A Brief History of Africentric Scholarship:
It is certainly not widely known, but Black scholars have focused on Africa as a source of pride and as the cradle of the world's earliest civilization since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. In this brief article, we shall consider some of the Africentric pioneers and their descendants in the Twentieth Century.
In the December issue of Maat, we loosely defined Africentrism as "the focus on Africa as the continent of origin of the human race and the cradle of civilization. "We also cited the definition of Afrology provided by Dr. Molefi K. Asante of Temple University:
"The term Afrology, coined in Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change, denoted the Afrocentric study of African concepts, issues and behaviors. It includes research on African themes in the Americas and the West Indies, as well as the African continent."
If we take the foregoing broad definition as a point of departure for identifying early scholars of Africentrism, we must begin with two Black men from the Caribbean, Baron P.V. Vasty and Prince Sanders. These two Haitians appear to have been the first Blacks in the Western Hemisphere to insist that Egypt was the cradle of African civilization and by extension that of the entire world. They introduced these concepts during the first two decades of the Nineteenth Century.1
By 1830, another Africentric voice took center stage. A Boston businessman, David Walker, wrote his now famous Appeal. In this book he claimed that the Ancient Egyptians were a Black people analogous to African Americans:
"The Egyptians were Africans or coloured people, such as we are - some of them yellow and others dark - a mixture of Ethiopian and the natives of Egypt - about the same as you see the coloured people of the United States at the present day."2
In 1879, Harvard educated physician Martin Delaney also wrote about the racial origin of the Ancient Egyptians:
"To determine the race representatives of the Egyptian gods, will go far toward deciding the disputed questions as to who were the first inhabitants of Egypt and builders of the pyramids, catacombs and sphinxes...
...[T]he fact is, that the Negro race comprised the whole native population and ruling people of the upper and lower region of the Nile - Ethiopia and Egypt - excepting those who came by foreign invasion; and the entirety of the Negro group in this important historical representation, can be readily accounted for from the fact of the columns being found in Ethiopia, a part of this country -- Africa -- where foreigners did not so frequently reach, and therefore did not deface and erase, as was common in regard to those for centuries found in Egypt.3
By the 1880's, prominent African Americans were even more emphatic in their declaration that Africa in general and ancient Ethiopia and Egypt in particular were the progenitors of world civilization. In 1883, the renowned historian George Washington Williams wrote:
"Before Romulus founded Rome, before Homer sang, when Greece was in its infancy, and the world quite young, 'hoary Meroe' was the chief city of the Negroes along the Nile. Its private and public buildings, its markets and public squares, its colossal walls and stupendous gates, its gorgeous chariots and alert footmen, its inventive genius and ripe scholarship, made it the cradle of civilization, and the mother of all. It was the queenly city of Ethiopia, - for it was founded by colonies of Negroes. Through its open gates long and ceaseless caravans, laden with gold, silver, ivory, frankincense, and palm oil, poured the riches of Africa into the capacious lap of the city. The learning of this people embalmed in the immortal hieroglyphic, flowed down the Nile, and, like spray, spread over the delta of that time-honored stream, on by the beautiful and venerable city of Thebes, -the city of a hundred gates, another monument to Negro genius and civilization, and more ancient than the ancient glory of Ethiopia! Homeric mythology borrowed its very essence from Negro hieroglyphics; Egypt borrowed her light from the venerable Negroes up the Nile. Greece went to school to the Egyptians, and Rome turned to Greece for law and the science of warfare. England dug down into Rome twenty centuries to learn to build and plant, to establish a government, and maintain it. Thus the flow of civilization has been from the East-the place of light-to the West; from the Orient to the Occidental."4
In 1884, abolitionist Frederick Douglas made similar comments about Ancient Egypt in a commencement speech before the literary societies of Western Reserve College in Rochester:
"The fact that Egypt was one of the earliest abodes of learning and civilization, is as firmly established as are the everlasting hills, defying, with a calm front the boasted mechanical and architectural skill of the nineteenth century ... Greece and Rome -- and through them Europe and America have received their civilization from the ancient Egyptians. This fact is not denied by anybody. But Egypt is in Africa. Pity that it had not been in Europe, or in Asia, or better still in America!
