Our democracy is founded in tragic optimism, an acceptance of human frailty that is not defeatist. Like the blues singer, our American job is to address the universal limitations of life and the foibles of human character while asserting a lyrical but unsentimental high-mindedness. Like the doctor, our democracy must face the unavoidable varieties of disease, decay, and death, yet maintain commitment to birth, to health, to the infinite possibilities and freedoms that can result from successful research and experimentation.
It is, therefore, our democratic duty to cast a cold eye on the life of our policies. We have to weed out corruption whenever we encounter it and redeem ourselves from bad or naive policy, either by making fresh experiments or by returning to things that once worked but were set aside for new approaches that promised to do the job better. If we don’t accept these democratic duties, we will continue to allow intellectual con artists and quacks to raise their tents and hang their shingles on our campuses.
The emergence of Afrocentrism has revealed a continuing crisis in the intellectual assessment of race, history, and culture in our nation. It is another example of how quickly we will submit to visions that are at odds with the heroic imperative of uniting our society. Quite obviously, when it comes to skin tone and complaint, we remain ever gullible, willing to sponsor almost any set of conceptions that makes fresh accusations against our society. In that sense, Afrocentrism is also a commentary on the infinite career possibilities of our time. Just as almost anything can be sold as art, almost any idea capable of finding a constituency can make its way onto our campuses and into our discussions of policy.
In the interest of doing penance, we will accept a shaky system of thought if it makes use of the linguistic pressure points that allow us to experience the sadomasochistic rituals we accept in place of the hard study and responsible precision that should be brought to the continuing assessment of new claims and new ideas. Our desperate good will pushes us to pretend that these flagellation rituals have something to do with facing the facts about injustice in our country and in the history of the world. The refusal to accept the tragic fundamentals of human life has led to our bending before a politics of blame in which all evil can be traced to the devil’s address, which is, in some way, the address of the privileged and the successful. We have borrowed from the realm of therapy the idea that our parents are to blame for our problems, and projected it onto the larger society, absolving the so-called oppressed from responsibility for their actions. We don’t understand—as did the geniuses who shaped the Constitution—that we must always be so cynical about new ways of abusing power that we remain ever wary of intellectual and political pollution.
As a movement, Afrocentrism is another of the clever but essentially simple-minded hustles that have come about over the last 25 years, promoted by what was once called “the professional Negro”—a person whose “identity” and “struggle” constituted a commodity. James Baldwin was a master of the genre, as a writer, public speaker, and television guest, but he arrived before his brand of engagement by harangue was institutionalized. Now, as for most specious American ideas claiming to “get the story straight,” the best market for this commodity is our universities, where it sells like pancakes, buttered by the naive indignation of students and sweetened by gushes of pitying or self-pitying syrup.
Though at its core Afrocentrism has little intellectual substance, it has benefited from the overall decline of faith that has caused intellectuals to fumble the heroic demands of our time. The discontinuity of ideals and actions and the long list of atrocities committed in the name of God and country have convinced many Western intellectuals that the only sensible postures are those of the defeatist and the cynic. Like the tenured Marxist, the Afrocentrist will use the contradiction to define the whole; he or she asserts that Western civilization, for all its pretty ideas, is no more than the work of imperialists and racists who seek an invincible order of geopolitical domination, inextricably connected to profit and exploitation of white over black. The ideals of Western democracies that have struggled to push their policies closer to the universal humanism of the Enlightenment are scoffed at. Where the Marxist looks forward to a sentimental paradise of workers uber alles, the Afrocentrist speaks of a paradise lost and the possibility of a paradise regained—if only black people will rediscover the essentials of their African identity.
