(This is the first report on the interview with Professor Molefi Asante on September 19, 2021. For the transcript, see YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNMT3q-Psqc
and on Facebook. https://fb.watch/87kf9tlYA5/)
Molefi Asante’s Africa: The Ideology to Understand the Past
Do please allow me to reveal Professor Asante’s mind in its full complexity! At this stage of his career, it has become irrelevant whether you agree with him or not!! Many historians construct a people’s past intending to understand the peculiarity of the worldview that shapes their identity in the way it appears. This is hinged on the understanding that the people’s history provides the materials for living their world and knowing why they choose a line of philosophy with which they have been identified from time. Historians push such frontiers because they believe it would be difficult to understand why they have continued in a direction that they are known for without understanding a people’s historical foundation. There is, therefore, an assumption within the historical scholarship that when a people are disconnected from their history, they stand the possibility of losing their identity and eventually their respect in the community of people because not only would they have been dispossessed of their spiritual and moral principles, they would also have embraced a different historical material that contests the originality of theirs, and eventually, subsumes their identity in the end. Curiously, Africa has become one of the continents in the world whose history is either deliberately or maybe systematically taken away from them for reasons that are not unconnected to the attempt by the orchestrators to keep them suppressed.
Meanwhile, the African intellectual geography identified these problems from its incubating period. They immediately recognize that the most potent way to challenge such destructive moves by their identity predators is to embrace their cultural traditions unapologetically. Asante is among these intelligent minds whose advocacy for indigenous Africa epistemic revival has reached the rooftop in recent academic engagements. Throughout the 20th century, this critical mind has continuously served as a front-liner in Africa’s activism of historical and cultural regeneration. Despite the impressive contributions that he has made in this case, his light of intellectualism did not go down in the 21st century either because he has championed the course of African mental freedom through the historical reconstruction of the African past. His intimidating stature in academic history cannot be overemphasized. So, when I asked him in one of the recent Toyin Falola Interview Series about what he considered as his intellectual legacy, I was not trying to claim ignorance to his wide-ranging intellectual potentials; I was only interested in him restating it for revalidation before the international audience in the virtual meeting. Laden in that question is the attempt to excavate the ideology that can be used to understand the African past.
From the introductory expressions of this timeless sage, you can tell that the knowledge of the African past blossoms in his entire career and life. In the habit of paying homage, he began with acknowledging African ancestors, recognizing their efforts that have brought about the excellence he and other scholars of his network represent. Beyond the honor that he accorded to his ancestors is the epistemic exposition that Africans believe in the successive knowledge production where a generation makes efforts to preserve the wisdom and understanding of the ancient people and, under the same energy, transfer the inherited legacies to the generations that would succeed them. Considered superficially, one could think that such perception reveals an occultic hallucination about their traditional sources. Still, when considered deeply, one would see that such a mindset developed from the awareness of every individual’s uniqueness in making knowledge and transforming them into something valuable and eventful for society. In other words, everyone in the pre-colonial African society is a potential knowledge curator, and they are known to spread this knowledge at every given opportunity. So, the intellectual legacy of Asante is something linkable to what the African ancestors have accomplished. It is a continuation of it.
In all of the things this man has rolled out for African future generations, one thing stands out, and that is the project of creating an autobiography of discipline to which he has committed his lifetime attention, resources, and energy to. Creating such academic discipline is excellent for many reasons, chief of which is its capacity to reorient the African people about their history and recalibrate their minds towards accepting their identity, which has faced centuries of mindlessly callous derogation by the Euro-American imperialists. The argument consolidates the need for such indigenous knowledge production process that African mental and identity dislocation is a product of ceaseless disarticulation of their cultural heritage and spiritual value for at least 500 years. It is an irrefutable confession that a people who experienced such level of psychological re-engineering appearing in the form of the rhetoric of condescension, and some other cases, the strategic disqualification of their thought processes that informed their identity carving, cannot but experience the level of self-hate that exists in areas of Black community across the world, either in Africa or in Black America. Asante believes, and so do every Afrocentric scholar, that the problems facing Africans in contemporary times are socially constructed and can be surmounted by social re-engineering.
