Afrocentricity: An Important Feature of the Pan African Tradition

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Pan Africanism mural in Tanzania. Photo: Michael Branz/ CC BY 2.0

  • Afro-centricity, a feature of Pan-Africanism presents Africa with a remedy to the effects of Euro-centrism. It’s time Africans recognized the importance of viewing issues from the African perspective in order to reap the full benefits Afro-centricity offers.

Introduction.

Following the abolishment of the slave trade, Africans in the diaspora were faced with racial discrimination, segregation and violation of human rights. Colonialism was to replace the slave trade; an indication of the White man’s unwillingness to discontinue an exploitative agenda fuelled by racist and selfish capitalist desires. This culminated in the struggle by blacks or Africans to demand respect, equal treatment, cessation of violence against them, and the fight for the independence of the African continent from colonial rule. Pan-Africanism presented itself as a rallying philosophy urging Black people to uplift themselves and assert their place in the society, both home and abroad. This essay seeks to explain why the concept of Afro-centricity has been an important feature of the Pan-African tradition.

What is Pan-Africanism?

The expression ‘Pan-Africanism’ did not come into use until the beginning of the 20th century when Henry Sylvester Williams of Trinidad and Tobago, and William Edward Burghardt DuBois of the United States of America, both of African descent used it at several Pan-African Congresses (Nkrumah, 1963:132). As stated by Peter Fryer, “Pan-Africanism, one of the major political traditions of the 20th century, was largely created by Back people living in Britain.” Pan-Africanism is a political doctrine, and a movement, with the aim of unifying and uplifting the African nations and the African Diaspora as a universal African community. For Vernon McKay, Pan-Africanism is a “powerful ideal” which has “cultural, economic and political aspects, and a complex and varied historical evolution.” According to Dr. TonyTalburt, “The broad-based Pan African ideology and movement can be considered as one of the most universally organized and sustained forms of Black resistance that was established to counteract the European control, dominance and exploitation of Black people.” The movement began originally as a reaction of the Negro world against centuries of domination and humiliation by the White race. It can also be described as both intellectual and political movement to liberate Africans from colonialism, establish a cultural union between Africans and the compatriots in the diaspora. Pan-Africanism arose as an effort to bring people of African descent throughout the world together to fight racial discrimination in the America and colonialism in Africa.

Onwubiko describes Pan-Africanism as a “concept that stresses the spiritual unity of the black people, upholds their right to self-determination and the need to be treated with dignity as the equals of the other races in all parts of the world.” The Pan-African movement originated not in Africa. Even though Pan-Africanism predates the 20th century, most literature on Pan-Africanism describe the movement as a 20th century phenomenon. Williams (1978:18) states, “Traditionally, historians have viewed Pan-African thought by black Americans as a twentieth century development. W.E.B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey have been seen as the originators of a new ideology of inter-continental black unity. Recent studies of black leaders have, thankfully, destroyed this misconception.” Some adherents of the Pan-Africanism movement include Martin Delany, Fredrick Douglass, Paul Cuffee, Claudia Jones, Robert Wedderburn, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and W.E.B. DuBois. However, for clarity, McKay divided the movement into four phases; the 1900-1945 period when it was dominated by American and West Indian Negroes; the 1945-1958 period when African nationalists still under colonial rule took it over and used it in the fight for freedom; the 1958-1959 when Dr. Kwame Nkrumah appeared as the leader of this ideology thereby seeking a united states of Africa and finally the period after 1960 where there was an end to Nkrumah’s dominance and “led to the creation of rival Pan-African initiatives” (Talburt, 2017: 226).

‘The People Of Africa Are Crying For Unity’ – Kwame Nkrumah. African Liberation Day was founded in 1958 when Kwame Nkrumah convened the First Conference of Independent States. He gave one of the greatest speeches of his life on 24th May 1963 when 32 independent African countries met in Addis Ababa to find ways to unite the continent.

What is Afro-centricity?

