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Afrique & histoire

2003/1 (Vol. 1)

  • Pages : 320
  • ISBN : 2-86432-399-0
  • Éditeur : Verdier


Article précédent Pages 169 - 208 Article suivant

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not, the Pierian spring”

1

The objectivity of historical research is a question which usually causes more headache to others than historians themselves and the discussion easily turns into fruitless speculation. More sensible is to consider the objectivity of those practical methods which are used by historians, when they turn the past into history. In the Western civilization, this is done by the “historical method”. This method is no omnipotent theory which can solve any problem in the past but it leaves substantial space for historian’s individual imagination and interpretation. In practice, the historical method stands for an established tradition which is shared by academic historians and which students of history embrace in the course of their tuition. This tradition consists of such general principles as uncompromising honesty, careful definition of concepts, meticulous source criticism, systematic searching for material that can falsify or modify hypotheses, constant awareness of the problem of representativeness, and explicit statements about the level of probability in the conclusions [1]  J. Simensen (1990: 278). [1] . The historical method does not automatically guarantee the objectivity of the results; it only guarantees that the results should be reasonably in relation to the sources used by the historian. We may consider the historical method an agreement which sets the rules one must obey in order to gain the public acceptance as a trustworthy historian.

By “academic historians” I simply refer to people who hold higher academic degrees; who are affiliated more or less permanently to established research institutions; and whose works are recognized as reliable representations of the past by their colleagues and readers. Their discipline is accordingly “academic history”. My use of the word “academic” carries no pejorative connotation. I am aware that this definition is far from comprehensive but we may regard academic history as similar to bad taste – without venturing too deeply in any aesthetic speculation, most of us can easily identify it once we encounter it in the true life [2]  B. Fay (2002: 1). [2] .

The greatest advantage of the historical method is that it helps us to distinguish what history is not, more often than it helps us to tell exactly what history is. There are historians who believe in earnest that they are capable of reconstructing the past as it really was, if they rely on primary sources only and obey strictly the principles of the historical method. This is the original Rankean ideal which may turn into a source fetishism. Their belief is, however, an illusion. Not only because historians can never check everything from primary sources but they have to trust earlier works written by their colleagues. This enables errors to multiply and survive in the historical literature. Another point is that primary sources themselves are dumb. They speak only when they are forced to speak. The harder the pressure becomes, the more probable the witness begins to speak according to the expectations of his/her tormentor. By manipulating sources – consciously or unconsciously – an historian can easily achieve biased or even false results. Manipulation does not necessarily mean that the historian invents sources when there exist no sources but he may simply ignore the meaning of the source, misunderstand the original context, make anachronistic judgements, or select such sources only which seem to support the preconceived result. The danger of manipulation is evident especially when the historian is examining a subject which now evokes strong emotions, such as slavery, colonialism, racial discrimination, or even more serious violations of human rights. The historian may have a temptation to adjust the past to support the present political agenda, for better or worse.

We may conclude that history always contains subjective elements. This is no secret to academic historians, nor does it represent any fundamental problem of credibility: “The historian is no God, looking at the world from above and outside [3]  R.G. Collingwood (1946: 108-9). [3] .” Historians sometimes err but it does not compromise their whole discipline. Medical doctors, too, make sometimes false diagnoses which can be fatal to their patients but a few think, therefore, that the whole medical science is wrong.

Of course, there is much indisputably true in history. We know, for example, that the international West Africa and Congo conference was held in Berlin from 15 November 1884 to 26 February 1885. Anyone who suggests different dates is simply wrong. Moreover, we can accept as a fact that this conference accelerated the European colonial conquest of Africa by dividing the continent among the colonial powers into spheres of interest. A fact is something that happened in the past and left traces in documents which can be used by historians to reconstruct the past. If there are no documents, there are no facts but opinions. But history is not a simple record of facts; history is an explanation of the facts. When we start discussing about the impact of colonialism to Africa, we have less facts than opinions. The answer depends much on whose position we take and what we now consider significant in the past – and present [4]  See for example A.A. Boahen (1985). [4] .

History always reflects the values of individual historians and their cultural environment. When these values change, the history changes, too, though the facts remain unchanged. However, we are not living in an unidimensional world where everybody shares the same values. There is, for example, no homogeneous “Western civilization” and an equally homogenous system of “Western values”. In reality, the Western civilization consists of many cultures which are located or have their roots in Europe. These cultures share a number of close similarities indeed but they also have remarkable differences because of the various historical experiences. Only an ignorant fool can claim that, say, the Irishmen, the Catalans, and the Czechs are identical, because they all belong to something we are used to label as Western civilization (not to mention that the Wolof, the Lunda, and the Xhosa should be identical simply because they live in Africa). It is, of course, possible, and often necessary, to form a generalization by grouping the similarities (such as Western or African civilization) but we should always remember that a generalization represents nothing but an abstract idea which is achieved at the expense of details.

Similarly, the Western value system has developed considerably over time and is constantly changing. It consists of many codes of values which are full of contradictions, to begin with conservatism, liberalism, feminism, environmentalism, marxism, or anarchism. Another aspect is that many of the values which are conventionally labelled as Western may have less to do with the Western civilization but with the economic modernization. They just appear Western, because the economic modernization first took place on a large scale in Western Europe [5]  J. Hippler (1998). For an English translation of this... [5] .

The above discussion concerns the community of Western academic historians, too. There is no universal Western “orthodoxy” of African history to vet all contributions of historical research for strict adherence to the established “model”. In reality, the Western historians of Africa constitute a very heterogeneous group of people who often disagree with each other and who represent various levels of scholarship from excellent to poor. It is only the commitment to the general principles of the historical method, not to a certain model, which unites the individual members of this community.

The simultaneous existence of different values and cultural experiences explains why two historians, both applying honestly the historical method on the same sources, can achieve different results. Sometimes it is possible to evaluate that one result is more trustworthy than the other by checking how reliable and representative the sources are or whether the result is perhaps ideologically biased. More often we have no other choice than to accept that there are many ways to interpret the past. Yet the different interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The question is not always either/or but rather both-and. One way to reach higher objectivity is to compare the different interpretations, instead of declaring one interpretation right and all deviations wrong.

The historical method is not a purely Western invention. Similar principles have surfaced in other civilizations, too. The great Moroccan scholar Ibn Khaldûn (1332-1406), for example, was thinking of the problems of source criticism in the introduction to his universal history long before any European scholar paid attention to the same issue [6]  See The Mudaqqimah. An introduction to history, translated... [6] . Ibn Khaldûn was, however, exceptional in his own cultural environment. Though his universal history was widely quoted by later Arab scholars, his theoretical considerations did not cause any change in the tradition of Islamic historiography [7]  S.R. Merlet (1989). [7] . The fact is that the practical methods of modern historical research were developed to the fullest in Western Europe and more specifically in the early nineteenth-century Germany [8]  M. Rodinson (1987: 94-95). [8] . The explanation is not the absolute superiority of Western civilization – least the German culture – but the specific historical situation in Europe. The historical method developed simultaneously with the economic modernization which eventually led to the worldwide domination of European powers. Consequently Europeans began to realize their difference, and superiority, in relation to other civilizations. The historical method was needed to explain to the Europeans, why Western civilization had transformed itself from being just one among many civilizations of the world into its dominating centre.

Because of its origins, the historical method is strongly Western. Many of the key concepts, principles of periodization, and the ways in which the significance of the past are estimated by historians worldwide are still based on the Western tradition. This situation is further maintained by the fact that Western scholars dominate the discussion of world history in all fields. Regardless how excellent research is carried out by Chinese historians, the most authoritative international experts of Chinese history are Westerners. Similarly, all authoritative journals of African history are published outside Africa and their contents are mostly written by Western scholars. If Chinese or African historians want to gain publicity outside their respective cultural environments, they must not only write in a Western language – nowadays tantamount to English – but also according to the Western tradition. Otherwise they are not taken seriously [9]  I. Wallerstein (1997). [9] . This problem does not concern only those scholars who live outside the Western world but also those who live on its fringes. I dare to say that there are many excellent works on Africa written by Finnish scholars, which are neglected by their Western colleagues simply because these works were published in a wrong place.

The domination of the Western tradition evokes naturally the question, whether there is any alternative. By an “alternative” I do not simply mean a different or radical view to the past. The idea that the monumental history which focuses on wars, politics, and important men is obsolete and that we should rather focus on the marginal groups, or “history from below”, is also very Western itself and reflects the current ideological tendencies in the Western world, but it is not necessarily welcomed by historians outside the Western world. By an alternative I mean such a way to study and represent the past which is based on completely different values and practises from the existing Western tradition. The fundamental question is, whether it is at all possible to study the past in an alternative way, however, without giving up the principle of reliability as it is manifested in the historical method? Or is the historical method simply as inviolable as the law of gravitation? Another serious question is what is actually proposed as a replacement of the Western tradition – and how different is this replacement?

Who’s Hu?

2

The most aggressive challenge to the domination of the Western tradition in world history, or Eurocentrism as it is usually called, has been issued by Afrocentrism. It aims nothing less than to turn everything that is bad in the Western scholarship into good and to write a truthful history for Africa, free from Eurocentric distortions. To its advocates, Afrocentrism represents one of the most significant intellectual and political movements of the world today [10]  See W. van Binsbergen (2000). [10] .

The basic idea in Afrocentrism is that any interpretation is culturally centred and flows from ideological assumptions. This idea is no revolutionary revelation but familiar to any Western academic historian who has bothered to read Edward Hallet Carr even cursorily [11]  E.H. Carr (1961). [11] . Furthermore, the “Afrocentric method is concerned with establishing a world view about the writing and speaking of oppressed people. Current literary theories – phenomenology, hermeneutics, and structuralism, for example – cannot be applied, whole cloth, to African themes and subjects. Based as they are on Eurocentric philosophy, they fail to come terms with fundamental cultural differences [12]  M.K. Asante (1987: 159). [12] ”. If this manifesto is applied to historical research, it follows that Western scholars cannot study African history objectively because they rely on a method which was developed by Western historians to explain Western history. Yet the question is not only of wrong tools, like using hammer when screwdriver is more appropriate, but of wrong race. Western historians cannot understand the historical experiences of African peoples from inside, because of their fundamentally different cultural and ethnic background as descendants of the oppressors.

Afrocentrism does not necessarily deny the objectivity of the Western historiography as such but rather limits its validity to concern the Western civilization only. In this way, Afrocentrism aims to break the universalism of Western scholarship, according to which Western methods of scientific research, history included, are valid across all of time and space. By stressing the “fundamental cultural differences” to the point of extreme, Afrocentrics, however, open the Pandora’s box of ethnocentric wilderness. If all analysis is culturally centred and thus ideologically biased, the historical research splinters into various culturally centred representations of the past, which are irreconcilable with each other. The real danger is that there are no more just different interpretations but that we are facing entirely different factual realities with different ethnic truths. This is already the situation in the Near East between the Israeli and Arab/Palestinian historiography.

Another point is how to define the limits of validity of the culturally centred representations of the past – geographically, ethnically, or linguistically? Could we accept that according to Eurocentric history, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was “white”; according to Afrocentric history, she was “black”; and according to Sinocentric history, both claims are nonsense; and students are free to choose their own truth according to their ethnic and cultural background, or simply take the sexiest story? Or should we organize an international conference to divide world history into spheres of interest among the most powerful culturally centred methods? The ancient Egypt would legally belong to Afrocentrics who could revise its history as they want without fearing any interference from the Eurocentrics. The ancient Greece should legally belong to Western scholars, because Afrocentrism “fails to come terms with fundamental cultural differences of Greek [European] themes and subjects”.

