The Black Studies War:
Multiculturalism Vs. Afrocentricity

Greg Thomas
The Village Voice (1995)

Source: The Village Voice (January 17, 1995)


Henry Louis Gates Jr. couldn't go up against Molefi Kete Asante on the day I suggested, so he proposed his homeboy Kwame Anthony Appiah as a second. "You should ask Anthony. He is a genius. He'd kick Molefi's ass." Undaunted, Asante responded by challenging both Gates and Appiah to a public debate on his home turf in Philadelphia: "I am clear that the aping of whites is the road to neither intellectual respect nor ethical decency. Africans who exhibit confusion about their personal identities cannot hope to be clear about cultural identity."

I wanted the two scholars to debate the topic, "Does Afrocentricity Help or Hurt Black Studies?" for the call-in show I produce on WBAI. But it isn't only the impresario in me who regrets that the facedown has yet to occur. It's the student activist of a decade ago. Gates is the prolific literary scholar and premier multiculturalist who has revitalized Harvard's moribund Afro-American Studies department, Asante the champion of Afrocentricity headquartered at Temple, where he oversees more than 200 graduate students in the nation's first accredited African American Studies Ph.D. program. They personify the ideological poles of a field finally established in the American academy after 25 uphill years, a field that has drastically affected the worldview of most college-educated African Americans born after 1960. Gates and Asante are regarded as adversaries, and they are, but like many of my contemporaries, I respect them both. Their thesis and antithesis cry out for synthesis.

"Skip" Gates, who holds that neither Western traditionalists nor their Africa-centered opponents sufficiently emphasize the complex interplay of forces in American history and Afro-American culture, has garnered the support of Harvard's best-known Black Studies critics: Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson, who once declared Black Studies a "strange package of organized self-delusion," and African American political scientist Martin Kilson, who discerned "lower-class," "militant" "xenophobia" in many of its early proponents. He has now been joined by Ghana-born philosopher Appiah, jurist-historian A. Leon Higginbotham, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and prophetic pragmatist Cornel West. The stature of Harvard coupled with the celebrity of Gates and West make for formidable opposition to Eurocentrists and Afrocentrists alike.

Asante, the major conceptualizer and proponent of Afrocentricity, has published many books, including Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (1990), and The Afrocentric Idea (1987), which featured a very supportive blurb by Gates. He first achieved prominence in 1972 by taking over UCLA's Center for Afro-American Studies as a compromise candidate between the Black Panthers and Maulana Ron Karenga's Us organization, whose debates had ended in gunfire that killed two Panthers three years earlier. He moved to SUNY Buffalo in 1978 and since 1994 has headed the Temple program, where he has now been joined by Theophile Obenga, the top protege of Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop. The editor of the Journal of Black Studies for 23 years, Asante (formerly Arthur Smith) has published more than 200 articles and trained upwards of 50 Ph.D.'s.

Each scholar attacks the Eurocentric biases of the American academy. Each displays an eloquence that reflects his grounding in "mainstream" disciplines -- Gates in literature and history, Asante in communications--as well as deep familiarity with black history, literature, and oratory. Each exemplifies the Afro-American tradition of scholar-activist-institution builder. Each is a self-proclaimed cultural pluralist. But the two men differ radically in ideology, theoretical referents, and political style.

Critics such as publisher and poet Haki Madhubuti, U. Mass Black Studies honcho Michael Thelwell, and others have characterized Gates as a power player a la Booker T. Washington. Rival professors often cite his reach in the publishing industry, his controversial New York Times essay on black anti-Semitism, and his defense of 2 Live Crew as evidence of opportunism. On the other hand, Harold Cruse, curmudgeonly author of the classic Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, brands Asante and other academic Afrocentrists "ceremonial nationalists," and writers like June Jordan acknowledge Asante's sincerity but dissent from his identity politics. Colleagues criticize his "closed" conception of race, his tendency to declare who's a true Africana Studies adept and who's not -- or even who's Afrocentric and who's not. In short, some charge that Gates is a wishy-washy liberal with loosey-goosey values, while others dismiss Asante as a closed-minded nationalist with dynastic aspirations. The ideological battle between the two -- essentially over Afrocentricity's ultimate usefulness as scholarship and paradigm -- will go a long way toward determining the future direction of African American Studies.

