Africana Studies: Which Way Forward – Marxism or Afrocentricity? Neither Mechanical Marxism nor Atavistic Afrocentrism
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, scene 5
Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than vulgar materialism.
-- V.I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks
Certain distortions make Marxism, not a revolutionary instrument, but, rather, a conservative instrument. Among these distortions is the so-called academic Marxism, which is mechanistic and vulgar, which has no revolutionary sense, and is often of use just to show off learning.
-- Moacir Gadotti, Pedagogy of Praxis: A Dialectical Philosophy of Education
What Is African American Studies, Its Focus, and Future?
It is fitting that a volume of essays on African American Studies should employ in its very title the black vernacular tradition of “signifyin” or “call and response” which informs the black literary tradition. This literary tradition, as Henry Louis Gates states in his seminal work,1 is double-voiced: texts speak to other texts, and are thus “Talking Books.” The credit for this “signifyin” title goes to my co-editor. Initially the title did not resonate with me until I realized that it “spoke to” a profusion of recent literature about Africana Studies which addresses and/or calls into question the field’s nomenclature, substance, scope, methodology, theory, curriculum and pedagogy.
It is important to note the context of this literature. In the past few years, there were many commissioned volumes and conferences on the state of Black Studies as part of the commemoration of its 40th anniversary (1968-2008), i.e., the anniversary of first victories of the student movement and community struggle to establish Black Studies programs and departments in the American academy. This history of Black Studies – including its antecedents in the rich 200-year-old black activist intellectual or black radical tradition, its modern origin in the student movement and black power movement of the sixties, and its various stages of development from protest movement to institutionalization – is well-documented in: the introductory chapters of Abdul Alkalimat’s Introduction to Afro-American Studies and Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies; Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young’s edited volume, Out of the Revolution: The Development of Black Studies; Fabio Rojas’ From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, and Noliwe Rooks’s White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies. Here we will focus on the current trends of Black Studies as articulated in 40th anniversary literature.
Those familiar with this literature will recognize our interrogative title’s allusions to it. This volume is engaged in an ongoing intertextual conversation; it is in dialogue and debate with several texts, but most notably with three volumes: 1) the September 2009 special issue of the Journal of Black Studies, entitled Defining Ourselves: One Name, One Discipline? which includes articles such as Shirley Weber’s “What is in a Name? Addressing the Issues of Program and Curriculum Clarification in Black Studies,” Molefi Asante’s “Africology and the Puzzle of Nomenclature,” and Maulana Karenga’s “Names and Notions of Black Studies: Issues of Roots, Range, and Relevance”; 2) The Handbook of Black Studies (2006), which includes articles such as Ama Mazama’s “Interdisciplinary, Transdisciplinary, or Unidisciplinary? Africana Studies and the Vexing Question of Definition,” and Maulana Karenga’s “The Field, Function and Future of Africana Studies: Critical Reflection, on Its Mission, Meaning, and Methodology,” as well as an Appendix entitled “The Naming of the Discipline: The Unsettled Discourse,” which listed “representative names of departments and programs dealing with some study of African people,” e.g., Africana Studies, African and African Diaspora Studies, Black Studies, Pan African Studies, Africology, Africa and New World Studies, African and African American Studies, Afro-American Studies, etc.; and 3) The African American Studies Reader (2007), which includes contemporary articles as well as reprints of articles from earlier decades which deal with the same issues, e.g., James B. Stewart’s “The Field and Function of Black Studies,” Philip Daniels’ “Black Studies: Discipline or Field of Study” and Donald Henderson’s “What Direction Black Studies?”
In terms of the scope of Africana Studies, there are five major models or configurations, although others do exist: 1) national (i.e., blacks in the United States); 2) hemispheric (the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean); 3) continental and hemispheric (Continental Africans as well as the African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere); 4) global (Continental Africans and the worldwide African Diaspora including blacks in Europe and Asia); and (5) African Diasporan Studies (the global Diaspora minus the continent).
There are also issues of focus. For example, in the case of the third configuration above, there is debate over whether equal emphasis should be devoted to each of the three locations and its peoples (the United States, the Western Hemisphere, and continental Africa), or whether the US should be the principal focus as the field is “rooted” in this country. In the fourth model, the peoples of African descent in southern India, Papua New Guinea, and even Australia may be included. Proponents of the first four models, however, are concerned that the increasing rise of the fifth configuration, which omits the African continent, reflects a concerted effort by postmodernists to focus on the dissimilarities of Diasporan communities, their “unstable and floating” identities, and their disconnect with Africa, all of which serve to eviscerate the political objectives of Pan Africanist unity or solidarity.
My own predilections are towards the third model, which, while rooted in the struggles of African peoples in the United States, recognizes the increasing presence among them of people of African Caribbean descent (as reflected in the ethnically diverse student bodies of urban universities). The reach of this model is Pan African, as it draws upon rich African continental origins (history and cultures). I call the field Africana Studies and will use this term throughout my paper.2
Beyond issues of scope and focus is the effort by some to establish a single hegemonic theoretical framework. This effort is waged by Afrocentrists or, as some have chosen to label themselves, Africologists. While the effort to re-label both the field and its corresponding paradigm as “Africology” has remained marginal (with the significant exception of the University of Wisconsin), efforts to establish a single dominant African-centered paradigm are more widespread. One of the arguments in favor of such a paradigm is that many of the academicians in Africana Studies (especially the older cohort) were trained in outside disciplines such as sociology, political science, English literature, history, etc., whose approach was Eurocentric, i.e., reflecting mainstream white bourgeois social science or humanities orientations (or, for that matter, “standard” white Marxist orientations). Hence these black academicians utilize the same types of paradigms – in which black communities and/or behaviors are presumed to be subcultural, abnormal, exotic, hypersexual, pathological, deficient, based on deficits, underprivileged, deviant, criminal, etc. – that white scholars have utilized for decades when writing about black people.
Thus it is not sufficient that Africana Studies is a field of research and scholarship about black people, or even a field by and about black people; it must be a field of research and scholarship for black people, i.e., it must advance their interests and, in order to do so, must be grounded or centered in African experience, perspectives, worldviews, values, norms, etc.; i.e., Africa must be the measure of all things. To that extent, proletarian social science or humanities paradigms do not pass muster either. If African worldviews, cosmologies, ontological outlooks are spiritual, then a materialistic outlook is non-African, not grounded in African culture, and therefore not in the interests of African people.
The theoretical perspectives of the Afrocentricists/Africologists and their formidable attempts to attain hegemony over Africana Studies are, in my perspective, the primary concern of this volume. Secondary concerns revolve around the rise of a rival paradigm in Africana Studies, which McClendon has identified as cultural criticism/postmodernism and which other commentators, notably Greg Thomas, have identified as liberal multiculturalism.3 Perhaps neither label alone will suffice, as some of McClendon’s “cultural critics” are adherents to various schools of postmodernism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism, while others are better described by Thomas’s term multiculturalists. Unlike the Afrocentrists/ Africologists who are concerned with the cultural nationalist principle of kujichagulia or self-determination – “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves rather than being defined, named, created and spoken for by others”4 – this rival camp of postmodernists and liberal multiculturalists has exhibited little or no concern about a establishing a definitive nomenclature. The most celebrated members of the camp have been identified as “public intellectuals,” yet prominent Afrocentrists function as public intellectuals also, albeit in a black counterpublic rather than in the bourgeois public sphere.5 While McClendon makes a clever bifurcation between “cultural nationalists” (e.g., Afrocentrists) and “cultural critics” (e.g., public intellectuals), this distinction does not capture the ideological differences between the two camps. I suggest that the distinction might be better phrased as a polarity between “cultural nationalists” and “cosmopolitan pluralists.”6
Where the cultural nationalists/Afrocentrists pose a cultural grounding or centering in African experience, worldviews and values, the cosmopolitan pluralists emphasize their hybridity as products of a confluence of cultural sources emanating from Europe, Africa and the Americas. Not parochially grounded in Africa, eschewing patriotism or nationalism, they embrace the ideals of membership in both a cosmopolitan or global community and a pluralistic or multicultural American society.
