This is a time when African studies are turning increasingly to matters of epistemology; when we construct new ideas about the ideas we have about Africa. Discourses and their silences are under close scrutiny, especially in cases where the historical production of knowledge is seen to be closely linked to the development of power relations.
A recent example of this trend is Marc Epprecht’s Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS, a study that disputes the notion that sexual behavior in Africa has always been pretty well invariably heterosexual. Malvern van Wyk Smith’s book is equally challenging in confronting received ideas as to how racist images of Africa came to prominence in the classical and medieval European world.
Van Wyk Smith is Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Rhodes University—his book an indicator of the range of concerns his discipline has come to take on board, much of its business now having to do with issues of representation. Thirty years in the making, this large work is massively researched; the bibliography contains over one thousand items.
The opening epigraph, from Abioseh Nicol, reads “You are not a country, Africa/ You are a concept” (v). Concepts arise from the construction of knowledge, a process that is tightly bound to ideological formation. And how may we make use of concepts? To quell fears, to nurture dreams, to assert supremacy.
This is a book that explores “the origins and earliest manifestations of the Mediterranean world’s founding conceptions of—and prejudices about—the [African] subcontinent to the south of the Sahara.” Van Wyk Smith’s thesis is that the roots of European prejudices regarding sub-Saharan Africa appear to lie in ideological formulations developed in pharaonic Egypt, where a fundamental paradigm was formed—one that was to come to the fore as Europe learnt of Axumite Christianity: that of the “two Ethiopias” (famously invoked by Homer), the one “worthy,” the other “savage”.
The Introduction tackles necessary preliminaries, with van Wyk Smith surveying the contributions of Fanon, Foucault and Said to the postcolonial project and in particular to a critical examination of the construction of knowledge, and [End Page 172] then, inspired by this, the growth of a militant Afrocentrist movement, notably in the United States, that in his view drastically oversimplifies the issues at hand (witness an emblematic debate as to whether King Tutankhamun was black). Van Wyk Smith problematizes all of this with a firm grasp of the ideological dynamics involved. Like Stephen Howe in Afrocentrism (oddly, mentioned only briefly here) he is feisty on the unsupported claims of (his term) the “wilder” American Afrocentrists; at the same time—and his book appears inspired by this premise—he insists that racism is “an intellectual fungus that can be eradicated, albeit with difficulty” (53).
He traces how through three millennia of dynastic Egypt ideas of the relationship of that state and its people with lands to the south fluctuated between identification and alienation, between ideas of affiliation and difference with, increasingly, the emphasis on the latter.
The word “image” in the subtitle is crucial to what the book sets out to do. Van Wyk Smith is careful to acknowledge that a reading of race in Egyptian representational art can be difficult (there is a superb folio of photos to refer to). There is also a question regarding the extent to which official art corresponded to demotic or workaday attitudes (to what extent did the pharaohs’ image of themselves and of others correspond to perceptions held by their subject peoples?) What is important for his thesis, however, is the way in which these representations (including a highly schematized Negroid type) helped bolster the concept of the two Ethiopias—one of which was to be held at a remove—and the way in which they filtered through to impact on classical Greek and Roman and, later, early European Christian consciousness.
Before his account of...