The exaggerated importance of the fundamental cultural differences as an insuperable intellectual barrier echoes the attitude of those parochial Japanese scholars who want to keep their Western colleagues off their patch by maintaining that the Japanese culture is totally unconceivable to Westerners (and to all other peoples, Africans included). The fundamental difference rests on the Japanese language which has a “unique position among the languages of civilized world”, as a Japanese scholar has declared. Because of its uniqueness, no Westerner can ever master Japanese perfectly and, therefore, no Westerner has the capacity to understand the Japanese culture objectively from inside. Thus all Western interpretations of Japanese history, culture, politics, and economic system are predestined to be incorrect [13]  R.A. Miller (1982). The citation is from Haruhiko Kindaichi,... [13] . Fortunately, advocates of this attitude constitute a minority and most Japanese scholars have no objection to welcome Western scholars to share their fields and to accept the products of Western scholarship as trustworthy, if occasionally as curious examples of alternative views of Japan. Neither have Western scholars any reason to suspect that their Japanese colleagues are uncapable to study objectively Western things, only because they are Japanese. There can be other reasons than race and cultural background to suspect the professional qualities in both sides, for example the lack of sufficient methodological skills.

Personally I do not believe that such intellectual apartheid, as proposed by Afrocentrics and their Japanese counterparts, turns our world into a better place to live for us all. Instead of staking out the past with signs “whites only” and “blacks only” we should aim to a greater plurality of interpretations and to a broader comparative approach in world history.

The most important – and perhaps the most disturbing – question is, however, what Eurocentrism actually stands for. There is hardly any other word which is more used and abused in contemporary discussions of world history and cultural studies than the word Eurocentrism (save perhaps postmodernism and Orientalism). As a result, any attempt to define Eurocentrism will necessarily and simultaneously have both positive and negative dimensions. It will aim to say what Eurocentrism is but at the same time it will have to say what it is not [14]  Cf. L. Hutcheon (1989: 1). [14] .

One way to approach Eurocentrism is to consider it a cult of progress which posits a continuum from barbarism to civilization, along which all peoples or societies may be ranked. The level of civilization is understood in terms of the degree of ability to control or manipulate natural forces. Progress is understood in terms of the development of technologies, the accumulation of wealth, and the organization of political power. Societies which are not based on the drive to accumulate wealth and power, and to develop technologies for that purpose, are considered less civilized than those which are. But there is again nothing particularly Western in this cult, which actually reflects the values of economic modernization.

The cult of progress becomes Eurocentric when it is used for justifying the superiority of Western civilization by maintaining that the historical progress of Western world from the sixteenth century represents the pattern that is applicable everywhere, because it is the fulfilment of mankind’s basic needs. The only way to achieve the fulfilment is to follow Western example. In this way Eurocentrism is openly ethnocentric: arrogant, self-satisfied, and hostile towards difference. But the cult of progress itself is no Western invention. When describing the black Africans (Sûdân), the tenth-century Arab traveller Ibn Hawqal concluded: “We have not mentioned the land of the Sûdân in the west, nor the Buja nor the Zanj, nor other peoples with the same characteristics, because the orderly government of kingdoms is based on religious beliefs, good manners, law and order, and the organization of settled life directed by sound policy. These people lack all these qualities and have no share in them [15]  Abû ’l-Qâsim Ibn Hawqal al-Nusaybî, Kitâb Sûrat al-ard.... [15] .” In 1526, Leo Africanus, the Andalusi traveller whom some Afrocentrics want to adopt as their hero, did not hesitate to call black Africans “brutes” because they live “without kings, lords, republics, government, and any customs, and without the knowledge of husbandry”. These brutes were civilized only after the white Berber tribes of the Sahara introduced them Islam, agriculture, and other useful skills [16]  See Descrittione dell’Africa, ff. 83-84, in Giovanni... [16] .

In the context of world history, Eurocentrism means that the events of Western Europe are given higher priority than events in other areas. Furthermore, other civilizations are viewed from Western perspective so much as they have contributed to the shaping of the modern world or whether they remained passive bystanders. In the latter case, there is a point to ask what was the reason for their lack of participation. But this perspective also represents the reality. Whether we like it or not, Western hegemony is the most prominent feature of the world history since 1500.

Even if we understood the modern world history as a Western success story, this interpretation does not automatically imply any arrogant or hostile attitude towards those peoples and cultures whose stories are left untold. Historians must always make selections. The past is full of events, the enormous majority of which will never become parts of history. If tramps are not mentioned in the economic history of modern Europe, it does not suggest that Western academic historians consider tramps worthless riffraff. It is possible to write a history of vagabondage in modern Europe, and presumably somebody has already written it. Such a history could be interesting, if it offered an unusual perspective on the impact of economic modernization to Western societies. However, the history of vagabondage would not help us to understand why the industrial revolution took place in Western Europe and not in Western Africa. Whatever the historical experiences of the tramps were, they had no effect to the direction and consequences of the economic modernization.

Neither does Eurocentric historiography necessarily imply that everything important was invented first in the West. I do not believe that there are many Western academic historians who would deny that Islamic Spain played a critically important part in the formation of the Western civilization as a channel for the transmission of knowledge from east to west at one of the most sensitive periods of European history which culminated in the Renaissance. Most Western academic historians would, however, deny any attempt to claim that the roots of modern Western civilization are thus in the Arabian peninsula and that everything Western is actually Islamic.

I suppose that teaching of history in all countries is basically ethnocentric and explains the surrounding world according to the national experience. This is the reason why the teaching of modern European history in Finnish universities tends to focus on Scandinavia, the Baltic, and Russia, whereas the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans are ignored. Whatever took place in the early-twentieth-century Portugal or Rumania, it is not relevant if we want to understand why we Finns are where we are now. This is also the reason why British or Greek students of history know hardly anything about the history of Finland or Estonia.

But how ideologically biased world history really is? Is it Eurocentric because the Western academic historians have systematically distorted world history to support the Western domination and to rationalize the present inequality of global system for the Westerners? Or is world history Eurocentric simply because it is mostly written by Western historians for Western readers? Could we achieve a more balanced view if there were more Chinese historians focussing on Africa, Vietnamese historians on North America, Africans on Japan, Indians on Europe, all making comparisons to the historical experiences of their respective cultural environments? This situation might have a more salutary effect than establishing any court of truth to purge world history from alleged Eurocentric distortions, consisting of judges who are already convinced that the Westerners are uncapable of anything good.

It seems to me that Afrocentrics seldom venture into such theoretical considerations as discussed above. Whatever problems the “fundamental cultural differences” may cause to Western scholars, there are none to Afrocentrics when they want to define the true nature of Western civilization. To Afrocentrics, Eurocentrism is a totally negative concept and it embodies everything they consider bad in the Western civilization. Thus Eurocentrism is not just a form of ethnocentrism; it represents a vicious ideology built on the doctrine of racial inequality. The core of Eurocentrim is the so-called “Aryan Model”, according to which the ancient Greece is the epitome of the Western world, whereas the ancient Egyptians, the real cultural ancestors of Greece, are regarded as fundamentally alien to Western civilization, because they were dark-skinned Africans [17]  For the Aryan model, see M. Bernal (1987: 440-441) [17] .

If we take a closer look on the Afrocentric idea of Eurocentrism, one cannot help noticing that it is actually a projection of the present reality of American society. The Afrocentric idea of Eurocentrism is based on the hallucination, according to which the United States is the paragon of Western civilization and everything American represents automatically Western and is applicable to all Western countries across all of time and space. However, it is not the Afrocentrics alone who are enchanted with this hallucination. Similar hyperbolic projection is made, for example, by Samuel Huntington in his much-quoted article [18]  S. Huntington (1993). [18] . The only difference is that Huntington picks up everything he considers positive in present American society and declares this mélange as the summary of Western values, whereas the Afrocentrics pick up everything they consider negative and declare that mélange as the summary of Western values. Both of them stand for an ideology we may call Americentrism.

Americentrism works in two levels. In the political level, it means the tendency to consider the United States the epitome of Western world, for the good and the bad, as discussed above. America is the brighest beacon for freedom and opportunity. It follows that everything is estimated according to American standards and difference means automatically inferiority. The others are given two alternatives only: assimilation or destruction. Those were the alternatives given to native Americans within the conquest of the West and to the foreign immigrants upon their arrival to the “Free World”.

In the individual level, Americentrism means complete distrust of or lack of comfort with other cultures. A manifestation of this attitude is the behaviour of some African-Americans when they visit Africa, as described by a continental African: “Like they need to feel if they come home, it must be like they could be living in US still [19]  S. Orakwue (2002: 56). [19] .” Another manifestation of this attitude is the belief that all significant intellectual discourse is conversed in English only and with American voices. It is important to realize that Americentrism is not racially bound but it obtrudes the mentality of all ethnic and social groups in present American society.

The Americentric notion of the absolute political, cultural, and intellectual superiority also prescribes the unquestionable right to rearrange any environment according to the American ideals. The most disturbing aspect in Afrocentrism is the way in which its advocates reserve themselves the priviledge to decide what the history of ancient Egypt, and Africa in general, should be, without bothering to consider the opinion of those concerned, only because they are African-Americans and they know best. So far, I have not heard any comments on Afrocentrism from modern Egyptian scholars. I wonder how they feel when a completely alien group invades their history and revises it to strengthen its own identity? Are there modern Egyptian scholars who would underline the claim that their cultural and ethnic ancestors were black Africans? On the other hand, one could expect that they should hail the Afrocentric revelation of the true history of ancient Egypt, as it places them in the very centre of world history and turns the Nile valley into the cradle of civilization. One can, of course, explain their silence by maintaining that they are brainwashed to believe in the distorted Eurocentric representation of ancient Egypt, but it is hard to believe that Western racism could have had such a profound influence in the modern Egyptian mentality. If Egyptians are biased against Afrocentrism for racial reasons, this feeling originates much farther than the West [20]  Cf. B. Lewis (1971). [20] .

Perhaps the modern Egyptian scholars simply do not like the situation when some outsiders suddenly tell them what they should think? Because of its strong commitment to Americentrism, Afrocentrism has nothing to offer to other peoples but African-Americans alone, as it requires others to surrender unconditionally to the purposes defined by some black mandarins in the United States – much in the same way as the government of the United States expects every country to surrender unconditionally to support its policy: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with terrorists”, as President George W. Bush Jr. declared in his speech soon after the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 [21]  Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American... [21] . There is no room for any compromise or dialogue, least for the possibility that the Americans could have made any mistakes.

Question Authority!

3

Afrocentrism has its roots in the nineteenth-century African-American emancipation but it was not until the 1980s when Afrocentric ideas really took hold of American society. Nowadays Afrocentrism forms an institutionalized discipline which demands official recognition in the academic curriculum as an alternative interpretation of world history. Afrocentrism has also found supporters across the racial boundaries and even outside the United States. The explanation is that Afrocentrism purports many of the current ideological tendencies in the Western world.

First, Afrocentrism is loud, looks radical, and is easy to comprehend. Young students are fascinated with revolutionary slogans which seem to contradict the conservative establishment represented by their reactionary teachers who stand for such dull things as substantiation. Afrocentrism may appeal to young students as an innovative approach to world history, in the same way as their parents were toying with the leftist ideals in the 1960s and 70s. Secondly, Afrocentrism resorts to the Western cult of guilt. Historical events and ideologies like the crusades, slavery, colonialism, racism, and nazism are taken as essentially Western and regarded as manifestations of the true Western values. Indoctrinated by this guilt, many Westerners are willing to reject their own civilization, whereas being non-Western is enough to put one on the side of right [22]  Cf. G.B.N. Ayittey (1992: 20-22). [22] . Thirdly, Afrocentrism matches the idea of politically correct multiculturalism which demands the recognition of cultural, religious, sexual, and ethnic difference in all levels of society. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is often mistaken as tantamount to naïve hyper-relativism, according to which all interpretations of the past are equally true if placed in a suitable cultural context. This naiveté is further supported by postmodernism with its blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, its priviledging of “Other” or alternative voices, and its playfully ironic reconfiguring of established historical verities [23]  R.J. Evans (1997: 231-232). [23] .