The discipline is growing. Since 1988, the Ford Foundation -- the largest institutional source of funding for Black Studies since 1969 -- has pumped almost $5 million into the idea, at least partly because, as Ford program officer Dr. Sheila Biddle explains, its "interdisciplinary approach" has become a model in higher education. Prominent universities are jockeying for control over its direction. NYU has entrusted its fledging program to African film expert Manthia Diawara. Columbia has brought in scholar-activist Manning Marable. Harvard, Howard, and UC Santa Barbara are presently considering proposals for Ph.D. programs. Yale's began in September, and soon UC Berkeley is expected to announce its own doctorate. Several other programs, most of them Afrocentric in orientation, are also vying for leadership status--at Cornell, Ohio State, University of Wisconsin at Madison, San Francisco State, Indiana, and Kent State. After seven years of struggle, Darlene Clark Hine last year became the founding director of the Ph.D. program in Comparative Black History at Michigan State, the first of its kind.

But offsetting this growth are sectarianism and personal disputes, exacerbated by careerist opportunism and demagogic rigidity, and these threaten intellectual stalemates and erosions of hard-earned gains. Postcivil rights black intellectuals are in danger of repeating the same mistakes as their predecessors. "We must avoid the error of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois and we have to be clear about how our various projects are largely complementary," I was told by Columbia's Marable, who identifies with the trailblazing antiimperialist pan-Africanism of Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Amilcar Cabral. Such clarity is crucial, Marable argues: "In the postCold War period conservatives lack anticommunism, so they use a potpourri of attacks on multiculturalism, affirmative action, gay and lesbian studies, feminism, and Afrocentrism. As I told Molefi once, even though there may be differences between us, our enemies will see us as the same."

Even a scholar of Marable's weight and integrity can fall prey to divide and conquer, however. At Princeton University's "Race Matters" conference last spring, Marable dropped a bomb, describing what he perceives as a reconfiguration of racial ideology "every bit as significant and fundamental as the WashingtonDu Bois debate of a century ago." Socioeconomically, blacks are increasingly stratified: more reach the middle class while the percentage locked inside the underclass grows ever larger. Politically, the Reagan-Bush years resulted in such pervasive pessimism that few young people are capable of foreseeing a brighter tomorrow. This double-edged crisis has produced three overlapping strategic visions: inclusion or pragmatic integration (Gates), separatism or racial autonomy (Asante), and the transformation or radical democracy projected by Marable, West, and Angela Davis, who vigorously critique capitalism and sexism as well as racism.

Unlike highbrow rapper Leonard Jeffries, a man who never stops yapping or starts writing, Marable tries to deal fairly with the three models by pointing out their intersecting nature. Nevertheless, he places Afrocentric scholars and rigid racialist groups like the Nation of Islam in the same category: the "separatists." Since the rise of Elijah Muhammad in the '50s, liberals, Marxists, and conservatives have always hung this label on blacks who stood strong in their belief in religious, economic, intellectual, and political self-determination. While the term is appropriate to groups who campaign for territorial separation, most black Americans know a pipe dream when they see one -- if Farrakhan obtained land in Ghana, how many would actually follow him there?

In short, it is unfair for Marable to lump Afrocentric scholars with racial fundamentalists because both put race at the center of their thought. Would anyone argue that law professor Derrick Bell is a separatist comparable to Khalid Muhammad simply because Bell believes that racism is a permanent feature of American society? Is British cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall an Afrocentrist simply because Hall, like Asante, has argued that race is the modality in which class is lived? Is Toni Morrison a narrow cultural nationalist like Sharazad Ali, author of The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman, simply because Morrison admires the way African novelists and writers of the Negritude movement like Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor assume the centrality of their own selves, thus shifting the ontological ground from whites to blacks? Marable's conflation ignores the fact that many so-called separatists actually envision a multicultural democracy, and misses Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr.'s trenchant point: "The fundamental issue is not separation or integration...for if our goal is liberation it may be necessary to do both or neither."

Even "multicultural versus Afrocentric" is problematic. The terms are complementary, not antagonistic. Although Gates has repeatedly used his media access to hurl rhetorical Scud missiles at Afrocentrists, he is down with certain aspects of the concept and considers his work compatible with it. "I agree with establishing an accurate historical record, starting with Egypt and Nubia," he told me. "Turning to Africa and African America to center our methodological universes is very important. In The Signifying Monkey, I tried to derive a theory of Afro-American literature from the tradition. To me, that's what Afrocentrism is. You turn to the tradition and see how it theorizes about itself. But you should relate it to examples outside your tradition so people know what you're talking about."

