Posts Tagged ‘‘Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes’’

Are British Schools Really Teaching Children that Medieval British Rulers Were Black?

February 9, 2022

A day or so ago Simon Webb of History Debunked put up a video discussing the book, Negro Rulers of Medieval Scotland and England, by a Black American writer, Johnson. This claims that various British monarchs in the Middle Ages and early modern periods were really Black, including James I. He believed that this was a product of the prevalence of conspiracy theories in Black American and also Dutch Muslim culture. Conspiracy theories aren’t unique to either of these peoples. He stated that they were the reaction of people, who believe they are powerless. This seems to me to be about right, especially as they are most common in peoples where there is a strong distrust of the government. Black Americans generally suffer more from poverty, crime, unemployment, drugs and alienation than other demographic groups, and have been subject to overt oppression and exploitation. It’s therefore almost to be expected that conspiracy theories should be far more widespread amongst them than in the White population. Way back in the ’90s folklorists documented various rumours and urban legends in the Black community. Some of these erroneously claimed that named fashion designers and clothing firms wouldn’t market their brands to Black. Another was that Coca-Cola was putting chemicals in the water to sterilise young Black men. This was also very much not true, but given their history and treatment, you can well understand how some people could believe it. Webb considered that it was because of this conspiracy culture that some Black Americans were inclined to believe that some medieval British kings were Black. He compared this to an episode in the 1938 Evelyn Waugh novel, Scoop, in which the hero tries to arrange a visa to enter Ethiopia in order to cover the war there. He is told by an official that just about every major historical incident and invention, from the discovery of the circulation of the blood to the defeat of the Germans in the First World War, was due to Africans. Unfortunately, Webb stated, we can no longer laugh at such historical appropriations. White liberals were taking them seriously, and so books like Johnson’s were being taught in schools. This was also the reason why a Black woman had been cast by Channel 5 to play Anne Boleyn.

Now Johnson’s book clearly exists, as Webb showed its cover in his thumbnail and provided a link to its Amazon page. It seems to be the product of the same brand of Afrocentrism that drew on Gerald Massey’s 1881 Book of the Beginnings and David Macritchie’s 1884 Ancient and Modern Britons to claim that the inhabitants of the British Isles were originally Black. And it seems to me quite credible that some schools are teaching Johnson’s book. According to Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism, there were 350 private, ‘afrocentric academies’, teaching 50,000 children in America in 1991. American public schools also have afrocentric curricula and even whole Afrocentric schools in the Black majority districts in Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee (see page 3). But I do wonder how many schools over here are teaching it. I don’t doubt that there are many Black activists and teachers that would like to. Last year during Black History Month the local BBC News for Bristol, Points West, discussed calls for Black history to be taught in schools. If I remember correctly, some were already supposed to have done so. But Britain also has a National Curriculum, which I would have thought would have prevented much Afrocentric material, at least of the extreme type, from being taught.

I also don’t know if books like Johnson’s were behind Channel 5’s decision to have Boleyn played by a Black thesp. It seemed far more likely to me that it came from the theatre, where Black actors have been cast in traditional White roles for a long time. I also think it was influenced by Armando Iannucci’s colour-blind film of Dickens that came out a few years ago. The Tudors are a part of the National Curriculum and have been a staple of British historical programming. Producers are always looking for a way to put a fresh angle on something, and following the BLM riots the TV companies were falling over themselves to promote, or be seen to promote, Black talent. Black History Month was set up partly as a way to motivate Black children at school and raise their academic performance. There may therefore be no other explanation for the broadcaster’s choice of actor than an intention to find a way to appeal to a Black audience as well. The only sure way of proving that the decision was based on books like Johnson’s would be if a document emerges from Channel 5 stating this is the case, or, failing that, they were working with a Black group that took the view that Boleyn and other members of the British 16th century nobility were Black. But Webb doesn’t produce any such evidence.

Some Black Americans may therefore be erroneously taught that Anne Boleyn and the rest were Black, but I see no evidence that such counter-knowledge is being taught in British schools just yet.

Class Bias and Elitism in Afrocentrism

January 28, 2022

Howe’s book Afrocentrism also discusses the arguments of the movement’s Black critics that its values represent those of the Black middle class and ignores the different needs of the classes below them. He writes

In the eyes of some critics the4 patriarchal bias is closely linked to a class-based one. Ransby and Matthew make this point in passing, seeing Afrocentric rhetoric as implicitly invoking classic stereotypes of the dysfunctional Black ‘underclass’. The argument is more central, however, in polemics like that of the prolific black socialist scholar Manning Marable, who sees the real origins of Afrocentrism like this:

‘The black-nationalist-oriented intelligentsia, tied to elements of the new African-American upper-middle-class by income, social position and cultural outlook, began to search for ways of expressing itself through the ‘permanent’ prism of race, while rationalising its relatively privileged class position.’