As mentioned above, Afrocentrism aims to establish a trustworthy history for Africa by cleaning it from Eurocentric distortions. The emphasis is on the distant history, as if the glory of ancient Africa could compensate the humiliations of the Atlantic slave trade and colonial rule. Much less attention has been paid to Africans’ positive contribution to the making of the modern world. Afrocentric literature declares proudly how advanced the ancient Sudanese empires of Ghana and Mali were in the time when Western Europe was still living in its barbaric Middle Ages [24]  M. Hyman (1994). [24] ; the greatness of the University of Sankore in Timbuktu which makes the contemporary European universities of Bologna, Prague, or Oxford to appear as mere grammar schools [25]  S.M. Cissoko (1974). For more modern visions, try the... [25] ; how Africans discovered the New World long before Columbus [26]  I. van Sertima (ed.) (1987). [26] . All these are represented as if they were indisputable facts which are based on sound historical evidence.

The dominant idea of Afrocentrism is, however, that the civilization of ancient Greece should be accredited to ancient Egypt and that the ancient Egyptians were black. All efforts focus on the validation of this idea and on the destruction of the fallacious Aryan Model. Nevertheless, looking at Afrocentrism from the fringes of the Western world, it seems that the real aim is not to revise the history of Africa but to degrade the “white” Western civilization by demonstrating that all important cultural inventions, which we are used to consider fundamentally Western, are actually African.

The Afrocentric glorification of ancient Egypt resembles the way in which some modern Muslim historians and their Western symphatizers idealize the Islamic Spain by turning al-Andalus into a precursor of modern multicultural society where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmonius convivencia. There prevailed a degree of religious tolerance which was unheard in the contemporary Western Europe. Science and culture were advanced and far ahead of anything in the Christian side. However, few of these historians realize that this idealized vision is actually a creation by Victorian historians in Great Britain and it reflects the nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon Protestant prejudice. By exaggerating the degree of religious tolerance and the advanced level of cultural life in al-Andalus in relation to the intolerance and decline after the Castilian conquest of Granada in 1492, the Victorian historians demonstrated the reactionary impact of Catholism and underlined the positive consequences of the Protestant Reformation in European history. The Victorian interpretation of al-Andalus was supported by Spanish liberal historians who were also prone to exaggerate the evils committed by the Catholic church [27]  R. Fletcher (1992: 171-175). [27] .

Similarly, Afrocentrism sticks to the very old and now abandoned [Eurocentric] concept that there must have been a cradle of civilization and the value of other cultures was accordingly dependent on how far or close to this cradle they were culturally. A manifestation of this ideology was “Babylomania” in the turn of the twentieth century which accredited all progress in the Mediterranean area – and in black Africa – to a cultural diffusion from Mesopotamia. Background to Babylomania was not only the discovery of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia by Western archaeologists but also the fact that the biblical Paradise was placed in that area as well as the contemporary belief that no human society could civilize itself independently but an external agent representing a superior race was always needed [28]  K.C. MacDonald et al. (1995). [28] . What Afrocentrism advocates is actually a replacement of Babylomania with Egyptomania. Methodologically such a replacement is no improvement but rather a decline to the obsolete hyper-diffusionism represented by the German geographer cum anthropologist Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), according to whom the driving forces behind dynamic historical processes were migrations of peoples. Ratzel’s migration theory was favoured by colonial historians as it supported their racist belief of the external white origin of African civilization [29]  A. Holl (1990). [29] .

Both these idealized visions, one of ancient Egypt and the other of al-Andalus, contain the same problem: if both represented innovative and advanced civilizations, then why they declined? Why black Egyptians could not repulse the barbaric white hordes of Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, and Arabs who all conquered the Nile valley from the seventh century bc onwards? Al-Andalus fell under the attack of Christian barbarians in 1212 and disappeared in 1492. Eventually the Western powers were able to colonize the whole of Muslim world. Why was it the Europeans who managed to create the most powerful civilization in world history? The patent answer in both cases is that the Europeans “stole” the African and Islamic wisdom. This explanation contains the idea that the rise of the West was not based on Europeans’ own achievements but it rests on inventions which were first discovered in African and Islamic civilizations.

But the original question is still unanswered. If the barbaric Europeans were able to create a powerful and advanced civilization by using the fruits of African and Islamic civilizations, what prevented the Africans and Arabs from doing the same thing? Because one does not steal cultural inventions like cars are stolen. One can borrow cultural or technological inventions but the same knowledge remains to the possession of the original inventor. The question is more of sharing than stealing. It would be same if we claimed that the late nineteenth-century Japanese stole the major technological inventions of Western civilization and, therefore, Japan became the most advanced country in Asia and equal to Western powers. Can we say seriously that the roots of modern Japanese culture are thus Western? Or perhaps it is the Western roots of modern Japanese culture which explain why Japan was so aggressive and expansive in the 1930s? The answer is definitely no. The Japanese did not steal anything from the West; they simply borrowed certain technological and cultural inventions which were adapted to the Japanese culture to serve their own purposes and the result was the birth of modern Japan. This process included a degree of Westernization, as Western countries offered the only existing example of economic modernization, but basically the traditional Japanese culture and mentality remained intact [30]  Cf. Robert Harvey’s foreword to his The Undefeated... [30] .

Another – and perhaps more sensible – answer could be that the African and Islamic civilizations of ancient Egypt and al-Andalus were not possessed by that evil spirit which drove the Westerners to conquer the entire world.

It seems to me that the academic historians in the United States considered Afrocentrism anathema for a too long time and no critical attention was paid to it, until it was too late. There were probably various reasons for their silence. One was perhaps that the academic historians considered Afrocentrism simply irrelevant and to argue with Afrocentrics would have been just waste of time and kept them from getting on with their real work. Another reason was perhaps the fear that an open debate might have provided Afrocentrism with more publicity than it deserved. Therefore, silence was better. The third reason was perhaps that an open debate might have provided Afrocentrism with extra credibility. Some people might have regarded the criticism as a proof that Afrocentrism has something right, for otherwise the academic historians had not bothered to attack it. The fourth reason was apparently that in the politically correct American society it may be wiser to keep silent than to meet the danger of being labelled publicly a malicious racist which can have serious consequences to one’s academic career.

The policy of silence is the tradional way in which the academic historians have ignored the representatives of imaginary interpretations of the past, such as those who claim that the great sphinx of Giza was built around 10500 bc [31]  R. Bauval & G. Hancock (1996). [31] , or that Jesus survived the crucifixion and went to India [32]  H. Kersten (1993). [32] . The policy of silence was justified in the time when the flow of information was slower and more controlled than nowadays. In our times the internet has caused a virtual revolution in this respect. A positive consequence of this revolution is the increased democracy in communication and the opportunities it gives to peoples in the third world. A negative consequence is that there is no control of the content of internet. Anyone can create an own website with rather limited knowledge and capital, and spread whatever information, false or true. Nothing prevents me, for intance, from creating my own virtual university which offers a revised interpretation of world history by claiming that the ancient Greeks received their first seeds of civilization from Finland. Such a website would be accessible to students of history around the world and some of them might easily consider its contents reliable. The present situation is thus quite different from the times when similar claims were spread through pamphlets printed at the author’s own cost. I dare to say that the academic historians have not yet understood how dangerous the present situation really is to their own discipline. Today’s imaginary interpretations of the past are not offered by shabby eccentrics who mumble their obscure gibberish alone but professional writers who know exactly how to manipulate their audience and who can boast – like Erich von Däniken – with a record of books having sold some 60 millions copies in 28 languages [33]  See [http://www.­daeniken.­com]. [33] . I wonder if there were any academic historian whose works are equally popular among the general reading public. What makes the present situation so dangerous is the increasing number of people, not only in the United States, who cannot anymore distinguish fact from fiction and to whom the academic history has begun to represent the suspicious imaginary interpretation.

The policy of silence let Afrocentrism develop into a discipline and filter through the American school system and academic education. Only recently Afrocentrism has become a target of furious counterattack from the part of academic historians. An important turning point was in 1996 the publication of Mary Lefkowitz’s polemical book Not Out of Africa. How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books) in which she discusses the intellectual dangers of Afrocentrism. Lefkowitz’s book was hailed with contentment by many conservative scholars in the United States, as if she had dared to say aloud what most have thought in secret [34]  The jacket includes praising citations from Clarence... [34] . Lefkowitz’s book was soon succeeded by similar works which analyse the evolution of Afrocentrism through the times [35]  S. Howe (1998); F.-X. Fauvelle-Aymar et al. (eds.)... [35] . Lefkowitz and the other critics have adequately demonstrated the methodological weaknesses of the Afrocentric interpretation of the ancient Egypt as well as many other Afrocentric claims. There is no need to repeat that discussion, which also falls beyond my own expertise.

The attitude of the critics, to begin with Lefkowitz, is that they are “put on the defensive when in ordinary circumstances there would have been nothing to be defensive about” (p. 5). Their aim is simply to prove that Afrocentrism is false scholarship and thus injurious to academic learning. If Afrocentrics are sure of their own position, so are their critics: both stick to the notion that they alone represent the truth. Lefkowitz, for example, resorts to very Americentric tones when defending her own cause. To her, the protection of ancient Greece from Afrocentrism is tantamount to protect the entire Western civilization (p. 6): “Any attempt to question the authenticity of ancient Greeck civilization is of direct concern even to people who ordinarily have little interest in the remote past. Since the founding of this country, ancient Greece has been intimately connected with the ideals of American democracy… [W]e like to think that we have carried on some of the Greek’s proudest traditions: democratic government, and freedom of speech, learning, and discussion.”

We may argue how “democratic” the democracy of Athens was – for example to slaves and women – and how much the Western concept of democracy is really based on the ancient Greek tradition. I would rather say that the modern Western concept of democracy, especially on the continental Northern Europe, developed on the ground of quite different social tradition and historical experience and it was only later anchored to the idealized vision of the ancient Greek democracy. Another point is whether the United States itself represents the fulfilment of Western democratic ideals; seen from this side of the Atlantic, the answer is not necessarily positive. The predominant position of ancient Greece in the Afrocentric controversy also indicates how Americentric the whole issue actually is.

Because of the prejudiced attitudes, there has not been any sensible dialogue between Afrocentrics and their critics. The present controversy represents nothing but empty squabble when both parties are accusing each other ignorant racists and liars. Nor can there be any sensible dialogue, because both parties are speaking entirely different languages with different conceptions of historical truth and different ideas of the purpose of historical research. A sensible dialogue can exist only in a situation in which both parties recognize and respect each other’s unconditional right of existence. A sensible dialogue requires that both parties commit to the same rules and accept that they may have erred and are willing to correct their views if these views are proven wrong in a logical way. There cannot be any sensible dialogue if either side reserves itself the absolute right to represent the only correct view and expects the other party to surrender unconditionally to this view [36]  Cf. J. Hippler (1996). [36] .

Paradise Lost

4

A better way to approach Afrocentrism than to comdemn it as false scholarship is to understand Afrocentrism as a political, social, and cultural movement which has nothing to do with academic history. Afrocentrism is no history – it represents a partisan ideology and like any partisan ideology it simply wants to exploit the history in order to justify its own cause. History is dangerous, because it offers an unfailing source of examples which can be used for producing evidence for any policy. History is particularly dangerous, when occasional events are used for making general statements concerning the unchanging characteristics of peoples, cultures, or religions.

