African Dream

If you visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History last week, you would have found that the second-floor Physical Anthropology galleries, housing the reconstruction of the head of the protohuman A ustralopithecus, have been closed. Visitors are not permitted to view the exhibit until curators prepare a new head, which, in accordance with current scientific thinking on the origins of humanity, will look quite different from the one that has been on display since 1966. It will be black.

Of course, since this is America, no question of pigment can have a purely scientific origin or resolution. The change in the exhibit was not prompted by new scientific evidence-which has been clear on the African origins of humanity since the 1970s-but from a complaint by members of the Tu-Wa-Moja (Swahili for "We Are One") African Study Group in the District of Columbia. Along with Australopithecus, the ground-floor murals depicting the evolution of man will be revised to correct the impression that the earliest humans resembled the ones on the Mayflower. Tu-Wa-Moja and the Smithsonian are negotiating over exactly when in the last 200,000 years white people joined the parade of humanity. They've held five meetings so far.

This is Afrocentrism at work, the latest branch of that always controversial field of learning, applied anthropology. Afrocentrism is a movement that uses scholarship to forge a distinctive view of the world, one in which Europeans and their white descendants no longer occupy the central and exalted position. "It's a very simple idea," says Molefi Asante, chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Temple University. "African people for 500 years have lived on the intellectual terms of Europeans. The African perspective has finally come to dinner." Afrocentrism ranges over the whole panorama of human history, coloring in the faces: from Australopithecus to the inventors of mathematics to that great Negro composer Beethoven. It aims to reconstruct for black Americans the cultural heritage of a homeland that other ethnic groups have as their birthright. "Blacks must reconstruct their historical memory," says Dr. Charles Finch of the Morehouse School of Medicine. "No nation, no race can face the future unless it knows what it is capable of. This is the function of history."

A historian would probably reply that this is the function of myth. Afrocentrism brilliantly exposes how whites have manipulated history and ethnography for their own advantage. In Europe, racist scholars obliterated the influence of whole African civilizations. In antebellum America, science and history were put to work bolstering the case for slavery. But the solution Afrocentrism proposes-in effect, the creation of a separate history for and by black Americans-is seen by many as a prescription for intellectual apartheid. "What this fellow Asante has been saying, essentially, is that Africa is the source of all good and Europe the source of all evil," says the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

He is unfair to Asante, but some Afrocentric scholars do indeed think that waynotably Leonard Jeffries, chairman of black studies at the City University of New York, who seems to believe in a conspiracy to oppress blacks that stretches from classrooms to the Mafia and Jewish movie producers. This loony theory prompted New York's Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man who knows the value of tenured academic freedom, to call last month for Jeffries's dismissal.

While academia tries to sort out the valuable from the paranoid in Afrocentrism, many black parents and educators are clamoring for an Afrocentric curriculum. Such demands in Detroit and Milwaukee this year went beyond the trend toward " multiculturalism" and sought instead to create blacks-only male academies. The concept violates the Constitution-but reflects the black community's desperate search for academic remedies.

Politically, Afrocentrism, like most intellectual movements, raises barely a ripple. Few of the black elected officials NEWSWEEK spoke to last week had an opinion on it that they cared to share. For whites, Afrocentrism contains within it an uncomfortable truth. Since the passage of the civil-rights acts of the 1960s, the white establishment has tended to redefine the race problem as one of class. This has led to the comforting conclusion that the problem would largely be solved if middle-class values could somehow be imparted to the black "underclass." The message of Afrocentrism is that it may not be so simple. Its adherents are mostly middle class and well educated, but they feel themselves alienated from white American society nonetheless. For them the problem is not class. It is white racism.

Where does one look for Afrocentrism? On the news, where the endless search for a nonstigmatizing name for what the Constitution originally called "other persons" has recently fixed on "African-American." This calls attention to a specifically African component in a way that its defunct synonym "Afro-American" never did. Or in bookstores, where the long-neglected 1933 classic, "The Miseducation of the Negro," by Carter G. Woodson, has been selling briskly. It is visible in the streets, where the assertion of Afrocentrism may take the form of handloomed Ghanaian kente cloth or brilliant metallic Ashoke from Nigeria. And it can be heard on compact discs, where rapper KRS-1 pays homage to that great black religious leader Jesus Christ.

But it has had its biggest impact in the schools (page 45). In some venues it's part of the demand for "multicultural" classrooms that pay tribute to all the ethnic groups whose history has been neglected in American education, and is intended for the benefit of all. In others "Afrocentrism" is a specific effort to redress the balance between blacks and whites, and is primarily directed at black children. "What is school if it doesn't build children's self-confidence?" says James Turner, founder of the Africana Studies center at Cornell. "American education does that for white children. From the day white kids walk into school, they are told that they are heirs to the greatest achievements of humankind."

But does anyone really believe that white children draw inspiration from their kinship to Isaac Newton? And how much will it actually help black students to know that one of their forebears invented blood plasma, much less the pencil sharpener? More important, why should "the greatest achievements of humankind" belong to either whites or blacks? Are they not by definition universal?

