Now, We Can Talk of Renaissance: African Deep Thought, ASCAC, and Africana Studies

paper presented at the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations 30th Kemetic Studies Conference, March 15 2013

Indeed, we have reached a point where we can truly answer the query put forth by Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1948 essay, “When Can We Talk of an African Renaissance?” A renaissance, which for Diop was real, insofar as it was premised on the development of indigenous African languages as its prerequisite.[1] A renaissance, which was as necessary then as it is necessary now. Diop asserts that far more important for African thinkers was the ability to be able to learn and master knowledge, reality, ideas, in their own language, as opposed to linking intellectual development with the mastery of French.[2] The same can be said about the mastery of Western ideas and disciplines as first order criteria for the attainment of scholarly erudition. E. Franklin Frazier’s 1962 broadside, “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual” had captured this conundrum well in terms of the intellectual development of the African American. As the African trained in French language was considered an intellectual insofar as he mastered French, the African in America was considered an intellectual insofar as he mastered the convention of resolving race into the conventional ways of discussing race in America, or a narrative of American exceptionalism, as opposed to dealing with the deep philosophical ideas that “implicit in the Negro’s folklore.” These were for Frazier the true terms of their humanity.[3] In other words, in the context of American (indeed, Western) scholarly licensure, intellectuals were considered as such, by the extent to which they achieved theoretical distance from what Jacob Carruthers terms, “African deep thought”—the foundational ideas which order how Africans understand the universe and their relationship to it and to each other.[4]

Both Diop and Frazier were writing at a time of significant world movement. Diop’s essay emerged three years after both the end of the Second World War and the Fifth Pan-African Congress. On the eve of independence movements, geared towards political changes, Diop asserted that a key element would be the extent to which a cultural liberation, a society built upon African ideas, aided by the linguistic unity and historical memory of the African past, would actually ensue. In 1948, as he explains, there was still “work yet to be done.”[5] Frazier’s would emerge in the crosshairs of the Civil Rights Movement, at the key moment where it seemed as if integration and/or assimilation would be the resolution, at the moment where Gerald Horne asserts, we would eventually make a Faustian bargain.[6] Frazier, like W.E.B. Du Bois two years before him wondered what would happen to the “soul of a people” who had developed a “life of meaningful content” in the event of a desegregated or assimilated society.[7] Would the Negro intellectual’s obsession with assimilation lead to his “annihilation—self-effacement, the escaping from his identification?”[8]

The period in which Diop was writing was one replete with ruminations about “the end of Western civilization.” The crisis of war had engendered works like Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918) with subsequent changes in the political economic structure leading to reassessments like Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (1934-1961) and Pitirim Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics (1940), representative works concerned with the dynamics of transformation, of rise and decline, of civilizational regime change.[9] The recent “blows against the empire” to use the title of Gerald Horne’s 2008, text have led to a proliferation of the same types of works in this moment.[10]

Book after book after book has emerged ranging from works exploring the failure of capitalism, examining the most effective models of the nation-state, and wondering how the rise of China is going to rupture the “Western way of life.” Clearly, the grasp of Western hegemony: the crisis of capitalism, of U.S. empire, of the West itself, is becoming more tenuous by the moment. But yet, Western thinkers in this genre still have hope. At the top of the list are the works of Niall Ferguson whose 2011 text, Civilization: The West and the Rest relies on a thesis of Western intellectual superiority as not only the reason behind the rise of the West but also to show that these ideas have redemptive power in the crises of the here and now.[11] There is also the work of Ian Morris who in his Why the West Rules for Now (2010) offers a similar analysis of Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), asserting that environmental factors, and how human groups marshal resources and technology to contend with it, are the true engines of history and the rise of civilizations.[12] Both, however, have written more recent books which, not ironically, also harp upon the human element in the crafting of society.[13] These works are part of new historical energies in the subfields of “big history,” “deep history,” and “world history.” Energies which are beginning to empty in yet another subfield, the history of ideas.[14] If we trace the tendencies in the examples given, an interesting phenomenon is revealed, whereas earlier thinkers focused on Rome as a model state to study, thinkers in the contemporary era are focusing more on the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of the industrial era as the key. Suspending for a moment, the particularities of their theses, these thinkers are engaging in an intellectual-historical conversation that is endeavoring to understand how the current world can remain so. In fact, Morris has recently presented his work at the Central Intelligence Agency.[15]