I am aware of the dangers of saying all this. I can imagine what the consequences may be if my statement is detached from the original context and misinterpreted according to the anti-Western furor. Perhaps my name will haunt the Afrocentric literature for the next five decades – paired with Hugh Trevor-Roper – as an example of the persistent Eurocentric tendency to undervalue African history. Before I am cursed as an Aryan racist of the worst kind, I would like to have an opportunity to explain what I mean. At least in the Eurocentric “model” of justice, the accused is always given a chance to defend oneself and prove his/her innocence.

Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) was, as we all know, the man who immortalized himself by saying that black Africa has no history [37]  F. Fugglestad (1992: 309). [37] . Because of this statement, Trevor-Roper has become an icon which personifies the alleged Eurocentric arrogance. It is, however, important to notice that Trevor-Roper was not a bad historian and his works, none of which deals with Africa, are frequently quoted even today. Especially his early work, The Last Days of Hitler (London 1947: Macmillan), is now considered a classic and a brilliant example of thorough historical inquiry. The conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher granted him a peerage in 1979 (Lord Dacre of Glanton), but this was no reward for his opinion of African history. His scholarly reputation suffered a serious setback in 1983 when he authenticated the fake diaries of Hitler. Nevertheless, in 1992 the Russian authorities asked him to authenticate Goebbels’s diaries which were found in the state archives in Moscow.

Few historians of Africa have bothered to listen at Trevor-Roper patiently to the end, much less to consider what he actually meant with his famous statement which is included in The Rise of Christian Europe (London 1965: Thames and Hudson). This popular book is based on a series of lectures held at the University of Sussex in October 1963 and relayed by BBC Television later in that year. Trevor-Roper seemingly enjoyed provocating as much as informing his audience. In his foreword, he referred to professional medievalists who were “sharpening their knives” against him. Ideologically he was a controversialist with right-of-center views, who had little sympathy for the leftist ideals which were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet his opinion of African history was no indication of his racist mind. The early 1960s was not politically correct and African history was still seen by many as tantamount to the history of European exploration and colonization of the continent. If his statement is set in the proper context – in the introductory chapter of a book which aims to describe the transformation of medieval Western Europe from a colony of Islam into an ascending power centre – it reflects the authors’s personal idea of history more than it reflects any Western disparagement of Africa in general.

According to Trevor-Roper, we should not study history merely for amusement or to fulfil our curiosity (pp. 9-11). We should study history in order to understand its meaning: that is, to discover how we have come to where we are now. If the present world has been shaped by European ideas and European technology, all our efforts should aim to increase our understanding how it happened. This justifies the preference of Europe (or Eurocentrism) in world history. In the future, wrote Trevor-Roper, peoples of Africa and Asia may inherit the primacy in the world which the West can no longer sustain. Such shifts in the centre of political gravity in the world has often happened in the past. But if that should happen, it would not alter the history: the new rulers of the world, whoever they may be, will inherit a position that has been built by Europe. Because the Africans did not participate in the shaping of the modern world, they have no role in the history, except to show to us an image of the past from which, by history, we have escaped. From this point of view, the history of Africa represents the history of losers and Trevor-Roper had clearly no interest in the losers. But he was also optimistic: history is never complete and in the future there will be African history to teach.

Another important point is that history, as Trevor-Roper saw it, is based on written sources. Thus periods and areas which lack written sources do not belong to historians but to anthropologists and archaeologists. Therefore, black Africa has no history – before the coming of the Europeans – as most African cultures save Ethiopia and the islamized societies of the Sudanic zone and the East African littoral produced no written sources [38]  Though in 1969 Trevor-Roper suggested that the whole... [38] . Following this logic, one can say that Greenland, for example, has no history before the coming of the Vikings and later the Danes. The same logic is also visible in the present periodization of Finnish history: the historical time begins with the Swedish conquest in the mid-twelfth century ad, with the appearance of the earliest written sources, whereas the time before that is simply labelled “prehistory”. This periodization does not imply that the prehistoric Finns were particularly primitive people compared to their more “historical” neighbours in the early medieval Baltic, though the word prehistory usually carries such a connotation, nor that the Swedish conquest was followed by a sudden and dramatic change in the Finnish culture.

Trevor-Roper’s opinion of African history is theoretically sound, though it is now obsolete, and we may criticize it more as a representation of the source fetishism in the Western historiographical tradition than as a representation of Eurocentrism in world history. Today most academic historians certainly admit that the concept of source is much broader than written evidence alone. Also, we must remember that in the early 1960s the African archaeology was developing very slowly – Tegdaoust, Niani, Gao, and the old Jenne, for example, were still waiting to be discovered – and today we know about Africa’s precolonial past much more than Trevor-Roper knew in 1963.

Another shocking definition of history was offered by Zacharias Topelius (1818-1898), a Finnish journalist, historian, and author. In his famous speech in 1843, Topelius asked rhetorically if the Finnish people has a history [39]  The original speech, “Äger Finska folket en historie?”,... [39] ? His answer was – like Trevor-Roper’s in the context of Africa – negative: the Finns have no history (at least political history). Topelius’s intention was not to belittle the historical experience and achievements of the Finnish people. Nor did his statement reflect any feeling of cultural superiority, though Topelius belonged to the Swedish-speaking minority which dominated the political, cultural, and economic life in the nineteenth-century Finland. Topelius’s statement reflected his own idea of history which was based on the contemporary German philosophy, above all Georg Hegel (1770-1831). According to Topelius, the Finns have no history, since they had never been able to form an independent state of their own. For Topelius, state was the historical subject, whereas stateless peoples were only historical objects. Thence the history of Finland is the history of its foreign rulers, first the Swedish kings and later the emperors of Russia. But Topelius, too, was optimistic about the future. One day the Finnish people will have a state, and a history, of their own. Topelius himself played an important part in the Finnish national awakening and he advocated energetically patriotic and liberal ideals in his many literary works.

The same Hegelian idea is visible in African historiography which tends to focus on states rather than peoples. Especially in the 1960s and 70s it was important to demonstrate that Africans were not stateless peoples before the coming of the Europeans; that is, without history. Even the tiniest polities were elevated to kingdoms and chieftaincies. Though the aim was to oppose the colonial historiography and its negative view of Africa by proving that precolonial black Africa had a complex and dynamic past, the progressive historians of Africa could not intellectually break away from the Western historiographical tradition. They were still writing African history according to Western standards in order to gain the acceptance of conservative Western academic historians (such as Trevor-Roper).

When I say that Afrocentrism is no history, I do not say that Africa has no history. I mean only that Afrocentrism is no history according to the conventional definition of history; that is, a scientific study of the past based on the principles of the historical method. I would rather consider Afrocentrism as an example of “apohistory” which is guided by completely different principles and logic from the academic history. The prefix “apo” refers here to apocryphic and apologetic, as both adjectives describe well the nature of this literature. I wanted to create a new concept as the expressions “alternative history” and “unconventional history” are both too vague, whereas “allohistory” refers to a spesific genre of historical fiction [40]  See G. Rosenfeld (2002). [40] . The difference between apohistory and allohistory is that the former represents an imaginary interpretation of the factual past whereas the latter stands for a imaginary vision of a fictitious past (“What would have happened if the Mahdists had won the battle of Omdurman?”, for example). Apohistory does not constitute any uniform genre but it consists of several subcategories, some of which are on the fringes of academic history. There are, however, some characteristics which are typical to apohistorical literature and help us to understand its function. If seen from this point of view, Afrocentrism is not so revolutionary or unique as it wants to show off.

The first characteristics of apohistory concerns the intention. Academic history is interested in the past for its own sake. This means that all events and periods of the past are in principle equally worth of examination, though in reality some events and periods are given higher importance than others. If history helps us to understand the present world, it is good but the significance of the historical research does not depend on its relevance to the present. Furthermore, events of the past are not used for providing arguments to present political discussion, either to justify some opinions or to attack others. Historians’ task is not to judge the past but they rather leave the moral assessment to their readers. This intention – neutrality and noncommitment – represents both the strength and the weakness of academic history.

The strength of neutrality is that it helps academic historians to maintain their independence and, above all, their credibility. History focuses on what actually happened, not on what might have happened or should have happened, and this factual reality does not bloom or fade according to the current seasonal changes. The weakness of neutrality is that in this way history is impoverished as a discipline, for the simple reason that the past is filled with atrocities and injustice, and it will do no good if academic historians take up an unconcerned attitude towards human sufferings in the name of objectivity. Moreover, confronted by these horrors, their readers are inevitably driven to ask, how can evil be resisted? If the academic historians refuse to answer satisfactorily this question, as it is outside their professional competence, their silence may force the readers to seek answers from other sources.

Apohistory is always interested in the past for the sake of the present. Sometimes the past is used to justify the present order, rather than to explain it, but more often apohistorians are inspired by their disappointment with the present which they want to compensate with a better past. Apohistory is never neutral in its relation to the past but it wants to manipulate the past to demonstrate some ideology. Thus the fundamental division between academic history and apohistory is not qualitative (the level of truth) but functional (the purpose of historical research).

The second characteristics of apohistory concerns its strong opposition to the conventional knowledge. Apohistory is often written by authors who lack formal academic education, though they might have lower degrees. The lack of professionalism is compensated by open hostility towards the academic historians or those who represent different political ideology. The apohistorians consider themselves the vanguards of truth; a small band of independent-mind researchers who are prepared to speak out and tell the truth about the past. The academic historians, for their part, constitute a reactionary conspiracy that rejects any new interpretation that might upset the established models (and thus nullify their own life work). Following this logic, the academic historians do not resist apohistorians because the latter are wrong but because the academic historians fear that they will lose their dominant position if the truth is revealed. This attitude implies that the academic historians realize that they themselves are wrong and their views are based on intentional falsification of the truth.

On the other hand, most apohistorians have a burning desire for an official recognition and, therefore, they try to camouflage their own works as scientific as possible, as if they were using similar methods to those used by their enemies, the academic historians. In this way, apohistory represents no real alternative way to study and represent the past, because the apohistorians do not dare to take the decisive step to construct an entirely different methodology and discourse. They merely pretend that they are playing according to the rules but reserve themselves the right to break the rules whenever it is necessary to support their aims. Authors of allohistory seldom try to camouflage their works as scientific but openly admit that everything is just imagination. They also focus on subjects which the readers usually recognize immediately as “impossible” (the American Revolution failed, for example).

The hostility towards academic historians may lead to paranoia. As if the whole world were united to destroy the vanguards of truth. In the extreme case this paranoia becomes a phantastic hallucination of a “secret world government” à la Bilderburger Group which monitors everything in everywhere [41]  For an example of this paranoia, see W.M. Cooper (1991).... [41] . Methodologically the conspiracy theory offers an infallible tool, as every negative evidence can be rejected as a part of the conspiracy. For example, following the logic of the conspiracy theory one could deny that the mummy of Ramesses II is no proof that he was not black, because the mummy belongs to someone else. The white historians just pretend that the mummy is the remains of Ramesses II, because they want to maintain the Aryan Model. The result is ultimately an impasse. If apohistorians are unable to convince their academic peers with their fantastic ideas (which are definitely true to them), academic historians are unable to convince the apohistorians that there exist no conspiracy.

