Past Afrocentricity: Reassessing Cheikh Anta Diop's Place In the Afrocentric Frame / "African writers have been marginalized and grouped as 'Afrocentrists' ... but for all Afrocentrism's rage against the dogmatism of the last 500 years of European hegemony, it is itself dogmatic."

"I would like to see above all a greater number of researches — Afro-Americans — young Americans — even whites. Why not? Because it’s the young who are least prejudiced. As a consequence, they are the most capable of making triumph ideas which frighten the older generation. Also, I think that it will be necessary to put together polyvalent scientific teams, capable of doing in-depth studies, for sure, and that’s what’s important. It bothers me when someone takes me on my word without developing a means of verifying what I say ... We must form a scientific spirit capable of seeing even the weaknesses of our own proofs, of seeing the unfinished side of our work and committing ourselves to completing it. You understand? Therefore we should then have a work which could honestly stand criticism, because what we’ve done would have been placed on a scientific plane."
—Cheikh Anta Diop, Interview with Harun Kofi Wangara (Harold G. Lawrence)

These were among the words of the late Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop (pronounced 'jōp' -- like 'hope,' but with a 'j')[1] in his first interview published in an English-language source conducted in May 1973.[2] Diop's major theses (the African nature of ancient Egypt, its contributions to the intellectual development of the rest of the ancient world and the Nile Valley origins of West African peoples) are well-known to many African Americans. Diop has, however, also been the focus and target of the head of a pseudo-polemic, which, in Western eyes, sees his work as "Europe Upside Down," in an attempt to alter the balance of power created by Western cultural and intellectual hegemony by simply flipping the Western paradigm on its head,[3] perverting his stated aims[4] despite the clear rejection of this mode of thinking in Diop's work.[5]

Diop's expressed intent was to restore the historical consciousness of African peoples on the continent[6] and, as his remarks at Morehouse College in 1985 demonstrate, in the Diaspora as well. Yet, as popular as the limited scope of Diop's translated work has been in the States, there has been very little work done outside of the Francophone world to extend his ideas. Thus, Egypto-mania, though prevalent in the West, has seen a particularly affectionate welcome among ‘black-folk’ in the States, where it is said that in some ways his following, up to the time of his death, was stronger than in his home country of Sénégal,[7] leading at times uncritical praise. This article is meant as an attempt to put Diop’s work into perspective, touching on his contributions, detailing the paths taken by his students and examining the difference between their work and Dr. Molefi Kete Asante's metatheory, Afrocentricity.

Diop's Early Life And Work At A Glance[*]

Diop was born on December 29, 1923 in a village named Catyu (pronounced 'cā'tō'), about 150 km east of Dakar, Sénégal, in the region of Diourbel, or Baol.[8] After earning his baccalauréat in Sénégal, Diop, he enrolled at Lycée Henri-IV and also at La Sorbonne, in Paris, desiring to become an aircraft engineer, only to leave Lycée Henri-IV to begin studying in linguistics.[9] Diop would later explain this change of heart saying that his prior education had made him learned, but cultured, leaving him with an "empty" feeling which he wished to fulfill by exploring his own history and culture.[10] His first published work was entitled Étude de Linguistique Ouolove. Origine de la Langue et de la Race Walaf, and linguistics would become his most powerful tool of analysis throughout his life as a researcher.[11]

Following this sentiment, for more than ten years, while at times simultaneously pursuing advanced studies in Physics, Diop undertook the study of History at La Sorbonne. At La Sorbonne, Diop's first doctorate theses, L’Avenir Culturel de la Pensée Africaine (primary thesis: The Future of African Cultural Thought) and Qu’étaient les Égyptiennes Predynastiques? (secondary thesis: Who Were the Predynastic Egyptians?) were not actually refused. The professors informed Diop that if he wanted to complete his dissertation, he would have to choose another topic.[12] Thus, Diop's theses were never even defended. However, both were published in 1954 by Présence Africaine as Nations Nègres et Culture (Black Nations and Culture).[13] The first ten chapters (about half) of this work would later be translated and republished under the title The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality?,[14] his most popular work among English-speaking audiences.

