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aas6 - 17 Afrocentrism Cultural Nationalism and the Problem...

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Unformatted text preview: 17 Afrocentrism, Cultural Nationalism, and the Problem with Essentialist Definitions of Race, Gender, and Sexuality Barbara Ransby é Since the publication of Molefi Asante’s book Afiocentriciry in 1980, the ill-defined and often misdefined concept of Afrocentrism has become almost ubiquitous in the public discourse on race and African Ameri— can identity. There is discussion of Afrocentric epistemology and pedagogy within academia, Afrocentric curricuiurn in elementary and sec— ondary Schools, Afrocenrric fashion, Afrocentric spirituality, Afrocentric cuisine—and the list goes on. But, in the final analysis, what exactly is Afrocentricity? The term has been applied so broadly and loosely as to encompass, on the one hand the v s ecific mandate for authentic “Af W, to the crude cash crop strategy employed by national white- owned retail outlets, which now offer the purchase of Afrocentric products, ranging from fake hente umbrellas to imitation mud cloth sh0wer curtains and underwear. In essence, the very definition of Afrocentrism is contested terrain. Even though one is hard pressed to define what Afrocentrism is, we should be quite clear on what it is not. It is not, for example, a specific theoretical paradigm for libera tion or a prepackaged formula for a meaningful black life, as some Afro— centric writers would have us believe. Rather it is an approach, which en- compasses many competing theories and visions. In the most general Afrocentrism and Cultural Nationalism 217 sense, Afrocent ' im 1 reflects a ‘ s 0 le of 4; n -___.l descent—our concerns culture ._ d interests—a a - :1 - - .._ ' _ - e, strate a or anal _ s' - - «1111)! does not have to mean that African people are viewed in some sort of artificial historical vacuum divorced from other sets of historical experiences. In fact, in I order to fully understand the experience of Africans, and, even more so African Americans in the modern era, we must look at the dialectic of po- litical and class struggle between people of African descent and others, and, of course, between Africans and African Americans themselves. 0th erwise we are left with a very distorted and one-dimensional view of our f 3 history and, most important, one that negates the ways in which the dy- namics of power and exploitation have helped to shape the African and African American experiences. Neither African Americans not Africans have created their own history insulated from the larger evolution of world history. To employ an Afrocentric approach in studying the cultur and history of African and African American people is to view people of African descent as subjects and conscious actors in the creation of histo and culture rather than the passive recipients of someone else’s actions. The conclusions at which various scholar—activists have arrived throu this enterprise have been diverse and, at times, antithetical. It is important to note that Afrocentrism has a long, rich, and disparate history, encompassing many distinct intellectual and political traditions. Most often cited is a group of scholars and writers who historian Darlene Clark Hine refers to as “Authentists and Originists.”-They include Dr. Yosef hen Jochannan, the Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, john Henrik Clarke, and Ivan Van Sertima. Many of the younger cultural and systematic nationalists (as Asante prefers to call himself)—including As- ante, Na’im Akbar, Haiti Madhubuti, and Jawanza Kunjufu—trace their intellectual roots to this group. Equally prominent among the pioneer Afrocentrists, but representing a very different perspective, is the great black intellectual and prolific writer W E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois offered a powerful example of Afrocentric scholarship in his mm the — ar er lack Reconstruction. In it Du Bois bor— ' rows heavily from the Europeean- -based Marxist tradition to formulate a very cogent and provocative Afrocentric analysis of a particular phase in U.S. history. Thus Du Bois represents a very different strain of the Afro- centric tradition than Molefi Asante and many of his Authentist predeces- sors, but an equally legitimate one. Most often when we hear the term Afrocenrrism, we think of a short ( “'--. 218 Barbara Ramby list of names: a group of nationalist thinkers who see culture, narrowly defined, as the principal arena for black political struggle. One reason that the struggle over definition is so important is that the term Afrocentrism, applied generally, has a special resonance among African American people, and no single intellectual or political tradition has proprietary rights over it. I he concept represents an oppositional stance vis-a-vis the oppressive dominance of Eurocentris'm in WV! the systematic promotion of Eurocentrism, and the erroneous notion of white supremacy, as ideological justifications for; colonialism, slavegy, and modern-day racism are the material bases for African Americans’ positiv_e resmnse to th§_general ideas of Afrocengism as corrective. Since Afro— centric scholars like Asante, and the even more controversial Leonard Jef— fries, have received such extensive media attention, it would be easy and unfortunate for the general public, and African Americans in particular, to assume that these individuals represent the intellectual vanguard of the struggle against racism in the academy and the only representatives of that oppositional Afrocentric tradition. They do not. Even while it is important, on the one hand, to recognize that cultural and systematic nationalists do not hold a monopoly over the term Afro— cenm‘sm, it is still necessary to discuss and Critique their ideas as some of the more popular versions of Afrocentricity that are being disseminated within the African American community today. Egg; of all, Asante should be credited with the important positive contribution he has made in forc- ing the issue of racism in academia to the forefront of the national debate about education and the politics of scholarship. At the same time, howevJ er, this contribution should not lead us to overlook