Afrocentricity, Ecocentrism, and Ecofeminism: New Alliances for Socialism

This essay calls for a coalition of reform-minded groups that are developing new and remarkably congruent philosophies. What the groups have in common is resistance to being defined by the “other.” The essay starts with Afrocentricity because of claims by Du Bois (1995, 26) and Asante (1993, 169) that African Americans should be in a unique position to create new solutions to problems of cultural oppression. The Africana thinkers who have been the intellectual precursors of Afrocentricity (like Diop, Fanon, Du Bois, Locke) have laid the foundation for a new philosophy that has striking ontological parallels with the work of deep ecologists and biocentric philosophers. This new philosophy also exhibits epistemological links to eco-feminist philosophers.

The resemblances among these new philosophies are not adventitious, but rather the effect of common responses to oppression. The new philosophies are non-hierarchical, inclusive, holistic in their ontologies or epistemologies, and supportive of cultural difference.

The conclusion will consider whether these new philosophies have natural affiliations with well-established socialist philosophies that have emerged from other cultural contexts resisting oppression. What I’m looking for is a consensual philosophical foundation for a real democracy. In the world’s present circumstances, socialism requires the broadest possible coalition of forces to hope to achieve democracy (Verharen, 2001).

Afrocentricity is a late 20th-century movement based on two principles: true self-knowledge must be grounded in one’s own historical context; and self-knowledge properly pursued yields personal agency moving toward a global community that preserves cultural difference. While the United States African American scholar, Molefi K. Asante, has given Afrocentricity its name and most recent impetus, its roots may be traced through a series of classical 20th-Century Africana thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. Du Bois all the way back to Frederick Douglass and David Walker in the 19th century.

Critics of Afrocentricity often confuse the movement with Afrocentrism. The two movements have common origins in the African diaspora, but they are quite distinct philosophies. Both have also received a good deal of critical attention because of their consequences for public education. Critics like Mary Lefkowitz (1996) and Stephen Howe (1998) have charged Afrocentric educators with teaching myth as fact to bolster African American students’ self-esteem: Ancient Egyptians were black. They had batteries. They flew gliders. They practiced brain surgery. Egyptian civilization began in sub-Saharan Africa. The Greeks stole Egypt’s cultural legacy. Africa was a utopia destroyed by European enslavement and colonization. What is good in the European cultural legacy is African; what is bad is distinctively European. Africans are civilized and Europeans are barbarians (Verharen, 1997).

Some proponents of Afrocentrism deserve criticism for their undocumented and contentious claims. However, Afrocentricity must be singled out as a unique version of Afrocentrism with a distinctive methodology. W.E.B. Du Bois used the term Afrocentrism in the early 1960s in conjunction with his plans for an Encyclopedia Africana to be produced in Ghana (Moses, 1998, 243). Afrocentrism as a movement exhibits several variations. In its most neutral guise, it is simply a research methodology. Choosing to sympathize with Africans on the African continent or in the diaspora, proponents of this form of Afrocentrism see the world through Africana eyes and reinterpret world history by filtering it through the viewpoint of Africana experience. Wilson Moses’s Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History is perhaps the best example of this form of Afrocentrism in action.

A second kind of Afrocentrism expresses a philosophy of vindicationism that challenges the European tradition of denying the humanity of Africans. A popular variant of vindicationism called “Nile Valley Afrocentrism” claims that the ancient Egyptians were black and that their traditions formed the basis of European civilization. St. Clair Drake’s Black Folk Here and There furnishes an exhaustive history of Afrocentric vindicationism.

A third kind of Afrocentrism goes way beyond vindicationism to a philosophy (or perhaps an ideology) of black supremacy. Citing environmental, cultural, or genetic reasons for Africana superiority, proponents of this form of Afrocentrism argue that not only were Africans the first civilized peoples but they have also proven themselves to be far more civilized than barbaric Europeans could ever hope to be. Because it paints Europeans and their American counterparts as incapable of civilized life, this version of Afro- centrism, vividly depicted by Marimba Ani’s Yurugu, threatens the very existence of integrated public education.

Mindful of Afrocentrism’s potential to drive blacks and whites even further apart, Asante distinguishes his version of Afrocentrism from the other three varieties by calling it “Afrocentricity.” Asante first publicizes this term in his Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change in 1980. The “Afro” in “Afrocentricity” reflects a commitment to the idea that all humans are African in origin, the “centricity” a commitment to the idea that people must center themselves in their own cultural experiences (Verharen, 1995a). African American students who claim an Africana heritage, for example, must have access to Africana history from the very beginning of their formal education.