A shorthand nomenclature for the two rival camps or schools of thought has been “the Temple school” and “the Harvard school,” as the black studies departments at these two universities have been the rival centers of influence. The original center of the cultural nationalist/Afrocentric paradigm was Temple University where Molefi Asante, the grand doyen – or rather “the paramount chief” – of Afrocentricity initiated the first Ph.D. program in Africana Studies. The center of the cosmopolitan pluralist paradigm was Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department, especially in the heyday of its Dream Team faculty: Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, et al.7 Subsequently, however, there has been a dispersion of both Afrocentrists and cosmopolitan pluralists to a number of universities, resulting in a decentering of influence – such that formal and informal academic networks have greater influence than singular academic institutions. Two formal networks among the Afrocentrists are the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) and the National Council on Black Studies (NCBS). ASCAC is devoted to Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) Studies; the NCBS is the professional organization for academics in the field, yet Afrocentrists wield much influence and cosmopolitan pluralists rarely participate.8
Indeed, the cosmopolitan pluralists have utilized a very different strategy than that of the Afrocentrists in carving out their own very influential niche in Africana Studies. Afrocentrists have dominated the discourse in the major journals of Africana Studies (e.g., The Journal of Black Studies, the Western Journal of Black Studies), with the exception of The Black Scholar which in its present incarnation maintains a leftist slant. The public intellectuals and scholars associated with the cosmopolitan pluralist school of thought have access to mainstream intellectual magazines such as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly and have created a network of black journals such as Transition and Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. The discourse in these publications consists of cultural criticism/cultural studies and cultural (artistic/literary) expression rather than prosaic scholarship. Although the cosmopolitan pluralists have on occasion made strong and definitive statements about the nature and scope of Africana Studies, they have not – except possibly in the case of AfroDiasporic Studies – mounted a concerted effort like that of the Afrocentrists to define, determine and defend the territory of Africana Studies.
As co-editor of this volume on leftist perspectives in Africana Studies, I would emphasize that while the volume contributes significantly to an ongoing conversation, it does not represent a definitive statement about the field. I come to Africana Studies with a certain sense of humility, thankfulness and personal fulfillment, a reverence for its mission and tradition, and a profound respect for its pioneers and current practitioners who, in many instances, have blazed a path in academia against heavy odds. It would be hubris of the worst sort to be dismissive of the tradition.
Nevertheless, my reverence does not make me an uncritical participant, nor does it mute my criticism. I share with my co-editor, John McClendon, the following concerns: (1) that the field today is dominated by two opposing tendencies, paradigms or discourses, cultural nationalism and cosmopolitan pluralism; (2) that the centrality of these two warring camps has placed constraints or limitations on the domain of discourse within the field because other tendencies and paradigms have been effectively marginalized; and (3) that this volume of essays represents a concerted struggle by editors and contributors alike to make a radical intervention in the discourse and the field, i.e., to shift the discourse to the left and to shift the Left from the margins of Africana Studies to the center.
However, as co-editors, we bring differing orientations and differing sets of assumptions to the table. First of all, we are rooted in dissimilar foundation disciplines: McClendon in philosophy, where materialist ontology can marginalize the concept of culture; myself in social psychology/social anthropology, where the concepts of culture and acculturation are of prime importance.9 Secondly, we are grounded in dissimilar political ideologies, McClendon in classical Marxism and myself in the “black left.”10 Thirdly, we have competing visions for the future of Africana Studies. My own vision involves a synthesis of the radical leftist and African-centered paradigms, and a moving away from either atavistic Afrocentrism or mechanical Marxism.
Although our differences make for great dynamic tension that has resulted in a formidable collection of widely divergent articles, the somewhat contentious assumptions which we bring to the table have often been a source of great exasperation for me. Why? Because from my perspective, underlying this debate over theoretical paradigms and modes of discourse in Africana Studies, is a veritable tangle of meta-theoretical issues. For the sake of clarity (both my own and that of our readers), I feel compelled to disentangle some of these issues. Yet to delve into them in depth would be inappropriate for the scope either of this particular collection or of Socialism and Democracy in general. Hence I will touch only briefly upon each issue.
“Of the Coming of John”: Tensions between Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility
The penultimate chapter of Du Bois’s oft-quoted and revered classic The Souls of Black Folk is a relatively uncelebrated short story entitled “Of the Coming of John.” Although less renowned or cited than some other chapters of Souls, it is a richly allegorical tragicomic narrative, densely packed with varied meanings and themes.
In this tale, the colored community of a small southern hamlet gives college-bound John a local hometown hero’s send-off at the railroad station, for he is the town’s first and only Negro boy to pursue a college education. The hopes of the community are riding with him; the impoverished and barely literate townspeople imagine all the great things John will accomplish for them when he returns as a college graduate:
And they that stood behind, that morning in Altamaha, and watched the train as it noisily bore playmate and brother and son away to the world, had thereafter one ever-recurring word, – “When John comes.” Then what parties were to be, and what speakings in the churches; what new furniture in the front room, – perhaps even a new front room; and there would be a new schoolhouse, with John as teacher; and then perhaps a big wedding; all this and more – when John comes.11
Seven years later – many more years than originally anticipated –, John, the college graduate, finally returns home:
Down in Altamaha, after seven long years, all the world knew John was coming... and as the day drew near, warm discussions arose on every corner as to the exact extent and nature of John’s accomplishments. It was noontide on a gray and cloudy day when he came.
The meeting of welcome at the Baptist Church was a failure. Rain spoiled the barbecue, and thunder turned the milk in the ice-cream. When the speaking came at night, the house was crowded to overflowing. The three preachers had especially prepared themselves, but somehow John’s manner seemed to throw a blanket over everything, – he seemed so cold and preoccupied, and had so strange an air of restraint.... The people moved uneasily in their seats as John rose.... He spoke slowly and methodically. The age, he said, demanded new ideas.... [H]e deprecated especially religious and denominational bickering.... “What difference does it make whether a man be baptized in river or wash-bowl, or not at all? Let’s leave all that littleness, and look higher.” Then, thinking of nothing else, he slowly sat down. A painful hush seized that crowded mass. Little had they understood of what he said, for he spoke an unknown tongue.12
John’s initial gaffe was his transposed demeanor. When he set off for college he was known for his broad smile and bubbling good-nature which “perpetually ... set the quiet [college] dining-room into waves of merriment.” In contrast to his former jovial disposition and that of the “happy, jostling, joking crowd” who came to greet him at the railway upon his return, John was “silent, cold” and distant. “He rose gloomily” when disembarking from the train for his thoughts were preoccupied with the indignities of riding in a Jim Crow car. He was “seized” by “an overwhelming sense of sordidness and narrowness” of the impoverished dilapidated shanty-town which he had once called home. He greeted people with “a dry word” here and there, and had no time to linger for handshaking or small talk. The townspeople were “bewildered,” his relatives “astonished.” This was not the John they knew. They wondered, “Where was his smile and hearty hand-grasp?”