Asante’s theories, in Marable’s view, represent the more scholarly and philosophically coherent version of such elite self-rationalization. More ‘vulgar’ Afrocentrists – among whom Marable includes Leonard Jeffries – not only espouse a cruder, more dogmatic racial essentialism shot through with anti-Semitic rhetoric, but express their elite biases more nakedly:

‘Vulgar Afrocentrists deliberately ignored or obscured the historical reality of social class stratification within the African diaspora. They essentially argued that the interests of all black people – from… Colin Powell… (and) Clarence Thomas, to the Black unemployed, homeless and hungry of America’s decaying urban ghettoes – were philosophically, culturally, and racially the same… As such, vulgar Afrocentrism was the perfect social theory for the upwardly mobile black petty bourgeoisie. It gave them a vague, hard, critical study of historical realities… It was, in short, only the latest theoretical construct of a politics of racial identity, a worldview designed to discuss the world, but never really to change it.” (281)

Howe agrees, stating

‘Given the evidence of wildly unscholarly statements from writers like Asante that we have documented, one may think that Marable is overstating a distinction between ‘scholarly’ and ‘vulgar’ Afrocentrists, but his overall judgement has considerable weight.’ (281).

I think the same criticism could be levelled at Critical Race Theory, which rejects class in favour of race and specifically ‘whiteness’ as the main instrument of oppression in western society. It therefore sees all Blacks as equally disenfranchised, even if they are extremely wealthy, and all Whites uniquely privileged even if they are poor.

Afrocentrism Avoids Discussion of the Real Issues Affecting Africa and the African Diaspora

January 28, 2022

Howe in his book on Afrocentrism powerfully states that, rather than actually confronting and tackling the real issues besetting Africa and Black Americans, it actually avoids them. He writes

In the end, indeed, I believe that most of the arguments about the racialisation of scholarship, proposed in recent years from a wide range of perspectives, are an evasion or distraction from serious political issues in relation to Africa and its diaspora, as much as for anywhere else. To observe that scholarly perspectives on Africa and diasporic societies have been massively influenced by racial ideology is one thing, and is obviously true. To analyses these histories of racialized scholarship and to trace the ways in which writers’ own ethnic origins have influenced their views, are important and fascinating tasks. But it is quite another thing to believe that such analyses offer significant aid in solving contemporary political or economic problems – let alone to think that the erection of counter-myths about African racial superiority or unitary, transhistorical ‘black perspective’ does so. At the height of the bitter battles in the American African Studies Association (battles which play a walk-on part in the story told here) Pierre L. van den Berghe pointed out – overgeneralizing in his anger, but with, I believe, an essential powerful truth – that

‘The African peasant does not care one whit whether his oppressor is white or black. Rightly,, he does not consider ‘race’ relevant. It should be a matter of deepest shame to us ‘intellectuals’ that we still talk as if it were relevant.’

If anything, that is even more true today than it was over twenty-five years ago.’ (Afrocentrism, 6).

I don’t think this is quite so true as Afrocentrism has been linked and superseded by the equally racist Critical Race Theory and demands for affirmative action, but Critical Race Theory in its turn will not criticise traditional forms of oppression non-Western societies, as it’s only interested in White colonial oppression.

And so ignores some of the genuine problems of Africa and its peoples, and Black Americans in the US.

Cheikh Anta Diop, the Victorians and Adolf Hitler on the Fundamental Importance of Race

January 28, 2022

Yesterday I put up review of Stephen Howe’s excellent Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, which traces the history of the movement and examines its ideas and the major figures within the movement. Afrocentrism considers that the ancient Egyptians were Black, and that their civilisation was the basis for western culture, which Whites stole. They also believe that there are major psychological differences between Whites and Blacks. Africans are also believed to have a single philosophy, and to have been able to make great advances in science, religion and politics through their distinct racial constitution. Race is held to be of fundamental importance affecting all aspects of life, culture and civilisation. Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the major figures in the movement and one whom Howe respects, despite his views, stated

‘All of humanity’s historical and social relations, from the beginnings of time right up to the nineteenth century, were ethnic relations, founded in phenotype…. humanity has been governed essentially in its development by these ethnic confrontations.’ (171).

Howe makes the point that Afrocentrism is strongly influenced by 19th century views of ancient Egypt and Africans. These were themselves the products of colonial administrators and anthropologists steeped in 19th century anti-Black racism. It’s just that they reverse this racism so that Blacks, instead of Whites, are the superior race. He points out that much Afrocentric writing has a curiously old-fashioned ring. Diop’s statement above is an example of this, as it is very much in line with the attitudes of 19th century White imperialists. For example, Benjamin Disraeli said ‘No man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key to history’. ( Peter Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914 (Jonathan Cape 1984) 81).

Hitler believed that all civilisation and culture had been created by White ‘Aryans’. He therefore stated in Mein Kampf that ‘It is the duty of the national State to see to it that a History of the World is eventually written, in which the question of Race occupies a prominent position’. (Adolf Hitler, My Struggle (London: The Paternoster Library 1933) 166).

As for the exaggerated and grotesquely distorted claims made by the Afrocentrists and other Black activists about the importance and achievements of Black scientists, these are also comparable to Hitler’s own ideas about science and race. He also wrote in Mein Kampf

‘The national State will look upon science as a means for increasing national pride. Not only world-history, but also the history of civilisation, must be taught from this point of view. An inventor should appear great not merely as an inventor, but even more so as a fellow-countryman. Admiration of any great deed must be combined with pride because the fortunate doer of it is a member of our own nation. We must extract the greatest from the mass of great names in German history and place them before the youth in so impressive a fashion that they may become the pillars of an unshakable nationalist sentiment.’ (168)

Thus a movement that has the laudable ambition of challenging racism merely becomes another form of it.

A Thorough Critique of Afrocentric Pseudo-History, Psychology, and Science

January 27, 2022

Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso 1998)

This is another excellent book I’ve been reading lately. I first came across in it an excellent review by the Black British writer, Caryl Phillips in the Financial Times at the time it was published, though it’s only now I’ve actually got round to ordering a copy and reading it. Afrocentrism is a set of inter-related, pseudo-academic disciplines based on the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and are the unacknowledged source of White western culture, which was stolen from them. Not only were the Egyptians themselves Black, but they may also have derived their culture and achievements in turn from the peoples further to the south, the Nubians and Ethiopians. Some Afrocentrists claim that Greece, Rome and Carthage were originally Black ancient Egyptian colonies and that the original peoples of the British isles were also Black. Some push this claim of Black African primacy even further, claiming that ancient Egyptians travelled to the Americas before Columbus, where they founded the Olmec culture. The ancient peoples of Asia too, the Indians, Thais, Chinese and Japanese were also Black. At the same time ancient Egypt expanded to colonise Africa, where it was also responsible for the major cultural, artistic and architectural achievements. Where these coexisted with alleged brutality and barbarism, as in West Africa, which had a highly sophisticated art alongside human sacrifice, this was due to biological degeneration from the original Egyptian herrenvolk.

Black Americans are held to be part of a single Black race and culture with Black Africans, and Afrocentric scholars are active trying to trace authentic African survivals in the speech, culture and psychology of Black America. There is supposed to be a single Black character and psychology and a distinct Black philosophy. At the same time, ,Afrocentric scholars believe that the Egyptians were masters of political theory and science, which can similarly be grotesquely exaggerated. Some of them claim that the ancient Egyptians knew about quantum physics and gravity and that the Tanzanians had semi-conductors. At the same time they are active researching and promoting various Blacks figures they believe were great scientists. Again, these figures, who could, like Benjamin Banneker, be genuinely impressive in their real lives, and their achievements are often wildly exaggerated.

Unsurprisingly there’s much racism mixed up with this. There’s a bitter hatred of Whites, as well as, Jews and Arabs. One Afrocentric writers claims the latter has been attempting to destroy African civilisation and enslave its peoples for 5,000 years. Which is quite incredible, considering that I think the Muslim Arabs only conquered north Africa in the 7th/8th century AD. There’s also a bitter hatred of homosexuality and strong rejection of feminism. In the early 1960s one Afrocentric group insisted that female members should show their submissiveness by crossing their arms and lowering their heads when one of the men passed them. There’s also an insistence on traditional family structures. At the same time, some believe that Blacks are intellectually and emotionally superior to Whites because of the greater amount of the melanin pigment in their brains.

