Opinions of Sun, 6 Oct 201316
How One Scholar Portrays Us In The West!
Kwame Anthony Appiah: How One Scholar Portrays Us In The West!
“It is no secret that some of Africa’s best minds, Fanon, Memmi, Karenga, have isolated incidents of collaboration among victims of oppression,” writes Dr. Asante.
“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you,” saith an African wisdom (Thinkexist.com)
“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special,” says Nelson Mandela.
Once again, we hope we have been able to address some of your questions, if not directly via the commentaries then indirectly via our selected bibliographies; we mean “Response to My Critics,” Parts l and ll. We are also aware that your intellectual curiosities are not very easy to dismiss out of hand through or appease with simplistic analytic generalizations. This is good and healthy for personal and national growth. Let’s learn to ask more penetrating questions. Equally, let’s learn to deal with them, the questions, responsibly, with respect, and with dignified creativity.
In the penultimate article, “Response to My Critics—Part ll,” we excavated a critical sociopolitical observation which we specifically ascribed to Columbia University’s Dr. Manning Marable, now deceased, in which he lamented the underrepresentation of African American scholars in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As an aside, we hope the interpretive archeology we performed on Marable’s factual opinion went down well with you. Sometimes, as noted elsewhere, we invoke these social and political exemplars to show us Ghanaians, Africans, the way forward: Where we are also going wrong, the lessons we can or should draw from them, and the necessary remediation steps required to neutralize them, if possible.
“Wisdom is akin to an Elephant and no single Ant can eat it alone,” we always tell our critics. In fact, such social and political correctives are required to make our societies better places for our people’s habitation. Remember, “reverse ethnocentrism” is even more “painful” than racism, given that it goes from one African to the other African, a question we have belabored elsewhere! Finally, most of the time when we use “African” or “Africa,” readers, we do so in a sense of connotative generality—diasporic and continental! Pan-Africanism, that is.
Let’s get to work. Is Marable’s observation necessarily factual? Yes, if we go by his qualified admission as per his cited book, “The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life.” More importantly, we have carefully read the academic works of the three African scholars Marable mentioned, that is, Appiah, Gates, West, and taken keen interest in their academic careers as well as their sociopolitical lives. All three have also taught at some of America’s elite institutions. But that is beside the point. Suffice it to say that all three scholars are indeed brilliant, otherwise exceptionally. In fact, their brilliance and intellectual prolificacy are beyond question. They are common knowledge, even.
Profs. Appiah and Gates, for instance, have been recognized by “Foreign Policy Magazine” as being among “the top 100 Global Thinkers.” Technically, we don’t know what the latter means. “Forbes (2009)” included Appiah in a list which it claimed represented “the 7 most powerful thinkers in the world.” A French magazine whose name we don’t presently recall also named Appiah “among the best 25 philosophers in the world.” President Obama awarded him the 2011 “National Humanities medal.”
Ivor Agyeman-Duah referred to him in a “New African Magazine” intellectual profile on Appiah as “our postmodernist Socrates” (See Agyemang-Duah’s article: “Kwame Anthony Appiah, The ‘Postmodernist Socrates,’ Gets His Honor”). However, we must remind ourselves that these socio-statistical accolades were/are based on self-serving opinion polls and individual/personal admiration—misplaced idolization—for choice or sampled “humanized” events. There are many African scholars as intellectually competent, socio-politically active, and scholarly prolific as Appiah but are usually excluded for reasons we shall explore in some detail in the final installment. More importantly, how our scholars sell Africa’s image in the West matters a lot to our growth and development!
According to keynotes.org, “Appiah is currently at Principle University as the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy. His main topic and specialization revolves around moral and political theory and the philosophy of language. Prior to this position, Appiah was a professor at Harvard and Yale teaching philosophy and African-American Studies. He held the position of trustee of Ashesi University College, where he continued his studies on language and philosophy. With regard to his educational background, Appiah earned his PhD at Clare College, Cambridge, and attended Bryanston School.” Indeed, Appiah stands tall among giants!
