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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 223-226

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Book Review

Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History

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

If the general, nonacademic public--particularly the general, nonacademic, white public--has any awareness of collegiate black studies programs in recent years, it has largely occurred because of the controversy in the popular media over Afrocentrism. Of course, a great deal of controversy surrounds the creation of black studies programs at the white university, sit-ins, student demonstrations, nonnegotiable demands, clenched fist salutes, armed black students, and other strange images associated with the late 1960s. In more recent years, when black studies programs are mentioned in the popular media, it is usually in connection with Afrocentrism, which usually amounts to some black faculty person, dressed in African garb, spouting something about Cleopatra being black, or how Egypt was an African civilization to which African Americans can trace their ancestry and how whites have successfully hidden this fact from blacks, denying their history, stealing their legacy, or how blacks are superior to whites because of their overabundance of melanin, the lack of which in whites is, in fact, the material, physiological cause of white racism. All of this makes good press in that blacks are presented as threatening while being patronized as silly. Naturally, the media reduce the complexity of the subject to the conflict it generates, as if that were its sole reality or sole purpose. To be sure, Afrocentrism has produced critics both within black studies itself (sometimes Afrocentrists disagreeing with each other but much more often blacks who are not identified as Afrocentrists disagreeing with those who identify as such) and, much more vociferously outside black studies, partly by whites who find Afrocentrism irresponsible and anti-intellectual. Indeed, so much dispute has been generated, so many heated charges and intemperate claims have been made, that I think it is unclear to many exactly what Afrocentrism is, only that it is fiercely hated and fiercely defended. This confusion has occurred in part because Afrocentrism's adherents cover a wide field, mixing Black Nationalism with Egyptology, with Pan-Africanism, with racial chauvinism, with postmodernist identity politics, with multiculturalism, with old-fashioned American, ethnic neighborhood politics. Afrocentrism is asserted as a mood, an aesthetic, an educational curriculum, a political agenda, a cultural impulse, and a revisionist historiography. In short, it is a religious oriented vision and a set of psychological ideals; it is a set of components of the practical and the farfetched, of the utopian and the cynical, some of which connect [End Page 223] or relate, others of which clash or contradict. Afrocentrism is rich and complex and, it seems to me, its creation is a very American story about resistance and the quest for acceptance.

Wilson J. Moses, one of the leading scholars in the field of African American intellectual history, has crafted a well-researched and highly informative study of Afrocentrism entitled Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History. Moses has written several path breaking books dealing with, mostly, nineteenth-century African American thought, including The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth, and Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent. He brings many of the ideas and concepts he developed about the formation of nineteenth-century African American thought to bear in a historical examination of Afrocentrism as the development of a popular black history, or what I think might better be called a populist black history. Moses states early on in his study "that Egyptocentrism and Afrocentrism are not the same thing. Egyptocentrism is the sometimes sentimental, at other times cynical, attempt to claim ancient Egyptian ancestry for black Americans....Afrocentrism, on the other hand, is simply the belief that the African ancestry of black peoples, regardless of where they live, is an inescapable element of their various identities --imposed from within and from...