At their heart, this is an attempt to compensate for the massive racial oppression and disparagement Blacks and their civilisations have suffered over the centuries, far more than any other ethnic group. Yet much Afrocentric scholarship is based on the severely dated writings of 19th and early 20th century European colonial officials and anthropologists, as well as other White writers, who definitely believed that Blacks were inferior. For example, Afrocentric scholars assert that, while Whites and Europeans are logical and rational, Blacks are emotional and intuitive. Which is very much like the old imperialist claim that Blacks were inferior because they weren’t rational and logical. The claim that ancient Egyptians were responsible for the colonisation of Africa and every advance made by the peoples of the continent also derives from 19th and early 20th century White sources. The only difference is that those writers believed that the Egyptians were part of a superior, ‘Hamitic’, White civilisation. And also mixed up with it are various occult, Masonic and New Age ideas. Some of these derive from Albert Churchward, a freemason, who believed that there was a war going on between freemasonry and socialism, and only the former could defend civilisation from the Red Menace. Other figures in the New Age part of the Afrocentric movement include Credo Mutwa, a genuine Zulu shaman, honest guv, and apologist for the South African apartheid state.

Howe’s book traces the history of these ideas, some of which have been around for longer than I thought. I was aware that the claim that the ancient Egyptians were Black and therefore equal to or superior to White civilisation began in the 19th century. I was surprised, however, to find that Black Americans, largely clergymen, were making the claims as early as the 1820s. He carefully distinguishes between those writers, like the Senegalese mathematician and nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, who, while wrong, nevertheless were diligent researchers and produced significant insights, and others who were far less impressive. Some of the latter can only be described as cranks, like the female Afrocentrist who claims that nearly everything, including Christmas trees, are representations of the Black male genitals. Some of the most virulently anti-White racist material comes from White writers, such as the assertion that Whites are inferior because we’re all descended from the Neanderthals, who are given a whole series of unpleasant traits. Some Afrocentrists seem to have set up their own Stalinist ‘cult of personality’. Molefi Asante, for example, has his own academic department and institute, who members and scholars always pay generous tribute to him for guiding them on their intellectual quest, and largely don’t say anything that wasn’t already said by the master. Quite a number give themselves impressive African names, meaning things like ‘Bearer of Enlightenment’, and a number have also claimed to have been African princes or holy men. Their real identities and backgrounds, however, tend to be much more prosaic. He also notes the connection and major differences with other major figures in Black scholarship and anti-racist campaigning, like Franz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois, and the French Caribbean Negritude movement.

There are some significant difference between the scholars discussed here. Cheikh Anta Diop believed that ancient Egypt was the source of western culture and I think he wanted Greek and Latin replaced as languages by ancient Egyptian. But while his thinking was highly racialised, he wasn’t a racist. He wanted Blacks to join the global community of peoples as equals. He also believed that civilisation was cyclical, and that as Europeans supposedly took their ideas from Africa, so Africans should now learn from Europeans. Others were definitely racist, such as the speaker at the first Black History Month in 1986 who seemed to advocate shooting Whites, although he couldn’t tell his audience when, where and whom. In the case of Marcus Garvey’s son, this went into pure Black Nazism. When Jamaica celebrated Garvey’s birth in the 1970s, his son called for Garvey’s movement to become a Black National Socialism, because Africa also needs its lebensraum.

Among the researchers and writers examined and critiqued is Martin Bernal, the White author of Black Athena. This caused a major stir when it was published in the 1980s, possibly because, as Bernal himself suggested, he was White. Bernal was able to assemble a massive amount of information and was extensively criticised at the time. But he was also controversial because he believed that ancient Greece was also strongly influenced by the Semitic peoples, specifically the Phoenicians and the Jews. This was in fact based on contemporary Israeli scholarship, and was itself highly controversial. As a result, some of the criticisms of him and his work have a very nasty element of anti-Semitism.

The book is a thorough examination and demolition of Afrocentric scholarship with considerable sympathy for the genuine achievements of Black scholars, some of whom have made very trenchant criticisms. One Ghanaian or Nigerian philosopher lampooned the claim that there is a single, African philosophy based around a transcendent life force. In a spoof article he argued that the English, and therefore all westerners, venerated the mystic force ING, because English verbs often ended in ‘ing’, like ‘doing’ or ‘being’. In fact the claim that there is a single African philosophy comes from Tempels, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, who only researched a single Bantu tribe, and the anthropologist Griaule and his Dogon informant, Ogotommeli. The latter two have become notorious because of their books’ claim that the Dogon had an advanced knowledge of astronomy. They knew that the planets circled the Sun in ellipses, and that Sirius had an invisible companion star. For R.K.G. Temple in the 1970s, it was because they’d been visited by aliens. For the Melanists, it was because they had intuitive knowledge of it through their pineal gland. Howe suggests that Ogotommeli probably knew about it from visiting colonial officials with an interest in the subject, and made the claim that all this was known to the Dogon as a way of pulling this arrogant colonial anthropologist’s leg.