Perhaps the distinction between the Gates and Asante camps can best be described as Acculturationist Versus Liberationist. Gates et al. favor cultural give-and-take -- acculturation, a concept far preferable to assimilation, which connotes black folks resigned to a Eurocentric status quo or melted lumpily into a Eurocentric pot. Such scholars reflect a historical moment in which the cultural legacy of black people's survival with style in the midst of ineffable terror has freed all but the most die-hard Uncle Toms from trying to be whiter than the whitest white man. Black intellectuals across the board are convinced that the varieties of black experience can compare favorably with those of any other group, ancient or modern.

Most Acculturationists fight racism and the chronic impoverishment that goes with it by competing as fiercely in political, economic, and intellectual spheres as do pro black athletes and jazz artists. As NYU's Diawara puts it: "We need to get away from identity studies and look at black people in relation to institution building, and the ways in which black people can become competitive." Liberationists such as Asante are aware that black folks cross cultural boundaries, borrowing what's needed for survival in the short run and, in more cases than might be expected, triumph in the long run, just like the Europeans and the Japanese. But they emphasize the uniqueness of black folks' cultural truth. Further, they keep their personal tie to the struggles of their people at the forefront of analysis, critique, and corrective action, acutely aware of the community's craving for pride and cultural solidarity. And in the end, the Liberationist believes that liberation for black people implies liberation for all people. As Maulana Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa and now Black Studies professor and chair at Cal State Long Beach, often says, this particularistic focus has humanistic, thus universalist, implications. But the Liberationist doesn't blithely romanticize a false 18th-century universalist-humanist notion that's based on a racially exclusive rationalism undergirded by the folklore of white supremacy and ungrounded in most people's real lives.

Acculturationists argue that Afrocentric essentialism is all too reminiscent of the German kind -- the insistence that race is definitive tempts groups to scapegoat each other, with authoritarianism the inevitable outcome. They propose instead that repressed groups share their struggles. Liberationists hold that willful vagueness about one's ancestry and allegiances obscures one's personal stake in the progress of all black people. An Acculturationist like black Brit Paul Gilroy can go on about the hybrid history of Black Atlantic cultures, so steeped in migration and local vernaculars, criticizing not just essentialist ethnocentrism but also the limp antiessentialism that doesn't own up to the central role of slavery and black uniqueness in modernity. A Liberationist like Karenga will simply respond that these undeniable accomplishments of common folk have rarely proved sufficient cause for politically liberating action. With "by any means necessary" a guiding principle, racial solidarity -- what Howard political scientist Ron Walters designates "a strong group identity" used "to achieve mass gains" -- remains a must. As pioneering Africa-centered historian John Henrik Clarke has said: "Yes, race is an artificial concept . . . . I never heard of a race until someone imposed it on us. So if I have to use what someone has imposed on me to unite . . . then that's a weapon I'm going to use."

Most Liberationists have no use for political religionists -- ideologues. But they understand that in times of crisis, demagogues of many stripes will arise, confusing means and ends, clockin' dollars on the lecture circuit, misleading the press and the oppressed, and giving alienated young people what they too often want: dogmatic railing against "the system," as opposed to reasoned discourse that might inspire soul-searching and intellectual growth. Yet one can be fanatical about internationalism as well as nationalism, art as well as politics, materialism as well as spiritualism, class and gender as well as culture and history. Hence, I think it is crucial for members of both camps to preach and practice self-criticism and dialogue. Divergences of opinion, temperament, and style should be expected, with agreeing to disagree the watchword. The goal is civil mutual interrogation, escape from mental boxes, and victory over common enemies.