Another unhappy circumstance is, that the ancient Egyptians were not white people; but were undoubtedly, just about as dark in complexion as many in this country who are considered genuine Negroes; and that is not all, their hair was far from being of that graceful lankness which adorns the fair Anglo Saxon head."5
By the early Twentieth Century, a number of African Americans had an opportunity to receive a college education. Most of them became leaders in their respective communities and a few rose to international prominence. Two who fell into the latter category were Dr. Carter G. Woodson and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.
Arguably, Woodson was Black America's leading historian. In 1915, he formed The Association For The Study of Negro Life and History and in 1916, he founded the Journal of Negro History. In 1926, he established the second week of February as Negro History Week. By the 1960's Woodson's concept grew to the point where all of February was designated as "Black History Month."
Today, Woodson's legacy has had such an impact that in many parts of the United States Black history "month" begins with the January 15th celebration of the Martin Luther King Holiday and extends for six weeks to the last day of February.
Dr. DuBois was one of the greatest American intellectuals of the Twentieth Century. This giant of a man was a historian, sociologist, editor, poet, author and an eminent African American leader.
These two Harvard educated Blacks laid the foundation of modern Afrocentric scholarship. In "The Negro In Our History" and "The African Background Outlined," Woodson contends that the ancient Egyptians were Negroid and speaks of the Nile Valley as the cradle of civilization.
As the Dean of African American Letters, DuBois wrote several volumes on the antiquity of African civilizations and their profound influence on the Western World. According to Drake, "The reexamination of Egyptology from a black perspective, initiated by the Afro-American scholar Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in 1915, in several chapters of his book 'The Negro,' eventually became a Pan-African enterprise that reached its culmination in a book-length publication -- The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality -- by Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, a West African scholar, almost sixty years later."6
In 1939, DuBois wrote another history of the people of African descent, "Black Folk: Then and Now." Then in 1947 he wrote, "The World And Africa: An inquiry into the part which Africa has played in world history." At the time of his death in Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95, DuBois was editing the Encyclopedia Africana.
In the 1920's William L. Hansberry, another Harvard graduate, emerged as the preeminent African American authority on African history and remained so until the time of his death in the mid-1960's. He taught at Howard University and travelled to Egypt to examine the monuments firsthand. According to Hilliard: "Hansberry followed the pattern of other African diasporan scholars by his appeal to ancient texts. He mastered the Greek record and describes Africa through their eyes."7 Hansberry also opened many eyes, including mine, in his series of articles on "Africa's Golden Past" that appeared in Ebony magazine in 1964 and '65. Although Hansberry did not publish much of his extensive research during his life, Joseph E. Harris has published some of his work posthumously.8
From the 1920's through the 1940's another group of Afrocentricists appeared. Although outside of the academic tradition, their contributions have withstood the test of time. Drusilla Dungee Houston, one of our few female historians, wrote definitive works on the Nile Valley with special emphasis on the Ethiopians or "Cushites."9
Dr. Willis N. Huggins, a member of the Department for Social Studies of the New York high schools and a mentor for a number of the later scholars, published "An Introduction to African Civilization." Huggins noted that "an increasing number of white historians and writers are becoming fairer in dealing with data pertaining to Africans, and that some were actually seeking curriculum revision, but that 'most of the white writers are still too timid to enter the lists and help make the proper adjustments.'"10 He hoped, in vain, that his work would be used to reform the curriculum so that the contributions of the African people would be included.
The third writer of this group was J.A. Rogers. Of his work DuBois has written: "[N]o man living has revealed more important facts about the Negro race as has Rogers."11 Drake describes him as "a remarkable, self-trained historian-anthropologist from Jamacia... who spent most of his adult years in New York."12
It can probably be said without exaggeration that Rogers did more than any other Africentrist to educate the masses of Black Americans about Black people in Ancient Africa and around the world.
