- The Case against Afrocentrism
"I am a child of seven generations of Africans who have lived in America," writes Molefi Asante in An Afrocentric Manifesto (2007). Asante, one of the leading intellectual figures in Afrocentricity, goes on to explain that "My [End Page 188] entire life, including career, struggle against oppression, search for ways to overturn hegemony, political outlook, fortunes and misfortunes, friends and detractors, has been impacted by my Africanness" (2). Encased in Asante's personal testimony are the basic tenets of Afrocentrism's racial epistemology. Like other Afrocentric scholars, Asante erases the American aspects of his identity and defines himself as an "African," privileging a temporally monolithic and historically unchanging Africa as the core of black identity in the United States. For several decades now, such renderings of Afrocentricity have offered black Americans a counterhegemonic identity that seeks to invert the "Eurocentricism" that most Afrocentrists see at the heart of United States history. In The Case against Afrocentrism, Tunde Adeleke argues that the Afrocentric counternarrative requires its adherents to engage in both "intellectual intolerance" and massive leaps of historical logic to produce an "African-centered" identity that is militantly race-conscious, ahistorical, and anti-global in its intellectual trajectory (16). As Adeleke observes, "Afrocentric essentialism" demands that "all blacks share one African identity regardless of historical experiences and geographical locations" (17).
The Case against Afrocentrism is intellectual history at its best. Adeleke critically analyzes Afrocentrism in five powerful chapters, and offers readers important personal and intellectual insights in his introduction and conclusion. He begins by recounting his personal encounters with Afrocentric scholars and the "intellectual intolerance" that these intellectuals have directed at him for critiquing Afrocentric ideas (xi). Adeleke notes that Afrocentrists reject the Du Boisian dualism, the notion that black Americans are at one and the same time descendents of Africans and yet American (4, 25-26). As Adeleke argues, Afrocentrists solve the "problem of the colorline" by positing a static and essentialized characterization of Africa and African culture (11-12).
The chapters that follow Adeleke's introduction constitute one of the most sustained historical critiques of Afrocentrism that has been produced in recent years. Adeleke adeptly instructs the reader about the importance of slavery and racism to the formation of black American identity, probes the possibilities and limitations of nineteenth-century black intellectual and political leadership, and explores the ambivalence that black Americans have historically expressed for the African continent. Adeleke then evaluates the historical significance of five paradigms used by black Americans to understand the significance of Africa—civilization, cultural nationalism, black nationalism and pan-Africanism, instrumentalism, and Afrocentricity. Adeleke is scholarly in his deconstruction of Afrocentricism, but emphasizes the deeply ideological nature of Afrocentric writing, referring to its tendency to be "jingoistic" and to produce "some of the most ridiculous theories in history" (91-92).
Chapters 4 and 5 deepen our understanding of the "mythmaking" involved in Afrocentrism (101). Adeleke argues that Afrocentrism obfuscates [End Page 189] the diversity of the African diaspora, adding that "there is no one African and black Diaspora experience" (116). And yet Afrocentricists insist on espousing a "consciousness of affinity for Africa, sustained by, among others, subscription to African cultural values, advocacy and invocation of African ideals and idiosyncrasies, and the conception of existential realities within an African cosmological framework" (134). In an era in which black Americans have confronted "white backlash" to the memory of the civil rights movement, in addition to lax (and at times, nonexistent) enforcement of civil rights laws, it is understandable that the collective "African" consciousness imagined by Afrocentrists might appeal to some black Americans. Such a consciousness, however, does little to address the structural racism that still plagues the United States. As Adeleke observes in his conclusions, Afrocentrism offers little more than "a psychological and therapeutic feel-good-together philosophy" (180). [End Page 190]