Diop finally received his Ph.D. in Sociology[15] five years later in January of 1960 (Diop's Ph.D. thus was not in Egyptology, as is sometimes[16] stated). His primary and secondary theses were later published as L’Afrique Noire Precoloniale (1959) and L’Unité Culturelle de l’Afrique Noire (1960) respectively. But, because of the marginalization Diop experienced at La Sorbonne and his political opposition to then-President Léopold Sédar Senghor, he was banished from Dakar University (later renamed Université Cheikh Anta Diop) until the ascension of Abdou Diouf (pronounced ‘ăb'dū jūf’) in 1980. As a result, after returning to Sénégal in 1960, Diop was unable to teach collegiate until Diouf came to office.[17]

The 1974 Cairo Colloquium

Perhaps Diop's most famous exploit would come in 1974 in Cairo, Egypt, under the auspices of UNESCO's General History of Africa project, participating in one of a series of conferences on a wide array of subjects pertaining to the African past. René Maheu, Director General of UNESCO, asked Diop to write a chapter in Volume II of the series. Diop set three conditions in exchange for his participation. The first was a colloquium gathering known researchers in the field to 1) engage in a scientific debate concerning the ancient peopling of the Nile Valley and 2) discuss the then current state of the decipherment of the Meroitic Script. The third request was for an aerial survey of the continent in search of potentially significant archaeological sites.[18] Diop’s aim was to have an international platform on which his ideas could be debated with the top names in the field. Otherwise, he stated, his entry would be written off, allowing his work to fall under a "conspiracy of silence."[19]

The colloquium, entitled The Peopling of Ancient Egypt and the Deciphering of the Meroitic Script, consisted of twenty of the top names in the Egyptology and the archaeology of the region. Diop's paper was entitled Origine des Anciens Égyptiens, while his protégé, Dr. Théophile Obenga of the Republic of Congo, presented a paper on the relationship between Egyptian and other African languages.[20] A summary description of the debates is contained in the 1978 publication of the proceedings.[21] The colloquium ended offering many of the points Diop had stressed in Nations Nègres et Culture and an article he'd published the year before as avenues of further research. However, UNESCO's general conclusion speaks for itself. The first paragraph reads as follows:

"Although the preparatory working paper ... sent out by Unesco gave the particulars of what was desired, not all participants had prepared communication comparable with the painstakingly researched contributions of Professors Cheikh Anta Diop and Obenga. There was consequently a real lack of balance in the discussions."[22]

As a follow-up, Diop authored two linguistic works, Parenté Génétique (1977) and Nouvelles Recherches (published posthumously by this son Cheikh M’Backe Diop with the help of Obenga in 1988) in keeping with the recommendations of the colloquium.

Before the conference Diop communicated to Obenga that if the two left Cairo defeated, he would no longer write on Egypt's African origins -- that if he was wrong, he would let it go.[23] Still, in Diop's later works he turned his attention to the topics of iron in Africa, radiocarbon dating, linguistics and the political situation in Sénégal.[24] His final finished book, Civilisation ou Barbarie, published in 1981 by Présence Africaine, Diop regarded as a summary of all his prior works.[25]

Diop in Atlanta[a]

After the publication of African Origins of Civilization (1974), Diop's following in American grew considerably[26] and during the 1980s, an Atlanta study group invited Diop to a Nile Valley Conference scheduled for September 1984. This push was headed by Drs. Ivan Van Sertima and Charles S. Finch, M.D. Van Sertima, of Guyana, had by this time become one of Diop’s foremost followers in the United States and given Diop’s familiarity Van Sertima’s previous work, the latter sent Diop a letter ahead of Finch’s planned arrival in Dakar in August of 1983[27] to invite Diop to the conference scheduled for September 1984 at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. Diop agreed although complications with the flight blocked his first attempt to come to the U.S.[28]

Diop finally arrived on his second attempt in April 1985, staying nine days. Then-mayor Andrew Young proclaimed April 4, 1985, "Cheikh Anta Diop Day" and Diop received an honorary degree from Morehouse,[29] also meeting Coretta Scott King and conducting his well-known interview with Listervelt Middleton of South Carolina’s Educational Television Network (ETV).[30] Because of Diop's political position in Sénégal, he had been isolated in many circles in Dakar. Hence, Diop's trip to Atlanta was one of the few times in his life, if not the only, that he was ever "treated like a VIP."[31] Diop passed not a year later on Febrary 7, 1986,[32] leaving behind four sons, a widow and a far-reaching legacy.

The "Dakar School"[33]: The Building of an African Cadre of Egyptologists

The foremost of Diop's students is his protégé Théophile Obenga. Obenga, Mbochi, first learned about Diop's work in the 1960s,[34] meeting him through friends while studying at L’Université de Bourdeux in France. The two eventually became close, sharing ideas and traveling together. Diop, having witnessed the ideological dogmatism of the academy in his own attempt to obtain his Ph.D., advised Obenga to concentrate on a topic that was 'less threatening.' Thus, after having studied at l’Université de Genève, Obenga studied both Egyptology and linguistics while at La Sorbonne, receiving his Ph.D. in History. His dissertation was written on the Kingdom of Congo.[35]