For all its pretensions to expanding our vision, the Afrocentrist movement is not propelled by a desire to bring about any significant enrichment of our American culture. What Afrocentrists almost always want is power—the power to be the final arbiter of historical truth, no matter how flimsy their case might be. Like most conspiracy theorists, Afrocentrists accept only their own sources of argument and “proof”; all else is defined as either willfully flawed or brought to debate solely to maintain a vision of history and ideas in which Europe is preeminent. Thus, the worst insult is that critics are “Eurocentric.” Further, when charged with shoddy scholarship, the Afrocentrist retorts that his purportedly revolutionary work uses means of research and assessment outside “European methodology.” However superficial that defense might seem, an important tradition in our country’s history makes it seem at least plausible at first glance. Americans have, from the sciences to the arts, as often as not had to invent the forms that allowed for the purest expressions of our political imagination, national sensibility, and multiethnic history. The Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural of March 1865, the electric fight, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the grammar of film, and the improvisational riches of jazz are the creations of homegrown geniuses such as Lincoln, Edison, Griffith, and Armstrong, who made it abundantly clear that the academy isn’t the only path to grand accomplishment.
Jazz is one of the most important examples of this. It is a perfectly democratic music that reached its peaks outside of “European methodology. “ It has both intuitive geniuses like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and unarguable intellectuals like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Both were rejected by the academy once upon a twentieth-century time. Those with a simple explanation attribute it all to race, which can by no means be left out of the discussion. But we must remember that white jazz musicians were not embraced either, no matter how popular, and that most major aesthetic movements of this century were controversial worldwide. In short, the academic and critical resistance met by jazz musicians was also met by Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinsky.
Jazz musicians weren’t initially accepted in academic circles because, though they could hear harmonic structures perfectly, the intuitives didn’t use theoretical terminology. The intellectuals could, but it took both to make jazz. The intuitives and the intellectuals had one thing in common, however—the ability to achieve objective aesthetic logic. That is why the music grew with such speed and drew depth and breadth from every kind of talent.
So when Afrocentrists defend low-quality work with assertions about the limitations of “European methodology,” they arc drawing upon the American tradition of achievements in political thought, technology, cinema, and jazz that were developed outside the academy to defend themselves. They ignore, however, the objective quality of those achievements. As Gerald Early points out, Afrocentrists have bootlegged the deconstructionist idea that there is no such thing as objective value; a thing’s “value” is merely the reflection of a cultural consensus.
Afrocentrists also reject education as “Eurocentric indoctrination.” They maintain that Western history as written is an unrelenting cultural war that aims to justify and maintain the subjugation of African peoples, and, when literal subjugation is not the goal, to impose upon them a self-hating idolatry of all that is European or European-derived. Afrocentrism, then, presents itself as ethnic liberation, a circling of the wagons within the academy, a bringing down of Eurocentric authority by black intellectual rebellion.
At the same time, Afrocentrists—like those who promote other protest versions of study—want the respect given to traditional disciplines without having to measure up to the standards of traditional research. Though ever scoffing at the academy, they want the prestige and the benefits that come of being there. Thus, Afrocentrism is the career path of a purported radical who seeks tenure. Its proponents justify this on the grounds that the campaign is at least partially one of evangelizing black people about their African heritage. What better battlegrounds than the campuses of tenuring institutions?
A central tenet of Afrocentrism is that Egypt was black and that Greco-Roman civilization was the result of its influence. The foundation of Western civilization, therefore, is African. This is a relatively sophisticated version of Elijah Muhammad’s Yacub myth in which the white man is invented by a mad black scientist determined to destroy the world through an innately evil creature. Why this obsession with Egypt being African and black? Firstly, monuments. There is no significant African architecture capable of rivaling the grand wonders of the world, European or not. Secondly, Africa has no body of thought comparable to that upon which Western civilization has developed its morality, governmental structures, technology, economic systems, and its literary, dramatic, plastic, and musical arts. None of these facts bespeaks an innate black inferiority, but they were used to justify the barbaric treatment of subject peoples by colonial powers waging ruthless campaigns for chattel labor and natural resources.