Afro-centricity can be linked to Molefi Kete Asante’s book Afro-centricity: The Theory of Social Change which was published in 1980, as well as The Afrocentric Idea (1987) and Kemet, Afro-centricity and Knowledge (1990). Tsenay Serequeberhan defines Afro-centricity as “the name for the principle that instructs us when pursuing or articulating knowledge of (or about) African peoples, to always ‘center’ (Asante, 1980:5) our perspectives on norms drawn from the ‘African Cultural System’ (Asante, 1980:5)”. Ama Mazama alludes that Pan-Africanism has become a formidable force that must be reckoned with. Professor Kwasi Boadi, historian and lecturer at the Phillips Exeter College, suggests that Afro-centricity “insists on the primacy of Africa as the benefactor of human civilization in science, religion and philosophy.” Those who follow this school of thought are known as Afro-centrists. They demand a reconstruction and rewriting of the whole outlook of human history in its account of the origin of mankind, the origin of philosophy, science, medicine, agriculture, and architecture. Afro-centricity is said to be an idea that African group ought to reassert a new way of looking at information from a black perspective (Chinweizu, 2010). It proposes that blacks (at home and abroad) must examine knowledge from an African perspective, suggesting that matters are to be discussed from an African standpoint; thus Africa will be misunderstood when we use viewpoints and terms other than that of the African to study Africa. According to Molefi Asante (2014), “Afro-centricity is an intellectual paradigm that privileges the centricity of Africans within the context of their own historical experiences.” It seeks to challenge Euro-centric viewpoints and its domination on African people as a result of the slave trade and colonialism. Euro-centrism presents a racist, divisive, ahistorical, and dysfunctional view of world history. The Afro-centrist asks the question, “What would African people do if there were no white people?” Afro-centricity, therefore, answers this question by asserting the central role of the African within the context of African history, thereby removing Europe from the African reality” (Asante, 2009:1). For Linus Hoskins, “Afrocentrism presents and deals with an authentic and specific culture and history; a cultural history that did not begin in Father Europe but a world-human history that began in Mother Africa.” The Afro-centrist seek to “uncover and use codes, paradigms, symbols, motifs, myths, and circles of discussion that reinforce the centrality of African ideals and values as a valid frame of reference for acquiring and examining data” (Serequeberhan, 1998:33).

Asante, thus, claims Afro-centricity is achieved “when the person becomes totally changed to a conscious level of involvement in the struggle for his or her own mind liberation” (Asante, 1980:55-56). The Euro-centric conception permeates all aspects of life in Africa but this is what Afro-centricity seeks to eradicate. Subsequent paragraphs in the next section will attempt to explain why Afro-centricity has been important as a feature of Pan-Africanism.

Afro-centricity as an important feature of Pan-Africanism.

To begin with, in demonstrating that Christianity has often been the tool or motivation behind white supremacy, Mambo Ama Mazama in Afro-centricity and African Spirituality (2002) opines that “it has gone hand-in-hand with the desacralization of African culture” (Mazama, 2002:218). According to Noel Smith in It Happened in Ghana, “Even the Christian Missions downgraded the African expression of religion. There was almost no attempt anywhere to find points of contact between the thought-world of Africans and the Christian scheme, to become a Christian meant abandoning everything African, giving up their traditional religion and way of life and become ‘europeanised’”. For this reason, Prof. De-Valera Botchway establishes how black (African) leaders used religion as a form of resistance to foreign or Euro-centric domination of Blacks.

Zanzibar: Memory of Slaves. Photo: Missy/Flickr

According to Botchway, “Historically, Euro-centric Christianity provided ideological and institutional support to European enslavement and colonialism of the African peoples, and psychologically alienated many from their original mental and cultural personality.” He focuses his discussion on a case study of Joseph William Egyanka Appiah in the Gold Coast who would later be known as “Prophet Jemisimiham Jehu-Appiah”. According to Botchway, “he initiated nationalist philosophies and liberation theologies to reform Euro-centric Christianity into an Afro-centric one to salvage aspects of indigenous African cultural beliefs and practices”, and therefore, left the Methodist Church and established the first native African church, Musama Disco Christo Church (Botchway, 2017).

Prophet Appiah regarded his church as an Afrocentric one which was birthed and managed by Africans, and founded to reinstate African beliefs, practices and traditions to Christianity because “Europe had made it Euro-centric to serve European cultural and political interests and to control African societies.” He encouraged largely the use of African musical instruments like donno, mpintin, akasa, totorubento and mfiritwuwa, and abibinwom (Black African Songs), which made use of Fante lyrics (Botchway, 2017:63). This demonstrates the importance of Afro-centricity as a feature of the Pan-African tradition, helping place the African tradition above the Euro-centric Christianity which seeks to demonize our values and traditions as African people.

Again, according to Talburt, “Therefore, evangelical Pan Africanism was a key feature of Black resistance in which people used religion as a form of political protest.” The religious wing of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Improvement Association, the African Orthodox Church, was established. According to Olisanwuche Esedebe, “Though a born Catholic, Garvey set up an African Orthodox Church with Archbishop Alexander McGuire, a West Indian theologian, at the head” as “an expression of religious autonomy among black Americans”.