Acculturationism is inspired by the best of Frederick Douglass-Booker T. Washington-Martin Luther King egalitarian radicalism and tries to build the same kind of intellectual and political coalitions. Liberationism grows out of the best of the Pan-Negro/African and black-nationalist traditions typified by Henry Highland Garnet, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X, striding toward freedom much as the black student, arts, and power movements did in the '60s while avoiding their undeniable excesses and myopia. At different points in his career, W.E.B. Du Bois was nourished by both streams. So were Paul Robeson and Ida B. Wells; so are lawyer-historian Mary Frances Berry, broadcast journalist Tony Brown, and writers Playthell Benjamin and Ishmael Reed. Lerone Bennett Jr., author of the acclaimed Before the Mayflower, also inhabits both, and yet is likely the preeminent Liberationist theorist. Black radical democrats can be found in both streams, and sometimes they too straddle both. Cosmopolitan activist-intellectual C.L.R. James, clearly a socialist Acculturationist, was also a major player in the development of Pan-Africanism. Lawyer-historian Gerald Horne, a California senatorial candidate in 1992, has feet in both categories, though he probably would identify more with Acculturationism.

In the late '60s, these ideological streams converged on the American academy. As part of the larger Black Freedom movement, African American students began demanding programs relevant to their lives and aspirations. The first four-year Black Studies program was organized by Nathan Hare and Jimmy Garret at San Francisco State in 1968, and in 1971, Cornell, under James Turner's direction, started offering a master's degree. Between 1969 and 1973 approximately 300 to 600 programs sprang up at predominantly white colleges and universities, and today, more than 200 schools maintain Africana Studies units, with 10 offering master's. Almost as many offer Black Studies courses within traditional academic disciplines. But students and professors in Afro-American Studies programs around the country found that institutional structures do not bend so easily. As Acculturationist par excellence Albert Murray has put it: "Power structures, whether white or black, do not just curl up and die because the rebel cause is impeccable. You'd better believe that many times when they seem to be giving in they are really sucking you in."

My racial and political awareness rose up in the early '80s, and as it did I began to internalize both the Acculturationist and Liberationist approaches. In 1980, a hip, unorthodox Irish social studies teacher at Tottenville High School assigned Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Its tale of a tragic clash between Christianity and traditional African religion moved me as no dry historical account could. In 1981 I began attending preppy Hamilton College, the alma mater of civil rights legend Bob Moses and a school that Barron's labels "highly competitive." Student government elections were held in the beginning of the first semester and seven or eight freshmen ran to fill the two seats allotted to us. I approached one of my competitors, a Greek student also named Greg, to suggest that we run as a ticket under the slogan "Vote for Greg Thomas and Greg Theoharides. We're doubly gregarious!" We won, and I served in student government for three years. I also became active in the Black and Latin Student Union, a haven for the black and Hispanic students who composed only 5 per cent of Hamilton's student population.

But in my junior year, like a spook at the door, I came across some information that pulled my coat to just how arrogantly elitist Hamilton was. As chairperson of the Academic Chamber, which had student reps on the tenure, admissions, library, and curriculum committees, I had access to committee records, and was startled by a memo to the faculty from the Curriculum Commission titled "Working Paper on a Curricular Plan," which held that the curriculum had been, and should remain, focused on "the teaching of the values embodied in cultural and social elites." Coming from a working-class background and aware that my ancestors had been enslaved by those elites, I experienced, to put it politely, cognitive dissonance. The commission, however, did understand the need to broaden its focus in these changing times: "The college must ensure that students can explore the history and culture of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups previously ignored because they were left outside of the great traditions" (emphasis mine). At the time of this memo, Hamilton had programs in Asian Studies, Women's Studies, and Latin American Studies, but not Africana Studies. So the following left an especially bitter taste: "The Commission is divided over the feasibility of providing any significant coverage of the range of African cultures."

I spent the first semester of my senior year at Columbia, where I took a literature course with Amiri Baraka, who assigned W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and others. There I encountered the Coalition for a Free South Africa, which was about to bust the university divestment movement wide open. Also during that semester, my hangin' partner Ron Haynes, a former Muslim minister, introduced me to Ron Jackson, an avid student of science, technology, and military affairs who had been an activist at Port Richmond High School and UC Irvine in the early '70s. The three of us decided to open a small retail store in the St. George section of Staten Island. In that printing and photography shop on Victory Boulevard, we rapped for hours on end about the realities of race, politics, and economics in America--about how the war in Vietnam had undercut the War on Poverty, about COINTELPRO and U.S.-supported dictators, about black self-hatred and black entrepreneurship, about Like It Is and Tony Brown's Journal and the latest scuttlebutt on WLIB, about the Democratic Party's deplorable handling of Jesse Jackson's presidential run.