The book also argues that Afrocentric views of Africa are themselves also damaging. They present the continent as a static, unfied culture, which has never suffered war and conflict between its peoples before the advent of Europeans. In fact it’s a continent of many different peoples and cultures. There’s no evidence that it was ever colonised by the ancient Egyptians. Only six ancient Egyptian artefacts have been found outside Egypt and Nubia. And rather than the ancient Egyptians introducing agriculture to the rest of Africa, there is evidence that it was independently discovered in six different places on the continent. As for the assertion that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are the source for various African writing systems, such as the Vai of Liberia, some of these are known to have been invented by specific individuals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some African peoples are happy to promote the idea that they are descendants of the ancient Egyptians, while others very definitely are not. The problem here is that Afrocentrist claims of Egyptian primacy are obscuring the real achievements of Africa and its peoples.

As for the question of the racial origins of the ancient Egyptians, the book notes that this is a subject of near to Zero interest to professional, mainstream Egyptologists. A number of academics books and journals he surveys make no mention of it. When one does, it is simply to say that it is a distraction from the real issues Egyptologists want to examine. Genetic and craniological examination, however, suggest that the ancient Egyptians were racially identical to other peoples in that part of Africa. They show genetic links to the peoples of Neolithic Europe, the Middle East and India, and lesser genetic connections to the peoples further south. The Egyptian scholars themselves, however, see themselves as racially mixed and there was an argument at a conference in Cairo when the Black Americans insisted that they were Black. I also find some of the Afro-centrists’ concern to establish the racial identity of the Nubians rather odd. One Afrocentric writer hoped that one day science would be able to reconstruct the features of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa from its skull fragments, and that these would show he was Black. I found this quite puzzling, as I’ve always assumed that the Nubians were Black. In fact I’ve never seen anything said to the contrary. When TV documentaries refer to Egypt’s Black pharaohs, they usually refer to the period when the country was conquered and ruled by Nubian kings. I honestly don’t know who these people are that assert that the Nubians were White, unless it’s some of the White writers the Afro-centrists have discovered in their search for suitable sources.

This pseudo-scholarship is spreading massively. The book notes the large number of university departments teaching it, as well as college and private schools and the torrent of books published, some of them also aimed at schools. It’s alarming that such pseudo-scholarship has become so widespread. And rather than liberating, as Afrocentric scholars believe, he makes the point that the subject is deeply racist, drawing on the same sources as White racists.

But rather than be angered by it, he finds it immensely sad.

Medieval Arab Writers on the Effects of the Sun on the Black Temperament

January 26, 2022

I put up a post the other day stating that we need to have more research into extra-European and non-White racial prejudice, as the situation is more complex than simply White hatred of people of colour. I mentioned the fact that 3rd century AD Chinese writers believed that people in the west, with blond hair and green eyes, were descended from monkeys. According to Stephen Howe’s Afrocentrism, they also had similar views about the Japanese. Some of the bigoted writers decided that the Japanese were descended from Chinese criminals who interbred with monkeys. Howe also notes in the above book that medieval Arab writers also had their own prejudices when it came to Black Africans, citing a 1992 article by Aziz al-Azmeh, ‘Barbarians in Arab Eyes’ in Past & Present. These writers believed that there was a distinct Black temperament and personality caused by the heat of the tropical sun. Howe writes

‘As Aziz al-Azmeh shows, numerous medieval Arab writers, drawing on a theory of climatic zones whi8ch seems originally to have been proposed by the Greeks, saw black Africans as suffering from a mental deficiency resulting from life in excessive heat and dryness: ‘Negroes therefore tended to be given to erratic behaviour, to levity, to prodigious sexuality, and to be much disposed to dance and rhythm, all because of the afore-mentioned effects of the sun’.’ (274). He also notes other books which discuss Arab racism, some of which deal with the Arab slave trade. This suggests that the Arab trade in Black slaves also had the effect of promoting ideas of Black inferiority. I can remember coming across a book on Arabic, which informed the reader that the word for ‘Blacks’ literally meant ‘the slaves’, but this was not held to be derogatory. This was in the 1980s, nearly forty years ago. Now in the 21st century real slave markets have opened in Libya, and Arab Sudanese enslaved Blacks during the civil war in the Sudan in the 1990s, that attitude, if it still exists, should be discarded.