Nana Akufo-Addo at the European Development Days forum in Brussels in June 2017. Photo: Wiki/CC BY 2.0

Secondly, one principal aspect Afro-centricity plays an important role is education. Molefi Asante posits that what all teachers should is “place children, or center them, within the context of familiar cultural and social references from their own historical setting.” Our educational curriculum as Africans has deepened the crisis of the African identity due to Euro-centric domination as a result of colonialism. “Speak English”, an inscription boldly displayed in our Ghanaian schools has provided an orientation of the Ghanaian child in his formative years that, the English language is the best language and that the local language is tantamount to punishment. Dr. Obadele Kambon, a lecturer at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana and a Pan-Africanist, in response to President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s call for the teaching of French from the basic to the secondary level said,

If we can really start to understand that we are African people, then we can go beyond just looking at the Western languages of our colonial enemies and western languages of our villages to actually learning other African languages. And when we do that, we will be building African collectiveness.

According to Walter Rodney,

The main purpose of the colonial school system was to train Africans to help man the local administration at the lowest ranks and to private capitalist firms owned by Europeans. In effect, that meant selecting a few Africans to participate in the domination and exploitation of the continent as a whole.

Front cover of Molefi Kete Asante’s Afrocentricity

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah at the opening of the Institute of African Studies in October 1963 said:

One essential function of this Institute must surely be to study the history, culture and institutions, languages and arts of Ghana and of Africa in new African-centred ways, in entire freedom from the propositions and pre-suppositions of the colonial epoch, and from the distortions of those Professors and Lecturers who continue to make European studies of Africa the basis of this new assessment. By work of this Institute, we must re-assess and assert the glories and achievements of our African past and inspire our generation, and succeeding generations, with a vision of a better future.

How much Black literature do we teach in our schools? Who is sponsoring our best-selling authors and where are they being educated?

How much Black literature do we teach in our schools? Who is sponsoring our best-selling authors and where are they being educated? The scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists that explore Africa, where are they from?  (Voice of Africa, 2015).

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah on the content of the curriculum for African education, went on to say,

There exists in our Universities, Faculties and Departments, such as Law, Economics, Politics, History, Geography, Philosophy and Sociology, the teaching which should be substantially based as soon as possible on African material”. According to Campbell (2018), “The intersection between education, linguistic diversity, transformation and reparations is crucial for the leap necessary to break with the limits of Euro-centric educational ideas and structures” since “educational infrastructure has been organized as a tool of white imperialist hegemonic rule” (Campbell, 2018).

At a public lecture delivered at the University of Cape Coast main auditorium on March 20, 2018, he stressed the need for the learning and promotion of the use of our indigenous African languages in our schools as a way of socializing the African child. An Afrocentric education is one which is sure to ensure survival of our language, indigenous cultural systems and history which have been affected by Euro-centrism.

Marcus Garvey, National Hero of Jamaica, Image Credit: Wiki

Furthermore, in assessing the importance of Afro-centricity as a feature of Pan-Africanism, economic development cannot be left out. As a result of the Euro-centric domination, even consumer behaviour tends to tilt more towards European goods. This has caused the alternative for African development to come from Europe, as well as expatriates being invited to design technologies, politics and economy, with the Bretton Woods institutions subtly taken over Africa’s economic independence. Africa needs complete restructuring and transformation of its political economies from dependent to self-reliant ones, and with Afro-centricity as “As an ideology that arose as a reaction against Euro-centrism, Afrocentrism perceives authentic development as that, which should be grown and bred in Africa” (Chukwokolo, 2009:33).

An Afrocentric vision of African governments would that ensure African resources, which are at the mercy of Europe and the West serving their industrialization drive and agenda at the detriment of the African people, can be directed towards the development of the continent and its people. In view of this, Kwame Nkrumah made known the idea of African socialism. This was to embark on a socialist agenda which will best fit into the African setting, as a means of rejecting the European ideology of development which was a reflection of the European society.

In his paper African Socialism Revisited in 1967, Nkrumah stated, “Today ‘African Socialism’ seems to espouse the view that the traditional society was a classless society imbued with the spirit of humanism and to express a nostalgia for that spirit. Such a conception of socialism makes a fetish of the communal African society” (Nkrumah, 1967). The central theme in African socialism is communalism. African communalism maintains that the central values of Africans in traditional societies were communal rather than individualistic. Individualism belongs to the West while communalism belongs to Africa (Makumba, 2007).

Conclusion.

Afro-centricity, as a feature of Pan-Africanism, has sought to present Africa with a remedy to the effects of Euro-centrism and place Africa in its rightful position on the world scene. It is, however, about time Africans recognised the importance of viewing issues from the standpoint of the African perspective in order to reap the full benefits Afro-centricity offers. The essay discussed in its three sections the concepts of Pan-Africanism and Afro-centricity, and the Afro-centricity as an important feature of the Pan-African tradition.

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Adjei-Gyamfi can be contacted at nanayawadjeigyamfi@gmail.com