It should therefore come as no surprise, Molefi fired, that Africans of the contemporary time have lost their sense of direction. This conclusion is informed by observing their engagement in the current time, which indicates that they are generally consuming ideas from every other race of people but themselves because they do not produce theirs, as their ancestors uniquely did. Africans in modern times indulge in activities of the European practices, drag their African neighbors into it, and sometimes actively get involved in promoting the economic system that such European establishments have created. While they do this with no modicum of awareness, they become the targets of all other people because of the implicit conclusion from African behavior that they are a people who undermine what their ancestral identity can give them. Meanwhile, all these things happen because Africans have been miseducated about themselves, reoriented about their history, and socially is-engineered to favor everyone but themselves. From all directions, the people have become a stockpile of disrespect and a statue of dishonor. Asante is confident that restoring the lost dignity can be achieved when institutions like the discipline he jointly created with others get the attention of people who think in similar directions.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect that a man who has this lofty ambition about Africa showcases his commitment to such engagement beyond words. This explains why Asante was asked by one of the interviewers about his memoir and some other writings. Asante’s memoir, As I Run Toward Africa, which even from the title shows a thematic focus that seeks to validate the ethereal essence of the African continent and the people. In his response, he conceded that knowing Africa in the totality has been his ambition. There cannot be a contention that it involves a circle of the process that requires dedication, determination, and commitment. It is a process where one would be faced with a body of challenges that would want to douse the spirit of the ones doing this metaphorical running to their ancestral sources. It entails getting fabricated responses that would justify the identity of the Europeans, which has been imposed on the Black people. However, one’s level of discernment would assist in debunking materials aimed towards the deracination of the African identity because not only are there much of this stuff, but they are also capable of making individuals doubt what they were told to be their true history. Imagine a situation where people have a warped sense of an aspect of their culture; they would have internalized these values because they have been fed only with them.
Seeking knowledge is generally an arduous task, but seeking one’s identity in a provocatively hostile world to such redemptive engagement is more challenging. Therefore, it is expected that people would react dramatically to the ideas and philosophies to which the intellectual has dedicated his time and resources. This informs the question that I threw to the Professor: how does he respond to the critics of the Afrocentric agenda, especially those who are excessively combative of anything that challenges the supremacy they have created in their minds. The Professor opened another discursive engagement in responding to this question, exposing an exciting debate line. He mentioned that the first waves of criticism directed to Afrocentricity came in the early 1980s after publishing the first work he did on the subject. Coming from a Marxist camp, they questioned the silence of the book on Black’s economic system and status, which, to them, forms a solid foundation for the promotion of racial discrimination and prejudices against them. The readied way by which Asante felt he could absorb this pressure was to reply that he did not mainly produce the work to serve as an expository essay for African economic systems and statuses in the world’s political order. He argued that it was meant to reinterpret the reality of the African world.
Despite its silence about the economic structure and culture as conceived by the Western society, the book does not, Asante explained, fail to express the African notion of economic growth, which he confessed stands on the principle of economic relations with people based on what they can share not necessarily in terms of material possessions. The underlying issue in this economic orientation is that the people are considered participants and not ordinary things in their immediate society’s economic engagement and system. Since it is based on the relationship between people, the total concentration lies in the values of the individual regardless of their material worth, as emphasized by the Western Marxist ideologues. However, criticism from the Marxist School would be the tip of the iceberg, as several others were coming from different angles. One of such angles is from the white conservatives who immediately became engrossed in the fear that Afrocentricity seeks to promote a black nationalist agenda, which they believe would challenge their racial superiority and technically reduce the privileges that come with it in the American society. It cannot be overemphasized that Black nationalism is a factor in American society and a potent instrument of emancipation among the Black community. However, the academic revolutionary Afrocentricity sought to serve was to announce itself as a cultural transformation seeking to find lasting solutions to African problems.
This discussion leads us to another exciting dimension of intellectual exchange that fueled the topic of Afrocentrism. In his interest in African history and culture, Asante has written many books on Africa, and it is logical to ask him of his motivation to do this. When asked, he once again held the audience spellbound with his very educative insights. Asante provides a rough-hewn view about the reasons for the continued undervaluation of the African people. He stated that the discovery struck him that several books which were written about Africans were authored by non-black educators and intellectuals, which confirms the assumption that there is a systematic effort for the marginalization, suppression, and the oppression of these people or their deliberate underdevelopment through the production of knowledge that undermines the African identity. It is believed that when others author the materials about the African people, some among them will continue with their discriminatory and exploitative agenda. By the time an African is engrossed in such materials, they would have been wrongly designed to stand at variance to their ancestral values. This would inevitably create a self-hatred to their epistemic and spiritual beginning.