In fact, the Afrocentrist argument is not with the Western tradition of inquiry, not with the democratic belief that greatness can arise from any point on the social spectrum, and not with the ideas of the Enlightenment that led to the abolition of slavery. Afrocentrism is a debate with the colonial vision of non-Europeans as inferior that has long been under attack from within Western democracies themselves. The Afrocentrist arguments, which are rooted in nationalism, pluralism, and cultural relativity, have their origins in the Western tradition of critical discourse. Afrocentrism is absolutely Western, despite the name changes and African costumes of its advocates.
Afrocentrism benefits from the obsession with “authenticity” of this mongrel nation of ours. More than a few of us yearn for an aristocratic pedigree. If family won’t do, then we might snatch the unwieldy crown of race to distinguish ourselves. This has been the appeal of both the Ku Klux Man and the Nation of Islam. Membership allows one to rise from the bottom and suddenly become part of an elite. Poor “white trash” become “real” white men when performing violent acts in defense of “white civilization.” Negro criminals, embracing a distorted version of Islam, come to understand that the white man is “the devil” and that the black race is the original parent of humankind. College students swallow Afrocentrism and conclude that all their problems are the result of not possessing an “African-centered” worldview.
These are also responses to humiliation. That humiliation is the source of the hysteria that gives such a terrible aspect to the desire to be done with all niceties, to utterly destroy the structure that has engendered the feeling of inferiority or of helplessly being had from the first encounter up to the present. Such response is an expression of having taken the insults of the opposition too seriously, a retreat from engagement, a dismissal of complexity in favor of the home team, a racial isolationist policy.
To justify the myopic vision that emerges requires a list of atrocities—real, exaggerated, and invented. The great tragedies of the white South were the loss of the Civil War and the humiliations of Reconstruction; for the black nationalist, the great tragedies were slavery, the colonial exploitation of Africa, and the European denial of the moral superiority of African culture and civilization, beginning with Egypt.
Our list of grievances may be specific to our particular ethnic or regional history, but the ideas that lie beneath our response evolved from the conflicts between the French and the Germans following the Thirty Years War. When Frederick the Great invited the French into Germany in the eighteenth century, French culture was the most admired in Europe, while Germany had contributed very little to the Renaissance. In today’s terminology, Germany was “underdeveloped.” Eventually, a whole school of rebellious German thought came into being, attacking the French worship of reason and the idea that there was one cultural standard by which all good, mediocrity, and baseness could be judged. When Isaiah Berlin describes outraged German thinking in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, he could be speaking as easily of Afrocentrism and the cultural relativism that has been absorbed by Western society in general from the discipline of anthropology:
The sages of Paris reduce both knowledge and life to systems of contrived rules, the pursuit of external goods, for which men prostitute themselves, and sell their inner freedom, their authenticity; men, Germans, should seek to be themselves, instead of imitating—aping—strangers who have no connection with their own real natures and memories and ways of life. A man’s powers of creation can only be exercised fully on his own native heath, living among men who are akin to him, physically and spiritually, those who speak his language, amongst whom he feels at home, with whom he feels that he belongs. Only so can true cultures be generated, each unique, each making its own peculiar contribution to human civilization, each pursuing its own values its own way, not to be submerged in some general cosmopolitan ocean which robs all native cultures of their particular substance and colour, of their national spirit and genius, which can only flourish on its own soil, from its own roots, stretching back into a common past.
Afrocentrism’s success is due to the fact that it reiterates those arguments, which have become central to the Western cultural debate. But we fail ourselves if we give in to the idea that because all human communities have equal access to greatness all cultures are equal. They are not, and the ignorance, squalor, and disease of the Third World make that quite obvious, just as the rise of the Third Reich and the recent slide into overt tribalism in Eastern Europe prove that no ideas or traditions make us forever invincible to the barbarian call of the wild. Yet if there were not something intrinsically superior about the way in which the West has gathered and ordered knowledge, other cultures wouldn’t so easily fall under the sway of what André Malraux called “The Temptation of the West.” The West has put together the largest and richest repository of human culture, primarily because the vision of universal humanism and the tradition of scientific inquiry have led to the most impressive investigations into human life and the natural world. It is Western curiosity and the conscience of democracy that have made so many inroads against barbarism within and without.