Afrocentricity’s centering process leads to a restoration of Africana peoples’ agency. However, the same process will work for any group that has lost its natural human agency through enslavement, colonialism, or other less obvious decentering forces. Afro-centricity escapes being the inversion of Eurocentrism because it does not give Africa pride of place. Paradoxically, anyone can be an adherent of Afrocentricity if he or she seeks solidarity with everyone else on the globe by way of cultural self-knowledge.

Afrocentric movements constitute a critique of European and American challenges to African humanity. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously claimed that all men were created equal. What he really meant was that all white men were created equal. While recognizing slavery’s incompatibility with the nation’s founding principles, Jefferson also maintained that Africans’ obvious inferiority prevented any possibility of their integration into American society as equals (1995). Slavery’s abolition, he argued, should be immediately followed by the Africans’ return to Africa.

In making such claims, Jefferson anticipated the anti-African sentiments of European philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. These philosophers-and European society as a whole-could only justify the extremely profitable practice of slavery by dehumanizing Africans. Hegel even went so far as to insist that slavery would bring Africans to full consciousness by increasing their “human” feeling: “Slavery is in and for itself injustice, for the essence of humanity is Freedom; but for this man must be matured” (1956, 99). Even some African American thinkers, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden, believed that slavery was part of a divine plan to Christianize Africa.

Such brutal assaults on Africans’ very humanity gave rise to two distinct responses, prefiguring the vindicationist and black supremacist forms of 20th-century Afrocentrism. One of the earlier thinkers to discuss these issues was the vindicationist David Walker, an African American who claimed not only that the Egyptians were the founders of the world’s first great civilization but also that they were black. In his “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” he described the ancient Egyptians as “Africans or coloured people, such as we are-some of them yellow and others dark-a mixture of Ethiopians and the natives of Egypt-about the same as you see the coloured people of the United States at the present day…” (Walker 1996 [1829]). Frederick Douglass also believed that the Egyptians were black. With the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone throwing Europe and America into Egyptomania, it seemed obvious to Douglass that blacks could not have been the subhumans Hegel and other philosophers claimed Africans to be. Ironically addressing those who still maintained that nothing glorious could come out of Africa, he said, “Egypt is in Africa. Pity that it had not been in Europe, or in Asia, or better still in America! Another unhappy circumstance is, that the ancient Egyptians were not white people; but were, undoubtedly, just about as dark in complexion as many in this country who are considered genuine Negroes…” (Douglass 1953 [1854]). Inspired by his vision of a direct connection between ancient Africa and modern America, Douglass advocated integration into American society.

Alexander Crummell and Marcus Garvey took the opposite tack, rejecting assimilation in favor of a return to Africa. Inverting Jefferson’s argument about Africans’ inferiority, these black supremacists believed in Africans’ biological and cultural superiority. In the early 20th century, Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association laid the groundwork for black supremacist movements that continue to this day. George James’s Stolen Legacy, for instance, takes its inspiration from Garvey’s belief in the African origins of Greek culture. And separatist movements like the Nation of Islam are sympathetic to Garvey’s theories about black superiority. The dialectic between assimilation and separatism continues to the present moment.

Afrocentricity’s founding thinkers are bound together by their remarkable ability to navigate successfully between the extremes of assimilation and separatism that divided their historical predecessors (Verharen, 2002). Unlike many earlier philosophers on race, these thinkers reject all claims to genetic or cultural superiority and advocate instead a philosophy of universal inclusion. Self-knowledge grounded in each person’s individual cultural context is the only route to this universalist philosophy. In Fanon’s striking example, Africana students in former French colonies were once forced to learn about “our ancestors, the Gauls” (1967, 147). Under Afrocentricity, Africana students would first learn about their real ancestors and only then learn about the ancestors of others-including those of their former colonizers.

Critics like Lefkowitz and Howe have a field day with this insistence on self-knowledge. Doesn’t this prove, they ask, that Afrocentrists really are separatists? And if Afrocentricity is a philosophy of universal inclusion, they demand, why does it particularize itself by invoking the name of Africa?