Obenga is currently one of the world’s foremost scholars in the field of African history. He is an expert on historical linguistics and has challenged the validity of the construction of the Afrocasiatic language family.[36] Obenga is also former editor of the review Muntu, a scholarly journal based in Gabon, which publishes research on Central and West Central Africa. He is also co-editor, of the Revue Ankh, another such journal which provides a platform for African research in Egyptology and other issues along with Cheikh M’Backé Diop, Cheikh Anta Diop’s eldest son. Obenga currently teaches in the Africana Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Also following Diop is his student, Sénégalese professor Aboubacry Moussa Lam, a Peul (branch of the Fulani) also known as Boubacar Lam. Lam’s primary area of focus is Diop’s migrations theory. As such, the bulk of his work is about cultural and linguistic similarities between Ancient Egypt and West African peoples, as well as the methodologies concerning the study. His major work, entitled De l'Origine Égyptienne des Peuls (1993),[37] is the published form of his dissertation, completed in 1988 and for which Diop was the primary advisor until his passing. Lam is currently Professor of Egyptology in the Department of History at Cheikh Anta Diop University (hereafter UCAD, from Université Cheikh Anta Diop).

Another of Diop’s students is Babacar Sall. Sall’s research interests are the southernly influences on the Egyptian Predynastic, Egypto-Nubian and -Libyan relations,[38] Greek testimony concerning the ethnicity of the Egyptians and subsequent cultural relations.[39] His published dissertation is entitled Racines Éthiopiennes de l'Égypte Ancienne (1999, prefaced by Obenga), for which Diop was also the primary advisor.[40] Sall also teaches at UCAD.

There are also other schools of Egyptology in West Africa. The most prominent of these is in Cameroon at the University of Yaoundé, where both Gilbert Ngom and Oum Ndigi work. Both focus primarily on linguistic links between Egyptians and their native languages (Duala and Basaa respectively).[41] Ngom also has a background in law and studied in Paris around the same time as both Obenga and later Lam.[42] Similar interest also exists in Benin[43] and Nigeria.[44]

Although Obenga, Lam and Sall are all trained in Egyptology (Obenga’s Ph.D. is in African History), to this point Africans working in the field have generally had to travel France in order to gain the skills necessary to undertake their research (this is how Ngom and Lam met at La Sorbonne during the 1980s).[45] In an attempt to change this, UCAD has recently announced the establishment of an Egyptology Institute,[46] which, when actualized, will facilitate study without requiring students to go to Paris.[47] Thus, Diop’s legacy has certainly been carried on by his students, though his legacy would have been much greater had he been allowed to teach after returning from Paris.

Pushing the Envelope: Diop on Diop

"We must stop being dilettantes, dabbling here and there, and become well-trained, pluridisciplinary specialists!"
—Cheikh Anta Diop, Interview with Shawna Moore[48]

For all the praise that Diop's work has received from Africans on the continent and the Diaspora, Diop himself was the first to point out the shortcomings of his own 'oeuvre' and the necessity to critique it. Indeed, one of the biggest misfortunes of Diop's exile from the then-University of Dakar and the reactionary nature of European rejections of his work was that rarely during his life was he engaged on a "scientific" level.[49] Diop, in fact, said so himself and told Finch in November of 1985 that he wished to have a colloquium "in which an extensive and exhaustive discussion, clarification and analysis of his ideas [could] be carried out," feeling that his work never received "proper feedback."[50] One such conference, organized by his political opponent Professor Pathé Diagne, was held in the Spring of 1982.[51] There have been several others since his passing.[52]

Although the aim of his work, in part, was to establish a new, multidisciplinary means of resurrecting the African past,[53] he himself did not wish for everything he wrote to be taken at face value. The critiques laid on him by his students and followers[54] are evidence of this spirit. His stated wish towards the end of his life, in addition to his political designs, was the establishment of a team of scientists in various fields of African history to find, analyze and publish cutting-edge work in their respective areas.[55] Treating his findings as "proof" for his assertions without developing a means to engage it does not do his work justice. Diop once said that he did not "impose" Nations Nègres, or any of this other works, but rather that they were meant to be critiqued and analyzed.[56] However, since Diop's passing, there have been very few people in the Diaspora who have done this.

[Part II] Cheikh Anta Diop and the Afrocentric Frame: A Critique of Afrocentricity

"They are caught up in indefensible ideological positions (and) if you suffer just a bit to acquire first-hand knowledge, you all can move beyond it -- I’m telling you..."
—Cheikh Anta Diop (Niamey, 1984)[57]

Temple University professor of African-American Studies, Molefi Kete Asante, founder of the first ever Ph.D. program in the field, is said to have coined the phrase "Afrocentricity." Asante defines "Afrocentrism" as "the belief in the centrality of Africans in post modern history,"[58] critiquing not the validity of European culture, but its application to and imposition over other traditions.[59] His stated aim is to have African peoples live and be judged on their own terms.