When I returned to Hamilton in January 1985, the skills formerly focused on student government and my grade-point average I poured instead into the battle for an African American Studies program and South African divestiture. One snowy night soon after I got back, I walked from the 150-year-old dining hall with my friend from South Africa, Paul Ngobeni, several years older than most Hamilton students and schooled in struggle. After giving me the rundown on the previous semester, he persuaded me to start a Black Studies petition drive. Several hundred of Hamilton's 1600 students signed, and I devised a strategy and held weekly meetings with BLSU members to go over tactics and timetables. Student reps spoke with department heads about the paucity of African American course content, and weekly opinion pieces were published in the school newspaper. By then I had been reading Asante's Afrocentricity and listening to bootleg copies of speeches by Louis Farrakhan, and I wrote the final essay, which criticized Hamilton for not living up to its ideals and listed Afro-American Studies courses at competing colleges. In 1987, two years after I graduated and almost two decades after the formal inception of Black Studies in the academy, Hamilton initiated its own Africana Studies program, and last year it became a concentration.

Over the past year I've talked with lots of undergraduate and graduate students in African American Studies, all members of what Penn State historian Wilson J. Moses calls the "striving and entrepreneurial working and middle class." These ignored constituents of Generation X will define African American Studies for students now entering elementary school. Some of them are clearly Acculturationists, some Liberationists, some a blend, but the majority see their studies through the prism of Afrocentricity, which makes people of African descent the narrators instead of the narrated. In view of the monopoly Europe has maintained over scholarly interpretation for the past 500 years, the ascendancy of Afrocentrism should be no more surprising than that of multiculturalism. Considering the exodus of jobs, the influx of competitive immigrants, the continued media stereotyping of Afro-American lifestyles, the ever-recurring pseudoscientific horseshit that questions black intelligence to justify inequality, the backlash of former liberal allies and the Congressional takeover by the Right, half-assed parenting, antisocial behavior in the hood, sellout celebrities, an amoral pop culture driven by greedy multinationals, and cutbacks in college and social funding during the Reagan-Bush era, it's also hardly a surprise that many young blacks are attracted at whatever level to Afrocentricity. The story line of the great African civilizations rising, falling, and ascending phoenixlike on the wings of Ethiopia is epic and thrilling, and they obviously find it empowering psychologically and philosophically--if not, as yet, materially.

The mainstream media have misrepresented Afrocentricity in the academy since the late '80s, when public-school districts nationwide began infusing African-centered course content of widely varying quality into their curricula. In the academy, Afrocentricity serves as a methodological and mythonarrative challenge to Western traditionalism and, in the view of Asante, Karenga, et al., is still in its infancy--an incipient intellectual project that deserves room to grow. It should be judged on the merits and demerits of its actual scholarship and research rather than the third-rate rantings of self-appointed spokesmen who live high while donning the robe of the victim. As Temple Ph.D. candidate Sadua Underwood-Smith said to me: "Many who claim that Afrocentricity is not scholarly are really unfamiliar with it as an intellectual project." The works of Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, and Ivan Van Sertima go mostly unremarked while the media projects Afrocentric scholars as a bunch of wildly anti-Semitic, melanin worshippin', Egyptian pyramid lovin', kente wearin', chauvinistic charlatans who take up where the radical kooks of the '60s left off, spouting racialist raps instead of engaging in real political struggle.

While an atypical few may fit this bill, most are attempting to improvise a way of life based on African and African American psychospiritual chord changes--to supplement, not supercede, our age of industry, mass media, and technological innovation. The allure of Egypt for many Afrocentrists, for instance, derives less from a modern conception of race than from a search for a way to balance harmony with nature and technological development as the Egyptians of antiquity are seen as doing. The work of six unsung women scholars will attest to these assessments: SUNY Old Westbury's Charshee McIntyre, Hunter's Marimba Ani (a/k/a Dona Richards), Stanford's Sylvia Wynter, Temple's Kariamu Welsh-Asante, Jersey City State College's Rosalind Jeffries, and Ohio State's Linda James Myers.