——

What will Africans do? Or in the words of the late John Henrik Clarke, “Who speaks for Africa in the new world order?”[16] Part of the answer to that question lies in the idea of Renaissance, or weheme mesu, the repetition of births. But renaissance in a real sense, in the sense in which Diop has articulated. This is a renaissance that has in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s estimation been going on for one hundred years, and in Jacob Carruthers’ understanding at least two hundred years. Both thinkers have emphasized its long genealogy, but also its spread throughout the African world.[17]

The Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations is part of this genealogy, part of what Leonard Jeffries has called “The Great Awakening” of the twentieth century.[18] There should be no confusion as to what ASCAC’s intellectual agenda is. Every member must not what it is that we do. Every African must understand what it is that we do. It is nothing more than the call to make Diop’s notion of renaissance real, to bravely link intellectual ideas to the languages and historical memories that they represent. ASCAC exists to study and know ourselves, but also to be in communion with ourselves, because no one will liberate us but ourselves and our ideas. As Diop, Theophile Obenga, Jacob Carruthers, and others have claimed, language is the lens through which to understand our spirituality, it is the means to which to recover historical memory.[19] And as Ngugi asserts in his Something Torn and New it is the “carrier of our culture.”[20] In the context of our present world anything less than the recovery of our true selves and the utilization of our ways of knowing to frame the institutions which will inevitably shape our lives, is a relinquishing of our future to an uncertain wind. A “wait-and-see what happens to the West-China battle” approach may not be smart, neither is tying our fortunes to either one sensible. Africans must participate in the world on their own cultural terms.

——

Along with ASCAC, recent thinkers to suggest the same or similar ideas include the Akan writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, Yoruba literati Wole Soyinka, and Urhobo poet, Ben Okri, and the movements toward renaissance in South Africa. All have considered as resolutions to the situations of Africa and of Africans what Amilcar Cabral had earlier suggested, “a return to the source.”[21]

In his work, The Eloquence of the Scribes, Ayi Kwei Armah unearths the force inherent in African writing traditions. Taking us from the contemporary moment back to Kemet, Armah shows that thematically, African literature is a repository of knowledge that has dealt with both our sense of connectedness and with questions of power and legitimacy.[22] African writing then was linked to African reality—not some abstract, detached “aesthetic” pastime. In his trilogy of fiction works, The Healers, Osiris Rising, and KMT: In the House of Life, Armah further shows what Kwesi Otabil might call “the agonistic imperative” of African deep thought.[23] In these works, the cultural and intellectual legacy of Africa is assumed, not ceremoniously celebrated and romanticized as if Africans were a nation of children in need of a self-esteem boost. Armah, like Carruthers as well as Marimba Ani, takes African deep thought to mean the way, the method, to resolve issues and build anew societies made by colonizers and slavers.

Similar, the recent work of Wole Soykina, Of Africa (2012) takes the ideas of African spirituality as the “arbiter” to the significant problems of religious conflict on the continent (and we could easily add the diaspora). Arguing that Ifa, a representative African spiritual system, should serve, not as “a way of life” but a “guide to existing,” and as a way to heal the wide gulf created by Arab and European intellectual and religious incursions in our lives. African spirituality is posited as yet another way out of our mess—nay, the world’s mess.[24]

In the most recent annual Steve Biko lecture given last September, poet Ben Okri explains that part of our way beyond the “tough alchemy” of contemporary Africa is our memory. He states:

We must measure time differently. Our history began long before the history of others. We must measure time not in the length of oppression but by the persistence of our dreams—and our dreams go back a long way, way beyond the fall of Carthage, and way beyond the first imperfect Egyptian pyramids. The cycles of time like the inundation of the Nile, have deposited on us the immeasurable silt of human experiences. We have great wealth in all that is at the root of humanity.[25]

For Okri, the Africa, the society, we want will never be until we “claim the right to be ourselves. We can be no one else.”

This lecture given at the behest of the Biko Foundation, in South Africa where the call for Renaissance began was given voice through former president Thabo Mbeki in 1998 and the contributors the proceedings of this gathering published in 1999.[26] Here South Africans were calling for a return to African knowledges to boost the nation amid the ravages of globalization. South Africa had long been a center for this approach; Ngugi in his lecture before the Biko foundation pointed to the influences of Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi and others which led to the work of Mangaliso Sobukwe, the Young Turks of the ANC, and the Black Consciousness Movement, of which Steven Bantu Biko is largely linked.[27] Nine years after the initial call, Greg Carr, the then second vice president of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations addressed a meeting of the Biko Foundation in Cape Town, arguing for South Africans and Africans throughout the world to adhere to the Pan-Africanist imperatives of Biko, Sobukwe and other representative African thinkers and to wield African knowledge toward the resolution of our common mess, in ways that go beyond the nation-state as the cauldron for political action. Showing the synergies between the South African struggle and the African American struggle, Carr linked the motive force of African renaissance to the work of ASCAC’s African World History Project and to disciplinary Africana Studies. As Mbeki argued before him, Carr asserts that a renaissance would require the training of thinkers in spaces that allowed them to see liberative value in the cultural movements out of which they emerged.[28]