Truly, these global accolades aren’t bad for the international image of Ghana and of Africa as a whole, right? But who is Appiah? Is Appiah an African? Let’s rephrase the question for evaluative simplicity: Does Kwame Anthony Appiah see himself as African? Does his “identity” matter at all to our collective identity as Africans? Of course, he’s biracial, British and Ghanaian, and deserves the right of self-definition, however he likes or frames it. But we also do know he once said he looked Indian! Certainly, Appiah doesn’t look anything close to Mahatma Gandhi, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, or Deepak Chopra. Certainly, there are millions of Indians who are darker than Idi Amin and Alek Wek, the naturally beautiful South Sudanese model!
So, what did Appiah mean when he said he looked Indian! Was he, perchance, running away from the shadow of his partial Africanity, thenceforth finding social refuge in Ellisonian invisibility? Again, the degree of self-perception or self-definition so rigorously pursued by him, we accept, is a personal choice, his prerogative. Yet we believe he looks more like J.J. Rawlings. That said, may we also ask if it is merely a question of identity lies in the eye of the beholder? Further, Appiah is comfortable among his white colleagues, Amy Gutmann, Nadine Gordimer, Henry Finder, the latter being his gay husband. On the other hand, Rawlings is comfortable among his African brothers and sisters and his beautiful dark-skinned wife, Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings. Yet Appiah’s patent partial white ancestry gives him much wider acceptability on America’s privileged social phylogenetic tree of humanity than the likes of Amadou Diallo, US Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence, and Trayvon Martin!
Asante, however, writes of Appiah: “One of the latest attempts to tackle the international Afrocentric movement is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a half Ghanaian and half British commentator, a fact which tends to be concealed because he has recently begun to use an African first name more than Anthony which he used most of his life and has adopted the telling habit of reminding the reader that he’s “black,” something he needs to do because he often writes and speaks like he’s white…(See: “A Quick Reading of Rhetorical Jingoism: Anthony Appiah and His Fallacies”).
Again, Asante throws another swift jab at Appiah in stark linguistic pugilism: “Just as it is sometimes important to point out if a writer is white or black, it is also very important to know the psychological and cultural location of a writer who is assumed to be black by the public but who sees himself as neither black nor white, which means that he has refused to deal with his own identity in any definite terms…Appiah establishes himself squarely within the anti-African camp while parading as an African scholar…(See: “A Quick Reading of Rhetorical Jingoism: Anthony Appiah and His Fallacies”).
Notwithstanding our reservations, Appiah argues forcefully in his controversial work, “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture,” that the conceptual inanity of “race” makes racial classification of bi-racial (and multi-racial) biological beings like himself—within the spectrum of humanity—nonsensical. In reality, social and anecdotal statistics from American, and Western, societies, in general, vehemently undermines his philosophical understanding of “race” and of “racism.” In fact, he should have considered the possibility of including the societies of Apartheid South Africa and of Brazil in his sweeping philosophical theorizing on “race”!
Again, his creative perceptions about the “biology” or “genetics” of “race” are unquestionably or formidably true, but Cornel West, his colleague and author of “Race Matters,” vehemently disagrees. And West’s reasons are not farfetched! The sociology of contemporary actualities in America as far as psychosocial relational intercourse and international relations between whiteness and blackness are concerned, does, indeed, put West, Mazama, Nkrumah, Asante, and Du Bois on the right side of contemporary “race” history. In fact, the concept of “race” has become the very definition of psychosocial and multi-lateral relational determinism in the respective politics of social individuation and of “separatist” internationalism.
This is where, we believe, Appiah takes a sharp detour from sociological realities. In the meantime, his admirers, scholars and lay, continually gloss over this blatant fact, the political economy of “race” and of “racism,” while evaluating the vast spectrum of his intellectual contributions to contemporary civilization of race relations. Yes, “race” has no scientific validity, we all agree, Appiah is right. Unfortunately, it’s the social, political, cultural, and economic definition of “race” which propels the engine of human affairs today.