some of the major weaknesses of Asanteism. OWE his subtle endorsement of essentialist arguments about race and, by extension, gender. Although, to his credit, he rejects some of the crudest theories of biological determin- ism, his Afrocentric paradigm, nevertheless, serves to reinforce rather than refute the idea that race is some type of ahistorical phenomenon r’rooted in a shared genetic heritage. Readers are told there is something in- trinsically African within us, rooted in a great and distant African past, that we must get in touch with in order to know our true selves and be- come truly Afrocentric, something that Molefi himself has achieved but, according to him, the great black leader W E. B. Du Bois never did. This view suggests a definition of race and ethnicity that transcends social, his- torical, and even cultural realities. IL belies the reality_ of Africa itself: an immense, diverst}, £151 complex continent. When Asante at ues, “We have 5 Afrocentrism and Cultural Nationalism 219'- ' one African cultural system, . . . We respond to the same rhflhms of the universe,” is he referrigg to the rhythms of the Yoruba, Ibo, Hansa, EMS? All of these African peoples have dif- ferent linguistic, religious, and political traditions that are equally legiti~ mate parts of Africa’s past and present. Moreover, Inost Africans do not think of themselves as simply Africans. Such a broad and homogenizing categorization is a luxury more easily imposed from afar. It is also easier to view Africans as one monolithic mass, irrespective of class and politics, when one is concerned primarily with the “rhythms of the uni— verse . . . [and] cosmological sensibilities” rather than the concrete reali- ties of people’s day-to-day lives. On the serious terrain of political strug- gle, for example, it is very important to understand the difference between a Nelson Mandela of South Africa and 3 Jonas Savimbi of Angola. One is a longtime freedom fighter for the liberation of African people, the other is responsible for the massacre of thousands of African people in order to enhance his own power. Both men are African, but they respond to very different rhythms and sensibilities. It is this fuzzy notion of race as some type of innate biological bond that leads us down the slippery slope of judging allies and enemies on the basis of the color of their skin and the texture of their hair rather than on the content of their actions. These erroneous notions of race are predicated upon equally erroneous notions of culture itself. Culture is not something fixed, static, and ahis- torical. Culture is ti namic and constantl in flux- it ' rocess. What were authentic and natural practices within Yoruba, Ibo, Nubian, or any other cultures centuries ago would not be, and are not, “authentic” forms of those cultures (or the surviving products of those cultures} today. This would be true with or without European intervention. Cul an e and evolve, if they do nothing else. Otherwise they atrophy and die. Afro- centrists who look back and romanticize a fixed moment in the history of ancient Egypt as the source of our salvation from our current dilemmas fail to fully appreciate this fact. This failure makes certain strains of the Afrocentric tradition essentially backward looking and conservative rather than progressive and liberating. In addition to the problematic formulation of race and ethnicity in Afrocentric writings of cultural and systematic nationalists, their analyses of gender and sexuality are equally disturbing. While most cultural na- tionalists of the 19903 acknowledge the value of “complementary,” if not fully equal, relationships between men and women, t ere is ve little at- tention 'ven to the special oppression of women and certainly no advo— 220 Barbara Ransby cacy of women’s empowerment. Asante’s Afrocentric ideal of family and sexuality, steeped in virulent homophobia, is very telling about how his notions of gender factor into a larger paradigm. First of all, Asante blunt- ly argues that “homosexuality cannot be condoned or accepted as good for the national development of a strong people.” He overlooks the reali— ty that many black lesbian and gay activists—from Audre Lorde and Bar— bara Smith to Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs——are, or have been, at the forefront of the struggle against sexism as it impacts the lives of black women and rigidly prescribed gender roles as they constrict the lives of ,5 black men. Unfortunately, the idea of men and women stepping outside of their traditional roles in relationship to one another is somehow seen as threatening to the African American community and family. However, if .i' we are ever to realize a society where men and women are equally re— spected, valued, and empowered {unlike most human societies we have known, African or otherwise), we have to step outside of “traditional” roles. We have to move beyond imposed, and often artificial, notions of { family, parenting, and sexuality and find the courage to create new defini- ) tions of both manhood and womanhood, and how the two relate to one ! another. Two Afrocentric scholars, both of whom I w0uld place within the cul— tural nationalist tradition, who address more directly the issue of gender within the African American community are Haki Madhubuti and Na’ in] Akbar. In his book, WE offers a scenario for black liberation and empowerment that is inescapably male- c-entered, de— / spite his disclaimer that his vision “though phrased in masculine terms is not a masculine vision.” In essence, it is not personhood but manhood \ that is defined by Akbar as strength, courage, independence, economic [l power, and intellectual prowess—and, perhaps most telling, the ability to ' act as protector of presumably weaker black wornen. There is nothing in- \ trinsically liberating or revolutionary about this image of manhood. In ‘I fact, in many ways it simply emulates the definitions of white manhood / and masculinity celebrated by the dominant society. In large part Akbar’s k, fisiggtiaresutgent black manhQthinges 0n apower struggle between 1' men of European and African hich leaves Africa American kiwgmen relegated to the sidelines as cheerleaders until the battle 1s won. [This v1sron of course, belies the