To Asante, many books were racist. They make essential efforts for the dislocation of African history because the authors were aware of the immeasurable danger it would mean to white supremacist people if it is discovered that Africa was indeed the economic stronghold of the American and other European societies. In recent years, discoveries have exposed the Western world to complicating the erosion of African worth and values. To the extent that the narrative shared in many of these books have a baseless historical foundation, no replicable archaeological engagement, and obviously no reliable evidence to corroborate their wild assertions. Therefore, the awareness of this is enough motivation to embark on a research engagement that would help him make findings of the people he shares genetic (in)formation with. It would help provide an alternative perspective, albeit a revolutionary one, for the people who have hitherto been fed with fallacies that exist only in the imaginative world of the writers. Such writing would elevate and then animate the values of the African people, their cultural traditions, their arts, their knowledge production, and even their philosophical history.
To achieve a feat such as this, there is bound to be some resistance level from different angles. Such resistance would have emerged for various reasons. It would be difficult for an American society that has successfully created the impression that the African people had no history or anything worthy of academic exploration to embrace an idea that contradicts this position. They would most likely violently rise against such a campaign because it would challenge the superstructure of the West founded on a foundation that the African people were devoid of past and records to assuage themselves of the character assassination that already follows them around. These are the initial challenges that confronted establishing a metaphysical foundation that will help promote African history in any respect. In essence, the recognition of the African historical scholarship and discipline in the American society is creditable to the ceaseless and endless demands by the African-American student populace who remained intransigent about their determination to include African history into their curriculum. Irrespective of contentions and controversies that this struck, their commitment to this ambition helped facilitate Africology and Black Studies to date.
In all of these, members of the African diaspora are usually confronted with the dilemma of tracing their cultural traditions and ancestral sources to a particular ethnic group and challenging the extremely racial American environment where they found themselves. Because of this identity plight, it is of essence that we know the contribution that genetic tracing could make in the enhancement of the search for a lost past. When asked about the possibility of disconnection between an African in the diaspora, especially those who have survived hundreds of years of oppression, marginalization, and suppression, Asante answered that it should not generate the heat attributed to it in the recent years. He mentioned that although the people who are descendants of enslaved Africans are usually caught in the web of an identity crisis, they are stuck in the frenzy of finding their genetic beginning. However, people in this category should be informed that their shared experience in the diaspora has been the very foundation for the uniqueness of their Black identity.
Meanwhile, when ideas are set in motion, they continue to generate conversations that lurk themselves around matters of relatable values. Therefore, while the quest for Afrocentricity came to the zenith, there erupted the idea of decolonization. It is essential to understand how the scholars of Afrocentricity relate to this intellectual experience, hence the question posed by me to the versatile Professor. It appears that there is a fundamental dissimilarity that exists between the two concepts, that is, Afrocentricity and Decoloniality, even when there are areas of convergence. Asante maintained that while both seek to achieve similar aims and objectives, they differ in their approach to getting the job done. According to him, the term decolonization has a way of placing Europe at the center of African history, making the issues concerning their past, values, culture, and political ideas revolve around European politics of imperialism. Sadly, this creates some challenges for the identity of Africans because it shows them as though their history began with the European penetration of their continent. Such strict concentration limits and then hinders their prospects of discovering their true identity.
The problem is multifaceted on many grounds. Even when you, for example, decolonize successfully, there is an aftermath discovery that the individual still battles with the vestiges of colonization either symbolically or ideologically. For instance, a decolonized African person can demonstrate their zeal for the colonial system even unconsciously; that is why they are in most cases bound to repeat the activities of their colonial masters in different but somehow complementary ways. Looking at the beautiful fabric of the Afrocentric agenda, it is apparent that they are out to achieve more than the mere destruction of the European civilization and or history which was imposed by the colonial experience. They are on the campaign to challenge the systematic racism that undermined African knowledge production and cultural beauty because their forebears were enslaved. In other words, they seek to advance the question of domination and subjugation and rejuvenate the African identity by questioning the structure that silences their identity. To them, Africa is the center of their protest, and the ambition was that it must be brought back to its deserved position in the scheme of things. Therefore, as Asante implies, when the decolonial scholars complete their expeditions, they would still need to be Afrocentric to replace the destroyed civilizations by Europe.