NOTE: This essay was written in 1998 and published in a local Philadelphia journal called The Real News. African American Studies was searching for a defining worldview and methodology. The two competing camps were at Temple and Harvard Universities. Molefi Asante was still chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Temple and Cornel West was still on the faculty at Harvard. Today West is at Princeton and Asante while still at Temple is no longer chairman of it African American Studies.
One of the more important features of American intellectual life at the end of the twentieth century is the rise and influence of what has come to be known as Black Studies. It is part of a cultural and political renaissance in the African American community. Close to eighty years ago something similar happened. Led by scholars and public intellectuals, Black folk became enthralled with the study of their history and culture. During this time Cater G. Woodson started The Journal of Negro History and initiated Negro History Week. This awakening contributed to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In terms of modern Black Studies, to use the words of the Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, a hundred flowers have bloomed, and one thousand schools are contending. There are Black Studies departments and programs at almost every major university and college in the nation, even where there are hardly a Black professor and very few Black students. More than this, school districts around the nation now believe it mandatory to at least have an office of Black history.
While one hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools contend, Harvard and Temple Universities’ African American Studies Departments have become the vanguard of opposing trends; one modernist and Eurocentric, the other Afrocentric and traditional. They represent the most publicized and well known of the centers of Black Studies. Each has its renowned scholars and stands upon its own theories and philosophies. Different political camps within the Black and white communities support each. Through academic journals, scholarly conferences and public discourse, Harvard and Temple struggle to gain the upper hand in deciding the direction of Black Studies and ultimately Black intellectual and political life. Each side claims history as the test of the validity of its positions, although none of the key players could be considered an historian and neither department have produced any significant historical texts.
The literary and cultural critic, Henry Louis Gates and philosopher/theologian Cornel West head the Harvard School. The social theorist Molefi Kete Asante leads Temple. Large international corporations and philanthropists heavily finance the so-called Dream Team at Harvard. Its leading professors have become quite wealthy. Their presence extends to the international intellectual and cultural scenes. They are propped up by Harvard’ s public relations machine.
Temple, on the other hand, stands on the reputation of Asante and the profound aspirations of ordinary Black folk to connect to and know about their ancient African past. Temple speaks to the mistrust ordinary Black folk feel for European knowledge, institutions and the white man’s representations of history. Molefi Asante appropriates the concept Afrocentricty to define his stance and named himself the ‘father of Africology’. His focus is ancient Africa, specifically ancient Egypt, known as Kemet. He wishes to demonstrate an unbroken heritage of more than five thousands years of African history, beginning with the achievements of the kings and queens of Egypt.
Harvard claims to be more sophisticated, referring to Afrocentricism as voodoo methodology. They are modernists. Black history begins only five hundred years ago, with Columbus’s ‘discovery of America’, the genocide against Native peoples and the African slave trade. African Americans are, ‘The Harvard Dream Team’ argues, a ‘Western’ people, with very little of Africa left in our culture, language, folkways or consciousness. For them Africa of the Afrocentrists is but a mythological trope that leads nowhere. We share, they tell us, with European Americans a common cultural and civilizational terrain, shaped in the modern history of capitalism and western democracies. The European Enlightenment, Christianity and the Industrial Revolution are their historical starting points. We African Americans, they tell us, are a cultural hybrid, a mix, as it were, of many strands of modernity, with their spiritual and intellectual roots in Europe.
While these public differences are debated in the media and academic departments, below the surface the two schools share certain common beliefs and sensibilities; commonalties which neither is completely comfortable with, yet which neither can escape. At the core of these commonalties is their rejection of W.E.B Du Bois s legacy. Both sides, while acknowledging Du Bois s brilliance, define him as a failure. The Harvard school rejects him because he was not Eurocentric enough; while Temple rejects him because he was not sufficiently Afrocentric. Ironically, in rejecting Du Bois as the central figure of Black Studies, Harvard and Temple have turned the debate over Black Studies into a debate about Du Bois. The project to eliminate Du Bois as the central intellectual figure in the formation of the Black intellect can only be understood as a crucial part of the history of propaganda directed against the struggle for Black freedom. It is connected to the main centers of white propaganda and is shaped in significant ways by them. And thus the history of the struggle between the two schools of Black Studies is in substance a short history of propaganda. However, the central player in all of this is nether Asante and Temple, nor Harvard and West and Gates, it is the mighty Du Bois. To understand these camps one must understand how they understand (or more appropriately, misunderstand) Du Bois.