real role mew layed as fighters, leaders, strategists an ers in our own right throughout history. Even more explicitly, in his book, B ack Men: Obsolete, Si e, Dan— - _/'=m '3 3, g. Afrocentrism and Cultural Nationalism 221 gerons? The A ikrm America ' ' ition Haki Madhubuti argues that “male dominance is on the decline in the Black communi- ty . . . which places the community in jeopardy.” This uncritical endorse- ment of male dominance grows out of an even greater adherence to es- sentialist notions about race and gender than are espoused by either Asante or Akbar. According to Madhubuti, “Biological and sexual roles within the human species are not interchangeable. . . . The sexual defi— ciencies and needs of men and women are, indeed, different and correlate along biological and cultural lines.” Thus, men and women are locked into distinct, immutable, naturally defined roles that we must adhere to. He goes on to argue that racism and white supremacy have inhibited black men’s ability to live up to their roles “as warriors, providers, hus- bands and fathers. ” The assertion of a patriarchal ideal as model for black manhood is seen as the key to black empowerment. Thus, the struggle for black liberation is defined narrowly and quite traditionally as a struggle between men for p0wer and the protection of their {helpless and coveted) women. Madhubuti’s view of black women is not only a paternalist insult to black women’s strengths and capabilities, it also, at times, borders on out~ r1ght misogyny. For example, he begins One of the key chapters of hi book, Black Men, with a scenario in which a black policewoman callous— ly shoots and kills a black male she is about to arrest in the presence of her white male colleagues. Madhubuti concludes: What had been described as “justifiable homicide” was in the real world “one less nigger,” murdered not by a white or Black male cop, but by a Black woman cop. Few saw the significance of this act. . . . What may be the ultimate and most profound reality of our current situation may well be that some of the mothers that bring life may indeed be the moth— ers, daughters of mothers that aid Black men and white men in the re— moval of Black men from this earth. Thus, African American women are portrayed as the annihilators of black men or collaborators, along with white men, in the destruction of black men. It is a painfully distorted and vulgarized version of black women’s role in the survival of black people, men and women. Why would Madhubuti choose such an unrepresentative example of violence in the black community, and the larger society, in which generally violence between men or male violence toward women is the rule? a“... hH-Ifififfi‘awh 222 Barbara Ramby At a time when African American women are under heavy assault by popular cultural forms that denigrate us as “bitches and whores,” and by cuts in welfare that threaten our very survival and that of our children, such scapegoating of black women for the suffering of black men is not only offensive and misleading but dangerous and reactionary as well. It fits squarely into the conservative victim—blaming scenario propagated by most contemporary culture~of—poverty theorists. This view is also consis~ tent with the notion that it is black men, and not black women, who are the principal targets of oppression and racism today. Black women, like the black cop in Madhubuti’s scenario, are allegedly being rewarded, cel- ebrated, and promoted, at the presumed expense of black men. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that in comparison to white women, white men, and African American men, black women are still the most exploited and impoverished group. Unemployment rates are highest among black women (if We look at those who have been forced out of the workforce entirely}. And, in terms of wages, black women still earn $1.10 less per hour than the average black male. Most depressing is the situation of tens of thousands of black single mothers who receive public aid, live in dangerous and deteriorating public housing prisons, and are the principal caretakers of all black children. These women, mis- characterized as immoral, irresponsible, and lazy, have become the proto— typical “uncleserving poor ”—a stereotype fueled by racism and sexism— which serves as justification for the erosion of a whole array of public services and minimum access to resources many fought so hard for in decades past. Any supposedly liberating vision that blames, rather than seeks to empOWer, these women is collaboration of the worst order. As the great poet and activist Apdre Lorde reminded us, “We cannot W” The dismantling of the master’s house is the challenge many Afrocentric scholar—activists have taken up. However, while some works have scrutinized existing para— digms on one level, they have absorbed whole the existing definitions of race, gender, and sexuality on another level. In describing the limitations and pitfalls of racial identity politics, Manning Marable warns that both the Oppressors and th0se who are oppressed {are} imprisoned by the closed dialectic of race. . . . Yet, in reality, race should be under— stood, not as an entity, within the histories of all human societies, or grounded to some inescapable or permanent biological or genetic dif— ferences between human beings. $ Afrocentrism and Cultural Nationalism 223 I would add that the same dubious and static notions readily apply to our popular conceptions of gender and sexuality as well. We internalize a lan— guage and a set of tacit and often erroneous assumptions about such fun- damental concepts as nature, culture, and biology. Layered on top of these flawed assumptions are our dreams, aspirations, and battle plans for lib- eration and empowerment. We therefore build important structures on shaky intellectual foundations. We must, as intellectuals and political ac- tivists, take up the task of interrogating presumed truths on every level and, finally, place our confidence in the optimistic notion that politics are determined in our heads and not in our genes and by our present and fu— ture actions, not the greatness of our ancestors, as great as many of them were. We have new battles to fight. ...
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