—–

This brings us to perhaps the most expansive, yet still inadequate and complicated training grounds of contemporary Africana Studies. A discipline, the only discipline founded through student struggle and given voice by the experiences of an excluded people, Africana Studies burst into the Western academy largely via the movements of the 1960s. Here the message was clear: We want to study ourselves. Clearly part and parcel of the aforementioned Great Awakening, Africana Studies was developed in part to humanize the university.[29] This mission has since been betrayed. Africana Studies has become not a space for the African renaissance as articulated here, it has become the space for the creation of professionals, in fact, the only thing being reborn are what Anderson Thompson calls “Sambo” historians.[30] Yet these spaces are important. For one, they were created from our struggle. Secondly, they exist in some spaces as the only place where students can see themselves in the mirror. As ASCAC President Mario Beatty recently commented, many students come into Africana Studies courses having never been introduced to the long-range historical and cultural force of African deep thought. I was one such student. So we remain we must. For the sake of training the next group, the next generation.

But if we remain we must connect the work of African renaissance and the work of ASCAC to the basic practice of introducing new subject matters to our students. In other words, Africana Studies cannot be a space to “learn Black stuff”— not even a space to learn “Black history” as such. Africana Studies is about the broad African experience relayed and transmitted through methodologies that “allow the ancestors to speak.” We must embrace the challenge of doing in our discipline what Africans have always been doing, struggling to re-member our unique voice—making that process synonymous with how we approach knowledge.[31] In this conception, Africana Studies is not “inherently interdisciplinary” nor is it an “ethnic studies” discipline… and it is certainly not a discipline only existent because of “problems.”[32] Africana Studies can participate in a true African renaissance if it dispenses with these faulty and irrelevant ways of defining itself. It must as Cheikh Anta Diop asserts, properly link itself to an indigenous African intellectual genealogy—all else will fall into place.

—–

Renaissance, or the weheme mesu is our lot. It is our inheritance. The deep study involved in this process is the only job of ASCAC. It is an important work that must continue to be taken seriously—as what we accomplish will inform the continued movements toward African world liberation. The world we know will soon change, but what must remain constant is the flow, the rhythm of our deep and vast tradition of African deep thought—this is our sacred duty to every African that has lived and to African that will live.


[1] Cheikh Anta Diop, “When Can we Talk of an African Renaissance,” in Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture & Development, 1946-1960 (London: Karnak House, 1996), 35.

[2] Ibid, 34-35.

[3] E. Franklin Frazier, “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual,” in The Death of White Sociology, ed. Joyce Ladner (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998), 60. Regarding typical ideas of the Black thinker, Frazier states: “…educated Negroes or Negro intellectuals have failed to achieve any intellectual freedom. In fact with the few exceptions of literary men, it appears that the Negro intellectual unconscious of the extent to which his thinking is restricted to sterile repletion of the safe and conventional ideas current in American society. Ibid, 58.

[4] See Jacob Carruthers, Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech: A Historiographical Reflection of African Deep Thought From the Time of the Pharaohs to the Present (London: Karnak House, 1995).

[5] Diop, “We Can We Talk,” 45.

[6] This, of course, was the betrayal of a more expansive international political and economic analysis and the strengthening of independent Black organizations and institutions in exchange for civil rights.

[7] Frazier, “Failure,” 64-65. W.E.B. Du Bois had articulated similar concerns in his “Whither Now and Why,” in The Education of Black People (Monthly Review Press, 1973).

[8] Ibid, 66.

[9] See Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West () and Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (Oxfrod: Oxford University Press, 1934-1961). These works are consistently cited as broad overviews of large scale historical change in Western civilization. Sorokin’s work on “cultural systems” as the engine of progress has consistently been in print. For most recent version, see Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law, and Social Relationships (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2010). W.E.B. Du Bois’ co-authored critique revises Sorokin’s “system.” See Rushton Coulbourn and W.E.B. Du Bois, “Mr. Sorokin’s Systems,” Journal of Modern History 14 (December 1942): 500-521.

