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Article Title: Afrocentric Voices: Constructing Identities, [dis]placing Difference. Contributors: Kanishka Chowdhury - author.

Journal Title: College Literature. Volume: 24. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 1997. Page Number: 35.

In order to emphasize the vital historical specificity of Diop's intellectual contributions, it may be worthwhile to contextualize the scholarly terrain on which he rewrote the narratives of historical memory and cultural identity. Western histories of Africa have, of course, done much to obliterate the past of African people and systematically erase social, cultural, and political traditions that existed for centuries. The European dominance over the African continent can be generally separated into two historical moments. The first phase began in the early seventeenth century with the establishment of trading posts along the western African coast and the subsequent exploitation of African people through the massive slave trade. This enforced displacement of millions of Africans finally ceased in the nineteenth century when both Britain and the United States banned slavery. At about the same moment the second phase of exploitation of the Africans began with the actual colonization of the continent. This phase commenced systematically with the Berlin Congress in 1885, but in reality it had begun in 1830 with the colonization of Algeria by French forces. 4 Basil Davidson has referred to this second phase as the "new racism." It is these one hundred and fifty years which saw the rise of a form of European scholarship that systematically denigrated African culture and civilization in order to legitimize a particularly vicious form of colonization. The Europeans claimed to bring Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization to a land of savages, a land without history, as Hegel once described Africa. Despite fierce resistance, imperial representatives managed to impose Western culture on the Africans with the support of colonial armies, but the battle over the ownership of knowledge was somewhat easier since African history was largely unrecorded in textual form. The African people, therefore, became a people without a text, a people without official histories. 5 And colonialism was -37able to "turn to the past of the oppressed people, and distort, disfigure, and destroy it" (Fanon 210). Diop's project, then, is to recover the past and systematically overturn Western cultural assumptions, an effort historically situated in the years since decolonization. As Robert Young points out: "What has been new in the years since the Second World War during which, for the most part, the decolonization of the European empires has taken place, has been the accompanying attempt to decolonize European thought and the forms of its history as well" (119). Young accurately locates the historical moment in which postcolonial histories were constructed in response to decades of hegemonic European narratives. Diop's Afrocentrism is a direct descendent of this intellectual movement that followed decolonization, but it also has its roots in the earlier political ferment that came out of Garveyism and the Fifth Pan-African Congress, convened in Manchester in 1945. Thus Diop's works must be located within the tradition of Pan-Africanism and the struggle against intellectual colonialism which was "guilty of a deliberate falsification of human history" ( Diop, Civilization 1). The publication of Diop's African Origin of Civilization ( 1967 ) is regarded as a key moment in the study of African culture. In this work Diop explores ideas which he had already developed in a previous text, Nations negres et culture ( 1955 ). While Nations contained innovative interpretations of African history as well as strategies for African political independence, The African Origin of Civilization begins to question decades of European historiography. Diop tries to establish the following key point: "Ancient Africa was a Negro civilization. The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt" (xiv).