The third characteristics concerns the methological principles. The first is the selective use of sources. The aim of apohistory is to justify the preconceived result by accepting only positive evidence. The negative evidence is rejected as unreliable or interpreted in an uncritical way. Following this logic, it is reasonable to say, for example, that Socrates was black, because there is no source which says that he was not black, and because we are already convinced that ancient Greek culture is based on black Egyptian culture (and thus it is reasonable to suppose that the major Greek cultural heroes were blacks, too). Similarly, ancient myths and legends are regarded as truthful evidence of events which really took place in the past. This was the method used by colonial historians, too, to whom Africa oral traditions offered a convenient way to circumvent the many lacunae in the written sources. Another reason, why colonial historians favoured oral traditions, was that the stories of [white] Yemeni ancestors supported the racist migration theory. The second methodological principle is to regard possible as inevitable. If it is possible to cross the Atlantic with a modern replica of a Phoenician trireme, the ancient Phoenicians must have crossed the Atlantic, too. Therefore, it is reasonable to seek traces of ancient Phoenician presence in America. The third principle is the belief in hyper-diffusionism, as already discussed above, which is proved by simplified linguistic and artistic analogies. If statues made by the Toltecs in Mexico have African facial features – in our eyes – it proves that these statues must depict African warriors who discovered America before Columbus.

The fourth charecteristics of apohistory concerns the preference for ancient times to modern times. The explanation is simple. The more distant the period is, the less sources we usually have – the less sources we have, the more room there is for historian’s individual imagination and interpretation. It is much easier to prove that ancient Egyptians built airplanes than to prove that the eighteenth-century Africans in Northern Nigeria built steam engines. The fascination of ancient times fulfils several purposes. One is to compensate a collective inferiority complex: we may be oppressed now, but we had a great past and this knowledge helps us endure our burden. This is the case of Afrocentrism. Another is the belief that the ancients left a message to us. The ancients knew more than we do and this knowledge is encoded in their monuments: the pyramids of Giza, the temple of Angkor Wat, Stonehenge. If we were able to understand that message, we could restore the ancient utopia. This is the case of the historical ufology represented by Däniken and those similarly oriented. Today, historical ufology forms the most visible and the most commercialized subcategory of apohistory.

Afrocentrism lacks the religious element of historical ufology which makes Afrocentrism appear as more sensible and scientific. Yet the lack of the religious element is also the greatest weakness of Afrocentrism. With its glorification of ancient Egypt and Africa, Afrocentrism remains in the past and turns its back to the future. Let’s suppose that Cleopatra was black, Aristotle stole his ideas from the library of Alexandria, and Africans discovered America before Columbus. So what? Nothing would change in the present world or in the modern history. The facts would still be that the Spaniards conquered Mexico, the first Arabic books were printed by Christians in Italy, the presidents of the United States are all white men, and the first human in the space was Yuri Gagarin. The fundamental problem of Afrocentrism is that it offers the African-American community no positive elements to improve its self-esteem and social position by assimilating as equal members in the American society, except a negative feeling of an imagined stolen legacy. Afrocentrism rather represents what the Nigerian intellectual Chinweizu calls “wallowing in self-pity” and contenting oneself with “the tantrums of frustrated dependants [42]  Decolonizing the African Mind (Lagos 1987: Pero Press),... [42] ”. To other oppressed peoples – continental Africans, Latin Americans, Asians, Arabs – it has much less to offer. Even if we painted Eurocentrism black, it will be still the same Eurocentrism [43]  A. Jones (1999: 78-79). [43] .

Guardians of the Past

5

As quoted above, “Afrocentric method is concerned with establishing a world view about the writing and speaking of oppressed people”. From this point of view, Afrocentrism represents an apohistorical variant of “combat history [44]  F.-X. Fauvelle-Aymar (2002: 75-90). [44] ”.

Combat history is always openly political. It differs, however, from the “party history”, which is typical to totalitarian political systems, such as the former Soviet Union or the present People’s Republic of China, where history is constantly revised according to the current political tendencies. The party history is regarded as the sacred truth and it is defined by the authorities from above: if the party history declares that Trotsky or Wang Hongwen are traitors, they simply are. There is no need of evidence and academic historians are expected to confirm this truth. To deny this truth has serious consequences to an individual historian. Combat history, however, represents the history of a marginalized group, usually a minority though not always, who is fighting for its recognition or who is trying to build an identity by searching for evidence of a collective positive experience from the past. Methodologically, both party history and combat history are not necessarily in opposition to academic history. The crucial difference is rather political than practical, as both lack the neutrality of academic history and they emphasize more the ideologically correct interpretation of sources. Both follow, however the basic principles of the historical method and only in extreme cases they decline to apohistory.

An example of combat history and a curious parallel to Afrocentrism is an intellectual movement which is called Fennomania in the Finnish historiography (though methodologically and ideologically a more suitable historical parallel to Afrocentrism is the nineteenth-century Slavophilia in Russia). In order to understand the ideology of Fennomania, one has to place it in the proper historical context. I presume that the political and cultural history of Finland is not so familiar to most readers and, therefore, a brief excursion to the fringes of Western civilization in the far north is necessary [45]  The following brief introduction to the Finnish historiography... [45] .

As mentioned above, the history of Finland begins with the Swedish conquest in the mid-twelfth century ad. It took, however, almost two centuries until the Swedish rule in Finland was effective. In the late Middle Ages, when all Nordic countries were united under the Danish crown (the Scandinavian Union of 1397-1521), Finland still enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, because of the peripheric location. The situation changed drastically with the establishment of the Swedish national monarchy in the early sixteenth century. During its period as a great power (1617-1721), Sweden extended its empire around the Baltic. With consolidation of the administration in Stockholm, uniform Swedish rule was extended to Finland, which strengthened the position of the Swedish language in Finland, as well as rooted Swedish legal and social system in Finland.

In 1809, Finland became a part of the Russian Empire as a consequence of the changing fortunes of the Napoleonic wars. During the Swedish rule, Finland was merely a group of provinces and not a national entity. But when Finland was joined to Russia, it became an autonomous Grand Duchy with its own central government, diet, legislation, army, currency, and postage stamps. In one sense the Finnish state came before the Finnish nation. In this respect Finland was different from many other European countries where historical nations, for instance the Czechs, the Catalans, or the Irishmen, were fighting for a separate state or autonomous status.

The Finnish national movement began to emerge in the 1830s. Its first significant manifestation was the publication of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, in 1835 (the full version appeared in 1849). The Kalevala was composed on the basis of folk poems which were collected in the “less-civilized” Eastern Finland and Karelia. The poetic song tradition, sung in an unusual archaic trochaic tetrametre, is typical to the Finns and their linguistic relatives in the Baltic. The Finnish nationalists regarded the Kalevala as a testimony to an independent glorious Finnish pagan age and Finland’s passport into the family of civilized nations.

The first aim of the emerging Finnish nationalism was to improve the position of the Finnish language and culture, rather than to demand political independence from Russia. The second aim was to create a clear “Finnish” identity for the nation and to base this identity on the qualities of the Finnish-speaking section of the population. Although only one seventh of the Finnish population spoke Swedish as its first language, Swedish was the official language of administration. In practise, this meant that the common people seldom understood a word of the documents handed out to them in government offices. Swedish was also the language of higher education. The situation was thus very similar to Africa during the colonial rule. The language decree of 1863 marked the beginning of the process through which Finnish eventually became an official administrative language but Swedish retained its dominant position until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The split of the nation was linguistic only: those who spoke Swedish had the same ethnic background as those who spoke Finnish. Nor was there any fundamental cultural difference. There was, however, a sharp social boundary between the two sections, as the Swedish-speaking minority constituted the majority of the upper class, though there also existed a Swedish-speaking proletariat.

The discussion of the Finnish identity became more heated with the introduction of racism. According to the late nineteenth-century racist theories, language and race went hand in hand: if two peoples were linguistically related, they were also racially related. Now, Swedish is a Germanic language and belongs to the Indo-European languages. Finnish is a Fenno-Ugric language (together with Estonian and Hungarian) and belongs to the Uralic languages. Following the racist theory, the speakers of Swedish and Finnish should, therefore, constitute separate ethnic groups: the formers belonging to the Germanic race and the latter to the Fenno-Ugric race. It happens that the Uralic languages are mainly spoken by rather primitive nomadic peoples in Siberia (such as the Nenets, the Nganasan, and the Selkup), who have visibly Asiatic physical features. The next step was to conclude that the Fenno-Ugric peoples, too, being linguistic relatives of the speakers of Uralic languages, must belong to the Asiatic race and, therefore, the Finnish-speaking Finns are not racially pure Westerners but alien and primitive aboriginals who were subjugated by the medieval Swedish colonists whose offspring is the present Swedish-speaking population in Finland [46]  A. Kemiläinen (1998). [46] . This theory is complete nonsense but it sounded sensible at that time and it offered an excellent argument to defend the dominant position of Swedish language in Finland. According to the racist argument, the Swedish-speaking “Germans” maintained the Western civilization in Finland with their superior racial characteristics, whereas the Finnish-speaking “Mongols” were too primitive to create any culture, and, therefore, Swedish must retain its position as the language of administration and higher education.

It is curious that the racist argument still haunts the popular imagination of Finland among the English-speaking peoples, both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, who stubbornly stick to the fallacious idea that the ancestors of Finns (as well as those of the Estonians and Hungarians) are somewhat “Asians”. Personally I do not take it any insult. It would be wonderful if I could say that my forefather rode with the great Batu – but unfornately this is not true. In reality, my ancestors’ genetic inheritance points more towards the Alps than the Altai.

A counterreaction to the racist argument was that the Finnish nationalism began to turn into more aggressive Fennomania which had an effect in all the fields of society. The artistic manifestation of Fennomania is called Karelianism ; it took its inspiration from what was considered purely Finnish sources and above all the Kalevala. The high point of Karelianism was the Finnish Pavilion in the Paris World Fair in 1900, which gained much positive international attention, because of its distictively original and different design.

The historiographical manifestation of Fennomania was the creation of a national history for Finland. The Fennoman historians openly admitted that they were advocates of the Finnish nationalism. They did not regard this as an enemy of scientific and objective examination but as a prerequisite for it. In their minds, the same historical development that had created everywhere – in culture, literature, science, art, state life, society – the obtrusive Finnish national idea, had inevitably also created Finnish national historiography which represented that idea. The Fennoman historians considered themselves the guardians of the nation’s historical consciousness.

The aim of the Fennoman historians was not to manipulate the Finnish history to prove any racial or cultural superiority of the Finns in relation to other peoples, the Swedes or the Russians, for example. In this respect, the Fennomans did not give up their professional ethics as academic historians. Fennomania was rather a question of interpretation of the past, though Fennoman historians were less enchanted with the source fetishism but rather emphasized the subjectivity of historical research. “How can we expect an historian to be able to describe the past objectively, if he cannot describe his own times, not even his own environment, in such a way that everyone would agree with him?”, Gunnar Suolahti (1876-1933) asked in a very Collingwoodian way [47]  Cited in P. Ahtiainen (1991: 185). [47] . The favourite period of Fennoman historians was understandably the Finnish prehistory. It represented an age of independence which was marked by the Finnish heroic resistance against Swedish and Russian invaders. Another favourite period was the Middle Ages which was an equally heroic age as the historical subjects were still mainly ethnic Finns. The crucial aspect of Fennoman historiography was, however, a teleological view to the past. The aim was to demonstrate that the decline in power of the Swedish-speaking minority was an historical inevitability. The Swedish rule up to 1809 was seen strictly from the Finnish perspective. The deeds of the Swedish kings were evaluated according to whether they were good or bad for Finland. Often they were bad. Finland had suffered as the Swedish authorities did not understand or care about Finnish interests. Even so Swedish policy could not hinder the development of a Finnish national consciousness. The teleological tendency in Finnish historiography was naturally strengthened by the attainment of full independence on 6 December 1917.

