“Africa for the Africans!” I cried. . . . “A free and independent state in Africa. We want to be able to govern ourselves in this country of ours without outside interference.” KWAME NKRUMAH
On 26 July 1860, Alexander Crummell, African-American by birth, Liberian by adoption, an Episcopalian priest with a University of Cambridge education, addressed the citizens of Maryland county, Cape Palmas. Though Liberia was not to be recognized by the United States for another two years, the occasion was, by Crummell’s reckoning, the thirteenth anniversary of her independence.
So it is particularly striking that his title was “The English Language in Liberia” and his theme that the Africans “exiled” in slavery to the New World had been given by divine providence “at least this one item of compensation, namely, the possession of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.’ ‘
Crummell, who is widely regarded as one of the fathers of African nationalism, had not the slightest doubt that English was a language superior to the” various tongues and dialects” of the indigenous African populations; superior in its euphony, its conceptual resources, and its capacity to express the “supernal truths” of Christianity.
Now, over a century later, more than half of the population of black Africa lives in countries where English is an official language, and the same providence has decreed that almost all the rest of Africa should be governed in French or Arabic or Portuguese.
Perhaps the Reverend Crummell would have been pleased with this news, but he would have little cause to be sanguine. For—with few exceptions outside the Arabic speaking countries of North Africa—the language of government is the first language of a very few and is securely possessed by only a small proportion of the population; in most of the anglophone states even the educated elites learned at least one of the hundreds of indigenous languages as well as—and almost always before—English.
In francophone Africa there are now elites, many of whom speak French better than any other language, and who speak a variety of French particularly close in grammar, if not always in accent, to the language of metropolitan France. But even here, French is not confidently possessed by anything close to a majority.
These differences between francophone and anglophone states derive, of course, from differences between French and British colonial policy. For, though the picture is a good deal too complex for convenient summary, it is broadly true that the French colonial policy was one of assimilation—of turning “savage” Africans into “evolved” black Frenchmen and women—while British colonial policy was a good deal less interested in making the black Anglo-Saxons of Crummell’s vision.
Yet despite these differences, both francophone and anglophone elites not only use the colonial languages as the medium of government but know and often admire the literature of their ex-colonizers, and have chosen to make a modern African literature in European languages.
Even after a brutal colonial history and nearly two decades of sustained armed resistance, the decolonization in the midseventies of Portuguese Africa left a lusophone elite writing African laws and literature in Portuguese.
This is not to deny that there are strong living traditions of oral culture—religious, mythological, poetic, and narrative—in most of the “traditional” languages of sub-Saharan Africa, or to ignore the importance of a few written traditional languages.
But to find their way out of their own community, and acquire national, let alone international, recognition, most traditional languages—the obvious exception being Swahili—have to be translated. Few black African states have the privilege of corresponding to a single traditional linguistic community. And for this reason alone, most of the writers who have sought to create a national tradition, transcending the ethnic divisions of Africa’s new states, have had to write in European languages or risk being seen as particularists, identifying with old rather than new loyalties.
(An interesting exception is Somalia, whose people has the same language and traditions but managed, nevertheless, to spend a decade after independence in which their official languages were English, Italian, and Arabic.)
These facts are reflected in many moments; let me offer just two: one, when the decision of the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o to write in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, led many even within his nation to see him—wrongly, in my view—as a sort of Gikuyu imperialist (and that is no trivial issue in the context of interethnic relations in Kenya); the other, when the old “Haute Volta” found an “authentic” name by fashioning itself as “Burkina Faso,” taking words from two of the nation’s languages—while continuing, of course, to conduct much of its official business in French. In a sense we have used Europe’s languages because in the task of nation building we could not afford politically to use each other’s.
It should be said that there are other more or less honorable reasons for the extraordinary persistence of the colonial languages. We cannot ignore, for example, on the honorable side, the practical difficulties of developing a modern educational system in a language in which none of the manuals and textbooks have been written; nor should we forget, in the debit column, the less noble possibility that these foreign languages, whose possession had marked the colonial elite, became too precious as marks of status to be given up by the class that inherited the colonial state.
Together such disparate forces have conspired to ensure that the most important body of writing in sub-Saharan Africa even after independence continues to be in English, French, and Portuguese. For many of its most important cultural purposes, most African intellectuals, south of the Sahara, are what we can call “europhone.”
This linguistic situation is of most importance in the cultural lives of African intellectuals. It is, of course, of immense consequence to the citizens of African states generally that their ruling elites are advised by and in many cases constituted of europhone intellectuals. But a concern with the relations of “traditional” and “modern” conceptual worlds, with the integration of inherited modes of understanding and newly acquired theories, concepts, and beliefs, is bound to be of especial importance in the lives of those of us who think and write about the future of Africa in terms that are largely borrowed from elsewhere.