Rogers conducted research in libraries and museums in Europe and the Americas, and travelled the world over. While most contemporary Africentrists focused on the Nile Valley as the cradle of civilization, he most certainly placed emphasis there too, but also revealed the vast and ancient Black presence around the globe. He presents compelling evidence of prehistoric Black people in Europe, Western Asia, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and the New World.
Rogers published numerous books, including "From Superman To Man," "One Hundred Amazing Facts About The Negro With Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro," "Sex and Race, Negro-Caucasian Mixing In All Ages and All Lands" and "World's Great Men of Color."
Rogers' publications remain among the most popular books on Black history even today, over thirty years after his death.
1954 proved to be a pivotal year for Africentric scholarship. West African scholar J.C. deGraft-Johnson wrote "African Glory: the story of vanished negro civilizations," a pioneering volume on African history. During this same year, "Stolen Legacy" was published by George G.M. James, an African American professor of Guyanese descent. James' work, which circulated in the underground for years, has emerged as a classic volume that inspired some of the most eminent modern Africentrists.
Although James' book has recently been subject to widespread criticism, particularly by Mary Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon, Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College, one must look at "Stolen Legacy" in the context in which it was written. James did the best he could as a scholar in the segregated South at a time when African Americans were forbidden to use many libraries, to visit many museums and to participate on excavation teams. Nevertheless, today many of James' claims are being substantiated by a new breed of Africentrists, who have come into prominence since the 1960's.
Foremost among these scholars was the late Senegalese nuclear physicist, anthropologist, archaeologist, linguist, historian and Egyptologist, Cheikh Anta Diop. He left a solid, academic legacy that spanned over thirty years. Diop's most distinguished works include "The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality" and "Civilization or barbarism."
Two other giants of this era were the late, self-educated scholar, John G. Jackson and Dr. Chancellor Williams, a late disciple of the great William Hansberry. The former's major work included "Introduction to African Civilizations." Williams magnum opus was "The Destruction of Black Civilizations: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.11 Drake refers to this book as "one of the most widely used books in Black Studies classes and study groups both at schools and in communities."
Two other scholars are the elders of modern Africentrism, Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan. The former was a professor at Hunter College for years; he has served as an advisor and confidant to countless Black scholars; he has written introductions to many books on African and African American history and culture, and he has a number of books to his own credit;, the latest of which are "My Life In Search of Africa," "Who Betrayed The African World?" and "Pan Africanism or Perish."
Dr. ben-Jochannan, affectionately referred to as "Dr. Ben," is in a class of his own. Revered by Black students everywhere, he introduced the practice of taking large numbers of African Americans on tours in Egypt, Nubia and other parts of Africa each year. A renowned lecturer, Dr. Ben has also written several books, including "The Black Man of the Nile," "The Black Man Of The Nile and His Family," "African Origins of the Major Western Religions," "The Black Man's Religion" and "Africa: Mother of Western Civilization."
Today the Africentric movement has become so widespread and produced so many scholars that they are too numerous to mention. Among the better known are Manu Ampim, Molefi Asante, Mathu Ater, Tony Browder, Jacob Carruthers, Charles Finch, Asa Hilliard, Leonard Jeffreys, Maulana Karenga, Theophile Obenga, Runoko Rashidi, Larry Obadele Williams and Ivan Van Sertima.
Special mention should also be made of the Association For The Study of Classical African Civilizations. Headed by Nzinga Ratibisha Heru, this international, Africentric historical organization trains scholars and has published a number of pioneering papers.
As can be discerned from this brief paper, Africentrism is not a new movement promoted by egomaniacal pseudoscientists. Although the media and academe have distorted and attempted to discredit all progressive Black scholarship, such interference will not prevail. Now, more than ever before, Africentric scholars are determined to show that the pen can be "more mighty than the sword," and that truth crushed to the earth will indeed rise again.