The Fennoman interpretation of Finnish history was criticized by the Swedish-speaking historians who maintained that it was unhistorical to look for a Finnish national consciousness inside the Swedish realm. They also emphasized the positive aspects of the Swedish rule which had, after all, rooted Finland in the Western European cultural sphere. The discussion concerning the Swedish rule centred on the question whether Finland was different in any other respect than an ordinary regional one. Were the Finns an oppressed minority or just subjects of the Swedish king who happened to speak one of the many languages of the Swedish Empire which also included Germans, Estonians, Latvians, Samians, and Danes? From this point of view, the discussion of the balance of Swedish rule in the Finnish history resembled much the present discussion of the impact and significance of European colonial rule to Africa.

The Swedish oppression remained a crucial theme in the Finnish historiography until the 1960s when it was replaced with a more neutral attitude towards the past: “Let us no longer nurture a sense of oppression … but let’s realistically put the question, what has the school of Swedish rule meant for the development of our people [48]  K. Pirinen (1964). [48] ?” Much of the Fennoman furor was tamed by the changing political realities. First the independence which was the fulfilment of the national movement; the traumatic years of the Second World War which required national unity across any political (left/right) and linguistic (Swedish/Finnish) boundaries; and later the life in the shadow of the Soviet Union which made Finnish historians to emphasize Finland’s cultural and ideological adherence to the West rather than to the East. The latest political change which has affected the Finnish historiography was Finland’s membership in the European Union in 1995. Consequently, Finnish historians have begun to view Finnish history in a broader European context, in order to understand better what was unique in our historical experience and how we adjusted ourselves to the more general development in the Western world.

Besides changing politics, another taming factor was a new historiographical tendency which spread to Finland from Sweden since the 1940s. This was the “Weibullian method” which emphasized the ultimate authority of archival material at the expense of historian’s individual imagination and interpretation. Only by giving history a secure foothold in statements about the past which are beyond reasonable doubt, it can be regarded as a scholarly enterprise deserving the status of knowledge [49]  Named after the Swedish historian Lauritz Weibull (1873-1960)... [49] . This attitude was considered an antidote to the Fennoman conception of history, which mingled politics and science. The Weibullian method was suitable in the postwar political situation, as the closest and most natural country from which support could be sought was obviously Sweden, a realm whose Western status was totally unquestioned in the West itself. The former bitterness could even turn into gratitude for those favours that Sweden had once rendered to Finland: Lutheran faith, democratic institutions, and the seeds of economic modernization, for example.

When Lemminkäinen met Osiris

6

Fennomania was not restricted to Finnish national history only. An interesting manifestation of Fennoman ideology was the world history written by the leading Finnish-speaking historians and published in the years 1914-1922 [50]  J.W. Ruuth et al. (eds.), Maailman historia, 6 vols.... [50] . The aim of this project was not to revise world history from a Fennocentric view; that is, everything important was invented by Finns or took place first in Finland. Basically, the work did not differ from the similar world histories published in other Western countries. The approach was typically Eurocentric with the usual stories of the ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations, followed by the history of medieval Europe and the rise of the West. What was different, was the participation of the Fenno-Ugric and Uralic peoples. The second volume, for instance, familiarizes the reader with the decline of Roman Empire, the Germanic Invasions, the Carolingian Empire and its successors, Byzance, and the birth of Islamic civilization. There is, however, also one chapter which is dedicated to the contemporary history of the Fenno-Ugric peoples, suggesting that “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe” (to use a Trevor-Roperesque expression) were equally important parts of the historical knowledge to the deeds of Constantine the Great, Justinian I, Muhammad, or Charlemagne. Similarly, the third volume, which covers the period from the crusades to the Protestant Reformation, includes a chapter which is entitled “History of the eastern Fenno-Ugric peoples during their period of independence [sic]”. The novelty of the Fennoman world history was not any revolutionary reinterpretation but its wider perspective: it wanted to incorporate in world history such peoples who were usually ignored as unimportant and to evaluate the major events of world history according to their impact to these peoples.

The most bizarre manifestation of Fennomania in world history was offered by Sigurd Wettenhovi-Aspa (Wetterhoff-Asp; 1870-1946), a controversial artist and an eccentric autodidact, to whom truth was something more than scholarship. There is no space for a detailed description of the evolution of Aspa’s thinking which was crystallized in his theory of the Fenno-Egyptian origin of Western civilization [51]  There exist no comprehensive biography of Aspa published... [51] . The inspiration came from his friend, the famous Swedish author August Strindberg (1849-1912), whom Aspa had met in Paris while the former was suffering from his inferno crisis in 1894-96. As a consequence of his alchemic and occult experiences Strindberg published in 1910 a book entitled “Biblical proper names [52]  Luach hasemot. Bibliska egennamn med ordfränder i klassiska... [52] ”, in which he tried to prove that Hebrew was the original language of the world. In 1911 Strindberg published another equally strange book entitled “The roots of the world languages [53]  Millah Sarasit. Världsspråkens rötter (Stockholm). [53] ”, in which he claimed that there is an equivalent in Hebrew for every word in all world languages with the notable exception of African languages. Having read Strindberg’s two books, Aspa decided that his mission was to convince the Swede – and the entire world – of the pre-eminence of the Finnish language.

According to Aspa, the original home of Finns was Java and the Malays were our ancestors. This reasoning was based on the similarity between the ethnonym Malay and the Finnish word maalaji [soil type], as well as other equally sensible linguistic analogies, and the recent discovery of the Java man. From Java, our ancestors went to Egypt through India and the Near East. The pyramids are actually reproductions of the volcanoes of Java. The word Egypt itself comes from the original Finnish denomination Äijäkupittaa which could be understood to mean a fountainhead. According to Aspa, this explanation was reasonable because ancient Egypt was the fountainhead of the Greek civilization [sic]. From Egypt, the proto-Finns dispersed around the old world, though the main branch settled in the Baltic. Indisputable proofs of the ancient Finnish Völkerwanderungen are the many Western European toponyms which are based on the Finnish language [54]  See for example “The Highfinnish localitynames in Great... [54] . Paris, for example, was originally a Finnish settlement on the Seine and its ancient name Lutetia comes from the Finnish Luteensija [Place of bedbugs]. Similarly, the great Napoleon had a Finnish ancestry, as the name Bonaparte [Buonaparte] comes from the Finnish Punaparta [Red beard]. Actually, all modern European languages are nothing but corrupted forms of Finnish. Some Finnish groups migrated from the Nile valley to black Africa and brought with them elements of Fenno-Egyptian culture. As in the case of Europe, the proof of ancient Finnish presence in black Africa is the existence of many Finnish loan words in various modern African languages.

This phantasmagoria was first published in a series of newspaper articles in the summer of 1911 [55]  ‘Till frågan om “Världsspråkens rötter”. Filologiska... [55] , and four years later in a brief book entitled “Finland’s Golden Book volume I [56]  Finlands gyllene book I (Helsinki 1915: Helsingfors... [56] ”. The culmination of Aspa’s Fenno-Egyptian theory was the book entitled “The Kalevala and Egypt”, or the “Finland’s Golden Book volume II”, which appeared in 1935 to celebrate the centenary of the publication of the first edition of the Kalevala [57]  Kalevala ja Egypti. Riemujuhlajulkaisu Kalevalan satavuotispäiväksi... [57] . In this book Aspa demonstrated that the Kalevala was actually based on the [Fenno-] Egyptian mythology. The legendary hero Lemminkäinen, for instance, was the same as Osiris. This comparison is reasonable indeed and it opens an interesting view to the Kalevala but it is hardly any proof of cultural diffusion from the banks of the Nile to the forests of Karelia. An extended version of the book (461 pages) was published in German in the same year which meant that Aspa’s ideas also spread abroad [58]  Fenno-ägyptischer Kulturursprung der Alten Welt. Kommentare... [58] .

What about Aspa’s reception? He was openly ridiculed in the Swedish-language press, which considered him a mere joke. Reason for this attitude was more political than any real fear that Aspa’s ideas might infiltrate the Finnish academic history. In the Fennoman side, Aspa was regarded as an embarrassing fabulist whom nobody took seriously. Yet doors were not closed to Aspa. He had many powerful friends who symphatized his mission – to strengthen the Finnish identity – though they did not approve all of his thinking. But Aspa had also a number of kindred souls abroad. One was the Estonian linguist Arthur Gleye (1867-1937) who also had an enormous broad vision of the role of Fenno-Ugric peoples in Antiquity. He claimed, for example, that the ancient Cretans were in reality proto-Finns [59]  Gleye’s magnum opus was published posthumously: Die... [59] . Another was the Hungarian linguist Vilmos Hevesy (1877-1945), who was sure that the Munda languages of India were related to Finnish [60]  Finnisch-Ugrisches aus Indien. Es gibt keine austrische... [60] . In Finland, Aspa’s Fenno-Egyptian theory had several followers. The Helsinki University Library has an impressive collection of pamphlets and books which aim to prove that our ancestors were either ancient Egyptians, Cretans, Cypriots, or Etruscans, and such works were still published in the 1980s. This literature was, however, largely unfamiliar to the reading public, as all titles are examples of vanity publishing with small circulation figures.

It is easy to judge the Fenno-Egyptian theory nonsense. A more righteous way is to view it as an anachronism; a relic of the baroque scholarship which considered truth more flexible than it is understood in our scientific times. Aspa’s method was simply that even the tiniest phonetic resemblance was a sufficient proof of linguistic, cultural, and racial relationship. Another aspect was the very liberal interpretation of ancient legends and myths. As discussed above, both are methods used widely by apohistorians. They were also used by the seventeenth-century humanists in Western Europe, who composed fabulous histories to emphasize the glory of their respective nations. One example of the baroque historiography was Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630-1702) who fabricated a magnificent past for the Swedish Empire [61]  Atlantica (Uppsala 1675: Henricus Curio). Several editions... [61] . According to Rudbeck, Sweden was the Atlantis of Plato and the Paradise of the Bible, and Swedish the mother of all languages. To support his argument, Rudbeck compared Greek and Latin names with Swedish ones with amazing results. He also claimed that both Greece and Rome had received their first seeds of civilization from Finland. The River Kokemäki in Western Finland, for example – called Kumo in Swedish – was the Cumae of the Aeneid (VI: 1-10). There is even a curious connection to ancient Egypt. According to Rudbeck, the River Ii in Northern Finland was named after the goddess Isis. Following this logic, the Gauls derived their name from the River Kalajoki in Northwestern Finland.

Rudbeck’s work prompted the Finnish scholar Daniel Juslenius (1676-1752) to fabricate an equally magnificent history for Finland with great kings and ancient cities [62]  Aboa vetus et nova (Turku 1700: Jo. Wallius). [62] . Juslenius made Finland the fountainhead of all civilization and using Rudbeck’s method he was able to make equally amazing discoveries on the European map. Venice, for example, was an ancient Finnish colony, for the Italian name Venezia comes from the Finnish word Venesija [Anchorage]. Aspa knew well both Rudbeck’s and Juslenius’s works.

In many ways, Aspa was a product of his own times, the decadent fin de siècle. He was no more crazy than the French General Henri Frey (1847-1932) who believed that the Annamite was the mother of all languages [63]  L’Annamite, mère des langues. Communauté d’origine... [63] , and that the ancient Egyptians came from Indo-China [64]  Les Égyptiens préhistoriques identifiés avec les Annamites... [64] . Not to mention those modern Afrocentrics who claim that the Native American languages are full of words with Arabic roots, or that the name Alabama comes from the Turkish Allah bamya [God’s graveyard] and Niagara from Ne Yaygara [huge noise]. These words and names were naturally introduced by the Muslim West African visitors of North America, whose descendants are, for example, the historical Anasazi and the present Iroquois [65]  See Jose V. Pimienta-Bey, “Muslim legacy in early Americas”:... [65] .