We may acknowledge that the truth is the property of no culture, that we should take the truths we need wherever we find them. But for truths to become the basis of national policy and, more widely, of national life, they must be believed, and whether or not whatever new truths we take from the West will be believed depends in large measure on how we are able to manage the relations between our conceptual heritage and the ideas that rush at us from worlds elsewhere.
Crummell’s peroration is most easily available to us in a collection of his writings first published in 1862 and entitled The Future of Africa. It is a mark of the success of a picture of the world that he shared, that few of the readers of this book in the last hundred years—few, that is, of the Europeans, Americans, and Africans equipped with the English to read it—will have found anything odd in this title, its author’s particular interest in Africa’s future, or of his claim to speak for a continent.
It is a picture that Crummell learned in America and confirmed in England; though it would have astonished most of the “native” population of Liberia, this picture has become in our century the common property of much of humankind. And at its root is an understanding of the world that we will do well to examine, to question, perhaps, in the end, to reject.
At the core of Crummell’s vision is a single guiding concept: race. Crummell’s “Africa” is the motherland of the Negro race, and his right to act in it, to speak for it, to plot its future, derived—in his conception—from the fact that he too was a Negro.
More than this, Crummell held that there was a common destiny for the people of Africa—by which we are always to understand the black people—not because they shared a common ecology, nor because they had a common historical experience or faced a common threat from imperial Europe, but because they belonged to this one race.
What made Africa one for him was that it was the home of the Negro, as England was the home of the Anglo-Saxon, or Germany the home of the Teuton. Crummell was one of the first people to speak as a Negro in Africa, and his writings effectively inaugurated the discourse of Pan-Africanism.
Ethnocentrism, however much it distresses us, can no longer surprise us. We can trace its ugly path through Africa’s own recent history. Still, it is, at least initially, surprising that even those African-Americans like Crummell, who initiated the nationalist discourse on Africa in Africa, inherited a set of conceptual blinders that made them unable to see virtue in Africa, even though they needed Africa, above all else, as a source of validation.
Since they conceived of the African in racial terms, their low opinion of Africa was not easily distinguished from a low opinion of the Negro, and they left us, through the linking of race and Pan-Africanism, with a burdensome legacy.
The centrality of race in the history of African nationalism is both widely assumed and often ignored. There were many colonial students from British Africa gathered in London in the years after the Second World War—a war in which many Africans died in the name of liberty—and their common search for political independence from a single metropolitan state naturally brought them together. They were brought together too by the fact that the British—those who helped as well as those who hindered—saw them all as Africans, first of all. But they were able to articulate a common vision of postcolonial Africa through a discourse inherited from prewar PanAfricanism, and that discourse was the product, largely, of black citizens of the New World.
Since what bound those African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists together was the partially African ancestry they shared, and since that ancestry mattered in the New World through its various folk theories of race, a racial understanding of their solidarity was, perhaps, an inevitable development; this was reinforced by the fact that a few crucial figures—Nkrumah among them—had traveled in the opposite direction to Crummell, seeking education in the black colleges of the United States.
The tradition on which the francophone intellectuals of the postwar era drew, whether articulated by Aime Cesaire, from the New World, or Leopold Senghor from the Old, shared the European and American view of race.
Like Pan-Africanism, negritude begins with the assumption of the racial solidarity of the Negro.
In the prewar era, colonial Africans experienced European racism to radically different degrees in differing colonial conditions, and had correspondingly different degrees of preoccupation with the issue. But with the reality of Nazi racism open to plain view—a reality that still exhausts the resources of our language—it was easy in the immediate postwar era for anyone to see the potentialities for evil of race as an organizing principle of political solidarity. What was hard to see was the possibility of giving up race as a notion altogether.
Could anything be more real than Jewishness in a world where to be Jewish meant the threat of the death camp? In a world where being a Jew had come to have a terrible—racial—meaning for everyone, racism, it seemed, could be countered only by accepting the categories of race. For the postwar Pan-Africanists the political problem was what to do about the situation of the Negro.
Those who went home to create postcolonial Africa did not need to discuss or analyze race. It was the notion that had bound them together in the first place. The lesson the Africans drew from the Nazis—indeed from the Second World War as a whole—was not the danger of racism but the falsehood of the opposition between a humane European “modernity” and the “barbarism” of the nonwhite world.
We had known that European colonialism could lay waste African lives with a careless ease; now we knew that white people could take the murderous tools of modernity and apply them to each other.
What race meant to the new Africans affectively, however, was not, on the whole, what it meant to educated blacks in the New World. For many African-Americans, raised in a segregated American society and exposed to the crudest forms of discrimination, social intercourse with white people was painful and uneasy.