Civilization or Barbarism ( 1991 ), according to Diop, is a "further contribution to the work that has allowed us [black scholars] to elevate the idea of a Black Egypt to the level of an operational scientific concept" (1). It corrects the "distorted perspective caused by the blinders of colonialism [which] had so profoundly warped intellectuals" views of the African past that we had the greatest difficulty, even among Africans, in gaining acceptance for ideas that are today becoming commonplace" (1-2). Civilization or Barbarism is in many ways the most significant of Diop's works and the culmination of a lifetime of research and study. It is an indepth scholarly project of cultural restoration and a work where Diop, in John Clarke's judgment, displays his varied skills "using the disciplines of linguistics, cultural and physical anthropology, history, chemistry, and physics that his research required [to forge] new theoretical pathways and [reveal] new evidence in the quest to uncover the ancient origins and unifying principles of classical African civilization" (xiv). In undertaking this project Diop was responding to European efforts to dislocate Egypt from the rest of Africa and isolate its cultural traditions from subSaharan Africa. 6 The motivations for this cultural erasure were, he argues, obviously to discount any historical possibilities for a unified black people and to -38legitimize colonization. It may be remembered that the English philosopher John Stuart Mill advocated liberty for some based on the division of the world into civilized and barbaric people. The civilized race were responsible for ruling these inferior people and thus the new "Egyptological ideology, born at the opportune moment, reinforced the theoretical basis of imperialist ideology" (Diop 1). One of Diop's primary tasks, then, is to set the European historical record straight. According to Diop, the Egyptologists had committed a crime not only against the African people, but against science. The "true" history of humanity had to be recovered as a scientific project; however, Diop makes it clear that his work is not merely an objective search for the so-called truth: for Africans, "the return to Egypt in all domains is the necessary condition for reconciling African civilizations with history, in order to be able to construct a body of human sciences, in order to renovate African culture" (Diop 3). Diop attempts to do just this in a painstaking analysis spread out over eighteen chapters. Civilization or Barbarism is a thoroughly researched work which intervenes in European accounts of the origins of humanity. Diop engages in a full scale empirical study in order to disprove previous "scientific" claims made by Europeans. His major points may be summarized as follows: Africa is not only the birthplace of homo erectus (upright human), but also of homo sapiens; Europeans are descendants of the black Grimaldi type who appeared in Europe thirty thousand years ago; Egypt originated in Black Africa and the Nubian kingdom gave birth to Egypt; 7 the XVIII Egyptian dynasty colonized Crete and the whole Eastern Mediterranean; Greece and Western civilization have their historical antecedents in Egypt (Black Africa). Diop elaborates on this connection by defining "Egyptian philosophical currents and their obvious connections to those of Greece" and also by providing "a proper method for identifying the Greek vocabulary of Black African Egyptian origin" (6). Given the scope of Diop's assertions, the question now arises whether these findings are relevant to contemporary systems of Afrocentric thought. It is necessary to acknowledge that the majority of Diop's works were written and published after the decolonization years in Africa. To some extent the political struggle for freedom had succeeded, which is to say that flag independence had been achieved. How significant then are Diop's works in an apparently independent Africa and how important are they to the Pan-African movement? These questions can be contextualized in the light of Diop's own interests and faith in African social and economic unity. Diop was a part of a generation of African activists who had experienced the heady years that followed the independence of Ghana in March 1958, but then "lived to see Africa turn against itself, motivated in part by its former colonial masters, who were still behind the scenes, controlling the destiny of the continent" (Clarke xiv). 8 Ultimately, then, Diop was interested in recovering the past only insofar as it informed the practices of future African governments. In a work such as Precolonial Black Africa ( 1987 ), he embarks on a

description of "African national life: the administrative, judicial, economic, and military organizations, that -39of labor, . . . the migrations and formations of peoples and nationalities, thus their ethnic genesis, and consequently almost linguistic genesis" ( Diop, Precolonial xii). The final purpose of such a project is to establish the cultural oneness of the African people. This aspect of Afrocentrism can be seen in all of Diop's work particularly in Civilization or Barbarism. Another, more radical, form of Afrocentric reasoning involves placing Africa at the center of history. In this formulation Africa becomes not only the birthplace of humanity, but the cradle of Western civilization's philosophical and cultural traditions. Furthermore, the future and the hope for humanity can in many ways be located in African systems of thought. This interest in the future is one of the founding principles of Diop's work. For Diop, "the return to Egypt in all its domains is the necessary condition for the reconciling of African civilizations with history, in order to be able to construct a body of modern human sciences, in order to renovate African culture. Far from being a reveling in the past, a look toward the Egypt of antiquity is the best way to conceive and build our cultural future" ( Civilization 3). For example, in a work such as Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State ( 1987 ), Diop presents a detailed analysis of possible methods to safeguard Africa's mineral resources for the future. His efforts to unite Africa are not merely a form of cultural chauvinism, but a strategy based on a sincere determination to strive for the political, cultural, and economic autonomy of the African continent. Diop does not hesitate to challenge, for instance, the latest theses on the Asiatic or African Mode of Production (AMP). In an incisive critical review of the Marxist definitions of the AMP, Diop points out that these states are not distinguished by the absence of revolution, but rather by the suppression of revolution due to the "ultrasophisticated interventionist machinery" that such states employ (188). According to Diop, this interventionism is "one of the heaviest legacies that the AMP state has bequeathed to the modern state, and one which explains the enormous difficulties that the world revolutionary process encounters today in different countries" (188). He also looks at various revolutions in history, especially the ones that failed, comparing the revolutions in the Greek city-states with those in the AMP states. The study of these revolutions, according to Diop, is particularly relevant "when African society is entering the phase of the true struggle of classes in the modern sense of the term. . . . The first strike of the African workers against an African industrialist employer would mark the beginning of the new era in the class struggle" (5-6). The questions he raises in these sections lead him to examine the characteristics of African political and social structures, which then guide the reader towards probable answers for the problems facing present governments in Africa. Thus Diop's engagement with political economy and his materialist versions of the African past prevent the work from sinking into hopeless abstraction. For instance, he takes special pains to historicize the failure of the Negritude artists between the wars and attributes it to "the fact that the intellectual and psychological climate created by all the writings of this -40type [works produced by scholars such as Count Arthur Joseph Gobineau] strongly conditioned the first definitions that the Negro-African thinkers of the period . . . had tried to give their culture" (217). In this way Diop's Afrocentrism is substantially different from that of Molefi Kete Asante, whose work I will examine later in this study. However, it is also necessary to point out some major philosophical contradictions in Diop's work. His theory of history suggests a Hegelian notion of totality and continuum which can be applied only by excluding the ruptures and discontinuities of any historical narrative. Diop begins his project with a chapter on prehistory anti the origins of humanity and then traces the rise of Nubia and the subsequent evolution of an authentic Black Egyptian civilization. In the process, he constructs a linear, continuous history of Black Africa that Michel Foucault would define as 'total history": "The project of a total history is one that seeks to reconstitute

