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
F. Fugglestad (1992: 309).
. 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
Though in 1969 Trevor-Roper suggested that the whole...
. 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
The original speech, “Äger Finska folket en historie?”,...
? 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
See G. Rosenfeld (2002).
. 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
For an example of this paranoia, see W.M. Cooper (1991)....
. 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
Decolonizing the African Mind (Lagos 1987: Pero Press),...
”. 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
A. Jones (1999: 78-79).