Many of the Africans, on the other hand (my father among them) took back to their homes European wives and warm memories of European friends; few of them, even from the ” settler” cultures of East and southern Africa, seem to have been committed to ideas of racial separation or to doctrines of racial hatred. Since they came from cultures where black people were in the majority and where lives continued to be largely controlled by indigenous moral and cognitive conceptions, they had no reason to believe that they were inferior to white people and they had, correspondingly, less reason to resent them.
This fact is of crucial importance in understanding the psychology of postcolonial Africa. For though this claim, will, I think, be easily accepted by most of those who experienced, as I did, an African upbringing in British Africa in the later twentieth century, it will seem unobvious to outside observers, largely, I believe, on the basis of one important source of misunderstanding.
It will seem to most European and American outsiders that nothing could be a more obvious basis for resentment than the experience of a colonized people forced to accept the swaggering presence of the colonizer. It will seem obvious, because a comparison will be assumed with the situation of New World blacks.
My own sense of that situation came first, I think, from reading the copy of Fernando Henriquez’s Family and Color in Jamaica that George Padmore, the West Indian Pan-Africanist, gave my parents as a wedding present. And one cannot read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, for example, without gathering a powerful sense of what it must be to belong to stigmatized subculture, to live in a world in which everything from your body to your language is defined by the “mainstream” as inferior.
But to read the situation of those colonial subjects who grew to adulthood before the 1950s in this way is to make an assumption that Wole Soyinka has identified in a passage I shall discuss in Chapter 4—the assumption of the ‘ ‘potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the actual soil of the latter.’ ‘
And what undercuts this assumption is the fact that the experience of the vast majority of these citizens of Europe’s African colonies was one of an essentially shallow penetration by the colonizer.
If we read Soyinka’s own Ake, a childhood autobiography of an upbringing in prewar colonial Nigeria—or the more explicitly fictionalized narratives of his countryman, Chinua Achebe—we shall be powerfully informed of the ways in which even those children who were extracted from the traditional culture of their parents and grandparents and thrust into the colonial school were nevertheless fully enmeshed in a primary experience of their own traditions.
The same clear sense shines through the romanticizing haze of Camara Laye’s L’Enfant noir. To insist in these circumstances on the alienation of (Western-)educated colonials, on their incapacity to appreciate and value their own traditions, is to risk mistaking both the power of this primary experience and the vigor of many forms of cultural resistance to colonialism.
A sense that the colonizers overrate the extent of their cultural penetration is consistent with anger or hatred or a longing for freedom, but it does not entail the failures of self-confidence that lead to alienation.
When I come, in Chapter 3, to discuss colonial and postcolonial intellectuals, I shall have more to say about the small class of educated people whose alienation is a real phenomenon (one powerfully characterized by Frantz Fanon). But the fact is that most of us who were raised during and for some time after the colonial era are sharply aware of the ways in which the colonizers were never as fully in control as our elders allowed them to appear.
We all experienced the persistent power of our own cognitive and moral traditions: in religion, in such social occasions as the funeral, in our experience of music, in our practice of the dance, and, of course, in the intimacy of family life.
Colonial authority sought to stigmatize our traditional religious beliefs, and we conspired in this fiction by concealing our disregard for much of European Christianity in those “syncretisms” I shall be discussing later; the colonial state established a legal system whose patent lack of correspondence with the values of the colonized threatened not those values but the colonial legal system.
An anecdote may illustrate this claim. In the midseventies I was driving with a (white) English friend in the Ghanaian city of Takoradi. My friend was at the wheel. We stopped at a road junction behind a large timber truck, and the driver, who failed to see us in his rearview mirror, backed toward us. My English friend sounded our horn, but the driver went on backing—until he hit and broke our windscreen. It was a crowded area near the docks, and there were many witnesses. It was plain enough whose fault—in the sense of the legal system—the accident was. Yet none of the witnesses was willing to support our version of the story.
In other settings, one might have assumed that this was a reflection of racial solidarity. But what these witnesses said made it plain that their judgment had a different basis, one whose nearest Euro-American counterpart would have been not race but class solidarity. For them the issue was one between a person (a foreigner, and therefore someone with money) who could afford to pay for his own windscreen, and another person (the truck driver) who was an employee who would lose his job and his livelihood if he were found guilty of a traffic infraction.
The formal system of state authority was likely, in the view of our witnesses, to penalize the truck driver—who had done nothing more serious than to damage a piece of property—in a way they judged out of all proportion to his offense. And so, without coordination, they “conspired” to undercut the formal legal system.
This legal system was Ghana’s—the system of an independent postcolonial national state. But it was essentially the colonial system, with its British-imposed norms. In the ten years following this episode, the “Peoples’ Revolution” of Jerry Rawlings attempted to dismantle much of this system, with a great deal of popular support; it did so, I believe, precisely because it was clear that that system failed utterly to reflect popular norms.
