The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Afrocentrism and Historical Racism in the Social Sciences

A comment to the "Forbiden Archaeology" entry reminded me of something...

While I was in graduate school, I sometimes shared an office with a couple of other anthropology grad students. On the office wall as a poster that bore the title (if memory serves) "Important Points in Black History." The aim of the poster was, rather clearly, to provide a sense of pride in the ancestry of people of African descent*. A fair assesment of history and archaeology provides a huge amount of material for such a poster. Volumes have been written about the accomplishments of people within Africa and by African people and their descendants throughout the globe, and volumes remain to be written yet. From Great Zimbabwe to the accomplishments of African-American scientists and writers to the contributions that contemporary Africans have made to world agriculture, the humanities, and politics, there is a wealthy heritage of which anyone could be proud.

It's unfortunate that the producers of the poster ignored all of that and went straight for the pseudo-scholarship.

The poster had individual frames claiming that the people of Africa were responsible for everything from the rise of Hellenistic Greece to the establishment of pre-Columbian empires in the Americas**. Prominent people from several ethnic groups were labelled as "black" by the producers of the poster, often based on nothing more than urban legend***.

In the case of claiming the rise of Greek culture, it's easy to brush these claims off. In the case of the claims of the founding of empires in the Americas before the 15th century, though, there is a weird issue at play. The purpose of such claims, and I have heard them many other times from members of the public and people on television and radio, is to reclaim the past from Europeans - the argument being that European (read: white) scholars have been writing the histories for centuries, and have downplayed or simply denied the role of non-whites in human history. This is, to a degree, a fair point. Certainly, many people think of "world history" as being essentially the history of Europe and post-1492 North America. It is common for Africa, India, China, and pretty much anywhere that isn't in Europe to be given token mention, if that, in elementary and high school "world history" classes****. Early archaeologists often developed overly-complex hypotheses concerning "vanished white races" in Africa and the Americas in order to explain the architectural wonders (and implied high degree of social organization) found in these places.

However, this has been changing over the last 120 years. Anthropologists have now long since turned away from the assumption that there is a "hierarchy of man" with Europeans at the top, professional historians have long made efforts to acknowledge the importance of areas outside of Europe, and while the faculties of many universities continue to be disproportionately white and middle class, even that is in the (admittedly slow) process of changing.

Nonetheless, it is true that Africa continues to get short shrift. It is, therefore, understandable that people would want to do research that reflects well on Africa itself and the people of the African diaspora. That's fine and good, and I see no problem with it. However, the poster in the office was produced not by responsible scholars with an interest in Africa or the African Disapora, but by a fringe group. This fringe group (and it is a fringe, no matter how vocal it sometimes is) of academics and laypeople has taken this a step farther and attempt to claim that all good things come from Africa, and not really anywhere else. This group, typically referred to as "Afrocentrists" has made quite a stir in certain circles, and tends to see itself as being the cure for racism, but is in fact rooted in some deeply racist thought.

When the Afrocentrists attempt to claim, for example, that all of the philosophy of Socrates was stolen from the library at Alexandria, which is in Africa, and therefore, they will usually tell you, an achievement of black peoples, they are making a number of basic factual errors (the fact that ethnicities in classical Alexandria were constructed and perceived differently than our modern black/white dichotomy and therefore this construction isn't relevant, lack of evidence for Socrates ever traveling to Alexandria, and the little fact that the library was opened nearly a century after the death of Socrates), but the harm done is negligible except to the believer's understanding of history.

By contrast, when Afrocentrists try to claim that the societies of the Pre-Colombian Americas were organized by African colonists, matters are a bit different. First off, there's the simple fact that inherent in such a claim is the racist notion that the native peoples of the Americas were somehow incapable of achieving the architectural feats that they achieved, or developing the cultures that they developed. It is, quite simply, racist to claim that the monuments and societies of the Americas were not the work of the "savages" living here, no matter the skin color of the "noble race that brought civilization." It's racist when Eurocentrists do it, and it's just as racist when Afrocentrists do it.

Secondly, the people of the developing and industrial nations in Latin America have been having a hard enough time controlling heritage goods (a problem that my own profession is, unfortunately, often aggravates), and having yet another group try to lay false claim to these items not only removes a part of the cultural heritage, but also further fuels the colonial attitudes ("these people are savages who don't appreciate their past!") that fuels both political and social mistreatment of these peoples and nations.

It's a weird and curious trend, and it should be noted that few people other than members of this movement take the movement at all seriously. But I have always found it bizarre that there was a "counter racism" movement that engaged in the same sorts of racism, down the exact same arguments, as the people who they are arguing against.

*I guess I should say "recent African descent" as I know that some smart-ass paleoanthropologist is going to point out that all of use are ultimately descended from African populations.

**Next to the part of the poster claiming this, one of the archaeologists in the department placed a "post-it" not saying "This is not true."

***It was reminiscent of a classical music album a friend once showed me. It was titled something like "Gay Classics" and was music written by composers who the album's producers believed were gay. I have no idea about most of the composers listed on the album, but one was Frederic Chopin, who was apparently included because he was the lover of the author George Sands. The problem, though, is that George Sands was the pen-name of a woman, so the claim that Chopin was gay is rather dubious. If you do a little homework...

****A weird side effect of this is that many people, being unfamiliar with the historic contributions of these places, have simply assumed that they didn't have any, a view which anyone who is better versed in history knows to not be true.

No comments: