Social Education 57(7), 1993, pp. 359
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Afrocentrism: Reminders from a Sympathetic Curmudgeon

Ross Beatty
In their promotion of Afrocentric curricula, advocates such as Leonard Jeffries and school systems such as that of Portland, Oregon, have omitted two important aspects of their subject matter. One is that their school of thought is not new but is, rather, the latest incarnation of a long tradition. The second is the role of whites, who have contributed a great deal to the research that undergirds the Afrocentric movement.
A whole century ago, W. E. B. Dubois was championing what he termed "Pan-Africanism." For this effort, he not only provided scholarship (Black Folks Then and Now) but also organized the First Pan-African Congress in 1900. A few decades later, the Senegalese Léopold Senghor, along with other francophone illuminati like Aimé Césaire and Léon Dumas, developed the ideology of "La Négritude." In the United States, meanwhile, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance applied the notions of Negritude to their hymns of African culture and the African past. And in Washington, D.C., Carter Woodson used his Journal of Negro History to bring African history to light, even as he wrote about it in works such as The African Background Outlined.

Forty years later, in the 1960s, many schools began to offer what was called "black history," often as a unit in U.S. history courses. In fact, I taught such a class in the Philadelphia public schools. Colleges and universities organized departments of black studies. In these programs, a large part-often more than half-of the students were white. Many African-American students dropped out of these curricula because the courses were not sufficiently practical.

In addition, much of the scholarship that supported these programs was undertaken by whites. In the nineteenth century, a German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius, wrote enthusiastically about African culture and its heritage. Later, Raymond Maury and Maurice Delafosse, from France, uncovered and explicated the history of francophone Africa; Basil Davidson and Christopher Fyfe of Britain did the same for anglophone Africa. In the 1960s, white scholars like Philip Curtin contributed additional research.

My remarks here are not to denigrate the work of African-American scholars like Rayford Logan, Carter Woodson, and the great John Hope Franklin. Moreover, these observations are neither meant to deprecate the new and valuable work on Egypt nor to condone the racism of many Egyptologists in the past. (Clearly, Egypt was a racially mixed society that gave much to world culture and science.) Rather, my remarks are intended to remind my colleagues that the current school of thought termed Afrocentrism is, in the words of one swarthy-skinned prophet, "old wine in new bottles." What's more, Afrocentrists need to remember that Modigliani, an Italian Jew, and Picasso, a Spanish immigrant to France, learned much from the sculptures of Benin. Likewise, contemporary African artists such as Rosemary Karuga of Kenya and Henry Munyaradzi of Zimbabwe have learned much from Europe and North America. Indeed, culture is not color coded.

Ross Beatty has most recently been teaching at the University of the District of Columbia and at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. He also publishes a newspaper for literacy and English as a second language.