Stephen Howe’s Refutation of Nation of Islam Book on Jews and the Slave Trade

January 26, 2022

Stephen Howe’s book Afrocentrism also includes discussion and refutation of the vicious anti-Semitism in parts of the movement. This anti-Jewish prejudice is particularly notorious in the case of the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan’s assertion that Jews were responsible for the transatlantic slave trade. Howe attacks and refutes this assertion as it appears in the Nation of Islam’s anonymously published boo, The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews. Howe writes

‘The book is credited to the ‘Nation of Islam Historical Research Department’, an entity which has had no traceable existence or publications apart from this work. Under the guise of a scholarly treatise, and utilizing (though often misquoting or otherwise abusing) a very wide range of sources, this is in reality a violently anti-Jewish tract. It massively exaggerates the role of various Atlantic Jewish communities in slavery – a role which was in reality minuscule, with the partial exception of Jewish investors in the Dutch West India Company (Jewish investment here having been estimated at different times between 0.5 per cent and 10 per cent of the total, while the company itself controlled, at its peak, a maximum 16 per cent of the Atlantic slave trade, a handful of Jewish plantation owners in Surinam (Dutch Guiana), and a not precisely quantifiable number of Portuguese Marranos (Christians of actual, alleged or partial Jewish ancestry, who formed a significant portion of Portugal’s and her colonies’ populations after the Inquisition).

More revealing still of the book’s real nature is the repeated suggestion that Jewish involvement in slavery (no less and no more blameworthy than the far greater Christian and Muslim embroilment, and hugely overstated by mis-citation and innuendo) stems from some uniquely evil racial-religious characteristic, and has subsequently been concealed by all the all-too-predictable conspiracy of media and financial power. Yet The Secret Relationship is afar cleverer work of propaganda than its critics seem to assume. An impressive amount of research – albeit almost entirely in secondary sources – has gone into its compilation, however egregiously the results are then misused. It does not directly claim, as responses from the Anti-Defamation League and elsewhere asserted, that Jews are ‘genetically predisposed towards the exploitation of blacks; though the unwary reader might easily draw such a conclusion from it, and that, no doubt, was the anonymous author’s intention. It draws attention dozens of times to instances across the centuries and the continents when Jews were accused of rapacious and dishonest business dealings. It never quite directly says that such accusations were true, or that they reflect a noxious, invariant pattern of Jewish racial behaviour. Nor, of course, does it say that they were not true. It just leaves the reader to conclude that such multifarious and insistent charges must be solidly based.’ (276-7)

This is a good point, as unfortunately not all Fascists are clowns, and anti-Semites, whether White, Black or whatever, can dress their poisonous assertions up to make them apparently rational and historically grounded. You have to be careful not to be caught by such rhetoric.

In footnote 3 to that chapter, Howe recommends the following books giving scholarly overviews of Jewish participation in the slave trade. These are David Brion Davis’ ‘ The Slave Trade and the Jews’, published in the New York Review of Books, 22nd December 1994; Seymour Drescher, ‘The Role of Jews in the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, Immigrants and Minorities 12, 1993; and Harold Brackman’s Farrakhan’s Reign of Historical Error: The Truth behind The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews (Los Angeles 1992). Howe describes this last book a polemical with a touch of ethnocentrism itself.

I thought it worth posting Howe’s passage demolishing Farrakhan’s nasty little book, as I think these poisonous assertions are still being made. The sensitivity over this issue has also been used by the witch-hunters to smear entirely respectable historians and academics like Jackie Walker as genuine anti-Semites. Walker’s real crime in the eyes of groups like the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism is that she opposes the Israeli state’s persecution of the Palestinians and the system of apartheid it has erected to keep them very securely as second-class citizens. However, they smeared her as an anti-Semite with a comment with two colleagues discussing Jewish involvement in the slave trade, in which she stated clearly that the Jews were ‘her people’. As a Jewish woman of colour, whose father was a Russian Jew, practises the religion herself, and whose partner is Jewish and whose daughter attended a Jewish school, there should be no doubt that Walker is not any kind of anti-Semite. But because of some ill-guarded words in her post, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism were able to smear her as such.