His second transgression was his lecture – in a church, no less – on his modern libertine views of religion. This drew the ire of the church’s minister, who launched into an “awful” yet eloquent sermon in condemnation of John’s heresy, as the congregation “moaned and wept, wailed and shouted,” as an Amen response to the preacher.
John never knew clearly what the old man said; he only felt himself held up to scorn and scathing denunciation for trampling on the true Religion, and he realized with amazement that all unknowingly he had put rough, rude hands on something this little world held sacred.13
His further encounters with neighbors and townsfolk did not fare any better:
John [was] thoroughly perplexed. What on earth had come over him? Every step he made offended some one. He had come to save his people, and before he left the depot he had hurt them. He sought to teach them at the church, and had outraged their deepest feelings.14
On one level “The Coming of John” certainly may be read as a cautionary tale about the estrangement of the Talented Tenth from their communities of origin, i.e., a tale of alienated black intellectuals who “can’t go home again” because a classical liberal arts higher education (and its attendant processes of values-reorientation, consciousness-expansion and self-transformation, etc.) has ill-equipped them to meet the simple expectations or serve the simple pedagogical needs of their people.
It is an allegory ripe with cautionary lessons for Africana Studies scholars in particular, since the central “theme” or “mission” of Africana Studies, cited in the
pioneering textbooks and contemporary literature of the field, is “Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility.”15 Closely allied to the this theme or mission is the objective of “the cultivation, maintenance and continuous expansion of a mutually beneficial relationship between the campus and the community” expressed in the early Black Studies slogan and call to action, “We must bring the campus to the community and the community to the campus”16
The litany of black community ills is legion and legend. The inner city is plagued by poverty, substandard housing, failing schools, literacy problems, joblessness, drug trafficking, substance abuse, alcoholism, constant brushes with the criminal justice system including high rates of incarceration and recidivism and teenage pregnancy, absentee fathers, police brutality, political disenfranchisement, gentrification, low self-esteem, internalized racism, nihilism, PTSS, etc. Social responsibility entails addressing these ills in theory and in practice. In Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston where I teach, there is an opportunity for students to concentrate in a Community Development and Public Policy track, which offers practical intervention strategies. This is in addition to two traditional academic tracks: 1) History, Politics and Social Science; and 2) Literature, Arts, and Cultural Studies; both of which offer insight into community issues. In addition there are plans to further enhance links with the community by establishing both a Department Community Advisory Board, composed of alumni, business leaders, and local government officials (which will figuratively “bring the community to the campus”), and a Communiversity program – an urban based facility which offers an 18-month curriculum in Community Development (which will "bring the campus to the community").
Academic excellence involves theoretical and methodological rigor. Academic excellence and social responsibility are paired as the twin themes or missions of the field, and neither one should be sacrificed to the other. However, when erudite scholars present issues at a level of abstraction such that the theory does not resonate with the very community that it is aimed at, then something appears to be amiss. It strikes me that when people have bread and butter issues which are a sign of impoverishment, and when they have severe psychological issues which are the mark of oppression, an abstract theoretical argument about changing one’s ontological outlook is not the most socially responsible solution.
It seems unlikely that an ethnic community long anchored in the church as its most important community institution, will abandon Christianity for a materialistic atheistic outlook. Other faith communities – Muslims, Hebrew Israelites, practitioners of African traditional religions such as Yoruba, Akan and Kemetic (Ancient Egyptian) traditions – have significant strongholds in the African American and are equally resistant to atheism. So too are the fraternal and sorority orders which are anchors of African American society such as Freemasonry and Eastern Stars. Their rites and rituals recognize the Grand Architect of the Universe as a supreme deity and they shun “irreligious libertines.” Furthermore the question remains, is such an atheistic outlook necessary in order to mount resistance against oppression or to achieve decolonization, liberation or empowerment? One is reminded of Carter G. Woodson’s observation:
One of the most striking evidences of the failure of higher education among Negroes is their estrangement from the masses, the very people upon whom they must eventually count for carrying out a program of progress.17
And one is also reminded of Manning Marable’s observation:
The Black Intellectual Tradition in the United States has always been anchored around several axioms or basic principles. As an oppressed people we were faced with “a condition not a theory.” In other words, an abstract theoretical interpretation or our social status had little relevance to our actual situation in this country.18
What Is the Left, Its Focus and Future?
This, no doubt, is a perennial question, in a community – or rather among communities – of radicals, which are at once international and local, and which have been, at both of these levels, characterized by endless sectarianism, splintering, reversals, regroupments, loss of their model societies to capitalist restructuring, and severe and sometimes debilitating debates over theoretical, strategic and tactical issues. The ever-fluctuating state of the left is perhaps grist for the mill of many articles which have appeared over the decades in Socialism and Democracy and other left-wing journals.
I cannot hope to add anything of great measure to the overall debate, with all of its particularities and nuances, but I raise the question because I have experienced a state of gnawing unease over the hard lines drawn in the sand by my co-editor. My question revolves around the issue of inclusion and exclusion: Who is included in the left and who is excluded, and what are the criteria.
In joining the editorial board of Socialism and Democracy about a decade ago, and in joining S&D’s sister institution, the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School in the mid-1990s, I did so as a left nationalist, with a long history of involvement in organizational struggle for African American national liberation and socialist transformation.19 This included decades of cadre study and self-directed study of
scientific socialism (i.e., Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, and Maoism – drawing liberally from any and all relevant texts and tendencies, since my socialism was non-sectarian). During my involvement with the Brecht Forum I met and formed strong alliances with other black leftists (left nationalists, black socialists and black feminists), alliances which were instrumental in forming national organizations such as the Black Radical Congress and later the Black Left Unity Network, and my study and practice deepened around a platform which was anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, committed to working-class led struggle, international solidarity with other working class and oppressed peoples, and the elimination of all forms of oppression including patriarchy and homophobia.
As a member of the editorial board of S&D, my intent was to broaden the scope of the journal, i.e., to make it more expansive and inclusive of the theory and the struggles of left tendencies which were heretofore considered marginal or outside of the scope of interest of the traditional white left. As a representative of the organized black left forces, I saw our involvement and solidarity (with both the Brecht Forum and S&D) as grounded in an understanding that, given the specificity of our struggle (which was not merely against class exploitation but also against racial domination /national oppression), we would maintain a level of organizational autonomy. We would not be merely an appendage of the traditional left, but would retain self-determination over our theory and practice.
The Black left is not, however, unique in this regard. Contrary to the analysis offered by Marxist scholar Bertell Ollman in a lecture at the Brecht Forum earlier this decade, in which he stated that the logical path of ideological growth and development is from radicalism to Marxism, the empirical evidence demonstrates that the movement is in the opposite direction. The caveat here is that Ollman was speaking about intra-generational ideological growth and development – the growth and development of some individuals within one generation, specifically the Baby Boomer generation who started out in their youth as members of New Left formations such as SDS and gravitated toward a more serious study of Marxism in their mature years. Certainly this was the case with many African Americans who started out in conventional black nationalist organizations and moved to the study of scientific socialism. But it may not be the case for all generations; certainly, many of the prominent radicals of the 30s and 40s (the New York Intellectuals) moved from radicalism to neo-conservatism – although Stalinism and McCarthyism were unusually pressing external influences on their political trajectory. Furthermore, if we examine the intergenerational trend – the trend across generations rather than within a single Baby Boomer generation – we can see a different trajectory: a movement from the old left or CPUSA of the 1930s/40s to the New Left of the 60s/70s to the New Social Movements, i.e., a movement away from rigid, dogmatic Marxism to a more free form radicalism embracing many tendencies and causes including environmental rights, disability rights, food security, ethnic solidarity, anarchism and various feminisms. The masses of people involved in these New Social Movements have been manifested in the attendance at World Social Forums and US Social Forums.
In celebrating the diversity of the New Social Movements, one is not dismissing the tremendous insights afforded by a serious study of Marx, but one is defending against the very restrictive dogmatic formulations which demand that our struggles for human emancipation must hinge upon ontological materialism.
In some ways however the Left may be coming full circle. According to Leslie Fishbein, author of Rebels in Bohemia, “pre-World War I American radicalism was eclectic and seldom doctrinaire.”20 Fishbein’s book is a study of a free-spirited leftist circle of the 1910s that published the radical journal, The Masses. Described as “bearing more kinship to Bloomsbury than to Petrograd,” they “considered themselves Marxists, but few had thoroughly studied Marx and Engels, and even fewer were willing to accept the ideological restraints or personal discipline of Marxist revolutionaries.”21
The approach of these early radicals to “idealism,” spirituality, or religion is very instructive. In a chapter entitled “The Road to Religion,” Fishbein documents that
“many American socialists took the unorthodox position of embracing Christianity while rejecting its institutional embodiment, the church.”22 As pragmatists rather than ideologists, the Socialist party “departed from the Marxist view that all religion was an opiate to repress workers” and instead sought to both attract churchgoers to the party and “tap religion as a vital source in American life.”23 These free-thinking radicals did not hesitate to attack the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion – including the bigotry, false piety, self-righteousness, wealth and corruption of the church. Yet they praised Christian ideals and viewed the church as a betrayer of Christ, who had denounced the very evils which the church perpetuated in his name. They saw Christianity as a religion of brotherly love. While some sought to transform the image of Jesus into that of a revolutionary, the “first Socialist” and a worker/carpenter, others had a genuine religious sensibility. Religion deepened the “sense of purpose of those who had found personal meaning in rebellion.”24
Apart from the sympathies of the bohemian left for Christianity, the first half of the twentieth century was witness to a long-forgotten movement or tendency known as Christian Socialism, which according to Paul Buhle played a vital role in both the American Left and US life and culture in general.24 Buhle notes that “several of the most popular and widely read theologians of the first half of the [twentieth] century were outspoken Christian Socialists,” including Reinhold Niebuhr. Christian Socialists were successful in “connect[ing] radical ideas with sections of the working class – especially the poor minorities – and with a wide stratum of intellectuals.” They also “had a special appeal to women reformers repelled by the class struggle doctrines of the generally patriarchal immigrant socialist milieu.”26 As individuals, Christian Socialists played important roles during the 1960s in the civil rights and antiwar movements, during the 1970s in campaigns around the United Farmworkers’ boycott, the empowerment of women clergy, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and the liberation theology movements in Latin America and the rest of the Third World.
Christians were not the only religious socialists; there is a long and rich history of socialism and Jewish communities, abroad as well as in the US. However, in addition to religion, the complexities of language, ethnicity and culture also come into play, when discussing experiences such as that of the Yiddish Left, so a short discussion would be inadequate and a long one prohibitive. Furthermore, my purpose here is not to give an inventory or survey of all religious socialist communities, but to demonstrate that religious belief and leftist praxis are indeed compatible and that one does not have to start with the assumption of a materialist ontology in order to engage in left politics. This is perhaps well exemplified in Cuba, which in recent decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of capitalism in China, has been the hope and beacon of the socialist world. In Cuba, the practice of the African-based religion of Santeria, a derivative of West African Yoruba belief and practice, is not merely “tolerated” but extolled as a genuine aspect of the country’s heritage. Moreover, it is neither uncommon nor considered contradictory for members of Cuba’s Communist Party to also be practicing Yoruba priests (Santeros) and priestesses (Santeras).
Marxism versus Afrocentricity: A Satirical View
Although Left discourse may be noticeably marginalized in the present ideological wars between Afrocentricists and cosmopolitan pluralists, such discourse once had a commanding presence in African American Studies. Examples can be found in Abdul Alkalimat’s collection Paradigms in Black Studies, Manning Marable’s review essay in The Left Academy, and the early issues of The Black Scholar (circa 1970s), where a fierce debate between Marxists and nationalists was waged.27 Such debates, which also took place in Black Studies textbooks and in the “Which Way Forward?” debates of the Black Liberation Movement, were riveting, and yet so sharp and intense that they had a debilitating effect on the movement, sapping its vitality. One perhaps has to step back and take a humorous look at these fierce struggles in order to gain perspective. The literary genre of Afrofuturism provides such a venue.
In a special edition of Socialism and Democracy entitled Socialism and Social Critique in Science Fiction, Lisa Yaszek, discusses this genre of black speculative fiction in her article, “Afrofuturism, Science Fiction and the History of the Future.” I was a co-editor and contributor to this collection, but I must now confess to more than just a fan’s, reader’s or critic’s interest in the genre. I also have long experimented as a writer – using pseudonyms until now – in the genre of science fantasy/Afrofuturism. Below is a very short excerpt from a larger work-in-progress. This excerpt allows us to take a humorous look28 at the debilitating debate between Marxists and nationalists/ Marxists and Afrocentrists. My disclaimer is that this is only fiction – a scenario which takes place in an alternate universe – and that no resemblance to any living person is intended.
“I’m writing a novel” said Abu Sunni. It’s about Brooklyn but it’s written like a western. It’s about a shoot-out between the cultural nationalists and the scientific socialists. It’s the Marxist Kid and his posse of hard-drinking, fast shooting dialectical materialists versus the Kwanzaa Kowboy and his ankh-totin’, gun-slingin’ pardners, the Kemetic Konsciousness Krew. Let me read a couple of pages to you:
This here town isn’t big enough for the two of us,” said the Kwanzaa Kowboy. “People don’t need your kind around here, no ways, Stranger. Why, you don’t even speak Swahili! You had your heads in those German and Russian textbooks too long. If you’re not Holistic and African-centered, then you’re just a square.”
“I’m a hard-working proletarian – I don’t need to talk Swahili. I talk in a language that the masses understand: basic economics: who’s doing the work and who’s getting paid. The capitalist ruling class is getting rich off of our sweat and labor, pardner. Running around in Dashikis, chanting ‘Habari Gani’ ain’t gonna change that!
The Kwanzaa Kowboy retorts: “The masses don’t understand a word that you’re saying: absolute and relative surplus value, the fetishism of commodities, the negation of the negation, the Asiatic mode of production, species-being, The Grundisse, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, left Hegelians, bolsheviks, mensheviks, Troskyists, Maoists, Plekhanov’s Monist View of History, Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanism, the Johnson-Forrest Tendency, the Spartacist League, the negative dialectics of the Frankfurt School, Lukacs’s reification, Althusser’s over-determination, Gramsci’s war of manuever and war of position. Why this rhetoric is incomprehensible to the masses, it’s all mumbo jumbo.”
“Nah, ya got that wrong pardner! Your literary analogy broke down! Right author, wrong book. It’s Loop Garoo and Bo Shmo all the way. But what can I expect from a yellow-bellied coward! I come armed with scientific theory, and I can put it into praxis. Let’s see you do the same. You think that you can get away with a lot of metaphysical voodoo with your ancient and medieval texts. You can translate all of the African divination texts from the time of antiquity, but it’s still a cultural sham. Folks need a materialist ideology. We need bread and butter on our tables, shoes on our feet, decent housing to live in. Proverbs from Ancient African feudal societies won’t fill our bellies. We don’t have a cultural crisis; we have structural crisis. A crisis in the economic structure, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s the economy, stupid!” said the Marxist Kid.
