In the mid-’70s, a Georgia-born, UCLA-trained academic named Arthur L. Smith Jr. was teaching communications at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Since the ’60s he had been writing books about the role of rhetoric in the African-American community. The more he thought about how blacks communicate with each other and with whites, the deeper he found himself in questions of history, identity, and destiny.
“It began to strike me,” he recalls, “that most of the time the European communicated as teacher, and the African responded as a student. I also began asking myself what was going on politically and culturally in Africa, and I realized I didn’t know.”
The twin realizations were the beginning of the metamorphosis of Arthur Smith into Molefi Kete Asante (he began publishing under the new name in 1977). Today Asante, 53, is head of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia and one of the leading theorists of Afrocentricity, a philosophy that exhorts African-Americans to make African values and an African outlook central to their identity, first of all because American Africanness is already a reality: “The recognizable modalities of black Americans,” Asante wrote in Afrocentricity (1980), “constitute a continuum from Africa to the New World....[There is] a deep remembrance of habits, styles, mannerisms, and behaviors, which reflects itself in language, music, and people’s customs.”
The Afrocentric way, summed up by Asante in precepts called Njia (Kiswahili for “the way”), stresses inner strength, pan-African pride and unity, reverence for ancestors, and other values as both a fulfillment of African-Americans’ yearning and their most potent path to mental and intellectual freedom. Far beyond cultural grounding, Afrocentricity is a way of liberation through “seeing ourselves located in the center of our own historical context and not on the fringe of something else,” Asante explains.
That something else, of course, is European civilization, and Asante’s bracing and precise critique of Eurocentric assumptions (including those fossilized in simple English words—why is jungle a byword for menace, and steppe, the stomping ground of white barbarians, a neutral term?) is meant to unlock even the small locks that could imprison the African-American mind.
It surprises and saddens Asante that some see this perspective as divisive. “Under all the media misinterpretations,” he says, “I can feel rage. There is fury too in African-Americans, as they react to what they see as white domination. But Afrocentricity is about African-Americans assuming their own agency in the world, their role and destiny as actors, not acted-upon. With agency comes accountability, responsibility, and the spirit of the Egyptian goddess Ma‘at: harmony, justice, righteousness.
“I try to teach the people I come into contact with that it’s both necessary and possible to work toward being fully human, toward a world where rage doesn’t overcome reason.”