This is obvious to Afrocentrists, but it is not in their career interests to look with equal critical vision at the West and the rest of the world; it would make things less reducible to soap opera politics, to the maudlin elevation of simplistic good and evil. Then the real question of bringing together one’s ethnic heritage with one’s human heritage would need to be addressed. It wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate the emotions of administrators and insecure students. Embracing a circumscribed ethnic identity wouldn’t be seen as a form of therapy, a born-again experience enabling one to cease being an American shackled by feelings of inferiority and to become a confident, wise African.
The Afrocentrist goal is quite similar to that of the white South in the wake of Reconstruction. Having lost the shooting war, white racists won the policy war, establishing a segregated society in which racial interests took precedence over the national vision of democratic rights. The result was nearly a century of struggle before the Constitution—through blood, thunder, and jurisprudence—took its rightful place as the law of the land, with no states’ rights arguments accepted. Knowingly or not, the Afrocentrist responds to the fact that black nationalists and their “revolutionary” counterparts lost the struggle for the black community in the Sixties. In the wake of submission at a latter-day Appomattox—the dissolution of black nationalism and groups like the Black Panthers—the Afrocentrist wishes to replicate the success of white segregationists. Like the segregationist, the Afrocentrist wants to benefit from the power and prosperity of the country while holding at arm’s length anything incompatible with a vision of race as a social absolute. The Afrocentrist is waging a policy war through a curriculum that preaches perpetual alienation of black and white, no matter how far removed from the truth it may be. By attempting to win the souls of black college students and to fundamentally influence what is taught to black children in public schools, the Afrocentrist seeks a large enough constituency to bring about what white segregationists once promised—a society that is “separate but equal.”
Yet the central failure of Afrocentrism is that it doesn’t recognize what Afro-Americans have done, which is to realize over and over, and often against imposing obstacles, the possibilities inherent in democratic society. Lincoln recognized this when he told his secretary that, given his point of social origin, Frederick Douglass was probably the most meritorious man in the entire United States. Originating in tribes whose levels of sophistication were laughable compared to the best of Europe, black Americans have risen to the top of every profession in our society—as scientists, educators, aviators, politicians, artists, lawyers, judges, athletes, military leaders, and so on.
This achievement was hard-won. At its root was a cultural phenomenon. Instead of expressing their submission to white people by embracing Christianity, as black nationalists always claim, Afro-Americans recognized the extraordinary insights into human frailty that run throughout the Old Testament, and the fact that the New Testament contains perhaps the greatest blues line of all time—”Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” In essence, the harsh insights of the Bible were perfectly compatible with the cold-eyed affirmation of the blues, and from those spiritual and secular foundations an indelibly American sensibility evolved, one perfectly suited to the demands of this society. The result is an incredibly long line of achievements that predate the narrow black nationalism that would segregate the world and its culture into the Eurocentric or Afrocentric, and which are the very best arguments against all forms of prejudice.
We all deny that tradition of hard-won achievement whenever our conciliatory cowardice gets the best of us and we treat black people like spoiled children who shouldn’t be asked to meet the standards that the best of all Americans have met. When the records need to be set straight, set them straight. When there is new information that will enrich our understanding of human grandeur and human folly, make that information part of the ongoing dialogue that has shaped Western civilization’s conscience and will. But we can never forget that our fate as Americans is, finally, collective, and that we fail our mission as a democratic nation whenever we remake the rules or distort the truth in the interest of satisfying a constituency unwilling to assert the tragic optimism so intrinsic to the blues and to the Constitution.
Photo: Jennifer E. Wolf/iStock