[10] Gerald Horne, Blows Against the Empire: U.S. Imperialism in Crisis (New York: International Publishers, 2008).

[11] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011)

[12] See Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1997).

[13] Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) and Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? (New York: Viking, 2013).

[14] On these ideas see David Armitage, “What’s the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Duree,” History of European Ideas 38 (December 2012): 493-507.

[15] See Marc Parry, “The Shape of History,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Accessed 3/13/2013, http://chronicle.com/article/In-Ian-Morriss-Big-History/137415/.

[16] See John Henrik Clarke, “Debate Between Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Cornel West,” (Paper presented at The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, February 1995).

[17] See Jacob Carruthers, Mdw Ntr, 16 and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (New York: Basic Civitas, 2009), 69-98.

[18] See Leonard Jefferies, “Afrocentricity and the Great Awakening,” (Paper presented at W.E.B. Du Bois and the Wings of Atlanta: The W.E.B. Du Bois International Conference, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA, February 20, 2013).

[19] Diop asserts: “By studying how this language gave birth to another and how this happened, we would succeed in building a sort of linguistic chain going from the earliest to the latest and this get to know about a vey important period of our history. It would therefore appear that knowledge of linguistics is required for African historical investigations.” Diop, “When Can We Talk,” 36. Both Carruthers and Obenga were directly influenced by Diop and have taken this idea to support ideas of African world history. See Greg Carr and Valethia Watkins, “Appendix 1: Inuaguarl Meeting of the African World History Project,” in The Preliminary Challenge, eds., Jacob H. Carruthers and Leon C. Harris (Los Angeles: ASCAC, 1997), 327-353.

[20] Thiong’o, Something Torn and New, 20.

[21] See Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973).

[22] See Ayi Kwei Armah, The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature (Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh Publishers, 2006).

[23] Otabil takes to task what he considers the empty carnivalesque inherent in many Afrocentric ideas, asserting that African ideas must be presented in more stringent forms to affect the needed changes. See Kwesi Otabil, The Agonistic Imperative: The Rational Burden of African-Centeredness (Bristol, IN: Wyndham Hall, 1994).

[24] See the proceedings of this meeting, Maleganpuru William Makgoba, Thaninga Shope, and Thami Mazwai, eds., African Renaissance: The New Struggle (Cape Town: Mafube Publishers, 1999).

[25] See Wole Soykina, Of Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

[26] Ben Okri, “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa,” (Lecture Presented at Thirteenth Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, University of Cape Town, South Africa, September 12, 2012).

[27] Thiong’o, Something Torn and New, 101-134.

[28] These comments were recently published. See Greg E. Carr, “Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism, and the African World History Project: The Case of Africana Studies for African Cultural Development,” in African American Consciousness: Past and Present, ed. James L. Conyers (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012), 7-21.

[29] See the narratives of this movement in Fabio Rojas, From Black Power to Black Studies (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012)

[30] Anderson Thompson, “Developing an African Historiography,” in The Preliminary Challenge, eds. Carruthers and Harris, 21.

[31] On these challenges, see Greg Carr, “What Black Studies is Not: Moving From Crisis to Liberation in African Intellectual Work,” Socialism and Democracy 25 (March 2011): 178-191.

[32] Most departments of Africana Studies organize themselves along these lines. See particularly the work of Fabio Rojas on how both practitioners and outsiders understand the discipline.

4 thoughts on “Now, We Can Talk of Renaissance: African Deep Thought, ASCAC, and Africana Studies

  1. This was a great motivator to continue to seek out the voices of our ancestors.they have left us with volumes of knowledge and direction and it is our duty to study, meditate, and execute for our own liberation.

  2. I think you presented some really important and insightful things here about African intellectual thought but, with the exception of a quick reference to Marimba Ani, the piece makes it seem (however, implicitly) as if Black women have never contributed anything to our intellectual genealogies and traditions.

    1. Thanks. For me, any methodological principle undergirding research
      and/or remembering African intellectual thought hinges on
      understanding the collective. This only works with both genders.
      Indeed, implicit in Carruthers’s characterization of African deep
      thought is the idea of complementarity. And women have been at the
      forefront of the very collectives charged with recovering this in the
      modern era. In many ways against the grain of what Western patriarchal
      societies have reduced them to in both the written record and the
      established memories. For me, invoking ASCAC and Africana Studies is
      tantamount to invoking the intellectual work that Africans of both
      genders have embarked upon. That this may be something that needs to
      be more explicit is something I will keep in mind.

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