Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 28, 1996 Form

On Campus:
Afrocentrism in
Scholarship and the
Classroom Debated

Kevin Smokler
Special to The Gazette
Divorcing academic discourse from politics is no small task, especially when the topic is Afrocentrism. Yet this coming weekend, scholars from around the country will meet at Homewood and attempt to do just that.

The event is "Debating Afrocentrism in the Academy," a two-day conference sponsored by the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Program in Comparative American Cultures. The goal of the program is scholarly dialogue on Afrocentrism from several perspectives, free from issue-oriented implications, says organizer Betsy Bryan, a professor of Egyptology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

"It's academic in the best sense of the word," says Walter Benn Michaels, professor of English and current CAC director. "Views will be exchanged both pro and con, emptied of street politics."

Afrocentrism, as a field of scholarship, focuses on the roots of African identity and culture and how it has contributed to the play of world history. Or as one of its luminaries (and conference presenters) Molefi Asante, of Temple University, has described it, "Looking at Africa and Africans not as the object of knowledge but the subject of knowledge."

The discipline has gained much notice in the last few years. Questions as to the 'African-ness' or 'blackness' of ancient Egypt have appeared on the covers of national magazines. In the fall of 1992, New York University professor Leonard Jefferies, a well-known and controversial Afrocentrist, presented his views on the origins of black and white racial distinctions at Homewood.

"What we're asking," Bryan says, "is 'In what way has Afrocentric scholarship influenced traditional disciplines for better and for worse?'" She adds the conference will "bring together people who have agreed that polemics are not the rule of the day."

The conferences' two days will be broken into three sessions composed of several 45-minute panels. Topics, says Bryan, include the role of Afrocentrism in ancient studies, Afrocentrism and its effect on the culture of peoples of African descent, and Afrocentrism and its influence on the dissemination and consumption of knowledge.

"The influence of Afrocentrism on traditional academic disciplines has been enormous, yet it has largely gone unacknowledged," Bryan says, "or at least discussed in unproductive ways."

Bryan estimates that Afrocentrism came to academia in its modern form about 25 years ago. In the last 10 years, calls for revisions of the traditional European curriculum began appearing on campuses.

During that time, says Bryan, she attended several conferences which grappled with the subject in what she calls, a "dismally unsuccessful" manner.

"Traditional Egyptologists would say to the Afrocentrists, 'If they only just acknowledged the facts in traditional Egyptological literature'... Afrocentrists would repeat their assertions, employing their own selective reading of the literature ... The focus stayed on political and social issues rather than scholarship."

Bryan noted this stifling format amounted to little more than intellectual horn-locking. In 1991, she began planning a gathering where scholars could engage in "lively debate rather than a screaming match," on all facets of Afrocentrism.

Funding for the conference was secured through the Provost's Office and the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"The study of cultural identities and their historical origins has been a critical focus for interdisciplinary work in the humanities and social sciences," says Provost Steven Knapp. "The lively interdisciplinary exchange that characterizes the Hopkins faculty makes Hopkins an ideal setting for a dialogue on one of the most intriguing and controversial topics in intellectual debate today."

The conferences' roster now boasts some of the sharpest minds in the field, both from inside and outside Homewood. Speakers include Cornell's Martin Bernal, whose seminal work Black Athena discusses the influence of black Egypt on ancient Greece, and California State University at Long Beach's Maulana Karenga, architect of the African American holiday, Kwanza.

Hopkins will be represented by Walter Benn Michaels as well as English professor Robert Reid-Pharr and history professor Herman Bennett

Reid-Pharr, on leave on an NEH fellowship, will address the place of Afrocentricity in the history of black intellectual thought. The popular narrative myth, he said, is that black studies' movement into the university settled the integrationist/ nationalist dichotomy in Afro-American thought represented by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois in favor of the integrationist perspective. In fact, Reid-Pharr stressed, Afrocentricity is a natural outgrowth of that dichotomy, which has stayed present in Afro-American intellectualism.

Illustrative of the diversity of the program, Michaels, speaking in the same session, notes he will be approaching his panel, "The Values Proper to Them: Afrocentrism and White Studies," from a universalist perspective, arguing against the Afrocentric scholarship notion that certain human values can be deemed "African" or "European" in nature.

"We're hoping this dialogue will bring about new ways to frame discussion within academia and the culture in general," says Bryan, who added the talks will be published in a yet undetermined venue. "If we can move the block of politics off the road of dialogue, we can then move in some of the directions suggested by it."

"Debating Afrocentrism in the Academy" will take place on Nov. 2 and 3, beginning at 8:45 a.m. in the Bloomberg Center's Schafler Auditorium.

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