Stephen Howe on the Extent of Slavery in African States

January 25, 2022

One of the falsehood’s Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism, tackles, is the denial by Afrocentric writers and activists of chattel slavery in indigenous African societies. And when they do acknowledge it’s existence, they claim that it was somehow more benign than European chattel slavery. This is, quite simply, wrong, and the proportion of the indigenous population that was enslaved in Africa could be quite high. It varied from people to people between 30 per cent to as much as 75 per cent of the population. Howe writes

‘A further major theme in Afrocentric historical fantasy should also be noted: the tendency to deny, against all the evidence, that chattel slavery existed in precolonial Africa – or to insist that, if it did, it was a marginal, small-scale and benign phenomenon. One might set against this romanticisation Orlando Patterson’s estimates of the scale of precolonial African slavery, in the fullest comparative global study of slavery ever attempted, Patterson suggests that in the major early states of West Africa – Islamic Ghana, Mali, Segou and Songhay – slaves constituted 30 per cent of the population. In the states of the central Sudan and the Hausa city-states, it was between 30 and 50 per cent. In the Fulani kingdoms established after the jihad of the eighteenth century, between 30 and 66 per cent of the people were enslaved, while in the state of what are now Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Ghana, figures ranged from 30 to 75 per cent. Among the precolonial Yoruba, from a third to a half of the population existed in servile status, while in many of the states of Central Africa – among the Kongo, Luvale and Lozi, for instance – the figure was over 50 per cent.

Internal African slavery and slave-trading were undoubtedly on a very significant scale, and long predated the advent of European slave-raiding: though it remains quite possible – indeed, likely – that their growth was greatly stimulated by the effects of European demand, so that African slavery in its later, most extensive and many of its harshest forms can reasonably be ‘blamed’ in part on Europe. One estimate has it that the number of people enslaved within Africa, across the sweep of modern history, equally the number exported across the Atlantic and Red Sea trades. Important aspects of intra-African economic interchange, like trans-Saharan trade routes, included or were even pioneered by the trade in human beings. Nor is it true that slavery within Africa was largely ‘domestic’ and therefore, by implication, relatively benign: large scale plantation slave labour systems were introduced in several parts of the continent, albeit probably most often under at least indirect European or Arab influence.’ (149-50).

This does not excuse European slaving, and I think most historians of African slavery consider that African slavery expanded massively in the 18th century due to European demand. But it does place it in context. Unfortunately, I really do feel that contemporary anti-racism activists are trying very much to deny that indigenous African slavery existed, and place all the blame for it, and the subsequent problems of western Blacks and Africa, on Europeans. This is explicitly the case with Postcolonial and Critical Race Theory, which won’t tackle the genuine problems and oppressive aspects of indigenous societies, but simply concentrate instead on the faults and horrors of European colonialism.

Old ‘Financial Times’ Review by Caryl Phillips of Books on Afrocentrism and Black Identity

August 1, 2020

This is another very old clipping from my scrapbooks. Titled ‘Burdened by white men’s perceptions’, its a review by the Black British writer Caryl Phillips of the books Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe, and Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination by Adam Lively. Its from the Financial Times’ edition for August 15th/16th 1998, and so nearly a quarter of a century old. Nevertheless, these are issues that are still present and which are still strongly influencing contemporary racial politics and motivating activist movements like Black Lives Matter.

Phillips begins his review with the book on Afrocentrism. This is a Black historical view that sees ancient Egypt as a Black African civilisation and the true source of the western cultural and intellectual tradition, which was appropriated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. He then moves on to the second book, which is about the issue of Black identity in majority White culture and the effects of White perceptions. Phillips writes

Stephen Howe’s candid book goes right to the heart of one of the most vexing of contemporary America’s problems: the question of “Afrocentrism”, and its legitimacy as an alternative system of thought to the “white racism” which has dominated American intellectual, social and political life. Howe (who is white) quotes the African-American professor, Manning Marable, who defines Afrocentrism as a system of thought which “looks to a romantic, mythical reconstruction of yesterday to find some understanding of the cultural basis of today’s racial and class challenges.” Howe agrees with Marable that Afrocentrism is not only romantic and mythical, but he sees it as ultimately dangerous.

His book is divided into three parts. In the first section Howe looks at the “roots” of Afrocentrism, rightly identifying the writings o the 19th-century writer Edward Wilmot Blyden as being perhaps at the head of this tradition. In 1866 Blyden travelled to Egypt, determined to see evidence of great Black achievements. He was overwhelmed by a sense of racial pride on first seeing the Pyramids: “This, thought I, was the work of my African progenitors … Feelings came over me far different from those I have ever felt when looking at the mighty works of European genius. I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built … by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I am descended …”

In the second part of his book, Howe focuses largely upon the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-86), identifying him as the originator of many of the ideas that form the basis of modern Afrocentrism. Diop believed that the biological origin of humanity took place in Africa, and that Egypt was the cradle of a Black civilisation that was appropriated by the Ancient Greeks. His writings and scholarship all speak to a need for those of Africa to see beyond the obfuscation created by European racism and colonialism,  and reclaim their glorious past.

