In my father house. Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Preface. Kwame Anthony Appiah.1992


My first memories are of a place called “Mbrom,” a small neighborhood in Kumasi, capital of Asante, as that kingdom turned from being part of the British Gold Coast colony to being a region of the Republic of Ghana. Our home was opposite my grandparent’s house—where scores of her kinsfolk and dependents lived under the direction of my stepgrandmother, “Auntie Jane,” who baked bread for hundreds of people from Mbrom and the surrounding areas—down the street from many cousins of various, usually obscure, degrees of affinity.

Near the center of the second largest city in Ghana, behind our hibiscus hedge in the “garden city of West Africa,” our life was essentially a village life, lived among a few hundred neighbors; out from that village we went to the other little villages that make up the city.

We could go higher up the hill, to Asante New Town, to the palace of the Asante king, Prempeh II, whose first wife, my great-aunt, always called me “Akroma-Ampim” (the name of our most illustrious ancestor) or “Yao Antony” (the name of the great-uncle and head of the family from whom I acquired my anglicized name, “Anthony”).

Or we could travel in another cultural direction to the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology—known always as “Tech”—where I went to primary school, and where many of my friends’ parents were professors.

Some worlds—the world of the law courts where my father went, dressed in his dark European suits, carrying the white wig of the British barrister (which he wore after independence as in the colonial period), a rose from the garden (my mother’s garden) always in his buttonhole; the world of parliament, where he went in the first years I can remember, an opponent now of his old friend Nkrumah—some worlds we knew of only because our parents spoke of them. Others—the world of the little church, Saint George’s, where we went to Sunday school with Baptists and Copts and Catholics and Methodists and Anglicans, from other parts of the country, other parts of the continent, other parts of the world—we knew inside and out, knew because they were central to our friendships, our learning, our beliefs.

In our house, my mother was visited regularly by Muslim Hausa traders from what we called (in a phrase that struck my childhood ear as wonderfully mysterious, exotic in its splendid vagueness)’ ‘the North.” These men knew she was interested in seeing and, sometimes, in buying the brass weights the Asante had used for weighing gold; goldweights they had collected from villages all over the region, where they were being sold by people who had no use for them anymore, now that paper and coin had replaced gold dust as currency.

And as she collected them, she heard more and more of the folklore that went with them; the proverbs that every figurative goldweight elicited; the folktales, Ananseastm, that the proverbs evoked. My father told us these Ananse stories, too, some of them picked up when he was a political prisoner under Nkrumah (there was little else to do in prison but spin yarns).

Between his stories and the cultural messages that came with the goldweights, we gathered the sort of sense of a cultural tradition that comes from growing up in it. For us it was not Asante tradition but the webwork of our lives. We loved the stories—my sisters now read the ones that my mother has published to my nephews in Gaborone and in Lagos; my godchildren read them here in America—and we grew to love the goldweights and the carvings that the traders brought.

And the family we grew into (an “extended” family, our English friends would have said, though we would have thought of their conceptions of family as “contracted”) gave us an immense social space in which to grow.

But we also went from time to time to my mother’s native country, to England, to stay with my grandmother in the rural West Country, returning the visits she had made to us. And the life there—perhaps this is only because it is also part of my earliest memories—seems, at least now, to have been mostly not too different. My grandmother lived next door to my aunt (my mother’s sister) and her family, in the village where my aunt was born, just as my father lived next to his father. And so, by an odd cultural reversal, my father lived opposite and close to his patrilineal kin (in matrilineal Asante), while my aunt and her children lived next to their matrilineal kin (in patrilineal England).

But it was my father’s matriclan and my English grandfather’s matriclan—descendants of the eight sisters, of whom one was my greatgrandmother— that I came to know best over the years.

If my sisters and I were “children of two worlds,” no one bothered to tell us this; we lived in one world, in two ‘ ‘extended” families divided by several thousand miles and an allegedly insuperable cultural distance that never, so far as I can recall, puzzled or perplexed us much. As I grew older, and went to an English boarding school, I learned that not everybody had family in Africa and in Europe; not everyone had a Lebanese uncle, American and French and Kenyan and Thai cousins. And by now, now that my sisters have married a Norweigan and a Nigerian and a Ghanaian, now that I live in America, I am used to seeing the world as a network of points of affinity.

This book is dedicated to nine children—a boy born in Botswana, of Norwegian and Anglo-Ghanaian parents; his brothers, born in Norway and in Ghana; their four cousins, three boys in Lagos, born of Nigerian and Anglo-Ghanaian parents, and a girl in Ghana; and two girls, born in New Haven, Connecticut, of an African-American father and a “white” American mother.