The precocious and egotistical Cornel West starts with what he calls ‘the intellectual defects of Du Bois s noble endeavor’. For him, Du Bois was a brilliant failure, a misdirected bright star. Du Bois was, West tell us, an American optimist, who never understood Black Nationalism and therefore never really appreciated Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad or modern day cultural nationalism. Du Bois’s greatest failing, for West, was not his alleged lack of appreciation for Black nationalism, but his so-called lack of engagement with the ideas of Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Central European Jewish writers. West contends that Du Bois s intellectual project would have been better served had he centered it, not in the Souls of Black Folk, but the Souls of Central European and Russian intellectuals. It was the European intellectual engagement with the so-called existential reality and their understanding of the sense of the absurd, which raises these writers above Du Bois. ‘Like their Russian and Central European Jewish counterparts’, West argues, ‘ the black artists grapple with madness and melancholia, doom and death, terror and horror, individuality and identity.’ Isn’t it interesting that West does not believe that Black artists grapple with race oppression and confront the question of how to make their art an instrument of struggle for the liberation of the masses? And why should alienated European intellectuals of the last century be the role models for Black artists and intellectuals of this and the twenty-first century? West, believes, finally, Black intellectuals should retreat from involvement with their people and do what he calls ‘world historic’ — write novels, short stories and poetry and reflect upon the absurdity of life, as European intellectuals have done; rather than follow Du Bois’s example and ORGANIZE, AGITATE, and STRUGGLE. Don’t write The Souls of Black Folk, as Du Bois did in 1903, write A Souls of All Folk, as the European writers might have. Don t organize with like minded men and women The Niagara Movement and attack the capitulation to white supremacy by Booker T. Washington, rather go into self imposed exile in the country side and reflect upon the meaning of the absurd. Don’t t go to historically African American Atlanta University, in the world capital of lynch mob terror, to teach, conduct research and prepare a cadre of Black progressive and revolutionary intellectuals; rather, philosophize about the ultimate meaning of life at Harvard, Yale or some other white institution. This is what West would have us do.
West is not alone at Harvard. In fact, the entire African American department has become a propaganda machine attacking Du Bois, although the research center itself is named after him. Professor Anthony Appiah despises Du Bois s concern with race and racial oppression. Why keep bringing up the thorny and embarrassing issue of race, Appiah asks. Such issues, Appiah cautions, makes our white backers and colleagues uncomfortable. Appiah proposes that rather than race let’s talk about ‘ethnic identities’ and ‘communities of meaning’. ‘Talk of race’, he assures us, ‘is particularly distressing for those of us who take culture seriously….What exists out there in the world–communities of meaning, shading variously into each other in the rich structure of the social world–is not the province of biology but of hermeneutic understanding.’ I guess Appiah has done what Cornel West terms world historic; he has in his mind, through ‘profound reflection’, at Harvard’s Ivory Tower, ended race and racism and created a fantasy world where individuals slip in and out of ‘communities of meaning’.
Henry Louis Gates, chairman, and head honcho of Negro Affairs and leader of the Harvard Black syndicate, argues that African Americans are a ‘Western’ people. We are the signifiers and jokesters of Western culture. Our world historic mission, he proposes, is to be like the signifying monkey, or clown. We don t create new things we just ‘crack on’ what the white man creates. We don t think new thoughts, we only dance to the white man’s tune, as clowns, tricksters, buffoons and entertainers, of course. The Black role in world history, for Gates, is not exemplified by Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’ Oveture or Frederick Douglass, but Amos an’ Andy, Stepin’ Fetchit and the Bronze Buckaroos. The white stereotype of Black folk, Gates reassures us, is not a stereotype at all; it is what we actually are.