It is true that Afrocentrists are concerned about the survival and flourishing of their own peoples. Diop and Fanon, for instance, hoped to create a continental African unity out of the ashes of colonialism (Verharen, 1995b; 1997). In addition to their interest in Pan-Africanism, Du Bois (1973) and Locke (1989) sought an end to segregation in the United States. Asante, the only founder of Afrocentricity still alive, concentrates on post-segregation crises that recall the bleakest hours of Reconstruction.

But Afrocentricity goes far beyond these local concerns to an emphasis on humanity as a whole. In response to critics, most Afrocentrists turn to what has become known as the “Out of Africa” hypothesis-the idea that all humans can trace their cultural and genetic heritage back to Africa. As a trope signifying the whole of humanity by one of its parts, the name “Afrocentricity” urges us to atone for past injustices like slavery and to avoid future sins against human unity. Diop, for example, in his Civilization or Barbarism, notes that modern technology gave Europe the power to enslave or colonize most of the world, while modern philosophers like Hegel provided philosophical justifications for barbaric treatment of non-Europeans. As an alternative to such barbarism, Diop offers a philosophy that brings all people together. Describing humanity’s African origins as an accident of geography, Diop does not privilege Africans over any other group of people. Rather, he suggests that we maintain our individual cultural differences yet use our common origins as a foundation for a new global civilization that can stand against barbarism. In this new world community, modern technology can enhance cross-cultural intimacy to unite the world.

And while all of Afrocentricity’s founders support close study of Africa’s traditions, none of them deny the importance of European cultures-for whites and blacks and all other humans. In fact, most of them were strongly influenced by their exposure to European traditions in Europe itself. Du Bois’s ideas about global unity through cultural complementarity were current at the University of Berlin, where he was a student during the 1890s. Locke’s cosmopolitanism was nourished in the company of fellow Rhodes scholars from around the world at Oxford in the early 1900s. Though he was born and raised in the Caribbean, Fanon’s French education familiarized him with philosophers from Hegel to Sartre. While Diop was born and raised in West Africa, his explicit references to European classicists and Egyptologists who believed in the African origins of European civilization reflect his many years at the Sorbonne.

Of course, this common background doesn’t mean that these thinkers agree on every point. Their sharpest disagreement focuses on the claims made by Afrocentric historians. Diop and Asante are convinced that the African origin of humanity and civilization has been well established. Du Bois and Locke express reservations about the hypothesis. Fanon challenges it because of its potential to distract Africana peoples’ attention from their most pressing objective: final liberation from enslavement and colonialism. Fanon admits that he would be pleased to learn that Plato had dialogues with ancient African philosophers, but liberation must be centered in the immediate cultural contexts of the oppressed, not in historical hypotheses (Verharen, 1995). Fanon’s disagreement with Diop and Asante is a matter of urgent practical judgment rather than philosophical principle. All of Afrocentricity’s founders agree that children who claim an Africana heritage must have access to Africana historical traditions to develop accurate self-knowledge.

In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the “Out of Africa” hypothesis is true. Historical speculation and philosophical commitment can exist independently of one another. As a philosophy of universal inclusion, Afrocentricity is indifferent to the results of historical investigation. But not to the method of investigation. Afrocentricity’s founders insist that historical claims to self-knowledge be based on research techniques freed from cultural bias-to the degree that this is possible.

Perhaps the deepest philosophical weapon against oppression is to be found in ontology. Marxist philosophy, for example, is grounded in an ontology of unity. In this view, existence does not divide itself into multiple levels, but consitutes a single reality comprised of the complementary principles of matter and energy. Marxist ontology is compatible with the cosmology of contemporary physics. Several Afrocentric thinkers follow the same principle, but they find its historical roots in ancient Africa, rather than in contemporary science.

Like contemporary cosmologists, ancient Africans posited the origins of the universe in a chaotic matter that is subject to evolutionary principles of self-organization (Hornung, 1982). In this ontology, an omnipotent spiritual being does not create a material universe out of nothing. Such an ontology creates no space for humans to fashion hierarchies grounded in a disjunction between spirit and matter, between those who rule and those who are ruled. In ancient Egyptian cosmology, both the exalted pharaohs and the lowliest field workers are subject to Maat, the principles of organization and harmony that encode the evolution of the universe. While the pharaoh Akhnaten’s monotheistic heresy tested this egalitarianism, his movement was short-lived in the 3,000-year duration of pharaonic Egypt (Assman, 1998).