These children, my nephews and my godchildren, range in appearance from the color and hair of my father’s Asante kinsmen to the Viking ancestors of my Norwegian brother-in-law; they have names from Yorubaland, from Asante, from America, from Norway, from England. And watching them playing together and speaking to each other in their various accents, I, at least, feel a certain hope for the human future.

These children represent an eye to posterity, but this book is also dedicated to my father, who died while \ was revising the final manuscript and became the closest of my ancestors. Long before he fell ill, I had decided to name this book for him: it was from him, after all, that I inherited the world and the problems with which this book is concerned. From him I inherited Africa, in general; Ghana, in particular; Asante and Kumasi, more particularly yet.

His Christianity (his and my mother’s) gave me both the biblical knowledge that means that for me the phrase “in my father’s house . . . “ must be completed “there are many mansions,” and the biblical understanding that, when Christ utters those words at the Last Supper, he means that there is room enough for all in heaven; his Father’s house. Even my father, who loved Ghana as much as anyone, would, of course, have resisted the assimilation of Ghana to heaven; though he might have been tempted to claim that the Kumasi of his youth was as close to heaven as anywhere on earth.

But he would not deny—no one who knows these places could deny—that there is plenty of room in Africa, in Ghana, even in Asante, for all sorts and conditions of men and women; that at each level, Africa is various.

Two other crucial intellectual legacies from my father inform this book. One is his Pan-Africanism. In 1945 my father was with Nkrumah and Du Bois at the Pan-African Congress in Manchester; in 1974 he was one of the very few from the 1945 congress (he himself met no other) who attended the congress, hosted by Julius Nyerere, in Dar es Salaam.

By then Du Bois and Nkrumah were gone: in 1972 my father had flown to Guinee to negotiate the return of Nkrumah’s body for a Ghanaian state funeral; his office, in those days, in Christiansborg Castle in Accra, was a few short steps from Du Bois’s grave. My father was, I think, as complete a Pan-Africanist as either of them; yet he also taught us, his children, to be as completely untempted by racism as he was.

And he was able, despite his antiracism—despite what I am inclined to call his complete unracism, since racism was never a temptation he had to resist—to find it natural, when he was a delegate from Ghana to the UN to seek solidarity in Harlem, where he went to church most Sundays and made many lifelong friends. My father is my model for the possibility of a Pan-Africanism without racism, both in Africa and in its diaspora—a concrete possibility whose conceptual implications this book is partly intended to explore.

The second legacy is my father’s multiple attachment to his identities: above all as an Asante, as a Ghanaian, as an African, and as a Christian and a Methodist. I cannot claim to participate fully in any of these identities as he did; given the history we do not share, he would not have expected me to. But I have tried in this book, in many places, to examine the meaning of one or another, and, by the end, all of these identities, and to learn from his capacity to make use of these many identities without, so far as I could tell, any significant conflict.

I could say more about my father’s multiple presences in this book; but, in the end, I would rather that the book should show what I have learned from him than that I should catalog my debts at the start.

I say all this in part because in thinking about culture, which is the subject of this book, one is bound to be formed—morally, aesthetically, politically, religiously—by the range of lives one has known. Others will disagree with much that I have to say, and it is right that those who disagree, as those who agree with me, should know, as we say in America, “where I am coming from.” This is especially important because the book is about issues that are bound to be deeply personally important for anyone with my history; for its theme is the question how we are to think about Africa’s contemporary cultures in the light both of the two main external determinants of her recent cultural history—European and Afro-New World conceptions of Africa—and of her own endogenous cultural traditions.

I believe—this is one of thecentral goals of the academy, which is my vocation—that we should think carefullyabout the issues that matter to us most. When I argue that ideological decolonization is bound to fail if it neglects either endogenous ‘ ‘tradition” or exogenous ‘ ‘Western”ideas, and that many African (and African-American) intellectuals have failed to find

a negotiable middle way, I am talking about friends and neighbors and I am talking about how we deal with our shared situation. It would be foolhardy to suppose and unpersuasive to claim that in such a situation it is always one’s dispassionate reason that triumphs, that one can pursue the issues with the impartiality of the disinterested.

Precisely because I am aware of these other forces, I expect that sometimes along the way my history has not only formed my judgment (which I delight in) but distorted it (which, of course, I do not); to judge whether it has, you will need to know something of that history, and I want you to know, not least because only through the responses of readers will / learn of my distortions.