the overall form of a civilization, the principle--material or spiritual--of a society, the significance common to all a phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion-what is called metaphorically the 'face' of a period" (9). Foucault goes on to explain that such a project depends on supposing "that between all the events of a well-defined spatio-temporal area, between all the phenomena of which traces have been found, it must be possible to establish a system of homogeneous relations: a network of causality that makes it possible to derive each of them" (9). Total history ignores micro-narratives, resistances to histories, and thus silences voices which would disrupt the apparent continuum of history. The success of such a project must finally depend on a violent teleological concept of history in which the recovery of a cultural essence provides the route to an imagined future liberation. Despite these shortcomings, Diop is engaged in an important intellectual project. He is attempting to recover the African past which was formerly the property of the European ruling class. But in an effort to perform a laudatory emancipatory task, Diop succumbs to cultural idealism. He hopes that "the worldwide dissemination of information . . . [will force] the ethical conscience of humanity to stick to 'acceptable' limits" (376). His theory of the "Progress of the Ethical Conscience of Humanity"--that "humanity's moral conscience progresses" with the acquisition of knowledge--obviously neglects to take into account the immense changes in the global economy that were already taking place. Dissemination of knowledge was never an innocent activity and is now, as in the past, controlled by the metropolitan centers. The Subaltern Studies collective has shown how radical historians are "blinded by the glare of a perfect and immaculate consciousness." These historians see "nothing, for instance, but solidarity in rebel behaviour, and [fail] to notice its other, namely betrayal" (Guha 40). In the end, it is even questionable how valuable such acts of recovery really are for the contemporary African. Frantz Fanon in his brilliant exposition on National Culture said it best: ". . . on the plane of factual being the past existence of an Aztec civilization does not change anything very much in the diet of the Mexican peasant of today" (209). -41It is finally a stark contradiction that while resisting a European-Hegelian Humanist view of history Diop constructs just such a model in Civilization or Barbarism. The error lies in part in retaining a binary--barbarism/civilization--which can never be fully reinscribed or reversed. 9 It is only fitting to recall at this instance Walter Benjamin's words on the very same binary: For without exception the cultural treasures [the historian] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toils of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. (256) Diop needs to recreate an unproblematized view of the past to make a valuable polemical point, and perhaps the absence of a "legitimate" center dictates the "logic" behind his rhetorical moves. Africa, because of decades of scholarly distortion, has no center that can be deconstructed or refigured, and Diop's project primarily consists of constructing just such a center. However, his intellectual redemption of the center "ignores the anonymous toil" of those millions of African men and women who participated in creating Africa's "cultural treasures."