The final part of Howe’s book looks at the current manifestations of Afrocentric thought, particularly in American academic life. He rightly castigates the anti-Semitism of Afrocentric “scholars”  such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin, and is tough but even-handed in his case against Molefi Asante (whom Howe calls the “Godfather of Afrocentrism”). The pseudo-scientific racism, the homophobia, and the lack of any serious scholarship which underpins the work of modern-day Afrocentrism is laid bare in a devastating, and at times humorous manner.

This book performs a great service for all who are interested in the intellectual study of race and racism in the US. Howe builds his case upon facts, which most Afrocentric “scholars” seem incapable of doing. However, what Howe does not do is to ask the pressing question which arises out of his book: why is it that so many African Americans both leaders and followers, are prepared to invest in such an ahistorical sense of their world and their history?

The first half of Adam Lively’s book provides some kind of an answer, castigating as it does the European attempts to place Africa and people of African origin at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. Lively traces what he terms “the invention of race” in the modern world, and looks at racial theories in 18th and 19th-century Britain, examined how they clashed with Christianity, and Darwinism.

The second half of the book turns to the US. Lively announces his shift of locale and time, by stating that in the earlier period “If the African answered back, the European didn’t hear. In America by contrast … the American Negro could and did answer back to the White man.” This is not strictly true. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiographical narrative published in 1789 went into eight British editions, and was also published in German, Dutch and Russian. Equiano was but one of a host of contemporary Black writers who were undoubtedly heard by Europeans.

The American half of Lively’s book is largely composed of readings in 20th century American literature which support his central thesis that the contemporary imagination has great difficulty coping with a blackness that has been so deeply demonised by theories which originated in earlier centuries. However, whereas the first half of his book is underpinned by solid research, the second half becomes more speculative.

The book concludes with a short epilogue entitled “Beyond Race?” Unfortunately, here the text collapses into the infuriating academic doublespeak that the author has so eloquently avoided. “The idea of postethnicity accords with the modern tendency to see ethnicity as performative than essentialist. Blackness becomes a cultural style, a signifier that has floated free of its moorings in pigmentation. Stripped of any deterministic associations, its gift is the freedom (or, negatively, the alienation) of the mask.”

Blackness is not, and never will be, simply “a cultural style”. Being Black in the western world still means that one is burdened by White people’s perceptions of  one as either an object of taboo or one of sentiment. To scamper off into an imagined past of Afrocentric “achievement” is as foolish as the attempt to construct an imagined present of redemptive cultural equality based around baggy jeans and rap music. Lively ends his book with the following sentence: “The racial past cannot be erased, but it can be rendered impotent.” Neither Lively’s faith in postmodernism nor the Afrocentric’s “fake” history, will produce any viable solution to a problem that will dog us far into the next millennium.

I hope this prediction is far too pessimistic, and that this millennium won’t be as burdened with issues of race and racism as the previous. Regarding Afrocentrism, there is a serious point behind the romanticism. Egypt is geographically part of Africa, and the ancient Egyptians certainly portrayed themselves as darker skinned than the European peoples to the north. They traded extensively in the Mediterranean, including as far west as Spain, and did influence Greek and Roman culture. The White Afrocentrist historian, Basil Davidson, states that he believes that the Romans took their intellectual culture from Egypt because the Romans themselves said they did. On the other hand, it appears that the ancient Greeks took their mathematical knowledge from the ancient Near East, particularly Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

My problem with Afrocentrism is that, at its extreme, it just becomes a form of anti-White racism, the mirror image of White racist views of Black and African history. In the view of Afrocentric writers like Garakai Chengu, ancient Egypt was a superior Black civilisation that bestowed culture and learning on the backward White tribes of Europe. The Moors of Islamic Spain were ‘obviously Black’, and through their conquest brought backward, superstitious White Europeans enlightened philosophy and science. This isn’t history so much as a Black racist fantasy of imperialism and benign colonialism projected into the past. Chengu has apparently taught at Harvard, but when Counterpunch saw fit to publish a piece by him on their website the standard of scholarship was so poor that I really wondered how he got the job.

Ancient Egypt and the other great civilisations of Africa are awesome, inspiring and worth studying along with all the world’s great cultures. But this needs to be done without the grotesque distortions of racism, whether by Whites or Blacks.