Afrocentricity is guided by a set of principals known as 'Nija,'[60] the "cumulative expression of the Afrocentric worldview," "represent[ing] the inspired Afrocentric spirit" and "the product of … the cumulative experiences of African people"[61] for which there are ten Quarters.[62]

Afrocentricity further envisages five stages of transformation from a lesser to a greater stages of awareness and to capturing "the true sense of our souls."[63] Asante’s aim is clear: the application of African standards in both judging and informing African and Diasporan ways of being. As such, Asante has referred to himself as "a Diopian,"[64] citing Diop, along with W.E.B. DuBois, as one of the foremost pioneers of the theory.[65] Asante thus points to Diop's work as an exemplary model of the Afrocentric approach to historical research.[66]

The recent public debate over Afrocentrism has featured a significant amount of lumping whereby numerous African writers have been marginalized and grouped as "Afrocentrists"[67] (Though Asante clearly recognizes that not all black writers who are labeled as such would accept such a characterization and much of this marginalization would have happened irrespective of Asante’s metatheory). Thus, an entire intellectual genealogy has been further politicized by the existence of a group of rather casual observers, creating added difficulty for the propagation their work. It is thus necessary to clearly distinguish the two groups and properly present the work and aims of the "Dakar School."

Our contention is that Asante’s position is rhetorical rather than expository, while Diop and his students have taken a distinctly different path. Any explication of African peoples' "terms" requires scholarly research to be done on the subjects' histories and cultural phenomenon, which Asante has largely failed to do. This failure hangs unnecessary appendages on the examination of African ways of being, as opposed to allowing the evidence speak for itself.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this point is Asante's rather recent debate with the Classist Mary Lefkowitz of Wellesley College, who has challenged the intellectual grounding of many "Afrocentric" claims concerning Egyptian influence on ancient Greece. In 1992, Lefkowitz wrote an article in the New Republic entitled "Not Out of Africa,"[68] which was followed by a 1996 book subtitled How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (1997 paperback). Her 1996 work follows on the impetus of the former, outlining and refuting the arguments of a number of past African and African-American scholars, as well as that of Cornell University professor Martin Bernal, concerning Ancient Egypt's contribution to the rise of Greek "civilization," examining Greek texts and with a particular attention being given to George James' Stolen Legacy.[69]

Asante responded to both works, first in a 1993/4 article entitled "On the Wings of Nonsense,"[70] then in a 1996 entry "The Many Fallacies of Mary Lefkowitz"[71] and later in his 2001 work, The Painful Demise of Eurocentrism.[72] The difficulty with Asante's replies rest in the fact that they are each wholly rhetorical. Never once does Asante cite a piece of evidence that refutes any of Lefkowtiz’s claims, nor does he ever so much as engage the arguments she put forth in the much shorter New Republic article. The best that is done is to mention the existence of two works which offer diverging opinions.[73]

Asante questions Lefkowitz's motives,[74] contenting himself with accusing Lefkowitz of supporting European hegemony and stating that she must never have read anything that was actually written by an "Afrocentrist"[75] (though Lefkowitz asserts that she had).[76] One wonders why, if Asante took such issue to Lefkowitz’s arguments, he does not refute them? Instead, Asante asserts the possibility that such influential figures in the Western world could have in fact been black,[77] then later stating that this was not an assertion made by Afrocentric scholars.[78] Asante states that he, in fact, knows scholars who read glyphs and other languages,[79] and although Asante's résumé claims that he reads both Greek and hieroglyphs,[80] not one of Lefkowitz's scholarly critiques is ever engaged on the basis of the evidence she presented. All he tells us is that he is convinced from his readings that Egyptian influences on ancient Greek are real.[81]

To be sure, Obenga has written a lengthy recent work on the subject. These have also been cited by Asante’s students.[82] Yet, Asante appears to be asserting the right to maintain a point of view which is immune from critique and exempt from having to demonstrate its truthfulness.[83]

"It bothers me when someone takes me on my word without developing a means of verifying what I say."
—Cheikh Anta Diop (May 7, 1973)[84]

"We must stop being dilettantes, dabbling here and there, and become well-trained, pluridisciplinary specialists!"
—Cheikh Anta Diop (April 7, 1985)[85]

Moreover, while none of Asante's work amounts to reverse racism,[86] it does not appear that he has completely broken away from the paradigm of race. Asante states that Greece "cannot impose itself as some universal culture that developed full-blown out of nothing, without the foundations it received from Africa" and was not "created … willy-nilly without contact with the civilized world" via some "unique brand of intelligence."[87] This sounds remarkably similar to something that could be quoted from the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and appears to be off the subject.