Topsy-turvy

7

How should we summarize this meandering stream of counsciousness? Is Afrocentrism a real menace to the academic history and the freedom of speech, and, therefore, we sensible scholars must close our ranks for a counteroffensive? Frankly, I don’t give a damn for what history is taught in American classrooms. It is an American problem and does not bother me. The beef is not the teaching of African history or Cleopatra’s pigmentation. The beef is the position and prospects of the black community in the American society and, ultimately, the limits of tolerance towards difference in the American culture. Until these two important questions are answered satisfactorily, there cannot be any solution to the Afrocentric controversy.

The American critics of Afrocentrism apparently fail to understand its political and social connections and, instead, they focus on the very narrow and pragmatic issue of truth value only. The explanation is perhaps that the United States lacks the national experience of combat history. The leading American [white] academic historians have never needed to defend their own existence, for they have always been members of the dominant ethnic and cultural section within the American society. Until the 1960s, most American historians devoted themselves to explaining America’s uniqueness, as a polity and as a nation. The United States was considered unique from the rest of the world because a virtually unchallengeable national myth identified this as a country created by removal from the corruptions and confinement of Europe. Quarrelling over the causes of America’s uniqueness, academic historians divided into various schools but the reality and importance of that uniqueness was never been in question. In a way, the history of the United States was regarded as complete. Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispano-Americans might have had different opinions, but their opinions were distorted by their painful experiences in the past which represented indeed the lamentable but also inevitable chapter of the American success story. In the future, they, too, would enjoy the blessing of America’s uniqueness. For many influential historians of the United States today, the concept of nation has a different presence, passive and usually unexamined. The nation is simply a convenient area, within which some events take place. Moreover, they are not interested in national questions or comparisons, and the deliberate study of national behaviour, institutions, and identity is relatively neglected. Against this background, it is understandable that they are upset, when they are suddenly challenged to speak about values and politics of historical research, as they themselves believe that they should be free from any ideological bias [66]  J. Higham (1994). [66] .

My nonchalance does not imply that I regard Afrocentrism as a joke. It is not a joke; it is a serious political movement which deserves serious and impartial attention. Not only because we may face a similar situation in Europe when the new generations of immigrants start building their own identities with the help of history and perhaps demand official recognition as alternative history for such claims that Stonehenge was built by prehistoric African visitors from the Gambia or Dante Alighieri stole his Divina Comedia for the Arabic literature.

As an individual I can understand, and even symphatize, the aim of Afrocentric writers to tell African-American community that their ancestors were something more than just nameless slaves before they were shipped to the New World. They had a history. My understanding and feeling of sympathy comes partly from the historical experience of my own cultural environment and partly from my own personal experience in the English-speaking world, as described above. My professional ethics as an academic historian, however, prevents me from accepting Afrocentrism as any positive replacement to the existing tradition of historical research.

I am more worried about the impact of Afrocentrism to African historiography, though my concern is more practical than political. I am worried, because Afrocentrism represents a methodological leap backwards to the baroque historiography. What surprises me for the most is the way in which some Afrocentric writers have started validating the obsolete and often the worst examples of colonial historiography, when this literature seems to support their own hypotheses. This concerns even the Hamitic hypothesis, which have begun to transform itself into some sort of a trustworthy “Ancient Model” which the bad Eurocentric historians aim to replace with their racist distortions (as happened in the historiography of ancient Egypt – if we believe Martin Bernal). As most readers, hopefully, remember, the Hamitic hypothesis was a creation of the colonial historiography in the turn of the twentieth century and its original function was to prove that all cultural progress in black Africa was always initiated by more civilized “white” peoples (Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Berbers, Arabs) – not to prove that black Africa received its civilization from black Egyptians – and to offer an historical justification for the European colonial rule in Africa [67]  See E.R. Sanders (1969). [67] .

One example of this rebirth of colonial historiography is the so-called University of Sankore in Timbuktu. Originally this idea comes from Félix Dubois (1862-1943), a French newspaperman who visited Timbuktu soon after the French conquest of Western Sudan. He was seemingly enchanted with the ancient history of the Niger valley. In his report, Dubois described Timbuktu as one of the great scientific centres of Islamic world, “her university being the younger sister of those in Cairo, Cordova, Fez, and Damascus [68]  Timbuctoo the Mysterious (London 1897: Heinemann),... [68] ”. The full flowering of the University of Sankore was given by Lady Lugard (aka Flora Show), a newspaperwoman and a strong advocate of British imperialism. Lady Lugard, too, was fascinated with the history of the sixteenth-century Songhay which represented her the highest achievement of the black civilization in Africa. Part of this glorious civilization was the great university of Timbuktu [69]  A Tropical Dependency. An Outline of the Ancient History... [69] . The joke is that the word “black” was in Lady Lugard’s vocabulary a honorary title given to those “finer races” of Africans “who count as a partly white race”. These finer races were, for example, the Fulani, the Hausa, and the Songhay. These races were born of the union of the superior white Berber nomads with the inferior “negroes” of the Sahel. Of the negroes (that is, black Africans in our present discourse), Lady Lugard had nothing positive to say. They had no place in history, except as the subjects and servants of the finer black races. When expressing their admiration towards the achievements of the sixteenth-century Songhay (and the great univerity of Timbuktu), Lady Lugard and Félix Dubois were actually describing a civilization which they considered essentially non-African, and which did not exist outside their own imagination [70]  P. Masonen (2000: 485-486). For a more detailed discussion... [70] .

My aim is not to undervalue the black African civilization of the Western Sudan, nor to deny the scholarship of the learned men of Timbuktu (of whom most were Sanhaja Berbers) but to demonstrate that originally the University of Sankore was a creation of colonial historiography and it purports quite different ideology from Afrocentrism.

The sad aspect in the Afrocentric controversy is that basically Afrocentrics are right. The history of Africa is not complete and it is still haunted by many remnants of the colonial historiography, not only in the Afrocentric literature. These remnants have been able to survive, because much of our conventional knowledge of precolonial African history is based on the secondary or even tertiary literature written in the 1960s and 70s by authors who were not so keen on finding primary sources. Therefore, we should disregard much of this literature [71]  D. Henige (1987). [71] . What is needed is a careful reexamination of African history, from the very beginning, not by picking out only such evidence as corresponds with the knowledge we have inherited from the earlier works and which we consider justified as such since it has been repeated for a long time, or as corresponds with the attitudes of our times towards the African past; but using all the sources we have available to us now, not only textual, and by interpreting them without any fixed presuppositions. In this task, we must, if necessary, dare to challenge all the previous hypotheses, even if they were the holy of the holies [72]  P. Masonen & H.J. Fisher (1996). [72] .

It is no improvement is if we just turn colonial historiography topsy-turvy and call it Afrocentrism. Personally I believe that the historical method, regardless of its background in the Western civilization and its connection to Eurocentric historiography, still offers the best way to improve our knowledge of African history into one more objective, more neutral, more trustworthy, and above all, more fair to the Africans themselves.

Epilogue

8

As many readers may have recognized, the title of this essay refers to the case of Antoine Lavoisier during the French Revolution (whereas the citation is from Alexander Pope). Lavoisier was an excellent chemist with an international reputation. He was, however, arrested on 8 May 1794. He was arbitrarily charged of activities to damage public health, though it was clear to all that the real reason for his arrest was political. Lavoisier was a moderate constitutionalist and he shared many of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. Because of his political views, Lavoisier had played an active part in the events preceeding the revolution in 1789. Nevertheless, he was considered a political enemy by the radical Jacobins. Lavoisier’s real crime was that in his youth he had been involved in the Fermiers Généraux, a private association of state-protected tax-collectors, which became a target of the revolutionary wrath of the Jacobins during the terror. Finally, all Fermiers Généraux, including Lavoisier, were imprisoned and sentenced to death in a farcical trial that lasted less than a day. The story goes that Lavoisier’s defence tried to impress the justice by emphasizing his scientific merits which could also be useful to the revolutionary government. The justice immortalized himself by his bold answer: “The Republic has no use for savants”. Lavoisier was executed on the same day.

The fate of Lavoisier was in many ways prophetic, if we consider the general eagerness of subsequent totalitarian governments to liquidate intellectuals – that is, all people who might ask too disturbing questions – in all countries, where the political system rests on one truth only. An extreme example is the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, where intellectuals became targets of harsh rectification campaign because they were considered of being more concerned with expertise in their own specialized fields than correct political thinking.

I wish that my Afrocentric colleagues stopped for a while to think about the message of this essay, before they sentence me to meet the “widow” of Place de la Concorde.


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  • Simensen Jarle, ”Value-orientation in historical research and writing: the colonial period in African history’, History in Africa, xvii, 1990.
  • Wallerstein Immanuel, ‘Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The dilemmas of social science’, The New Left Review, no. 226, 1997, pp. 93-107.
  • van Binsbergen Wim, ‘Une défense de l’Afrocentrisme contre Stephen Howe’, Politique africaine, no. 79, octobre 2000, pp. 175-180.
  • van Sertima Ivan (ed.), African Presence in Early America, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction Books, 1987.

Notes

[1]

J. Simensen (1990: 278).

[2]

B. Fay (2002: 1).

[3]

R.G. Collingwood (1946: 108-9).

[4]

See for example A.A. Boahen (1985).

[5]

J. Hippler (1998). For an English translation of this article, see [http://jochen-hippler.­de/­Aufsatze/­Eurocentrism/­eurocentrism.­html].­ All websites mentioned were accessed on 10 April 2003.

[6]

See The Mudaqqimah. An introduction to history, translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal, 3 vols. (New York 1958: Pantheon Books); also G. Hourani (1982).

[7]

S.R. Merlet (1989).

[8]

M. Rodinson (1987: 94-95).

[9]

I. Wallerstein (1997).

[10]

See W. van Binsbergen (2000).

[11]

E.H. Carr (1961).

[12]

M.K. Asante (1987: 159).

[13]

R.A. Miller (1982). The citation is from Haruhiko Kindaichi, Nihongo (1957); tr. Umeyo Hirano, The Japanese Language (Rutland VT, 1978: Charles E. Tuttle).

[14]

Cf. L. Hutcheon (1989: 1).

[15]

Abû ’l-Qâsim Ibn Hawqal al-Nusaybî, Kitâb Sûrat al-ard. English translation from J.F.P. Hopkins & N. Levtzion (1981: 44).

[16]

See Descrittione dell’Africa, ff. 83-84, in Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Delle navigationi et viaggi, vol. I (Venice 1550: Tommaso Giunti). On Leo’s life and works, see P. Masonen (2000-2001).

[17]

For the Aryan model, see M. Bernal (1987: 440-441).

[18]

S. Huntington (1993).

[19]

S. Orakwue (2002: 56).

[20]

Cf. B. Lewis (1971).

[21]

Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People (20 September 2001).

[22]

Cf. G.B.N. Ayittey (1992: 20-22).

[23]

R.J. Evans (1997: 231-232).

[24]

M. Hyman (1994).

[25]

S.M. Cissoko (1974). For more modern visions, try the search “University of Sankore” in the internet.

[26]

I. van Sertima (ed.) (1987).

[27]

R. Fletcher (1992: 171-175).

[28]

K.C. MacDonald et al. (1995).

[29]

A. Holl (1990).

[30]

Cf. Robert Harvey’s foreword to his The Undefeated (1994).

[31]

R. Bauval & G. Hancock (1996).

[32]

H. Kersten (1993).

[33]

See [http://www.­daeniken.­com].

