How another scholar portrays us in the west

Fri, 25 Oct 2013 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

How Another Scholar Portrays Us In The West: Dr. Molefi Kete Asante—Part l

“Greetings Africa, yes, greetings…First black man was from Africa, yes, greetings. First black woman was from Africa, yes, greetings…One thing I don’t understand…How so many black people in America have no intention, have no respect for their culture. I wonder why. I wonder why…” Burning Spear (“Greetings”).

In one of our series, we featured Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah and his controversial work on Africa, “In My Father’s House: Africa In The Philosophy Of Culture.” The piece also covered, though discursively, the work, academic and sociopolitical, of Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the latter two ranked alongside Appiah as the three greatest African American scholars on the African world. This is how one report describes them: “As a scholar of African-American Studies, his pre-eminence (Gates) is rivaled only by two former colleagues—Cornel West, now at Union Theological Seminary, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, at Princeton (See Michael J. De La Merced’s “Inspired By Professor, Investor Makes Big Gift For Black Studies).”

Yet none of the three is a match for Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, the current Chair of Temple University’s African and African-American Studies. During a panel discussion convened by and held at Arcadia University, Glenside, Cornel West had this to say about Asante: “I am happy to sit at the same table with a living legend, Molefi Kete Asante. Give a round of applause for this legendary scholar.”

Indeed, West could not have been more pointedly factual with his plaudits for the well-deserved Asante. In fact, Asante has personally written more books than Gates and West combined. Asante has directed more doctoral students than Appiah, West, and Gates combined. And Asante has also advanced the discipline, African and African American Studies, than any other person. To add to the list, Asante created the first doctoral program in African and African American Studies in the world.

Remarkably, Asante’s name and intellectual deeds sometimes recall the poetic presence of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), the Gambian- or Senegalese-American poet, in colonial America. Like Asante’s creation of the first doctoral program in America and the world, Wheatley is generally recognized as the first published African American woman and second published African American poet (there is an ongoing debate in some circles as to whether Jupiter Hammon or Phillis Wheatley was actually the first African-American poet). That is a topic for another day!

Indeed, her poetry came to the attention of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, George Washington. Besides, many of America’s “Founding Fathers” honored her. Finally and more interestingly, Wheatley’s literary poetics predated the poetries of many influential poets from Europe (Asante includes her in his book “100 Greatest African Americans”). This is just by the way, a digression. More on Asante later.

Let’s address the topic of today. With regard to the scholarships of West, Gates, and Appiah on the African world, we shall controversially venture to say none comes close to the scientific breadth and methodological rigor with which Afrocentrists, foremost of which is Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, approach the African world. Unless convinced otherwise, our careful reading and evaluation of the scholarly corpus of Appiah and Gates would seem to unambiguously indicate some degree of favoritism toward the social, cultural, and political hegemony of the American powers that be. Actually, many scholars in the academia, particularly Africans and African Americans, know this. Some have written about it.

And as we alluded to in our earlier piece on Appiah, his "In My Father's House," for instance, denigrates Africa, yet, quite understandably, he receives handsome acknowledgement from the African Studies Association, an organization ideologically aligned with Eurocentrism rather than with Afrocentricity. As was probably expected, the public acknowledgement, in the guise of the Herskovits Prize, forced some leading African American intellectuals to resign from the Association.

On the other hand, the critique of Gates’ scholarship on the African world deserves the attention of a whole book. In other words, we can’t even begin to discuss his “historical crimes” here as far as the African world is concerned. Let us add that a lectureship, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr Lectures, had been created for him at Yale University. The lectureship is supposed to bring scholars working on the African world in one place. Let’s wait and see the methodological shine this brings to the field of African and African American Studies.

However, before we turn our full attention to Asante, we shall have to touch briefly on some of the challenges African and African American scholars face in Western academia, America specifically, an idea, which, we believe, may provide the necessary ideological backdrop explaining the Ellisonian invisibility of Asante from the perspective of white academia (See Clarence J. Munford’s “Race And Reparations: A Black Perspective For The Twenty-First Century”).

The African American scholar, Dr. Jonathan Farley, one of the world’s youngest, most respected, and influential theoretical mathematicians in the 21st century, comes to mind. The Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee chased him away when he raised an objection to—a piece of historical revisionism advanced by a group of white scholars. His objection had to do with America’s Civil War.

And what did the African American Dr. David Blackwell, one of the greatest and influential statisticians/mathematicians of the past century, go through in the White academy? Incidentally, Farley once shared fleeting acquaintance with him and leaves the following sentimental memory of Blackwell for us: “Race kept the respected mathematician David Blackwell out of Princeton University’s math building in 1941.”

Yet the same institution admitted Albert Einstein, a foreigner! These exemplars recall what we did to Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Farah Nuruddin, and Mamphela Ramphele, among several others, though, what the latter, Steve Biko’s concubine and co-founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, experienced in Apartheid South Africa had much more in common with Blackwell’s and Farley’s. Also, the unending statelessness of Somalia drove Nuruddin away. The differences end there.

It’s quite interesting to note that some of us studied mathematics and came across Blackwell’s grand statistical theories. Yet neither us, the students, nor our Ghanaian professors ever knew he was African American. We all wrongly assumed he was a European or White American. Actually, Western textbooks somehow made him look as if he were white.

Similarly, we can say the same things of the celebrated African American physicist Elmer Imes, a scientist whose work on vibrational and rotational behavior of quantized energy levels of molecules, would provide one of the earliest and powerful experimental attestations for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Yet the America of his day treated him dismissively as “black.” Contrarily, European scientists of his day welcomely thought he was white until they had met him in person! These are a few of the many distortions the theory of Afrocentricity is challenging today.

Now, who is Molefi Kete Asante? According to his website, “Molefi Kete Asante graduated from Oklahoma Christian College in 1964. He entered Pepperdine soon afterwards and Asante completed his M.A. at Pepperdine University in 1965. He received his Ph.D from UCLA at the age of 26 in 1968 and was appointed a full professor at the age of 30 at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He chaired the Communication Department at SUNY-Buffalo from 1973-1980. In the fall of 1984 Dr. Asante became chair of the African American Studies Program at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D program in African American Studies in 1987. He has directed more than 140 Ph.D dissertations. He has written more than 500 articles and essays for journals, books and magazines and is the founder of the theory of Afrocentricity.”

We shall return with part two.

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis