Afrocentric propaganda. He bewails the fact that one, particularly unpleasant book by Frances Cress Welsing sold some 40,000 copies within a few months of publication. A few of his polemicists hold university positions, but mostly in Black Studies departments, those sealed academic ghettos created by Affirmative Action. He describes the disrupted African Studies Association conference at Montreal in 1969, when a self-elected black caucus threatened some delegates with assault. But he doesn’t identify any lasting damage to scholarship, least of all to the work of serious black scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Paul Gilroy, Manning Marabie and Cornel West (to pick names at random). Though a few of the books he describes are undeniably nasty in their anti-semitic and psychosexual bigotry, he also describes that bigotry being exposed for what it is by (you’ve guessed it!) those same black scholars, from whose observations several of Howe’s most effective barbs derive.

In his closing paragraphs, he characterises as ‘ more wildly and culpably wrong’ than anything else in his book John Fiske’s contention that while Afrocentric writers are at times overtly racist it is a ‘weak racism’, lacking any imperialist programme. It is intended only ‘to strengthen African Americans in their daily lives’, with the further function of making whites uneasy with their ‘whiteness’. Against this, Howe declares ringingly, ‘No one is or can ever possibly be ‘empowered’ or ‘strengthened’ by believing in lies or fantasies’. These are the words of a political philosopher, not a historian, the type of philosopher, moreover, who focuses on truth as something written, not as something experienced. One of the better known ‘Negro’ spirituals declared ‘When I get to heaven I’m gonna put on my shoes/ I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven’. Were slaves wrong to find comfort in such self-evident myth?

As I write these words, the annual pilgrimage to Fatima is being shown on Portuguese television. A writer of Howe’s persuasion and calibre would have no difficulty in demonstrating that Fatima is patently a fraud, concocted in the late 1920s by the then Bishop of Leiria in active collaboration with the rise of fascism. Yet tens of thousands of Portuguese men and women make this pilgrimage, often walking barefoot in fulfilment of local vows, and covering the last few miles on their knees. A palpable invention has found meaning in people’s lives. Logic and truth matter, but they are not always the most interesting responses to human need or folly.
First published London Review of Books, May 13, 1999