[34]

The jacket includes praising citations from Clarence E. Walker (University of California, Davis); Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (CUNY Graduate Center); Nathan Glazer (Harvard University); Frank M. Snowden Jr. (Howard University); Bernard Knox (Harvard University); Diane Ravitch (New York University); K. Anthony Appiah (Harvard University).

[35]

S. Howe (1998); F.-X. Fauvelle-Aymar et al. (eds.) (2000).

[36]

Cf. J. Hippler (1996).

[37]

F. Fugglestad (1992: 309).

[38]

Though in 1969 Trevor-Roper suggested that the whole of African continent is without history, including Ethiopia, Islamic Egypt, and the Maghrib, by contrasting the “historic Asia” with the “unhistoric Africa” (“The past and the present. History and Sociology”, Past and Present, no. 42, pp. 3-17).

[39]

The original speech, “Äger Finska folket en historie?”, appeared in the journal Joukahainen in 1845.

[40]

See G. Rosenfeld (2002).

[41]

For an example of this paranoia, see W.M. Cooper (1991). Cooper was a prominent figure in the American paramilitary ultrarightist movement, the Patriot Movement.

[42]

Decolonizing the African Mind (Lagos 1987: Pero Press), p. 73.

[43]

A. Jones (1999: 78-79).

[44]

F.-X. Fauvelle-Aymar (2002: 75-90).

[45]

The following brief introduction to the Finnish historiography is based on M. Engman (1994); also P. Ahtiainen & J. Tervonen (2000).

[46]

A. Kemiläinen (1998).

[47]

Cited in P. Ahtiainen (1991: 185).

[48]

K. Pirinen (1964).

[49]

Named after the Swedish historian Lauritz Weibull (1873-1960) who worked at the University of Lund. Weibull’s “School of Lund” dominated the Swedish historiography until the 1970s.

[50]

J.W. Ruuth et al. (eds.), Maailman historia, 6 vols. (Helsinki: Tietosanakirja-osakeyhtiö).

[51]

There exist no comprehensive biography of Aspa published in any foreign language. For a brief introduction to his life, see T. Nevanlinna (1997). This article is equally fantastic as the man was but it offers a glimpse of his mentality. The following information is based on Aspa’s biography published in Finnish (Harry Halén & Tauno Tukkinen, Elämän ja kuoleman kello. Sigurd Wettenhovi-Aspan elämä ja työt, Helsinki 1984: Otava), which contains a full bibliography of his literary works as well as many useful references to other literary manifestations of the Fenno-Egyptian theory.

[52]

Luach hasemot. Bibliska egennamn med ordfränder i klassiska och lefvande språk (Stockholm).

[53]

Millah Sarasit. Världsspråkens rötter (Stockholm).

[54]

See for example “The Highfinnish localitynames in Great Britain as a last remembrance of the Fenno-Celtic times”, Forum. Suomalaisen sivistyneistön kulttuurijulkaisu, ii, 7 (1935), pp. 21-26.

[55]

‘Till frågan om “Världsspråkens rötter”. Filologiska ströftåg och meditationer’, Hufvudstadsbladet, 9 July 1911, 31 July 1911, 19 August 1911. The Hufvudstadsbladet is the leading Swedish language newspaper in Finland. In spite of his mission, Aspa published most of his writings in Swedish.

[56]

Finlands gyllene book I (Helsinki 1915: Helsingfors Finska Bokhandel). The Finnish translation, Suomen kultainen kirja I, appeared in the same year (Helsinki: Hakaniemen Kirjakauppa Oy).

[57]

Kalevala ja Egypti. Riemujuhlajulkaisu Kalevalan satavuotispäiväksi 28.2.1835 - 28.2.1935 (Suomen kultainen kirja II) (Helsinki: K.F. Puromiehen kirjapaino).

[58]

Fenno-ägyptischer Kulturursprung der Alten Welt. Kommentare zu den vorhistorischen Völkerwanderungen (Leipzig 1935: Genius-Verlag). In reality, this book was published by K.F. Puromies in Helsinki (see footnote 57 above).

[59]

Gleye’s magnum opus was published posthumously: Die Wiedergeburt der westfinnischen Geisteskultur. Die Urbevölkerung Europas - westfinnischen (hyberboräischen) Ursprungs. Westfinnische Denkmäler von hohen Norden bis zum aegyptischen Süden, besonders in Kreta (Tallinn 1937: Eesti kirjastus-ühisus). Gleye began his literary career in the 1890s when he became interested in the Mediterranean origin of the Estonians.

[60]

Finnisch-Ugrisches aus Indien. Es gibt keine austrische Sprachenfamilie. Das vorarische Indien teilweise finnisch-ugrisch (Wien 1932: Manzsche Verlags- und Universitäts-buchhandlung).

[61]

Atlantica (Uppsala 1675: Henricus Curio). Several editions and reprints.

[62]

Aboa vetus et nova (Turku 1700: Jo. Wallius).

[63]

L’Annamite, mère des langues. Communauté d’origine des races celtiques, sémitiques, soudanaises et de l’Indo-Chine (Paris 1892: Hachette).

[64]

Les Égyptiens préhistoriques identifiés avec les Annamites d’après les inscriptions hiéroglyphiques (Paris 1905: Hachette).

[65]

See Jose V. Pimienta-Bey, “Muslim legacy in early Americas”: [http://www.­cyberistan.­org/­islamic/­africanm.­htm].

[66]

J. Higham (1994).

[67]

See E.R. Sanders (1969).

[68]

Timbuctoo the Mysterious (London 1897: Heinemann), p. 276. The French original, Tombouctou la mystérieuse, was published in the same year.

[69]

A Tropical Dependency. An Outline of the Ancient History of the Western Soudan with an Account of the Modern Settlement of Northern Nigeria (London 1905: James Nisbett & Co), pp. 153-154 and 203-204.

[70]

P. Masonen (2000: 485-486). For a more detailed discussion of the historiographical origins of the University of Sankore, see ibid., pp. 498-501.

[71]

D. Henige (1987).

[72]

P. Masonen & H.J. Fisher (1996).

Résumé

English

Western historians are often accused of maintaining a distorted “Eurocentric” view of the world. It is true that the practical methods of modern historical research were developed to the fullest in Western Europe. Many of the key concepts, principles of periodization, and the ways in which the significance of the past are estimated by historians worldwide still reflect the Western tradition. A good question is, whether there exists any alternative way to study the human past, however, without giving up the ideal of objectivity as it is conventionally associated with the (Western) scientific research? Afrocentrism aims to be such an alternative. Afrocentric authors claim that the Western methods cannot be used objectively in the context of African history. The problem of Afrocentrism is that it fails to take the decisive step to construct its own methodology.
In their need of an official recognition from the academic community, Afrocentric authors pretend that they are using similar methods to those used by their enemies, the Eurocentric historians, while reserving themselves the right to break the rules whenever it is necessary to support their own cause. However, it would be a grave mistake to reject Afrocentrism simply as bad scholarship. A better way to understand Afrocentrism is to consider it a special category of unconventional history – or “apohistory” – and a political movement. An interesting historical parallel to Afrocentrism is the intellectual movement called Fennomania in Finnish national historiography in the early 20th century. Fennomania also emphasized the subjectivity of historical research and the importance of history in creating national consciousness and ethnic identity. The American critics of Afrocentrism apparently fail to understand its political and social connections, perhaps because the leading American (white) historians have never needed to defend their own existence.

Français

Les historiens occidentaux sont souvent accusés de défendre une vision « eurocentrique » du monde. Il est vrai que les méthodes pratiques de la recherche historique moderne ont été véritablement développées en Europe occidentale. La plupart des concepts clés, des principes de la périodisation et des modes d’évaluation de la signification du passé reflètent la tradition occidentale. Dès lors, la question est de savoir s’il existe une façon alternative d’aborder le passé humain. L’afrocentrisme y prétend. Les auteurs afrocentristes affirment que les méthodes occidentales ne peuvent pas être utilisées de façon objective en ce qui concerne l’histoire africaine. Mais le problème est qu’ils ne proposent pas véritablement de méthodologie propre. Ce serait cependant une grave erreur que de simplement rejeter l’afrocentrisme comme une recherche de mauvaise qualité. Une manière plus constructive de comprendre l’afrocentrisme est de le considérer comme un type particulier d’histoire non conventionnelle – ou apohistoire – et comme un mouvement politique. À cet égard, un parallèle historique intéressant est fourni par un courant intellectuel appelé « fennomanie » dans l’historiographie nationale finnoise du début du xxe siècle. La fennomanie met elle aussi l’accent sur la subjectivité de la recherche historique et sur l’importance de l’histoire dans la création d’une conscience nationale et d’une identité ethnique. Les critiques américains de l’afrocentrisme n’ont pas vu cette dimension sociale et politique, peut-être parce que les historiens (blancs) américains n’ont jamais eu à défendre leur existence.

Français

TiivistelmäLänsimaisia historian tutkijoita syytetään usein siitä, että he ylläpitävät vääristynyttä ‘eurosentristä’ maailmankuvaa. On totta, että modernin historiantutkimuksen menetelmät kehittyivät juuri Länsi-Euroopassa. Monen historiantutkijoiden kaikkialla maailmassa käyttämät käsitteet, periodisoinnin periaatteet sekä tavat, joilla menneisyyden tapahtumien merkittävyyttä arvioidaan, perustuvat yhä länsimaiseen perintöön. Hyvä kysymys onkin, onko olemassa jotakin toista tapaa tutkia ihmiskunnan menneisyyttä luopumatta kuitenkaan (länsimaiselle) tieteelle ominaisesta objektiivisuuden ihanteesta? Afrosentrismin sanotaan olevan tällainen vaihtoehto. Korostaessaan länsimaisen ja afrikkalaisen kulttuurin perusteellista erilaisuutta afrosentrikot väittävät, että länsimaiset metodit eivät sellaisenaan sovellu Afrikan historian tutkimiseen. Afrosentrismin ongelma on, että se ei kuitenkaan tohdi irtautua länsimaisen tieteen perinteistä ja muodostaa omaa metodologiaansa. Afrosentrikot haluavat akateemisen yhteisön tunnustuksen työlleen, ja siksi he teeskentelevät olevansa yhtä tieteellisiä kuin vihollisensa eli eurosentriset tutkijat, mutta samalla he varaavat itselleen oikeuden poiketa säännöistä aina, kun se on tarpeen heidän oman asiansa edistämiseksi. Olisi kuitenkin vakava virhe leimata afrosentrismi vain huonoksi tieteeksi. Parempi tapa lähestyä afrosentrismiä on tarkastella sitä vaihtoehtoisen historian yhtenä alaryhmänä – tai ‘apohistoriana’ – sekä poliittisena liikkeenä. Mielenkiintoisen historiallisen vertailukohdan afrosentrismille tarjoaa fennomania, joka myös korosti historiantutkimuksen subjektiivisuutta sekä historian merkitystä luotaessa kansallinen tietoisuus ja etninen identiteetti. Amerikkalaiset arvostelijat eivät selvästi kykene ymmärtämään afrosentrismin poliittisia ja yhteiskunnallisia ulottuvuuksia; ehkä siksi että (valkoisten) amerikkalaisten historian tutkijoiden ei ole koskaan tarvinnut perustella oikeuttaan olla olemassa.

Plan de l'article

  1. Who’s Hu?
  2. Question Authority!
  3. Paradise Lost
  4. Guardians of the Past
  5. When Lemminkäinen met Osiris
  6. Topsy-turvy
  7. Epilogue

Pour citer cet article

Masonen Pekka, « Revolution has no use for savants », Afrique & histoire 1/ 2003 (Vol. 1), p. 169-208
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-afrique-et-histoire-2003-1-page-169.htm.


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