“We’ll let the masses decide that. My textbook on Black Studies outsells your Afro-American Studies text ten to one. Plus mine is printed on quality paper not recycled news-sheet like yours. I give the people Seven African Principles to live by – a minimum code of moral values based on tradition and reason. We have to return to the African tradition; we gotta go back to the source. Besides my philosophy is an on-going synthesis of the best of nationalist, pan-Afrikanist AND SOCIALIST thought and practice – and one of my principles is cooperative economics, so I ‘m already hip to the economic aspect of our oppression. As for calling me a yella-bellied coward, if I were you I’d be careful who I’m talking to, pardner, I’ve already taken out some Marxist punks like you ... and they were part of the armed-to-the-teeth Black Beret Party,” replied the Kwanzaa Kowboy.
“Cooperative economics!... Organizing people into food coops and other consumer cooperatives works fine on a limited basis at a very local level, but it’s only a tiny part of the solution. We are talking about global capitalism here, neo-imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. We’re talking about multinational corporations who rape and pillage Third World countries for precious minerals and other raw materials, who conscript a labor force to work under sweatshop conditions for pennies a day, and who then market their products around the world at exorbitant prices raking in billions of dollars in profit. We’re talking about corporations whose assets are greater than the gross national product of most countries – corporations who are the world’s new super-powers. They move capital across borders in an instant. They used to depend on scabs and migrant labor – a work force of undocumented aliens – to break a strike. Instead of migrant labor now they depend on migrant capital: if there is a labor strike in Newark they can pick up stakes and move the capital goods – the entire factory operation – from Newark to Mexico City or Nairobi ... and within just a couple of months have the whole thing up and running, and those workers in Nairobi or Mexico City will be paid only one-tenth of the Newark salary.... Then the banks and the real estate moguls foreclose on the mortgages of the unemployed Newark workers and grab up their property which they sell on the market at a higher price. Everybody makes off like a bandit.... The capitalists don’t care about people’s lives, all they care about is maximizing profit. Greed is their only creed.... The only way people can fight back against international capitalists is through the international solidarity of the working class.... Color and race is irrelevant when it comes to the larger picture. Peoples of all races, colors and ethnicities are being screwed by the global system of monopoly capitalism. The masses of the working-class people in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have the same enemy: the international capitalist class, the fat cat financiers, the big bankers, and the owners and controllers of the multi-national corporations – the so-called ‘Fortune 500 companies.’ As for your threats against my life, everyone knows that you went to war with the Black Beret Party. The masses had a great respect for the Black Beret Party. The masses understood that they were courageous revolutionaries. It seems to me that anyone who violently opposed the Black Beret Party would have to be part of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy. Lots of folks think that you were paid off by police. You might even be an undercover cop!”
“Paid off by the police! Infiltrated by the police is more like it. And so was the Black Beret Party. Didn’t you read Johnnie Williams’ novel, The Man Who Wept and Ran? J.Edgar Hoover had a King Adolf Plan to prevent the rise of a black Messiah, to turn all black organizations against one another in an all-out fratricidal war, and to herd up the remaining scared and confused masses of black folks into concentration camps to be exterminated like the Jews in Nazi Germany. In Phase One of the plan, all radical black organizations were infiltrated by COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program operated by the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency in cooperation with state and municipal police agencies. Both the Black Beret Party and the Kwanzaa Kollective were infiltrated by agent provocateurs. Me and Huey were vying with one another to see who would be the greatest black radical intellectual of the post-Malcolm era. I manifested my kuumba, my brilliant creativity, by creating Kwanzaa, a non-heroic holiday celebrated by 20 million people all around the world. Huey came forth with a neo-Marxist platform of inter-communalism rather than internationalism, and attempted to put Fanon’s theory about the Lumpen into praxis. We were neck and neck competing for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ‘genius award.’ I wanted to be recognized by the establishment as the greatest black activist genius of my era and so did Huey. The agent provocateurs exploited our rivalries, heightening the antagonisms between our two groups until it erupted into open warfare. As for your comments about globalism: You miss the boat if you think that it’s merely global capitalism which is the enemy. There is a global apartheid system, a worldwide system of racism, which must be defeated. Throughout the globe, wherever you travel – Australia India, the islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, North America, Europe – you will see the same problem: people of light complexions oppressing people of dark complexions.... We dark-skinned people are the wretched of the earth. As Du Bois said: ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.’ And the solution is the Seven Principles of Darkness, which we celebrate every Kwanzaa as we’ve done for the past thirty years. The Nguzo Saba – the minimum moral value system that dark-skinned people have to practice – if we would only practice SOME of the principles SOME of the time, then we could once again take our place on the human stage of history as a free, proud and productive people. Now raise up your fists in a sixties Black Power Salute and pull them down hard, as we chant seven times in unison, ‘Harambee’ which means that we must all pull together:
Harambee...Harambee...Harambee...Harambee...HARAMBEE...HARAMBEE… HARAMBEE. Now see how cultural that feels, better than singing some old corny ‘Internationale.’ The masses don’t want no abstract theory, they want to feel good. They’ve been beaten down by the European’s racist system and they want to feel good about their blackness, their African identity and their African culture. I know how to rouse up the masses like a Baptist minister. You just don’t understand the psychology of our people.”
“Well that just shows that you are a behind-the-times Negro. This is the twenty-first century that we’re living in. You’ve got the wrong century, the wrong problem, and definitely the wrong solution. Your feel-good Swahili Shouts will not free us from the yoke of global capitalism. Swahili slogans can’t save us. The only way that the masses will be free is when they read The Collected Works of Marx and Engels – all 48 volumes – and then read the Lenin Library – all 45 volumes. You can’t substitute slogans for study. If the masses come home from work every night and read Marx, Engels and Lenin instead of watching TV, then we would have a revolution.”
“Yeah, trying to read that boring incomprehensible shit would make them angry, irritated and boiling mad enough to want to fight anybody. I told you man, you really are alienated in your own little intellectual world, divorced from the pulse of the people, you know nothing about the psychology of masses.”
“Oh yeah ... well I know that you’re trying to use psychology – or should I say Swahili Tricknology – to become the king of the masses. You just want to be The Great Big African Chief.”
“Them is fighting words, pardner. We gonna have to duel this out.... Get ready to draw and get ready to die. You about to meet your Maker – if your dialectical materialist ass believes in a Maker. Draw, mutha fatha...