I do not, myself, believe that the notions of right and responsibility implicit in the way in which the Ghanaian legal system of the midseventies, operating under ideal conditions, would have settled the issue, would have been wrong. But that is only to mark my distance from the moral conceptions operative in the streets of Takoradi. (Still, I am not so far removed from the reality of the Ghanaian legal system—or legal systems in general—as to believe that there was any guarantee that the case would be formally adjudicated by ideal standards.)
Legal systems—such as those of France or Britain or the United States—that have evolved in response to a changing local political morality are undergirded by a kind of popular consensus that has been arrived at through a long history of mutual accommodation between legal practice and popular norm. Anyone who has witnessed such an act of spontaneous and uncomplicated opposition to a state whose operations are not grounded in such a consensus can easily imagine how colonial subjects were able to fashion similar acts of resistance.
And so, to repeat my point, it was natural that those colonials who returned to Africa after the Second World War were, by and large, less alienated than many Europeans and Americans have assumed. It is plain that such figures as Kenyatta and Nkrumah, Kaunda and Nyerere, experienced Western culture fully only when they visited Europe and America; each lived at home comfortably rooted in the traditionsof his ethnos.Indeed, to speak of “resistance” in this phase of colonial culture is already to overstate the ways in which the colonial state was invasive. My anecdote comes from urban Takoradi in the late twentieth century; in matters, such as family life, where the state was unable effectively to intervene; in rural areas (at least where there were no plantations); among the indigenous traditional ruling classes and among those who escaped substantial exposure to colonial education even in the cities; before the increasingly deeper penetrations of an alien modernity, the formal colonial system could, for most purposes, be ignored.
A proper comparison in the New World is not with the urban experience of Soul on Ice but with the world that Zora Neale Hurston records and reflects, both in her more ethnographic writings and in her brilliant novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God—a black world on which the white American world impinged in ways that were culturally marginal even though formally politically overwhelming.
There are many moments of cultural autonomy in black America that achieve, against far greater ideological odds than ever faced the majority of Africa’s colonized peoples, an equally resilient sense of their own worth.
What the postwar generation of British Africans took from their time in Europe, therefore, was not a resentment of “white” culture. What they took, instead, from their shared experience was a sense that they, as Africans, had a great deal in common: they took it for granted, along with everybody else, that this common feeling was connected with their shared “African-ness,” and they largely accepted the European view that this meant their shared race.
For the citizens of French Africa, a different situation led to the same results. For the French evolues, of whom Leopold Senghor is the epitome, there would be no question of a cultural explanation of their difference from Europe: for culturally, as assimilation required, they were bound to believe that, whatever else they might be also, they were at least French. It is a tale that is worth the frequent retelling it has borne that African children in the French Empire read textbooks that spoke of the Gauls as “nos ancetres.”
Of course, the claim of a Senegalese child to a descent from Asterix was bound to be conceived figuratively; and, as Camara Laye showed in LEnfant noir, colonial pedagogy failed as notably in francophone as in anglophone Africa fully to deracinate its objects. In whatever sense the Gauls were their ancestors, they knew they were— and were expected to remain—” different.” To account for this difference, they, too, were thrown back on theories of race.
And so it is that Senghor, first president of Senegal, architect of its independence, exponent of negritude, is also a member of the Academic Franchise, a distinguished French poet, a former member of the French National Assembly. So it is that this most cultivated of Frenchmen (culturally, if not juridically, speaking) is also, in the eyes of millions of Frenchmen and francophone Africans—as, of course, he is in his own—a spokesman for the Negro race.
For the generation that theorized the decolonization of Africa, then, “race” was a central organizing principle. And, since these Africans largely inherited their conception of “race” from their New World precursors, we shall understand Pan-Africanism’s profound entanglement with that conception best if we look first at how it is handled in the work of the African-American intellectuals who forged the links between race and Pan-Africanism. The tale has often been told in the francophone case—the centrality of race in the archaeology of Negritude can hardly be ignored— but it has its anglophone counterpart.
In Chapter 2, therefore, I examine this issue in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, and I begin with a discussion of the paper on “The Conservation of Races,” which he delivered to the American Negro Academy in the year in which it was founded by Alexander Crummell.
Crummell’s use of the term race was less theoretically articulated—and thus more representative—than Du Bois’s. Nevertheless, he did offer a definition—many years after his celebration of the English language in Liberia—that will be found echoed later in Du Bois: “a RACE, i.e. a compact, homogeneous population of one blood ancestry and lineage.”
Like Du Bois he believed that races have their individuality. That individuality is subject at all times to all the laws of race-life. That race-life, all over the globe, shows an invariable proclivity, and in every instance, to integration of blood and permanence of essence.
Or, as he says, elsewhere, there are certain tendencies, seen for over 200 years in our population, which indicate settled, determinate proclivities, and which show, if I mistake not, the destiny of races. . . . the principle of race is one of the most persistent things in the constitution of man.