Molefi Kete Asante , the central spokesman for the Afrocentric Idea refuses to go to the depths of bootlicking that takes place at Harvard. He is, however, no less opposed to Du Bois. His manifesto, entitled simply Afrocentricity, argues that culturally and historically there is a single African world; and that race and racism, as well as, the unbroken history leading back to ancient Egypt unite us. However, for Asante, the modern struggle is not to end colonialism and oppression, joblessness and global capitalist exploitation, but to free the mind through Afrocentric consciousness. What the fight is about, he tells us, is cultural space. Afrocentricity is achieved when ‘the person becomes totally changed to a conscious level of involvement in the struggle for his or her own mind liberation.’ Here the emphasis is on the words own, me and I and not us and we. However, what Asante proposes is not what the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral meant when he spoke of a return to the source; that is, culture as a mens of resistance and struggle. What Asante means by culture is what German neo-Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt school of the 1920’s and 30’s meant; ‘culture as criticism’, ‘culture as intellectual culture’, ‘culture as the work of a small elite who have been victorious in the struggle for his or her own mind liberation’. Like European thinkers (for whom Asante has a closer affinity than he would ever wish to acknowledge) the struggle is not for the cultural liberation of the masses, but a cultural reconstruction that incorporates the African perspective as a part of an entire human transformation. The function, therefore, of the Afrocentrists is to criticize the Eurocentrists from a supposed African centered perspective, so as to force them to provide cultural space for Afrocentrism in their universities and culture. This is ultimately what cultural reconstruction and human transformation mean.
Asante invents himself in his writings, as the father of Afrocentrism and his life and works as the model for Afrocentrists. Du Bois, Asante instructs us, ‘Despite his love for African people…was not Afrocentric.’ While not Afrocentric, Du Bois, Asante contends, prepared the world for Afrocentrity; and thus for Asante. Du Bois, Asante goes on, sought to humanize capitalism and saw integration of American society as the answer to the problem of the color line. Thus, Asante summarizes, Du Bois was a European thinker who loved Black people and wanted to help them, but whose spiritual and intellectual loyalties were to Europe, Eurocentrism and American capitalism.
The Du Bois of Asante’s imagination is not the Du Bois who lived, fought and produced monumental research such as The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, The World and Africa and Black Reconstruction and close to 30,000 other articles, studies, newspapers columns and books. All of his work had one essential feature and objective, the destruction of white supremacy and colonialism.
Asante, however, believes he has intellectually surpassed Du Bois as a thinker and scholar. To prove his point he makes unfounded claims about Du Bois’s work (which I often question that he has even read) and concludes Du Bois was a tragic victim of his European education. Never mind that Du Bois’s first college degree was from historically Black Fisk University, in Nashville Tennessee. An experience he favorably compared to Harvard, and whose influences are clearly present throughout his life, reappearing in one or another way in almost all of his major writings.
African freedom fighters like Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and Amilcar Cabral trace their ideological and political roots to Du Bois. The Chinese leaders Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Vietnam and Jawaharlal Nehru, a leader and founder of the modern India state, embraced Du Bois as a brother and teacher. While this is the landscape of Du Bois’s life, Asante’s actual intellectual zone is Europe, despite his protestations to the contrary. And while Du Bois stands with the great freedom fighters of this century, Asante, in the end, is a leader in the multiculturalism movement. A movement that wishes only to rearrange the chairs on a sinking ship, rather than build a new one.
The history of the rise of Temple and Harvard as centers of Black Studies is really a short history of propaganda. Propaganda that originates with the idea that Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Du Bois were wrong when they argued that ‘without struggle there is no progress…and power concede nothing without a demand.’ They tend to think like Booker T. Washington who urged Black folk to abandon struggle and ‘put your buckets down where you are’. This short history of propaganda starts with the political assumption that the best Black folk should hope for is multiculturalism in a world dominated by market capitalism. African American Studies at Harvard and Temple are centers of propaganda built upon the line that Du Bois failed as a thinker and fighter. Unlike Paul Robeson who saw Du Bois and his legacy as our future, the propagandist of Temple and Harvard see themselves as replacing him and his legacy.