This position is ironic given that Asante spent most of his 1983 article on Great Zimbabwe protesting the tendency of European writers to attribute its construction to outsiders.[88] Yet, Asante states that "Afrocentrists," are simply doing what makes sense by asserting that ancient testimony about the aspects of Greek culture in question are to be taken as fact.[89] However, none of Asante’s retorts use any textual evidence. Further, numerous oral histories trace the origins of West African peoples back to Asia Minor.[90] Both Diop[91] and Lam[92] have advanced theories that go against this and Asante sites Lam in his recent book on the history of Africa.[93] Besides, is it not contradictory to hold the flowering of intellectual traditions in Medieval Mali and Songhai as indigenous outgrowths (though Asante never states this to be his belief),[94] but to argue that Greek culture was not substantially autochthonous?

To be sure, Diop made parallel assertions pertaining to the Egyptian influence on Greece and is even critiqued by Lefkowitz. One would, however, be in error to, in reading Diop, charge him with a preoccupation with the concept of race,[95] particularly in his later works. In fact, from the time of his earliest work, Nations Nègres (1954)[96] and later,[97] he shows a clear ambivalence toward and then rejection of the theory.[98]

Egyptian influence on certain aspects of Greek civilization is well-known (the use of stone architecture and the Egyptian sculptural cannon, for example), and the possibility that it carried on into other areas is certainly real. However, this ought to read more as an interesting aspect of human history[99] than an achievement that can be marked as a contribution to the "Black Race," which is the message conveyed by a close reading of Asante’s responses. If Greece rose to prominence largely through indigenous practices and the influence and economic impetus spurred from then-existing trade nexuses, which current scholarship seems to support, then what’s the problem? If Asante’s readings convince him otherwise,[100] then what’s the issue with demonstrating this?

Scholarly arguments need none of the defensiveness present in Asante’s responses concerning what "Afrocentrists" do and don’t do or believe and don’t believe. Certainly, one would be hard pressed to find parallel responses being used by Diop. In fact, these are the very same types of tactics that Asante himself decries in many of the critiques of Diop in work on the scholar-activist-politician, whom he in fact met (i.e., demeaning another’s point of view without engaging the veracity of his or her claims).[101]

Case in point, when Boston University’s Daniel F. McCall insulted Diop, calling his a "hedgehog" who "knows one big thing,"[102] Diop’s response was "I [would] appreciate that attitude of critics who have the strength to present correctly, without defamation or caricature, the adverse point of view before trying to demolish it." He continued "such was not the attitude of Professor McCall in regard to the thesis which I uphold with arguments, whose consistency he would have felt had he tried to criticize them."[103] For more of Diop's responses to critiques, see the section in Anteriorité (1967: 229-274) devoted entirely to such responses. To compare, the Afrocentric response to critique: that Lefkowitz and others are not interested in understanding Afrocentrism, but instead in "fundamentally the same projection of Eurocentric hegemony that we have seen for the past five hundred years."[104] This argument amounts to a set of rather flimsy rhetorical outcries about the mindset he attributes to Lefkowitz and others, although it appears that Asante has misconstrued a number of Lefkowitz’s arguments.[105]

Where one is convinced by all of Lefkowitz’s demonstrations or not, she is clearly within her rights to question his methodology -- haven’t Diop and Obenga, et al. done the same to countless European writers, and to each other? If an idea is up for question, the first step is always to refer to the primary source evidence. For comparison, see Obenga’s demonstration against Pascal Vernu’s thesis on the Afroasiatic language family in his short work about European writers’ characterization of African history and historians.[106]

For all Afrocentrism’s rage against the dogmatism of the last five hundred years of European hegemony, it is itself dogmatic. Asante stresses the importance of being "centered" on Africa, but by the same vain admits the existence of an "African Cultural System"[107] and advocates "the attraction to Africa as a symbol."[108] Gregory Carr has critiqued Asante's concept of "location," preferring the term "orientation," geared more toward group identification which informs behavior than assigning unnecessary appendages to analysis of the subject’s behavior.[109] Further, with regards to Asante’s "African Cultural System," if our "confraternity" is to huddle us around symbolic Africa,[110] then which Africa are we talking about? Without a push for the study and explication of said subject along a time and space continuum with clear-cut antecedents, we wind up with dichotomous and polarized archetypes of idealized "essential Africanness."[111] As we will see below, Asante’s work on Africa does not measure up to scholarly standards.