The Afrocentric thinker who most effectively claimed that Africana cultures should be grounded in ancient African ontology was Cheikh Anta Diop (1991). So complete is his commitment to a holistic ontology that he claims that ethics must be grounded in the science of ecology. With few exceptions, most ethical systems have grounded themselves in principles that stand outside the universe as we experience it. Hinduism, Buddhism, and the religions of the Book all postulate a transcendent reality as the primary source of ethical obligation. Diop, in concert with other Afrocentric thinkers like Fanon and Du Bois, finds that our duties arise from our experience of life itself. Life’s primary objectives, in Diop’s ontology, are survival and creativity (1987, 115). Neither goal assumes priority. The conditions for survival are set by environmental circumstances. As the group of sciences that study the environment, ecology must set limits to what humans may or may not do. As a science created by humans, ecology cannot set humanity’s goals, but it can set limits to our actions. Diop restricts himself to an historical exposition of an ancient African ontology and the claim that ecology must be the science that informs our choices of objectives (1991).

Molefi Asante advances Diop’s preliminary work to articulate the principles of a traditional African ontology. He claims to find a holistic ontology not only in ancient Africa but also in a more recent Zulu declaration: “I am river, I am mountain, I am tree, I am love, I am emotion, I am beauty, I am lake, I am cloud, I am sun, I am sky, I am mind, I am one with one” (1990, 83). The provocative and puzzling nature of this language makes clear its philosophical nature. Such a sweeping claim can find no conclusive support in empirical sciences like ecology. Holistic ontology is perhaps best regarded as a commitment to unite what has heretofore been divided. The empirical support for a holistic philosophy can only be found in intimations from the history of science. The greatest discoveries in science have united what was traditionally regarded as ontologically disjoined: Newton’s unification of the heavens and earth with universal laws of gravitation, Darwin’s conjunction of humanity and nature through principles of evolution, Einstein’s equivalence of matter and energy, and contemporary struggles of string theorists and others to unify gravitational, electro-magnetic, and nuclear weak and strong phenomena under a single set of descriptive principles.

Critics such as Don Marietta (1995) may argue that holistic philosophies are reductions of the universe’s complexity to the mind’s distinctive activity: unification through the elimination of difference, or intellectual abstraction. However, an Afrocentric holistic ontology is not an a priori claim about the ultimate nature of reality. Rather it is a commitment to include what has been excluded. Such a philosophy militates against such so-called natural hierarchies as spirit versus matter, human versus animal, our group versus the “other.” As the expression of a commitment to inclusion, this Afrocentric holistic ontology follows in the tradition of other grand unifying schemes such as Hinduism and Taoism, and more particular holistic philosophies such as those of Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx. Unlike its precursors, however, Afrocentric ontology is deeply pragmatic. Its primary proponents, Diop and Asante, devote little time to its exposition. Fanon and Du Bois do not develop their own explicit ontologies, but their socialist inclinations reveal their deep inclinations toward holism.

Afrocentric holistic thinkers find allies in another “-centrist” philosophy that has come to be called “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology.” The most radical ecocentric philosophers in fact propose to transform “egoism into environmentalism” by claiming that the “world is…one’s extended body” (Callicott, cited in Des Jardins 1997, 193). Biophysicist Harold Morowitz argues that the individual should be viewed as a “dissipative structure” that exists not “in and of itself but only as a result of the continual flow of energy in the system” (Morowitz cited, ibid., 206). According to this metaphor, living organisms are like vortices in a stream. The water molecules making up the vortex constantly change and if the flow were to stop, the vortex would disappear. In the same way biological structures are “transient, unstable entities with constantly changing molecules dependent on a constant flow of energy to maintain form and structure” (ibid.). The vortex is a perfect metaphor for the expression of a holistic ontology. Every being is dependent for its existence on every other being. No ontological principle separates any being from any other being.

Deep ecologists claim that previous ethical systems like utilitarianism, deontology, and natural law or virtue ethics fail by reason of the atomistic ontologies that ground them. Utilitarianism assumes that a single good like pleasure can be detached from all other goods and given paramount importance. In a similar manner, Kant’s ethics gives primacy to a single abstract principle, namely duty. Natural law theories like Aristotle’s assume rigid distinctions between gods, humans, and animals; they also make artificial distinctions between men and women, and separate fully “rational” humans from humans who have a “slave” nature.