“On the opposite end of the spectrum we find commentators who start from the insight that the reactionary commentators studiously ignore: That white-defined ideas of race fostered deeply inhuman and oppressive practices. The theorists, eliminativists, respond to the issue of racism generally and white privilege specifically by expunging racial terms from lexicons, laws, and policies. Eliminativists’ approach often starts to undermine the feasibility of using race talk by appealing to scientific research on race and genetics. They point to the almost universal scientific consensus that discursive categories of race do not have biological correlates,” writes Terrence MacMullan in “Habits of Whiteness: A Pragmatist Reconstruction,” adding: “It’s important to contextualize a discussion of the eliminativist response within the scientific dismissal of discursive categories of race because these scientific findings are essential conceptual underpinnings for eliminativists.”
MacMullan finally drops the bombshell: “The most consistent feature uniting the work of the two most prominent total eliminativists—Kwame Anthony Appiah and Naomi Zack—is their frequent use of biology and genetics to develop a rhetorical assault on the idea of race. Their deployment of scientific findings undeniably casts significant light on the topic of race. However, from a pragmatist point of view, they make rather too much of the findings, and do not adequately account for how their rhetorical assault on the idea of race relates to the problematic invisibility of, or habitual dimension of, whiteness.” Therefore, scholars must evaluate the continuing social, political, and philosophical impact of Appiah’s “In My Father’s House” in the context of philosophical eliminativism.
On the other hand, both West and Gates have been at the receiving end of vicious racism, racial profiling, and, that experience, alone, sometimes, has forced them to look at race relations from a different, if Du Boisian, perspective. Besides, unlike West, you hardly see Appiah where blacks have publicly gathered to shape, direct, or discuss their future (in the Western world), to challenge racism, or to push for social and political reforms to improve race relations! “In dealing with the financial crisis, for example…Obama’s administration has done too little for the poor and too much to please the masters and mistresses of the world of finance,” Appiah admits to The Lavin Daily’s Joshua Goldstein. Yet Appiah is equally “guilty” of the same crime when “poor” replaces “African, Africa, or black” and “finance” “white academia.” Our postmodernist Socrates indeed!
Having said all that, Appiah’s “In My Father’s House” is a provocatively creative and brilliant work. Besides, it’s a work richly adorned in the regalia of philosophical grandiloquence. But grandiloquence is not the only quality the book boldly advertises. Essentially, the book insidiously indicts African culture, thought, society, and history in an intimidatingly negative way. “A growing number of so-called black intellectuals and artists believe that the best way forward is to ride on the backs of their own people,” writes Asante. Generally, White folks embraced the book with uncritical alacrity while Black folks did so with cautious skepticism!
“Anthony Kwame Appiah’s (1992) ‘In My Father’s House,’” writes Dr. Victor O.Okafor, “presents a major challenge to the tenets and fundamental assumptions of African/African American Studies. I describe it as a major challenge because the author displays a broad familiarity with the African cultural, economic, and political scene. Appiah also reflects in this work a deep grasp of the corpus of Western philosophy. Here and there, I encounter points of common ground between the author and me; but like all works, the book has its problems of commission and omission…The chief weakness of the work lies in its analysis and its highly theoretical, if not naïve, view of racial relations…”
In fact, had we not seen its title, cover picture, and author’s name, we would’ve concluded right away it was probably authored by a white Eurocentrist who had lived briefly in both Africa and America and, among other things, didn’t have a firm grasp of the intricacies of Africa’s cultural psychology and of the sociological realities surrounding the political economy of American (and Western) racism.