There is no reason to believe that Crummell would ever explicitly have endorsed any very specific view about the biological character of racial difference; or wondered, as Du Bois came to, whether there was a “permanence of essence.” Though he always assumes that there are races, and that membership in a race entails the possession of certain traits and dispositions, his notion of race—like that of most of the later Pan-Africanists—is not so much thought as felt. It is difficult, therefore, to establish some of the distinctions we need when we ask ourselves what is bound to seem an important question: namely, whether, and in what sense, the Pan-Africanist movement, and Crummell as its epitome, should be called “racist.”
It is as well to be clear at the start that, however inchoate the form of race theory that Crummell adopted, it represents something that was new in the nineteenth century. That the specific form race theory took was new does not, of course, mean that it had no historical antecedents, but it is important to understanding what was distinctive in the racial theory of Crummell that we remember both its continuities with and its distance from its forbears.
Almost as far back as the earliest human writings, after all, we can find more-or-less well-articulated views about the differences between “our own kind” and the people of other cultures.
These doctrines, like modern theories of race, have often placed a central emphasis on physical appearance in defining the “Other,” and on common ancestry in explaining why groups of people display differences in their attitudes and aptitudes.
If we call any group of human beings of common descent living together in some sort of association, however loosely structured, a “people,” we can say that every human culture that was aware of other peoples seems to have had views about what accounted for the differences—in appearance, in customs, in language—between them.
This is certainly true of the two main ancient traditions to which Euro-American thinkers in general (like Crummell, in particular) have looked back—those of the classical Greeks and the ancient Hebrews. Thus, we find Hippocrates in the fifth century B . c. E . in Greece seeking to explain the (supposed) superiority of his own people to the peoples of (western) Asia by arguing that the barren soils of Greece had forced the Greeks to become tougher and more independent. Such a view attributes the characteristics of a people to their environment, leaving open the possibility that their descendants could change, if they moved to new conditions.
While the general opinion in Greece in the few centuries on either side of the beginning of the common era appears to have been that both the black “Ethiopians” to the south and the blonde “Scythians” to the north were inferior to the Hellenes, there was no general assumption that this inferiority was incorrigible.
Educated Greeks, after all, knew that in both the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer had described Zeus and other Olympians feasting with the “Ethiopians,” who offered pious hecatombs of sheep and oxen to the immortals, and there are arguments in the works of the pre-Socratic Sophists to the effect that it is individual character and not skin color that determines a person’s worth.
The Greeks identified peoples by their characteristic appearance, both in such biological features as skin, eye, and hair color, and in such cultural matters as hairstyles, the cut of beards, and modes of dress. And while they had a low opinion of most non-Greek cultures—they called foreigners “barbarians,” folk etymology had it, because their speech sounded like a continuous ”bar bar . . .”—they respected many individuals of different appearance (and, in particular, skin color) and assumed, for example, that they had acquired a good deal in their culture from the darker-skinned people of Egypt.
Once the Romans captured control of the Mediterranean world, and inherited Greek culture, much the same view can be found in their authors, a pattern that continues beyond the climax of the Roman Empire into the period of imperial decline.
In the Old Testament, on the other hand, as we might expect, what is thought to be distinctive about peoples is not so much appearance and custom as their relationship, through a common ancestor, to God. So, in Genesis, Jehovah says to Abraham: “Go your way out of your country and from your relatives and from the house of your father and to the country that I shall show you; and I shall make a great people of you and I will make your name great” (Gen. 12:1-2).
And from this founding moment—this covenant between Abraham and Jehovah—the descendants of Abraham have a special place in history. It is, of course, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob who takes the name of Israel, and his descendants thus become the “people of Israel.”
The Old Testament is full of names of peoples. Some of them are still familiar— Syrians, Philistines, and Persians; some of them are less so—Canaanites, Hittites, and Medes. Many of these groups are accounted for in the genealogies of the peoples of the earth and are explicitly seen as descending ultimately not only from the first human couple, Adam and Eve, but more particularly from Noah’s three sons. Just as the Israelites are” sons of Shem,” the children of Ham and of Japheth account for the rest of the human “family.”
But while these different peoples are taken to have different specific characteristics and ancestries, the fundamentally theocentric perspective of the Old Testament requires that what essentially differentiates them all from the Hebrews is that they do not have the special relationship to Jehovah of the children, the descendants, of Israel.
There is very little hint that the early Jewish writers developed any theories about the relative importance of the biological and the cultural inheritances by which God made these different peoples distinct. Indeed, in the theocentric framework it is God’s covenant that matters and the very distinction between environmental and inherited characteristics is anachronistic.
When the prophet Jeremiah asks, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin? Or a leopard its spots?” (Jer. 13:23), the suggestion that the inherited dark skin of Africans was something they could not change did not necessarily imply that the “nature” of Africans was in other ways unchangeable, that they inevitably inherited special moral or intellectual traits along with their skin color.
If there is a normal way that the Bible explains the distinctive characters of peoples, it is by telling a story in which an ancestor is blessed or cursed. This way of thinking is operative in the New Testament also and became, ironically, the basis of later arguments in Christian Europe (at the beginning of the eleventh century of the common era) for anti-Semitism. For when “the Jews” in the Gospel of Matthew choose Barabbas over Christ in response to Pilate’s offer to release one or other of them they reply: “His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matt. 27:25). In effect, “the Jews” here curse themselves.
The Greeks, too, plainly had notions about some clans having the moral characteristics they have by virtue of blessings and curses on their ancestors. Oedipus the King, after all, is driven to his fate because of a curse on his family for which he himself is hardly responsible, a curse that continued into the next generation in Seven against Thebes. But even here it is never a question of the curse operating by making the whole lineage wicked, or by otherwise changing its fundamental nature. Fate operates on people because of their ancestry, once their lineage is cursed. And that, so far as explanations go, is more or less the end of the matter.
I am insisting on the fact that the Greek conception of cultural and historical differences between peoples was essentially environmental and the Jewish conception was essentially a matter of the theological consequences of covenants with (or curses on) ancestors. And the reason should be obvious if we think for a moment about the passages from Crummell quoted earlier: neither the environmentalism of the Greeks nor the theocentric Hebrew understanding of the significance of being one people is an idea that we should naturally apply in understanding Crummell’s use of the idea of race. To the extent that we think of Crummell’s racial ideology as modern, as involving ideas that we understand, we will suppose that he believed the “settled, determinate proclivities,” reflect a race’s inherited capacities.
Indeed, even if Crummell thought (as he surely did) that it was part of God’s plan for the world that the heirs to the Anglo-Saxons should rule it, he would not have thought of this divine mission as granted them because some ancestor had pleased God and been blessed with an hereditary reward (or, for that matter, because the ancestors of the “darker races” had offended God and been cursed).
For by Crummell’s day a distinctively modern understanding of what it was to be a people— an understanding in terms of our modern notion of race—was beginning to be forged: that notion had at its heart a new scientific conception of biological heredity, even as it carried on some of the roles played in Greek and Jewish thought by the idea of a people. But it was also interwoven with a new understanding of a people as a nation and of the role of culture—and, crucially (as we shall see in Chapter 3), of literature— in the life of nations.
If we are to answer the question whether Crummell was racist, therefore, we must first seek out the distinctive content of nineteenth-century racism. And we shall immediately see that there are many distinct doctrines that compete for the term racism, of which I shall try to articulate what I take to be the crucial three. (So I shall be using the words racism and racialism with the meanings I stipulate: in some dialects of English they are synonyms, and in most dialects their definition is less than precise.)
The first doctrine is the view—which I shall call racialism—that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race.
These traits and tendencies characteristic of a race constitute, on the racialist view, a sort of racial essence; it is part of the content of racialism that the essential heritable characteristics of the “Races of Man” account for more than the visible morphological characteristics—skin color, hair type, facial features—on the basis of which we make our informal classifications. Racialism is at the heart of nineteenth-century attempts to develop a science of racial difference, but it appears to have been believed by others—like Hegel, before then, and Crummell and many Africans since—who have had no interest in developing scientific theories.
Racialism is not, in itself, a doctrine that must be dangerous, even if the racial essence is thought to entail moral and intellectual dispositions. Provided positive moral qualities are distributed across the races, each can be respected, can have its “separate but equal” place. Unlike most Western-educated people, I believe—and I shall argue in the essay on Du Bois—that racialism is false, but by itself, it seems to be a cognitive rather than a moral problem. The issue is how the world is, not how we would want it to be.
Racialism is, however, a presupposition of other doctrines that have been called “racism,” and these other doctrines have been, in the last few centuries, the basis of a great deal of human suffering and the source of a great deal of moral error.
One such doctrine we might call extrinsic racism: extrinsic racists make moral distinctions between members of different races because they believe that the racial essence entails certain morally relevant qualities. The basis for the extrinsic racists’ discrimination between people is their belief that members of different races differ in respects that warrant the differential treatment—respects, like honesty or courage or intelligence, that are uncontroversially held (at least in most contemporary cultures) to be acceptable as a basis for treating people differently.
Evidence that there are no such differences in morally relevant characteristics—that Negroes do not necessarily lack intellectual capacities, that Jews are not especially avaricious—should thus lead people out of their racism if it is purely extrinsic. As we know, such evidence often fails to change an extrinsic racist’s attitudes substantially, for some of the extrinsic racist’s best friends have always been Jewish. But at this point—if the racist is sincere—what we have is no longer a false doctrine but a cognitive incapacity.
