What Is Afrocentricity?

By Katlego Mereko

Palesa Nqambaza is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Witwatersrand registered under the Department of Political Studies. She is pursuing research on the evolution of sex/gender systems of Amampondo. As part of her project, she engages questions of Afrocentricity and its relevance for scholars doing research within the African continent and recently wrote a paper critical of this very paradigm.

Katlego Mereko: What is Afrocentricity?

Palesa Nqambaza: It has been broadly defined as a paradigm which allows African people to centre Africa in their research. So, if I am doing research on fruits, I should be able to centre my experience as an African to study fruits and how that then has a profound impact on the outcome of those studies. And we know that for a long time, African perspectives have been marginalised in research.

KM: Who are the leading scholars of Afrocentricity?

PN: Molefi Kete Asante, Ama Mazama, John Henrik Clarke, Marimba Ani, Clenora Hudson, etc. Many of them you find in America because Afrocentricity emerges from Temple University in an African Studies program, so it is not surprising that the founding fathers and mothers in the USA. And of course, there are more and more scholars taking it up within the African continent, but they do not constitute the core of pioneers of Afrocentric thought and research.

KM: How does Afrocentricity differ from other schools of thought in the Black radical tradition, such as Pan Africanism for example?

PN: I think that if one studies the genealogies of Afrocentricity and Pan Africanism, one finds similar authors. So, it is almost like these schools of thought have one genealogy but branch out as they develop. In fact, I would argue that part of the genealogy of Afrocentricity would be Pan Africanism, as a sort of project that seeks to unify Africans. 

However, I think Afrocentricity would then be different, because it is concerned with cultural aspects, and knowledge production, whereas Pan Africanism becomes a revolutionary movement. And although your Kwame Nkrumah advocated for a Pan Africanism that has cultural aspects, on its own it does no emphasise cultural aspects. However, they are in conversation with each other since they speak to the same experience of being black in an anti-black world. Also, certain strands of Pan Africanism downplay the aspect of race. Instead, they centre the economic question as what accounts for the ills of the world. Of course, you have your Kwame Tures who say it is capitalism that creates black subjects for exploitation, etc., whereas Afrocentricity from the get-go centralises the colour of one’s skin.

KM: Would you say it is closer to Black Consciousness then?

PN: Interesting question, but if I think of BC, even Biko calling for us to think from Africa, I’d say there are similarities in terms of the cultural aspect. But of course, an interesting part for me would be the fact that Steve Biko talks about Blackness - there is a part where he talks about a blackness that transcends the skin colour, so of living in a society where your blackness won't matter. For me, that tells me that he was able to think of blackness as something that can go beyond the colour of one’s skin, as something that is born of subjugation, etc. With Afrocentricity, though, I have never heard of an articulation that speaks of blackness or Africaness in a way that transcends where we are. So, in this paradigm, we stay African forever.

KM: How applicable would you say this paradigm is to the South African context? 

PN: I think it goes without question what Afrocentrists argue for - for Africans to be able to research and write from an African experience. Of course, this is relevant and applicable, but beyond Afrocentricity, my argument is that it is what Africans have been doing since time immemorial. Because anyway we cannot think from any other context, but our own. Of course, we know that in universities these perspectives are not promoted, but I think that is why you will have your #MustFall movements where people recognise that we are silenced because we aren’t able to speak from our experiences. I think that thinking from one’s own context is something that comes to people naturally. People speak from their own contexts. 

So, I think my gripe with Afrocentricity is that it emerges as something from America, without recognising that this is what Africans have been doing and if it wants to take this hegemonic stance of what it means to think from Africa, then it is at this point that I become critical of it.

PhD candidate and writer, Palesa Nqambaza

KM: I am reminded of a debate between Molefi Kete Asante and Kwame Ture, with the former emphasising that although he agrees with Pan Africanism, his contention is that Afrocentricity predates it…

PN: Sure, in that debate you see Molefi Kete Asante saying that he acknowledges and agrees with Pan Africanism, but that where they are different is that Afrocentrists are creating an intellectual approach that allows us to aid in creating knowledge from our experiences, which he accuses Pan Africanists of having failed to do, which I don’t think is true. So, I guess he wants to advance this narrative that it’s the Afrocentrists that are advancing a theory or paradigm of knowledge in terms of the African experience, and Pan Africanists aren’t. Now I don’t think this is true, but it would be a lie to not acknowledge the influence that Pan Africanism has had on Afrocentricity, at least how it comes to be within the African American experience.

KM: What do you make of diasporic Africans and their difficulty to acclimatise to the African continent when they are here?

PN: For me, it is very unfortunate. I mean I am very Pan African at heart. I see the necessity of a Pan African political project, especially in a context where black people are still marginalised internationally, so I see a need for such a project that brings black people together.

I think my bone of contention is a question of whether we can see the sort of power dynamic that black people have within the white world play itself out again in black spaces, such that even within blacks there are the white people of black people so to speak, i.e. those blacks who seem to mimic Europeans in attitude and culture.

Furthermore, I think that in a sense, we do tend to see that paternalistic role, not by all African American scholars, but some of them. so, I draw from the experiences of African Americans who moved to Liberia and the power dynamics that played there, where the Liberians felt discriminated against. So, for me, this is not an exercise to keep certain bodies out because of where they grew up, but a sort of project that can have Africans account to one another.

KM: Do you think that this can be driven by one ideology only? Is it necessary?

PN: No, I don’t think it can be done by one ideology or that it necessarily needs to be so. I think at the heart of it is just recognising people’s humanity, recognising a shared history – that we are the wretched of the Earth and therefore that in order to overcome that, there is a need for a collaboration, but we still need to be critical of the power dynamics between ourselves.


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