Pity the poor synthesizer! Once hailed, now reviled! Long believed to be one of the lateralized functions of the right hemisphere of the brain, synthesis – the combining of different ideas, influences, elements or components into a new unified whole – has been recognized by psychologists as one of the cognitive sub-processes crucial to creative thinking. Indeed Marx, a towering creative genius of the modern era, was a grand synthesizer. According to Mandel, Marxism emerged as a quadruple synthesis of 1) the main social sciences, 2) these social sciences and the project of emancipating humanity, 3) the project of human emancipation and the real self-organization and self-emancipation of the modern proletariat, and 4) the real workers’ movement and revolutionary political organization and action.29
It therefore was disconcerting to learn that my co-editor uses the phrase “He’s a synthesist [sic]” as a slur or a pejorative for someone who dares sully Marxism by combining it with non-Marxist concepts – especially those concepts which privilege or give salience to race.30 But my dismay withstanding, let me confess my guilt at the onset, so that there will be no doubt about where I stand on one of the key debates posed in this collection of essays – the issue of Marxism versus Afrocentricity. I am indeed a transgressor, a shameless and unrepentant synthesizer. No, I am not seeking the easy way out by being non-committal, and neither am I, as some might infer, “confused.” Indeed I do have analytical clarity about the committed political position which I have staked out – a very precarious position perhaps – as I have major problems with the “purists,” “extremists” and doctrinaire dogmatists of both camps. Mine is no middle-of-the-road position designed to enamor or ingratiate myself to the partisans on either side of the fence. On the contrary, I am more likely to infuriate those on both sides of the fence – for I am neither attempting to mend fences nor for that matter am I a fence-sitter who can be swayed or pulled one way or another.
“The Rough-Riders – they sound like a bunch of scum-bags!” said Sapphire.
“Very funny!” retorted Abu Sunni. “Actually they are called the Rough Riders because they can they can ride across any theoretical terrain including the jagged mountain cliffs and the desert valleys of dialectical materialism as well as the savannah plains, jungle-thickets and swamplands of Afrocentricity. But listen to my plot! Homeboy Nationalist and the Rough Riders are a local jazz-funk fusion band and they play at the bar and brothel where both the Marxist Kid and the Kwanzaa Kowboy do their drinking and screwing around. They intervene in the duel and bring the Marxist Kid and the Kwanzaa Kowboy to the bar and brothel to have drinks and pussy on the house – and be entertained by the band. You know that music has charms to soothe the savage beast, so it certainly should calm down these guys. Homeboy Nationalist and the Rough-Riders they play fusion music, they’ve played with Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, James Boggs, and Robert Allen. They’ve played with George Padmore, Harold Cruse, John Henrik Clarke, Dr. Ben, Jacob Carruthers and Chancellor Williams. They know all the riffs. They know that 6th PAC didn’t refer to tight abs, Heineken or Bud, it was that infamous Sixth Pan African Congress when the band couldn’t decide how to play ‘Which Way Forward?’ Some wanted to start off and end it with strong African Rhythms, others wanted more of an ‘Internationale’ harmony. But Homeboy Nationalist and the Rough Riders know exactly how to play ‘Which Way Forward?’ – blending the sounds of national liberation and class struggle, all the way: ‘Free the land and redistribute the wealth.’ They know how to use their moog synthesizers to deal with discordant elements of thesis and antithesis, and they are masters at improvisation. So they are able to throw down with some serious Afroleftist spiritual dialectics – starting off with a Yin Yang interpenetration of opposites, and jumping back into scientific Sankofism and proletarian Garveyism mode, and then soaring off into some counter-hegemonic Nguzo Saba with expressions of umoja – solidarity and recognition of our non-antagonistic contradictions – with the national bourgeoisie, then expanding the nationalist note into its highest octave which is the Pan Africanist chord, from there traveling into Third World harmony or should I say First World Afro-Asian-Latino alliance, and then flying upwards on the scale till they hit those sweet sounds of revolutionary internationalism with all progressive peoples of the human family on the planet earth. That way they achieve universality without ever giving up their unique cultural identity and heritage, as they struggle against racism, capitalism and imperialism.”
“What about the struggle against sexism?” asked Sapphire.
“Oh, that’s the pistol packing, hard-on riding Homegirl’s specialty! She takes care of that department by herself.”
“That’s crap. Fighting sexism is not just a woman’s struggle. Men need to confront their own sexism, just like white people need to confront their own racism,” Sapphire replied angrily.
“Yeah, if you’re gonna join the universal struggle for human emancipation, then you’re going to have to confront the issues of sexism and homophobia,” said Sappho.
Philosophical Inquiry and Africana Studies Redux
To teach one must know the student; to know the student one must know the student’s symbolism.
-- Ancient Egyptian Proverb
Several volumes devoted to African American, African Caribbean, African and Africana philosophy have appeared within the past two decades. Of special interest to students of Afrocentric literature who reject the Eurocentric claim that philosophy is a product of Western civilization which emerged in Ancient Greece, are the volumes on African philosophy. Our appetites for books on African philosophy and discourses on the origin of philosophy have been piqued by Yosef ben Jochanaan’s Africa: Mother of Western Civilization, which included documentation of the several pre-Socratic philosophers who studied in the Mystery Schools of Ancient Egypt; George G.M. James’s infamous Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy; and Martin Bernal’s equally well-known 3-volume work, Black Athena: The AfroAsiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.
The anthologies edited by Lee Brown, Emmanuael Eze, Tsenay Serequeberhan, and a book authored by Paulin Hountondji, all of which are entitled African Philosophy (with various subtitles ) and the anthology edited by Kwasi Wiredu entitled A Companion to African Philosophy address some of the issues raised by McClendon. Two works by Théophile Obenga, the recent book African Philosophy:The Pharaonic Period: 2780- 330 BC, and an earlier monograph A Lost History: African Philosophy in World History, are of interest also, as they continue the line of research and inquiry about Ancient Egyptian philosophy by ben Jochanaan, James, and Bernal as well as by Maulana Karenga and Jacob Carruthers.31
Serequeberhan, in the lead article of his edited volume African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, cites the work of Henry Odera Oruka who identified four trends in African philosophy: 1) ethnophilosophy, 2) philosophic sagacity, 3) national-ideological philosophy and 4) professional philosophy.32 While there are other typologies, such as O. Nkombe and Alphonse Smets fourfold typology: traditional, ideological, critical and synthetic,33 or Omoregbe’s bifurcation of traditional and contemporary,34 these are simply different mappings of the same terrain. For our present purposes, the Oruka typology will suffice.
Ethnophilosophy, also referred to as traditional philosophy, is philosophy derived from the ethnological study of African ethnic groups, a documentation of the modes of thought which inform traditional values and cultural expression; i.e., the thought-systems, worldviews, cosmologies, mythoreligious conceptions, esoteric knowledge and lived ritual practices of Africans. The self-proclaimed school of African professional philosophers, i.e., academic or Western-trained philosophers, such as Hountondji (who coined the term “ethnophilosophy”) and Wiredu are critical of the notion that ethnophilosophy has any legitimate standing, relevance or validity in the proper field of philosophy. Professional philosophers have sought bridge the gulf with ethnophilosophy by conducting dialogues and interviews with indigenous sages or wise men. The professional philosophers choose the sages who are known to critically reflect upon their ethnic traditions rather than simply be preservers of it, and they direct the questioning so as to uncover “authentic” wisdom.
National-Ideological philosophy is the political response to European imperialism, enslavement, and colonialism. It seeks to redress the oppressed situation of African people and is articulated in formulations such as African socialism, Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Nkrumah’s Consciencism, and scientific socialism. Unlike the oral sources of ethnophilosophy or sagacity, these national-ideological philosophies exist as written texts – books, pamphlets and manifestos. African Americans, too, have produced a black intellectual tradition or black radical tradition which is the response to enslavement, segregation and oppression, and this has been labeled “philosophy born of struggle.” While some would recognize a fluid continuum from ethnophilosophy to professional philosophy, others within professional philosophy are hard put to identify anything but their own school, which they view as an agent of science and modernization for Africa, as legitimate philosophy.