This cognitive incapacity is not, of course, a rare one. Many of us are unable to give up beliefs that play a part in justifying the special advantages we gain from our positions in the social order. Many people who express extrinsic racist beliefs—many white South Africans, for example—are beneficiaries of social orders that deliver advantages to them in virtue of their “race,” so that their disinclination to accept evidence that would deprive them of a justification for those advantages is just an instance of this general phenomenon.
So, too, evidence that access to higher education is as largely determined by the quality of our earlier educations as by our own innate talents, does not, on the whole, undermine the confidence of college entrants from private schools in England or the United States or Ghana. Many of them continue to believe in the face of this evidence that their acceptance at “good” universities shows them to be better intellectually endowed (and not just better prepared) than those who are rejected. It is facts such as these that give sense to the notion of false consciousness, the idea that an ideology can protect us from facing up to facts that would threaten our position.
My business here is not with the psychological or (perhaps more importantly) the social processes by which these defenses operate, but it is important, I think, to see the refusal of some extrinsic racists to accept evidence against their beliefs as an instance of a widespread phenomenon in human affairs. It is a plain fact, to which theories of ideology must address themselves, that our species is prone both morally and intellectually to partiality in judgment.
An inability to change your mind in the face of evidence is a cognitive incapacity; it is one that all of us surely suffer from in some areas of belief. But it is not, as some have held, a tendency that we are powerless to alter. And it may help to shake the convictions of those whose incapacity derives from this sort of ideological defense if we show them how their reaction fits into this general pattern. It is, indeed, because it generally does fit this pattern that we call such views racism—the suffix -ism indicating that what we have in mind is not simply a theory but an ideology.
It would be odd to call someone brought up in a remote corner of the world with false and demeaning views about white people a racist if she would give up these beliefs quite easily in the face of evidence.
I said that the sincere extrinsic racist may suffer from a cognitive incapacity. But some who espouse extrinsic racist doctrines are simply insincere intrinsic racists. For intrinsic racists, on my definition, are people who differentiate morally between members of different races, because they believe that each race has a different moral status, quite independent of the moral characteristics entailed by its racial essence.
Just as, for example, many people assume that the bare fact that they are biologically related to another person—a brother, an aunt, a cousin—gives them a moral interest in that person, so an intrinsic racist holds that the bare fact of being of the same race is a reason for preferring one person to another. For an intrinsic racist, no amount of evidence that a member of another race is capable of great moral, intellectual, or cultural achievements, or has characteristics that, in members of one’s own race, would make them admirable or attractive, offers any ground for treating that person as she would treat similarly endowed members of her own race.
Just so, some sexists are “intrinsic sexists,” holding that the bare fact that someone is a woman (or man) is a reason for treating her (or him) in certain ways.
There are some who will want to object already that my discussion of the content of racist moral and factual beliefs underplays something absolutely crucial to the character of the psychological and sociological reality of racism—something that I touched on when I mentioned that extrinsic racist utterances are often made by people who suffer from what I called a ‘ ‘cognitive incapacity.” It will be as well to state here explicitly, as a result, that most real-live contemporary racists exhibit a systematically distorted rationality—precisely the kind of systematically distorted rationality that we often recognize in ideology.
And it is a distortion that is especially striking in the cognitive domain: extrinsic racists, however intelligent or otherwise well informed, often fail to treat evidence against the theoretical propositions of extrinsic racism dispassionately. Like extrinsic racism, intrinsic racism can also often be seen as ideological, but, since scientific evidence is not going to settle the issue, a failure to see that it is wrong represents a cognitive incapacity only according to certain controversial views about the nature of morality.
What makes intrinsic racism similarly ideological is not so much the failure of inductive or deductive rationality that is so striking in, say, official Afrikaner theory, but the connection that it, like extrinsic racism, has with the interests—real or perceived—of the dominant group.
There are interesting possibilities for complicating the distinctions I have drawn: some racists, for example, claim, like Crummell, that they discriminate between people because they believe that God requires them to do so. Is this an extrinsic racism, predicated upon the combination of God’s being an intrinsic racist and the belief that it is right to do what God wills? Or is it intrinsic racism, because it is based on the belief that God requires these discriminations because they are right? (This distinction has interesting parallels with the Euthyphro’s question: is an act pious because the gods love it, or do they love it because it is pious?)
Nevertheless, I believe that the contrast between racialism and racism and the identification of two potentially overlapping kinds of racism provide us with the skeleton of an anatomy of racial attitudes. With these analytical tools in hand, we can address, finally, the question of Alexander Crummell’s racism.
Certainly, Crummell was a racialist (in my sense), and he was also (again, in my sense) a racist. But it was not always clear whether his racism was extrinsic or intrinsic. Despite the fact that he had such low opinions and such high hopes of the Negro, however, we may suspect that the racism that underlay his Pan-Africanism would, if articulated, have been fundamentally intrinsic, and would therefore have survived the discovery that what he believed about the connection between race and moral capacity was false.