It seems that it might be more useful to help fill in the enormous gaps in the archaeological, written (untranslated) and oral record of the Continent before we begin to talking about the "African architecton"[112] or "composite African people."[113] As Carr has noted, Asante has indeed correctly identified the need for the African people to be viewed as agents in their own stories.[114] However, this idea was not a new one. In fact it would seem to be axiomatic. The concept is very apparent, if not expressly stated in Diop’s writings, as well as in Chancellor Williams' Destruction of Black Civilization,[115] and certainly Walter Rodney made reference to the idea in his revised dissertation A History of the Upper Guinea Coast,[116] to name a few.

Ama Mazama, fellow Temple Professor and Afrocentric theorist, has written that the presumptions that the "metatheory" existed prior to Asante’s articulation of it are rooted in "professional jealously."[117] This, however, privileges Asante’s particular framing and expression of the issue, which has been critiqued,[118] and ignores the facts that not only did Asante not coin the term,[119] which Asante admits,[120] but that there are major gaps linked to his failure to contribute to what is known about African people. Thus, his students contend that they themselves often have difficulty determining what is or is not "Afrocentric" and the metatheory has been criticized as being "self-referential" on Asante’s part, rather than allowing the space for self definition.[121]

It is of interest to note that Obenga has protested the use of the French term "Bantouïté," on the grounds that its connotations are both “Eurocentriste” and ideological.[122] Further, this constitutes the very same critique that Diop laid on "Négritude" -- that such paradigms lean on generalities rather than developing an understanding of self[123] (Although Asante has differentiated "Afrocentricity" from "Négritude" on the basis that the latter is said to be apologetic, while "Afrocentricity" is an idea rooted in victory via the centeredness of African people).[124]

To be sure, according to Carr,[125] Asante’s concept of the "composite African people"[126] is based on Diop’s "cultural unity" thesis. However, Diop did most of the research for l’Unité Culturelle from 1950 until its publication in 1959.[127] He then continued to do research both on the major themes in Precolonial African history and fleshing out his thesis about the nature of the inter-relatedness of African people across the continent, primarily through the use of linguistics. Further, his "cultural unity" thesis was written primarily focusing on one noted commonality noted across a number of African cultures at that time. Again, if we’re going to talk about "composite African people," it stands to logic that African peoples ought first to be studied in-depth across time and space as much as the available evidence permits. Only then can common features to be noted.[128] Diop’s main objective, as noted, was not to define our "essential Africanness," but rather the restoration of historical consciousness, which was to inform both present behavior and future orientation on the basis of this shared understanding of the full scope of African history[129] and a grounding in our own particular cultural milieu.[130] Similarly, Carr cites Obenga, pointing out the former’s construction of the past as a means of establishing continuity and orientation for different groups.[131] The connections Diop cites were to be researched via "direct knowledge" of the primary source material related to the subjects in question.[132] Again, Asante’s work, in contrast, his historical work in particular, has done little to engage this material and has not generally contributed to our understanding of African people.

While Asante has learned glyphs more recently and in fact did all the translations for his 1996 work with Abu Barry,[133] his body of work on the Continent cannot be considered scholarly. He has written an entire book on Egyptian philosophy without citing Faulkner’s Middle Egyptian dictionary, the Wörterbuch,[134] the five volume German dictionary used as the standard reference for Egyptologists, or the most current grammatical work in the field, Allen’s Middle Egyptian (i.e., it appears that he has not done his own translations of the texts in question). Volume III of Faulkner’s Coffin Texts, which he cites, is translated and annotated, and there are only three texts in the bibliography which feature any full-length translations. Nowhere in the work is there an in-depth examination of Egyptian thought based on textual comparisons. Yet in the text we read references to the "African mind."

Asante’s recent book on the history of the Continent is sub-par. The book mentions the "Saharan generator," but fails to cite any of the major scholars on the Prehistory of the region, such as Elena A.A. Garcea, Rudolph Kuper or Achilles Gautier. Further, though attempting to stress Egypt’s place as an African culture, Asante completely ignores evidence of Egypt’s link to a larger Saharan/Central Sudanese/Nubian cultural tradition.[135] The information he gives on the Predynastic is inaccurate: the Gerzean is known as Naqada II and dates to c. 3700-3300 B.C.,[136] rather than 8000 B.C., as Asante states. For this very period of c. 8000 B.C. the Lower Nile Valley is nearly devoid of sites,[137] yet Asante writes as if this were the beginning of the Egyptian Predynastic and only one of the major authors on the period, past or present has been included in his bibliography. There is no mention of any of the early Lower Nubian cultures, the A-Group (contemporary with the Predynastic) or the C-Group (coeval with the Old Kingdom).[138] His lengthy section the 25th Dynasty is written without citing George Reisner, who conducted the first excavations at in and around the capital of Napata, or Timothy Kendall, who is currently doing fieldwork there. Only passing reference is given to Kerma just further north, which existed from the end of the Old Kingdom to the invasion by the 18th Dynasty.[139] The text does feature a few translations,[140] but, one wonders how the professor writes about the Ramesside Period[141] without referencing the Kitchen’s Ramesside Index.[142] Old Ghana is mentioned with similar omissions.[143] Asante’s section on the Songhay empire[144] remarkably cites neither the old[145] nor the new[146] translations of Tarīkh as-Sudan directly (the text is referenced only in passing), and completely ignores Kati’s Tarīkh al-Fettash. (Compare this is Diop’s treatment of Medieval West African states in Precolonial Black Africa,[147] which, ironically, is not cited). Similarly, Asante has written an entire book on Diop without citing his protégé Obenga’s massive historiographical biography on his mentor, yet claiming Diop to be an exemplary model of an Afrocentric historian.[148]