Innocent Onyewuenyi, a contributor to Serequeberhan’s edited volume, turns this criticism around and questions the relevance to African peoples of the professional or Western academic school of philosophy, in the following argument, which summarizes and extends the criticisms of Western philosophy made by Gabriel Marcel, a Western philosopher:
[Marcel] criticized any philosophy which aims at constructing a conceptual system with propositions rigidly connected by dialectical relations – evidenced in the post-Kantian systems. He regards as absurd the presumption that the universe could be encapsulated in a more or less related set of formulas….
What he is criticizing here is what I call Western philosophy as an academic and dehumanized philosophy. It was a disease that divorced thought from life. Philosophy became highly abstract, lifeless and artificial, emptied of real content. Human beings no longer knew what it meant to exist. Thinking overshadowed existence. 35
This is the first major point that I wish to make regarding the analysis utilized by McClendon in his present article, “Materialist Philosophical Inquiry and African American Studies.” I quote Onyewuenyi, because as an African philosopher, he articulates what I urgently and intuitively felt – that the philosophical exposition on materialism was rather cold, abstract and lifeless. This seemed patently evident, yet as an outsider without any grounding in the discipline of philosophy I was reluctant to articulate it. Indeed, with my grounding in psychological literature I find a corroborating argument in Joel Kovel’s White Racism: A Psychohistory. In a chapter entitled “Radix Malorum” (“The Root of Evil”), Kovel states that the symbol of whiteness to which Western Civilization lays claim, represents a negation, a removal of color. The achievements of the West depend on “the application of a pure form of thought – rational; scientific, ‘whitened’ – to the diverse problems of civilization.”36 Kovel adds that this highly abstract thought and purified will, élan, restless zeal or fanaticism are guarantors of the power of the West. Here I simply wish to rephrase Kovel’s concept of “whitened” thought. Basic social psychological research on attitude formation and attitude change has shown that all attitudes have cognitive (thought), affective (feeling) and conative (action) dimensions. I would argue that the Western rationalist mode of thought has denuded attitudes of their affective component. Cold and purely logical abstract thought (“Spock-like” if we may use a metaphor from popular culture) is unacceptable in cultural contexts where the affective dimension of attitudes, beliefs, and opinions is highly regarded and respected. Attitudes and beliefs about religion and cultural traditions, for example, have a strong affective dimension. Abstract materialist arguments against religion or culture hold very little weight. Instead, they are deemed as offensive or as a cultural affront.
My second point builds on the first. Kwame Gyekye, utilizing the ethnophilosophical approach, states that “African ontology appears to be essentially spitirtualistic, although this does not imply a denial of the reality of the non-empirical, non-spiritual world.”37 Citing John Mbiti’s assertion that in African conceptions “the spiritual and the physical are but two dimensions of one and the same universe,” Gyekye goes on to argue that “African ontology. . . is neither idealistic – maintaining that what is real is only the spirit, nor materialistic (naturalistic) – maintaining that what is real is only matter, but possesses attributes of both.”38 Gyekye’s position would be subsumed by materialist philosophers under the particular category of idealism which doesn’t deny material reality but renders the material dimension of life as subordinate to spiritual affairs.39 Nevertheless, Gyekye’s statement about African ontology is in agreement with anthropologist Marimba Ani’s statement that the “essence of the African cosmos is spiritual reality.” However, he does not delve into murky waters as Ani does, according to McClendon, by making misplaced assertions about Plato or conflating materialism with rationalism. Gyekye states that while Western epistemology has acknowledged reason (rationalism) and sense experience (empiricism) as the two main sources of knowledge, paranormal cognition or extrasensory perception has not been recognized by Western philosophy as a valid source of knowledge. However clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, etc. are considered important ways of knowing in African epistemology. Western parapsychology, of course, is a long established field, but Western philosophy does not accept its findings, and Western academic psychology has been slow to do so as well.40
Returning to McClendon’s criticism of Ani, he pejoratively ascribes to Ani a construct of bifurcated modes of thought: “Western rationality and African irrationality.” This probably can be rephrased with more neutrality. Ani makes a distinction between African cultures and Western cultures based on the relative emphasis which these cultures place on the dominant modes of thought ascribed to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Western culture tends to overemphasize the importance of the left hemisphere modalities of logic, analysis and reason and de-emphasize the significance of the right hemispheric modalities of synthesis and intuition and – according to the parapsychologists – extrasensory perception. African cultures in contrast prioritize these right hemispheric modalities.
Lived experience becomes the final arbiter here. Materialist philosophical inquiry or analysis cannot refute what people have personally experienced. Experience is after all the best teacher. Were this another venue, perhaps abundant anecdotes would be appropriate, but one’s exposition and arguments are restricted in form and content here. However, let us simply say that while there is certainly no shortage of charlatans claiming to be seers, tea readers, psychics, or numerological advisors (dispensing advice about lucky numbers to play in various Lotto games), etc., who are ever ready to prey upon the gullible and fleece the pockets of the forlorn, the African American community nevertheless is richly laden with grandmothers, aunts, fathers, wives, etc., who are in the African American idiom “open” – i.e. receptive to psychic intuition and other forms of paranormal cognition – and who give unexpected, unsolicited, unpaid for and uncanny advice. The recipients of such advice, more often than not, give it precedence over any contrary inclinations based purely on logic or reason. Psychic dreams, premonitions, visions – these are all part of the fabric of our lives. The same may be said about spirituality. Regardless of the exoteric or exterior forms which religions may take, there is a common thread running through them all, which speaks of cosmic consciousness, a communication with the unseen, a tuning in to the vibrations of a Higher Universal Force or Energy, i.e., a recognition of The Most High. This esoteric wisdom is woven into the fabric of the African American community. The collection of philosophical sagacity could be conducted amongst the wise men and women in Afro-America just as it is conducted in Africa: and it would yield many conversations centered on esoteric spirituality and the knowledge apprehended by the “sixth sense” or the “Third Eye.” To run counter to this with a materialistic/atheistic philosophy is to run counter to “the cosmological sensibilities” which McClendon denies exist. This does not suggest that spirituality, mysticism or extrasensory perception are the exclusive province of any race; it is simply to state that materialist philosophy is antithetical to African American culture. Neither does this suggest that African American culture is hopelessly mired in the nebulous world of spirituality, mysticism and metaphysics. African American philosophical sages would say that we live in a multi-layered universe, where metaphysical laws apply to certain layers of reality, and the laws of economics apply to other layers.
Finally, McClendon states, in the second paragraph of his article:
The tradition of teaching philosophy in the United States has been (and continues to be) focused mainly on European/Western/Euro-American/white philosophers and the cultural landscape and experiences that form the social and intellectual context for professional philosophical work in general.