But it is also important to testify, I think, to the practical reality of the kind of intercultural project whose theoretical ramifications I explore in these essays: to show how easy it is, without theory, without much conscious thought, to live in human families that extend across the boundaries that are currently held to divide our race. It may help to have a thumb-nail sketch of the territory that lies before us.

Africa’s intellectuals have long been engaged in a conversation with each other and with Europeans and Americans, about what it means to be African. At the heart of these debates on African identity are the seminal works of politicians, creative writers, and philosophers from Africa and her diaspora. In this book, I draw on the writings of these African and African-American thinkers to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of an African identity in the late twentieth century.

The essays fall into four clusters, and, as I look over them with hindsight, I detect a central preoccupation in each.

In the two opening essays, which form the first cluster, I explore the role of racial ideology in the development of Pan-Africanism. I focus, more particularly, on the ideas of the African-American intellectuals who initiated Pan-Africanist discourse.

My archetypes are Alexander Crummell, in Chapter 1, and W. E. B. Du Bois, in Chapter 2; and I argue in examining their work that the idea of the Negro, the idea of an African race, is an unavoidable element in that discourse, and that these racialist notions are grounded in bad biological—and worse ethical—ideas, inherited from the increasingly racialized thought of nineteenth-century Europe and America.

The next two essays are united in asking how questions about African identity figure in African literary life: and they do so by exploring the ideas of critics and literary theorists in Chapter 3 and of a major writer—Wole Soyinka—in Chapter 4.

The burden of these essays is that the attempt to construct an African literature rooted in African traditions has led both to an understating of the diversity of African cultures, and to an attempt to censor the profound entanglement of African intellectuals with the intellectual life of Europe and the Americas.

The pair of chapters that follows—cluster three—is motivated by an essentially philosophical preoccupation with the issues of reason and modernity. In thinking about modern African philosophy, in Chapter 5, and “traditional” religion, in Chapter 6,1 rely on a view of the central role of reason in African life before and after colonialism; and I suggest a view of modernization in Africa that differs, as a result, from the standard Weberian view.

The upshot here is not so easily reduced to a formula: but my theme is that an ideal of reasonableness (conceived, in a specific sense, transculturally) has a central role to play in thinking about Africa’s future. To one side lies parochialism; to the other, false claims to universality.

The final set of chapters raise more explicitly questions of politics and identity. Chapter 7 leads us through the art market and some contemporary novels to the emergence of an unsentimental form of African humanism that can undergird our resistance to tyranny. I explore the meaning of the African nation-state and the forms of social organization that both challenge and enable it, in Chapter 8. In Chapter 9,I take up in a more theoretical way the general question of identitiesracial, ethnic, national, Pan-African—and what the power of identities at each of these levels reveals about the possibilities for politics and the role of intellectuals in political life.

It is in this political sphere that so many of the issues raised in this book come

together. Rejecting the rhetoric of descent requires a rethinking of Pan-Africanist politics; literature and its criticism are more explicitly preoccupied in Africa than in Europe and North America with political questions; and modernization and its meaning are the major policy questions facing our political institutions. Naturally, therefore, there is no easy separation of the issues; and naturally, also, political questions surface again and again throughout the book. More surprising, I think, is the persistent recurrence of questions of race; of the racialist history that has dogged Pan-Africanism from its inception.

But, that said, I would want to resist the reduction of this book to a single theme.

For the situation of the African intellectual is as complex and multifarious a predicament as a human being can face in our time, and in addressing that situation I would not want to bury the many stories in a single narrative. This claim has become a postmodernist mannerism: but it strikes me as, in fact, also a very old and sane piece of wisdom. Wittgenstein used to quote Bishop Butler’s remark that “everything is what it is and not another thing.” There is a piece of Akan wordplay with the same moral “Esono esono, na esono sosono,” . . . which being translated reads “The elephant is one thing and the worm another.”

One final plea: a collection of essays of this sort, which is both interdisciplinary (ranging over biology, philosophy, literary criticism and theory, sociology, anthropology, and political and intellectual history) and intercultural (discussing African, American, and European ideas), is bound to spend some of its time telling each of its readers something that he or she already knows. Whatever your training and wherever you live, gentle reader, imagine your fellow readers and their areas of knowledge and ignorance before you ask why I have explained what does not need explaining to you.

When you find me ignoring what you judge important, or getting wrong what you have gotten right, remember that no one in our day can cover all these areas with equal competence and that that does not make trying any less worthwhile, and recall, above all, that these are, as Bacon (no mean essayist himself) said, “but essaies—that is dispersed Meditations.”

Kumasi, Asante K. A. A.

July 1991

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