The question posed here is how to be Afrocentric without doing in-depth research into gleaning how African people move or have moved in the world. Granted, each of the works critiqued above are expressly written not to be exhaustive, however, again, it is impossible to explicate anything about a proposed subject without doing expository research on said group, regardless of the field. Asante received his Ph.D. in 1968 from UCLA in Speech. His dissertation work was on the 18th century Bostonian Samuel Adams.[149] Thus, though the professor writes about African people carving out a "place to stand,"[150] this "place," regardless of the time/space juncture in question, is rarely examined in his work, apart from a series of works written in the 1970s on black rhetoric.[151]

Afrocentricity calls for the use of "Classical references"(defined as ancient Egypt, Nubia, Axum and Meroë) for the proper framing of African culture.[152] First, as we have seen, Asante’s analysis of these cultures is lacking (although the Meroitic script has not yet been deciphered).[153] Second, not all present-day African or Diasporan "cultural phenomena" rest on antecedents that are "Classical."[154] Hinging examination of African subjects on preconceived notions of what it is believed to be quintessentially 'African' in effect disregards their own standards for modern, or post-modern, conceptions of the ancient world, which does not allow for the culture's development to be adequately traced over time or placed within its own context.

Even if one is to argue the migrations theory for various groups across the continent, we are still obliged to do the research (i.e., Aboubacray Moussa Lam). The author is from Maryland, where it has been estimated that around 40 percent of the enslaved Africans transported to the United States were taken from the Bight of Biafra and that most of them were Igbo.[155] Then are "cultural phenomena" in Montgomery or Prince Georges Counties more informed by the nexus that arose from various combinations of groups forging their own community on the basis of commonality and in the face of oppression or by references to the New Kingdom? Which frame of reference needs to be used to understand Diasporan culture today? Which allows for self discovery and definition? Our contention is the former.

Diop’s migrations theory must necessarily be read with the understanding that he noted what he perceived to be a "genetic" relationship between Egyptian and his native language Wolof in the late 1940s.[156] To say that he privileged Egypt is again inaccurate. Diop gave priority to entire scope of African history[157] (which is not to say that Asante does not), writing his Dissertation on the historical trends in Medieval West Africa.[158] The migrations theory was first fully laid out in Nations Nègres (1954), then later in subsequent works. Diop’s intentions were clearly stated in Niamey, Niger in 1984: "My attitude is not that of one who is focused on the past. All my work is directed towards the future. And [the] past I investigate simply to make possible the edification of a chain of social sciences."[159] History in general was meant to orient the consciousness of African people back to their long histories.[160]

Egypt’s role in historical reconstruction is then key primarily because of the possibilities it holds for linguistic study due to its place as the first appearance of a written language on the Continent. Any use of Egypt as a reference point then was to be fleshed out using all available tools to understand how groups may or may not be related,[161] as opposed to assuming groups to be related and basing ones judgment of present-day cultures on so-called "Classical" ways of being. It is thus that Diop’s students continue their research using his research paradigms. So, while there are similarities in the viewpoints of the two groups (for example, African liberation and the self-definition for African and Diasporan peoples), the methods utilized to achieve these goals are markedly different and in fact, Obenga has even stated in print that he does not refer to himself as an "Afrocentrist."[162] The types of studies Diop’s student have undertaken require grounding in the history and culture of the groups in decision. Minus this rhetoric about the Continent quickly lends itself to static analysis of any and all subjects under study.