Afrocentricity should be no more exempt from probing analysis than any other intellectual model. Unlike the bourgeois Americanist-Enlightenment true believer Stanley Crouch, say, Wilson Moses takes a balanced view of the concept. One of the foremost historians of black nationalism, Moses found much to admire in Asante when I interviewed him: "He has set out to reconcile a number of currents in modern intellectual life. His work shows awareness of and sensitivity to poststructuralist concepts and merges them with his Pan-African concerns as well as with anthropological truths of African culture. He has attempted to create a perspective on the world that is both modern and traditional." Moses, however, views the Afrocentric movement as utopian, more like a folk religion than a political ideology, something most blacks know as a "quaint, folksy cultural tradition that they encounter from early childhood in their homes and churches, their sewing circles, and their barber shops. Like most mythologies, it is only half-believed and simply represents an attempt on the part of respectable, honest people to create a positive folk mythology."

Afrocentricity serves different though related functions for Black Studies students. Born in Britain, 26-year-old William Paterson undergrad Kamau Shabaka underwent a three-month rite of passage at the African Poetry Theater in Queens a few years ago. He says the experience gave him "a cultural foundation, a direction, and the meaning of what it means to be a man." Adrian King, a 1993 Howard graduate who in 1989 was a freshman when students there took over an administration building to demand an Afrocentric curriculum, points out that Afro-American Studies "not only exposed us to our history and culture but also taught us how to love ourselves." Ingrid Banks, now in the doctoral Ethnic Studies program at Berkeley, left Asante's Ph.D. program in 1992. Influenced by the Black Women's Studies movement that started in the early '80s, she wishes the program had been more Acculturationist: "I really grew intellectually at Temple. But when I wanted to talk about essentialism and sexism, some people didn't want to. Yes, there are commonalities among blacks, but if race is the primary variable, issues around gender and class are secondary. All these things interact together."

Monica Coleman, a Harvard senior, considers herself an Afrocentric womanist Christian. To some, these terms may seem antithetical or inconsistent; to Coleman and others of her generation, they are aspects of a polyglot worldview where differing perspectives synthesize naturally. That is why she objects to the handling of Afrocentrism at Harvard: "I don't like the way Afrocentricity is presented as an ideology. The department doesn't allow much room for discussion." Zaheer Ali, recent Harvard graduate and former head of its Black Students Association, began the program at odds with Gates. Gates knew he'd get the students riled by setting up the Afrocentrists as his polar opposites, so he made his first assignment Newsweek's slipshod "Was Cleopatra Black?" Falling for Gates's Socratic trap, Ali became enraged: "I thought that piece was a gross mischaracterization of the Afrocentric movement. Many students felt they had to make a choice, and if you were black you had to be Afrocentric. And that the Gates camp was Eurocentric in blackface." But as Ali read more of the Acculturationists and Liberationists, he got hip to their complex intersections: "Now I see the multicultural side to the Afrocentrics and the Afrocentric side of people like Gates and Houston Baker Jr., where they are looking for the black tradition to speak for itself."

The Liberationist posture compels students to grapple with the politics of identity as they inflect culture, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and nationality. The Acculturationist stance impels them to confront the paradoxical reality of difference and universality. Together the two beam light on the perpetual process of using historical memory, a tragicomic blues sensibility, and intellectual agency to resolve the existential tensions of an uncertain future while maintaining what Cornel West calls "an audacious hope."

Several months back I met with Asante. On the interpersonal tip, he has the warmth and flavor befitting his upbringing in Augusta, Georgia, where he was born 52 years ago. I noticed first his glowing smile, then his multicolored shirt with fabrics from various African countries, his American jeans, and his black leather Italian boots. In debate, Asante is feisty and self-assured, equipped with an awesome arsenal of historical and anthropological facts and rhetorical devices. But during our conversation, which took place over a delectable smothered chicken dish called Georgia duckling, Asante was laid-back, playing behind the beat one-brother-to-another like Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray trading fours on a medium-tempo standard. We traversed through Afrocentricity's theoretic and pragmatic implications, historical antecedents, and future aspirations in cooperative sync. Only when I mentioned certain critics and critiques of his views and his metaconcept did our rap get arduous.

"As the Bible says, by their works ye shall know them," declared onetime theology student Asante in response to the criticism that he proscribes the legitimacy of certain well-known figures in African American Studies. "People in the discipline are those who practice in the discipline, write for the journals in the discipline, engage in dialogue in the discipline, who accept the discipline as their primary focus, both personally and professionally. Those people I know." With regard to Gates, Appiah, and others he claims are riding the Black Studies bandwagon, Asante said: "I neither know nor am I interested in following or accepting renegades as a part of the school of thought I represent, which of course is the growing and dominant school of thought in the African American Studies field."