For instance, Appiah critiques evaluative questions of collective self-actualization on the part of Africa along the ideological trajectories of Marcus Garvey and of Kwame Nkrumah, this, if, indeed, our reading of him is correct. Moreover, the book doesn’t speak to historical and contemporary Africa with deference or with the compromising tone his other books employ with regard to European (or Western) culture, humanity, society, and ideas! It was as if he wrote the book specifically for his throng of white readership. Yet the book was included in “Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century”; it also won the 1992 Herskovitz Prize! Wole Soyinka endorsed it. “An exceptional work, whose contextual sweep and lucidity provide a refreshing intellectual tone away from yahoo populism. In many ways, Kwame Appiah’s ‘In My Father’s House’ ushers in a new level of discourse on race and culture, placing it within a universal narrative—and where else should it belong?...Without question, a first of its kind,” writes Soyinka, a Nobel laureate.
We wonder if the panel that ranked it among the best hundred carefully read the book with a critical Afrocentric lens. Ironically, we, Africans, sometimes uncritically trade a cornucopia of Western accolades and universal white acceptance of black or African scholarship for intellectual depth and investigational decency, as well as, if you will, for universal scientific approbation. “When is the sequel, “In My Mother’s House: Europe in the Philosophy of Culture?”, coming out?” a friend asked us. Indeed, our friend wanted Appiah whose mother is white to use the same analytic or critical brush to paint Western culture, philosophy, epistemology, and history in an African or Afrocentric context. Indeed, Appiah spoke disparagingly of his father’s side, Ghana or Africa, but refuses to address the same critique to his mother’s side, Europe (or the West).
And what is this sarcastic “our postmodernist Socrates” characterization or label about? Can’t Appiah be an intellectual “man” or “adult” on his own terms? Why do we always cast our brilliant and prolific African intellectuals in the shadowy images of Europe (or of the West)? Why not refer to Socrates as “our pre-modernist Appiah” in the same breath? Can’t African scholars think or do anything—intellectually—spectacular without their “big” brains and minds being identified with the shadows, ghosts, and doppelgangers of the European or Western mind?
Why do we always tend to make African psychology an extensional mote of Western psychology! Why don’t we, just for once, learn to appreciate African creativity, humanity, and intellectualism outside the narrow claustrophobic context of Western psychology? We see nothing especially wrong with ascribing the success of one’s intellectual station to a patron or model. It’s an honorable thing to do. But doing so demands social and political circumspection as well as proper contexts of history and race relations. “We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us,” noted Chester Higgins, Jr.
Other examples: Is there any need why we must call our Chevalier de Saint-George “the black Mozart” or our rapper 50 Cents “the black Alexander the Great,” as Robert Greene does in his book “50th Law,” a book co-written with 50 Cents? If, in fact, Socrates spent 15 years studying under the able tutelage of ancient Black Egyptians, why don’t we go to ancient Egypt, locate the name(s) of the professor-priests who taught him, and, thereby, appropriate that name(s) for Appiah, for instance, “our postmodernist Imhotep!”? Either way, “our postmodernist Diop” or “our postmodernist Appiah,” may equally have waxed magical in African psychology!
Ironically as well as inadvertently, associating the intellect of Appiah with Socrates “diminishes” the intellectuality of Africa but correspondingly “promotes” the intellectually of the West! Why do we prefer inferiorizing our humanity, our intellect, our culture, rather than insisting upon intellectual, cultural, and “humanized” equalitarianism—with the rest of the world? Understandably, it may not have come immediately to Agyemang-Duah that the intellects of Socrates and other ancient Greek thinkers have tasted the critical ink of Appiah’s authorial pen! “The fowl does not act like the goat,” goes a Ghanaian wisdom. We wonder if Appiah may be willing to accept wearing Agyemang-Duah’s celebratory “our post-modernist Socrates” hat! We must learn to tell the rest of the world truths about ourselves without compromising our dignity or bartering our dignity for frivolous opportunism! That’s the essence of true scholarship!
Let’s leave you with a quote from Carter G. Woodson: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary!”
We shall return with the final installment, where we look at Dr. Molefi Kete Asante and his unparalleled intellectual and sociopolitical contributions to the study of Africa as an academic field.