Pushing Past Diop

Today Diop's work is woefully out-of-date, save for his linguistic data. His most popular English-translated work The African Origin of Civilization (1974) is, as was mentioned before, the translation of Nations Nègres et Culture,[163] for which the intellectual work was done/carried out between the years 1949 and 1954.[164] As such, Diop's writings do not reflect more recent developments in the fields in which he wrote. There is thus a need to engage, extend and critique his ideas and theories based on the current state of knowledge in the fields with which his writings were concerned. In reference to his study of Egypt, there are serious omissions in terms of the range of primary source material that Diop worked with: specifically, he was not a ceramicist and, therefore, was not able to engage the primary means of following cultural change in that area of the world during the Predynastic period, aside from his generally sparse usage of archaeological data.

African people continent- and Diaspora-wide have made major efforts in studying their own local histories -- as specialists in their respective fields. Any reconstruction of the African or Diasporic past must therefore necessitate the exchange of ideas across the Atlantic, as well as the Caribbean, in multiple European languages and in whatever languages necessary to extract primary source information relevant to the fields in question, which means continuing to obtain Master’s and Ph.Ds in all related disciplines. Any and all assertions made ought to stand the test of historical research. Both Diop[165] and Lam[166] devoted significant sections of their work to questions of methodology. Obenga is a stickler for it.[167] Anything else undercuts the very scholars whose names we seek to uplift and whose legacies to invoke by citing their work, regardless of the period or culture under discussion.

As such, Diop’s work, for both its perspective and its rigor, ought to serve as a point of departure, even if all his ideas may not stand the test of time. It was not meant to be the gospel. Diop’s aim was to have the history of all African peoples examined and written on its own terms,[168] not to have his readership adhere dogmatically to his positions because of the chord his perceptive strikes or his elevation as the "gold standard" for the study of all things African.

With respect to Diop's contributions, his son, Cheikh M'Backé Diop, has devoted significant sections of his father's biography on recent confirmations of major themes in Diop's work,[169] as has Obenga.[170] For instance, we know that Diop was correct concerning the origin of humanity and in his rejection of the foundations of the concept of race,[171] although he hung onto the use of the term until the end of his life.[172] In addition, his thesis that Egypt emerged as an indigenous development has been confirmed on a number of grounds. Migrations from the Eastern Sahara between c.7000 and 5000 B.C. are generally accepted and have been proven via ceramic analysis,[173] though the full picture of the peopling of the Nile Valley is still very incompletely understood.[174] Archaeology has borne out his thesis of the complexity of the cultural nexus from which Egypt is seen in a number of traits shared throughout the Nile Valley -- from Upper Egypt south to the Sixth Cataract. These include rippled burnishing,[175] black-topped and black-mouthed decoration,[176] incised tulip-shaped libation vessels[177] and mace-heads[178], and various combinations of burial practices (such as contraction, the use of pillows, animal skin or reed matting, bucrania as grave markers, ostrich eggshell and an assortment of other adornment items, including malachite and galena).[179] The thrust of his ideas on the "Falsification d'Histoire" have been authoritatively written about,[180] cited by top scholars on the area[181] and are taught in today in graduate-level Egyptology courses. Lastly, the linguistic research he began in 1946 and which he was in the process of expanding until his passing has been extended by his students, most notably Obenga.[182] In effect, the surface is only being scratched with respect to Diop's research paradigms though there is still a great deal more to be done.

A Proposed, Though by No Means Novel, Perspective on the Study of Africa

Our attachment with history must cease to be "symbolic."[183] History is meant to place us in proper context -- to give perspective. The possibility of coherent regional histories concerning 'black-folk' written for specific areas within the United States is very real. We argue here that it is also necessary to escape the trap that is the Western view of African peoples and its systems' failure to nurture our sense of self. The people we most readily identify with are in our immediate families and communities. The nexus of historical events that got these present communities to where they are now ultimate leads by to the continent. However, this path always for black people follows back to the Continent and to very specific,[184] if not always traceable,[185] time and space contexts. These contexts inform who we have become. Hence, the need for the study of the African and Africanisms in Diasporic culture.

However, these people, captured from their own homes and enslaved far away from them, represent only a small point in a much longer continuum within a vast web of social, political and economic happenings/dynamics. That is, their communities had histories too. Black people, both on the Continent and within the Diaspora, ought to have an idea of what this looked like not to take credit for the achievements, but for context. Culture is, by its very definition, self-generating. Thus, it is not necessary to prescribe the creation of new motifs and values on the basis of our "universal spirit."[186] It can be easily argued that black people have and will always continue to do so (create) on the basis of our antecedents. However, we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the origin of our own cultural practices and historical situations, both past and present. Such does not validate either one -- our humanity is axiomatic. But, "if I don’t know where I'm coming from, where will I go?"


{ exclusive feature}
by Lafayette Gaston {The Liberator Magazine 8.1 #23, 2009}
{artwork by Joseph Lamour, The Liberator Magazine}

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