One answer, it seems, is that Afrocentrism has its roots in what author Shelby Steele calls "the politics of difference"the tendency of groups outside the mainstream to found their identity on their status as outsiders. "I regard blacks as part of American culture, not African culture," says Schlesinger, but Afrocentrists obviously disagree. If Schlesinger wrote a history of the Civil War, he undoubtedly would consider Abraham Lincoln central to his analysis. But maybe that's only because they're both white. Barbara Wheeler, director of Africana Studies at New Jersey's Kean College, explains that "an Afrocentric way to view the war might start with Frederick Douglass or my [enslaved] greatgrandmother as the focus." A view of the Civil War that puts Lincoln on the margins clearly represents a scholarly breakthrough of some kind-but to what?

Intellectually, Afrocentrism ranges from the generally sound to nonsense. It begins with a critique of the unacknowledged racism in Western thought, which arrogantly claims for itself the mantle of "philosophy," the highest intellectual achievement of humanity: "The Asians don't have philosophy," Asante points out. "They have 'thoughts.' Africans have 'myths.' They do not have philosophy. That belongs to the Greeks." Afrocentrism proceeds to reconstruct its world view along two divergent tracks. One is to assert the primacy of traditional African civilizations, which in fact have been neglected (or suppressed) by Western scholars. Afrocentric scholars demonstrate that Africans invented mathematics, using as proof the "Isonghee abacus," a bone from prehistoric Zaire with markings that suggest it was used for calculations. They cite the great west African kingdom of Ghana, which was flourishing by A.D. 700-a time in Europe known as the Dark Ages.

At the same time, though, Afrocentrists also assert that European civilization was derived from Africa. To do this they first reclaim Egypt, which in their view was stolen from Africa and relocated in the "Mideast" by 19th-century scholars who couldn't bear to think that Africans built the Pyramids. Then they assert that much of the culture and technology associated with ancient Greece was actually Egyptian, transplanted to the Aegean by conquest and settlement (page 49). (Minor irony: when Europeans forcibly impose their culture on a conquered people, it's called "imperialism.") Afrocentrists view the intellectual history of the West as one frantic effort to deny this truth-so that, as Finch puts it, the black race entered the 20th century "without any sense of who they were, what they had accomplished and what their place was in history."

There is a minor logical quibble here, and a major philosophic one. It's "an irony and a paradox," as Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies department, points out, that Afrocentrists downgrade the significance of Western culture yet go to so much trouble to claim authorship of it. More important, what would it prove even if Plato himself were black? At the heart of Afrocentrism, in Gates's view, is a superstitious faith in the power of "race" or "blood" to determine destiny. Why else would anyone care if one of Beethoven's ancestors was a Moorish soldier in the Spanish Army? Someone does, apparently, because the questionable assertion, first made a generation ago by the black historian and journalist J. A. Rogers, has recently begun circulating in learned journals. (Scholars appear to be on surer ground claiming black ancestors for 19th-century writers Alexandre Dumas and Aleksandr Pushkin.) At its most extreme, Afrocentrism shades into racism. The controversial Jeffries-who also was a consultant to a New York state task force on curriculum reform-promotes the theory that the key determinant of personality is the skin pigment melanin. He divides humanity into "Ice People"-the greedy, warlike inhabitants of the North-and "Sun People," the generous, communal natives of you-know-where. "We deal with the African truth," Jeffries says loftily. "We can't worry about the consequences."

Jeffries would appear a marginal figure in Afrocentrism-yet Asante doesn't quite disown him; he lumps him with Gates as "intellectual colleagues" with whom he happens to disagree. For his own part, Asante disclaims any animus toward whites. Afrocentrism, he says, "is not wrapped up with melanin, is not wrapped up with statements against anybody. It's just where you take your stand." It is, though, wrapped up with the notion of a special bond among people of a certain descent, a bond that transcends centuries and vast cultural and geographical dislocations. And if a black American teacher in Oregon can claim kinship with a fisherman in Mozambique, then that bond ought also to stretch as far as Arthur Schlesinger, who is different only by the trivial accident that his ancestors left Africa a little earlier. Maybe the place to take one's stand is in the anthropology hall of the Smithsonian, face to face with our common ancestor Australopithecus. If you go back far enough, we are all Afrocentrists.

Q. Were the ancient Egyptians black Africans?

A. Egypt was home to blacks, Asians and Semites. Some pharaohs were black, including the dynastic founders. Cleopatra was probably Greek.

From the Nile to the Niger,from ancient times through European conquests, powerful cultures rose and fell on African soil leaving a legacy that amazes and perplexes moderns.

An early commercial center. Mainly traded gold and Efficient tax collectors.

The empire of warrior Sundiata ranged from the southern Sahara to trading capital Timbuktu.

Warriors and scholars, they sought to establish a single empire and control major caravan markets.

Located on a major trade route and known for its sculpture and early conversion to Islam.

Dynastic greatness until conquest by Alexander. Up the Nile, the Kush develop iron and an alphabet.

1300-1800 A.D. A culture of artists, hunters and traders, revealed in bronze plaques commissioned by the king or Oba.

Built a Great Temple, ringed by an 800-foot granite wall-still standing.

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