Asante denied any rigid essentialism. "I'm not sure what they mean by closed conception of race. Certainly I believe that African people whose origins are the continent of Africa represent a particular historical moment in the genetic structuring in the last 500 years, and that the movement of the diaspora has largely been fueled by aggression and imperialism. And I certainly believe in the notion of African-ness." Confirming some of his critics' worst fears, Asante became indignant when confronted with the charge that he presumes to judge the Afrocentric validity of others: "The only determination of who's Afrocentric or not is the definition of Afrocentricity -- which I developed. It's kind of foolish to say, for example, that one is a Marxist and yet does not believe in the principles established by Marx. Or that one is a deconstructionist and doesn't believe in the principles of Derrida. How can one say they are an Afrocentrist if one does not accept the fundamental basis of Afrocentricity as laid out in my works? That seems to me to be a contradiction in terms." So should Afrocentrism instead be called Asantism?

"When I read a review copy of The Afrocentric Idea I said to myself that this guy is obviously smart, he's obviously mastered the literature. I just disagree with his ideological position," comments the 44-year-old Gates. "And I never trash a book for that reason. It's one thing to argue with somebody, it's another to try to kill their work." I came away from phone conversations impressed with Gates's cool affability and deep grasp of Afro-American history, music, and literature, which gave him the wherewithal to signify on African (particularly Yoruba) and European traditions at will. The Yale- and Cambridge-educated Gates, an academic star ever since he entered elementary school in a just-integrated West Virginia town, blew chorus after chorus of flawless erudition, his timbre an alto saxophone to Asante's tenor, but with a noncliched fluidity a la Joe Henderson. In person, his self-assurance was palpable, though not caught in a downward spiral of arrogance. Clean in his gray-pinstripe wool suit, Gates worked his element smoothly, always aware of who he was in relation to his status in the academy and as a public intellectual. This self-knowledge was projected without haughtiness and, thank goodness, with style. All that book learnin' ain't made the brother a square. In fact, his discourse comes close to a scholarly version of swinging. And upon inspection, his values are clear.

"I think that the best model for an academic department is a proliferation of ideologies and methodologies, especially in Afro-American Studies," he said. "When you have ideological and methodological conformity that may lead to intellectual witch-hunting, McCarthyism, and mau-mauing. The next step is to say 'you're not black' because you don't believe this or that. McCarthyism in blackface stinks just as bad." With regard to the charge that he is a gate-keeping power wielder, Gates responded: "We are too diverse and power is too decentered for anyone to wield power like Booker T. The 'one-nigger' syndrome is over. Those who call me that are trying to demonize me. I'm all for criticism and debate, just without the 'yo momma and daddy' kind." When asked about his alleged opportunism, Gates refused to give ground: "We all grow and change. Moral relativists who won't critique homophobia and anti-Semitism in their own backyards are true political opportunists."

An incident that embroiled Gates in public controversy was the publication of his full-page 1992 Times op-ed "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars." According to Gates, the essay was an excerpt from a speech he had been giving to black audiences that he thought would be balanced by a Jewish intellectual criticizing Jewish racism. Gates held his breath a bit too long. "If I could do it again, I would explicitly call for a response from Jewish intellectuals and would state my support for affirmative action, which I view as a kind of sophisticated reparations for slavery."

In his Times op-ed of March 27, 1994, "A Liberalism of Heart and Spine, Gates spread a quilt of critique over a wider area than he had two years before, including his own backyard. After explaining how liberalism was part of the problem of moral indifference to human carnage all over the globe, he proposed "a liberalism (with) confidence in its own insights...possessed of clarity as well as compassion." Then he put the ethical basis of his perspective on the table: secular humanism. According to Gates, liberals should demonstrate a "muscular humanism...that is without arrogance and is unafraid to assert itself," and "that neither shuns religious devotion nor mistakes itself for a religion." Gates's version of humanism "starts not with the possession of identity, but with the capacity to identify with. It asks what we have in common with others, while acknowledging the diversity among ourselves."

Sounds like a pretty good beginning to me. But certainly not the end.


BACK | HOME