One fails to see how the analysis provided by McClendon departs in any way from this tradition. I would argue that one cannot simply apply Eurocentric theory and methodology to the analysis of the African or African American experience. On the other hand, Africana philosophy has much to offer to the discipline of Africana Studies – and to socialist thought.41 There is a rich legacy of African philosophy as well as a rich legacy of African American and African Caribbean intellectual tradition – the Diasporic counterpart of Oruka’s national-ideological philosophy – encompassing the work of thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Walter Rodney, which has been variously labeled as “speaking truth to power,” “philosophy born of struggle,” “Africana critical theory,” and “Caliban’s reason.”42 While much of this intellectual tradition is radical, it is not necessarily Marxist. Instead it is an indigenous tradition which is often interwoven with Marxism. Indeed, Cedric Robinson opens his book Black Marxism with a query concerning whether Marxism and Black Radicalism, “two programmes for revolutionary change... may be so distinct as to be incommensurable.”43 Robinson states that Marxism is
a conceptualization of human affairs and historical development which is emergent from the historical experiences of European peoples, mediated, in turn, through their civilization, their social orders and their cultures. Certainly its philosophical origins are indisputably Western. But the same must be said of its analytical presumptions, its historical perspectives, its points of view.44
Robinson argues that the Black Radical Tradition has been obscured by whites, as the West has suppressed Europe’s previous knowledge of the African past.45 The denial of black history by Europeans, the enslavement of Africans and creation of “the Negro,” the historical, organic and integral relationship of the slave trade and slave labor to modern world capitalist economy not only at the “primitive accumulation” pre-capitalist stage of history but for the next three centuries of capitalist development, in Robinson’s estimation, rendered the Marxist interpretation of history and theory of revolution, with its preoccupation with proletarian class struggle in the industrial and manufacturing centers of capitalism, inadequate and insufficient. Out of this more complex capitalist world system, revolutionary forces emerged initially in the African Diaspora and then in colonized Africa, informed by their own historical experiences and developing movements and theories that were only “vaguely anticipated in the radical traditions of the West.”
The indigenous thought of African peoples – ranging from the Ma’atian ethics of classical African antiquity to the contemporary unfolding of the Black Radical Tradition – is the paramount contribution that the discipline of philosophy can offer to the field of Africana Studies.
Groundings with My Sisters
Layli Phillips, editor of The Womanist Reader, states that
Womanism is a social change perspective rooted in Black women’s and other women of color’s everyday experiences and everyday methods of problem-solving in everyday spaces, extended to the problem of ending all forms of oppression for all people, restoring the balance between people and the environment/nature and , and reconciling life with the spiritual dimension... [W]omanism is not feminism. Its relationships to feminism (including Black feminism) are important but its relationships to other critical theories and social justice movements are equally important.... Unlike feminism and despite its name, womanism does not emphasize or privilege gender or sexism, rather it elevates all sites and forms of oppression [e.g.] race, gender and class....46
Phillips and her pioneering cohorts such as Clenora Hudson-Weemshave created an independent model of radicalism which acts as a beacon for those in the Black Left who are caught in a quandary between Marxism and Black Liberation ideologies. Indeed, and I say this entirely “tongue in cheek,” they have exhibited more “testicularity” than many brothers, by their clear decision to make a clean break from Western or Eurocentric forms of radicalism, and to articulate a vision of their own.
A couple of decades ago, more in jest than in earnest, I coined the term “Afroleftist” (in punning contrast not to the “African-centeredness” of Afrocentrism, but to its centrist and even center-right political stance) to define my own space on the political map. This captured my dual African-grounded orientation and radical left leanings as well as any other previously worn moniker – e.g. revolutionary nationalist, left nationalist, etc. – and with more self-explanatory efficiency and fewer burdens or repercussions than these other cumbersome and value-laden (e.g. negatively connoted) terms.
However, labels fall short, even though there is a profusion of them – e.g. Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism which embraces a Marxism informed and shaped by an autonomous Black Radical Tradition (and contrasted with McClendon’s Marxism in Ebony, i.e., Eurocentric Marxism in blackface), Rod Bush’s Black Internationalism, and the Black Left (a united front concept which opts to minimize ideological definition in order to maximize membership).
One is compelled to define one’s stance by distancing oneself from what one is not. I am not an Asanteist (an Afrocentrist as defined by Molefi Asante), and if McClendon’s philosophical materialism defines Marxism, then I must say as Marx himself did, “What is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist.”47 Clenora Hudson-Weems states that “Rather than create their own paradigm and name and define themselves, some Africana women, scholars in particular, have been persuaded by White feminists to adopt or to adapt to the White concept and terminology of feminism.”48 Guided by the our Womanist sisters, black men and women on the left should become engaged in the struggle to create our own paradigm and name, and to define ourselves, rather than being persuaded by the Eurocentric left to adopt or adapt to the Eurocentric concept and terminology of Marxism.
One may also look back to our roots in the movements which arose organically in our inner city communities in the late 60s and early 70s. Those who embraced leftist thought eschewed the term “Marxism,” preferring to refer to our philosophy as “scientific socialism.” This was not only a movement away from glorifying the canon of thought produced by DWEMs (dead white European males) but more importantly it made a distinction between Marxism – which as articulated by some is little more than a stagnant or moribund dogma – and scientific socialism, a methodology of struggle and an ever-evolving vibrant, dynamic and open system of critical analysis.
The Future of Africana Studies
Michael Dawson notes that “radically different visions of the road to freedom” have both shaped and divided the black community.49 “Black ideological visions have structured black political discourse, invigorated oppositional black protest movements and caused bitter internal conflicts throughout African American history.”50 As an academic field rooted in social movement and struggle, Africana Studies draws into its ranks many scholars who are energetic and passionate about the freedom of African peoples – and who hold competing visions of freedom. The energy and passion for liberation is usually translated or manifested as an energy and passion for dismantling oppression.
When this energy and passion fall short of their desired goal, they are turned inward and we begin dismantling each other.51 Indeed the bitter vituperative infighting which plagues our inner city communities and results in social implosion – the violent inward collapsing and destruction of community life52 – is mirrored in the devastating ideological wars endemic to black academia. While the early slogan and call to action of Black Studies was “We must bring the campus to the community and the community to the campus,” we may have unwittingly brought some of the worst community ills to the campus, reproducing gangsta and thug life on an intellectual level. We participate in academic drive-by shootings, gang wars and turf battles with paradigms and theories as our guns and bullets.53
To their credit, Afrocentrist scholars identifying the roots of our antagonisms – whether on the street corner or in academia – as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (i.e., internalized colonialism), have stressed the need for communal healing.54 Healing –making whole again that which has been rent asunder.
Leftist and African-centered discourses, poised so often as polar opposites, actually have a unifying common denominator, a counter-hegemonic focus. One stresses the ravages of capitalism; the other stresses the ravages of white supremacy. Yet there are many interpretations and iterations of Leftist praxis and African-centered praxis, i.e., many Marxisms and many Afrocentricities; neither paradigm is monolithic. In the future and for the future of Africana Studies, we hope to create anthologies which veer away from destructive debilitating debate between the rigid, closed, dogmatic articulations of Marxism and Asanteism, and veer instead towards harmonious healing dialogue between the flexible, open, permeable, and progressive renditions of scientific socialism and African-centered thought (counter-hegemonic positions which are not mutually exclusive). In doing so, we hope to shape a comprehensive ideological vision. A decolonizing vision which takes into account both global capitalism and global apartheid. A synthesis. Indeed such a synthesis will be a “return to the source,” a return to the great tradition of Cheik Anta Diop, the Senegalese Marxist scholar who pioneered the African-centered study of Nile Valley Classical Civilizations.
As a community of scholars working towards the goal of Africana liberation we need this dialogue, synthesis, and return. We need the healing. We don’t need the drive-bys.
Sankofa! A luta continua!
1. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey; A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). See pages xxv-xxvi for Gates's initial discussion of the Talking Book. For a discussion of "call and response," see John F. Callahan, In the African-American Grain: Call and Response in Twentieth Century Black Fiction, 2nd ed. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 14-17.
54. See Joy DeGruy Leary, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Milwaukee: Uptone Press, 2005); also Yusuf Nuruddin, “The Sambo Thesis Revisited: Slavery’s Impact upon the African American Personality,” in Socialism and Democracy, Special Issue: Radical Perspectives on Race and Racism, Vol. 17, No.1 (Winter-Spring 2003); also at http://sdonline.org/back-issues/#33