Deep ecology on the other hand is a philosophy of inclusion. First propounded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1989), deep ecology finds its precursors in holistic philosophies like Hinduism and Taoism. Deep ecologists recognize that both human and non-human life has intrinsic value. We need not step out of the biosphere to find its value. In addition, the environment as the condition of life has an intrinsic rather than an instrumental value. We value the earth not because it supports life but for its own sake. In deep ecology’s holistic ontology, distinctions among humans, other life forms, and the environment are merely conventional. Humans must find their place in the environment with perfect respect for the existence of other beings. They can reduce the diversity of life forms, or even the inorganic forms of the earth (its oceans and deserts), only to meet necessary needs. Naess advocates population reduction because of human destruction of natural habitats. His ontology demands an “ideological change” that focuses on the quality of life “rather than adhering to a high standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great” (1993, 197).

The potential for alliances between Afrocentrists and deep ecologists is grounded in their commitment to a holistic ontology. A philosophical union among Africana populations and radical environmentalists throughout the world would create a strong potential for reform. Can these alliances be extended further afield? Joel Kovel in his “Racism and Ecology” argues that Marx, far from being an “anthropocentric thinker seeing humanity as essentially over nature and basically distinct from it, was in fact profoundly concerned about human nature and our organic relation to nature” (2003, 101). If Kovel is correct about Marxist potential for an environmental philosophy, then the allied forces of Afrocentrists, environmentalists, and socialists would be formidable.

My hypothesis is that an alliance of these forces grounded in a holistic ontology would not be merely accidental. Humans suffering from enslavement, colonialism, class oppression, and globalization have common motives to challenge the philosophies encoded in these forms of oppression. Atomistic ontologies furnish a solid foundation for movements that promote hierarchies among humans or between humans and nature. The “great chain of being” assumed to stretch from a divine being to inert matter finds its roots in classical European philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who deprecate the physical and privilege the rational. Philosophers passionate about liberation from hierarchies and social dominance naturally gravitate toward belief systems that are antithetical to atomism. However, spokespersons for one group of liberation thinkers strongly resist the movement toward a deep ecologists’ version of holistic ontology. Finding philosophical grounds for an alliance with these thinkers is not a simple matter.

Feminist philosophers Val Plumwood and Karen Warren take issue with deep ecologists’ ontological commitment to melding humans seamlessly to their environment. They are particularly critical of deep ecologists’ efforts to ground an ethical system in holistic ontology. An ethics that inspires us to “do unto the environment as we would do unto ourselves” is unacceptable because taking the environment as an extension of the self is really a disguised form of egoism. As an ecofeminist, Plumwood resists egoism because it springs from an atomistic ontology. An individual self cannot be the ground of an ethical system that must address the needs of both the individual and the community. In abandoning atomism, however, she does not leap to embrace its opposite, holism. In her view, both the individual as atom and the environment as a composite of individuals must be given their due. The individual simply must not vanish in the sea of the whole. Plumwood characterizes deep ecology as simply a disguised version of anthropocentrism: “the strategy of transferring the structures of egoism is highly problematic, for the widening of interest is obtained at the expense of failing to recognize unambiguously the distinctness and independence of the other. Others are recognized morally only to the extent that they are incorporated into the self, and their difference denied…” (1993, 296).

Plumwood joins her ecofeminist colleague, Karen Warren, in insisting that humans are distinct from other life forms as well as from the environment. Claiming that the self is indistinct from the whole environment is tantamount to denying any difference between self and other. For these two ecofeminists, the universe does not exist as an indistinguishable whole, but as many parts joined together by their relationships. Warren argues that individuals must work toward a unity, but this unity must encompass difference: “Humans are different from rocks in important ways, even if they are also both members of some ecological community. A moral community based on loving perception of oneself in relationship with a rock, or with the natural environment as a whole, is one which acknowledges and respect difference, whatever ‘sameness’ also exists” (1993, 330). Plumwood and Warren’s resistance to deep ecologists’ version of holism should not be taken as a blanket rejection of the very idea of holism. Their critique is based on the foundational principles of ecology. A whole such as the earth cannot be properly studied without appropriate attention to each of its constituent elements. The whole is in fact a system of relations, and no a priori principles confer primacy on some subset of those principles. Plumwood and Warren stress the fact that relations highlight differences. Differences cannot be negated for the sake of an abstract principle.

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