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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 226-230

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Book Review

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. By WILSON JEREMIAH MOSES. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. ix + 313. $54.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Wilson Jeremiah Moses has written a contentious history, but a useful one in Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. There are far more issues with which to contend than to agree in this book, yet Moses has amassed an important array of facts regarding the roots of African American popular culture and his work must be taken seriously as an attempt to refashion the historiography of African culture in America. Unfortunately, he has added to the confusion that he sought to eliminate.

Moses has spent a considerable amount of time in his career analyzing and criticizing Black Nationalism, Black Messianism, and Ethiopianism. They appear to him to be bothersome aberrations in an otherwise natural path to African cultural assimilation and biological amalgamation into whiteness. This indicates to me that he has not spent as much time as he might have dealing with the American context of racism and the white opposition to the African population that gave rise to the forces of self determination, self definition, or the realities of the African American community itself. One cannot simply dismiss the life and death struggles of African people in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries as some sort of contrived romanticism about Africa or some separatist pipe dream. These were real people facing excruciating hardships and these were real times in which Africans were brutalized physically, psychologically, and historically. The fact that there were Africans courageous enough and willing [End Page 226] enough, with limited research resources and archival access, to discover in every case and situation the threads that would assist them in creating the fabric of refutation of the great lie of white superiority, is not to be gainsaid. It is to be examined carefully and with imagination. That these early African writers in America got some of their information wrong does not mean that they were unremarkable in their endeavor to establish the basic truths of African history.

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History begins and ends with a conceptual problem brought about by the confounding use of the term "Afrocentrism" to cover a multitude of conditions. In the first place, so many ideas and notions are covered by Moses's use of the term that almost all significant African American historians of the 1850s and 1950s could be called Afrocentrists. That is clearly not the case. If it were the case then we would not need to have a discourse on the roots of African American popular history; it would be definitionally one and the same. In one place in the book he seems to claim that Edward Wilmot Blyden might be considered the father of Afrocentricity (p. 18), and in another place he suggests that Cheikh Anta Diop is the father of Afrocentricity (p. 41). One is apparently called the "father" and the other the "contemporary father" as if there were two generating seeds. This confusion exists because Moses has not separated in his mind the idea of Afrocentricity as theory and as practice from the notion of Afrocentric cultural symbolism. In the conflation that appears in his thinking, anybody can be Afrocentrist if he or she writes about the value of African history, especially ancient classical African history, in explaining contemporary situations.

Let us be clear about the contemporary Afrocentric movement as theory. Afrocentricity is a theoretical and philosophical approach to data that arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the publication of Kariamu Welsh's Textured Women, Cowrie Shells, Beetle Sticks, and Cow Bells (1978), and Molefi Kete Asante's Afrocentricity (1980). The first book was a demonstration and the latter an essay in location and place. Moses blurs this reality by introducing the term "Afrocentricism," which is never used in the earlier works, and by suggesting...