It is true that he says in discussing “The Race Problem in America” that “it would take generations upon generations to make the American people homogeneous in blood and essential qualities,” implying, some might think, that it is the facts of racial difference—the “essential” moral difference, the difference of “qualities”—between the members of the different races that require a different moral response.
But all this claim commits him to by itself is racialism: to the present existence of racial differences. And in other places—as when he is discussing “The Relations and Duties of Free Colored Men in America to Africa”— he speaks of the demands that Africa makes on black people everywhere as “a natural call,” as a “grand and noble work laid out in the Divine Providence,” as if the different moral status of the various races derives not from their different moral characters but from their being assigned different tasks by God. On this view, there could be an allocation of morally different tasks without any special difference in moral or cognitive capacity.
Crummell’s model here, like that of most nineteenth-century black nationalists, was, of course, the biblical history of the Jews: Jehovah chose the children of Israel and made a covenant with them as his people and that was what gave them a special moral role in history. But, as I argued earlier, he did not give them any special biological or intellectual equipment for their special task.
If it is not always clear whether CrummeH’s racism was intrinsic or extrinsic, there is certainly no reason why we should expect to be able to settle the question. Since the issue probably never occurred to him in these terms, we cannot suppose that he must have had an answer. In fact, given the definition of the terms I offered, there is nothing barring someone from being both an intrinsic and an extrinsic racist, holding both that the bare fact of race provides a basis for treating members of your own race differently from others and that there are morally relevant characteristics that are differentially distributed among the races.
Indeed, for reasons I shall discuss in a moment, most intrinsic racists are likely to express extrinsic racist beliefs, so that we should not be surprised that Crummell seems, in fact, to have been committed to both forms of racism.
I mentioned earlier the powerful impact that Nazi racism had on educated Africans in Europe after the war; since then our own continent has been continually reminded by the political development of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa of the threat that racism poses to human decency. Nobody who lives in Europe or the United States—nobody, at least, but a hermit with no access to the news media— could fail to be aware of these threats either. In these circumstances it no doubt seems politically inopportune, at best, and morally insensitive, at worst, to use the same term—racism—to describe the attitudes we find in Crummell and many of his Pan-Africanist heirs. But this natural reaction is based, I believe, on confusions.
What is peculiarly appalling about Nazi racism is not that it presupposed, as all racism does, false (racialist) beliefs; not simply that it involved a moral fault—the failure to extend equality of consideration to our fellow creatures; but that it led to oppression, first, and then to mass slaughter.
And though South African racism has not led to killings on the scale of the Holocaust—even if it has both left South Africa judicially executing more (mostly black) people per head of population than most other countries and led to massive differences between the life chances of white and nonwhite South Africans—it has led to the systematic oppression and the economic exploitation of people who are not classified as “white,” and to the infliction of suffering on citizens of all racial classifications, not least by the police state that is required to maintain that exploitation and oppression.
Part of our resistance, therefore, to calling the racial ideas of Crummell by the same term that we use to describe the attitudes of many Afrikaners surely resides in the fact that Crummell never for a moment contemplated using race as a basis for inflicting harm. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a significant pattern in the rhetoric of modern racism, which means that the discourse of racial solidarity is usually expressed through the language of intrinsic racism, while those who have used race as the basis for oppression and hatred have appealed to extrinsic racist ideas.
This point is important for understanding the character of contemporary Pan-Africanism.
The two major uses of race as a basis for moral solidarity that are most familiar both in Africa and in Europe and America are varieties of Pan-Africanism and Zionism. In each case it is presupposed that a “people,” Negroes or Jews, has the basis for a shared political life in their being of a single race.
There are varieties of each form of ‘ ‘nationalism” that make the basis lie in shared traditions, but however plausible this may be in the case of Zionism, which has, in Judaism, the religion, a realistic candidate for a common and nonracial focus for nationality, the peoples of Africa have a good deal less culturally in common than is usually assumed. I shall return to this issue in later essays, but let me say here that I believe the central fact is this: what blacks in the West, like secularized Jews, have mostly in common is the fact that they are perceived—both by themselves and by others—as belonging together in the same race, and this common race is used by others as the basis for discriminating against them. (“If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a goy will remind you.”)
The Pan-Africanists responded to their experience of racial discrimination by accepting the racialism it presupposed. Without the background of racial notions, as I shall argue in the second essay, this original intellectual grounding of Pan-Africanism disappears.
Though race is indeed at the heart of the Pan-Africanist’s nationalism, however, it seems that it is the fact of a shared race, not the fact of a shared racial character, that provides the basis for solidarity. Where racism is implicated in the basis for national solidarity, it is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It is this that makes the idea of fraternity one that is naturally applied in nationalist discourse.
For, as I have already observed, the moral status of close family members is not normally thought of in most cultures as depending on qualities of character: we are supposed to love our brothers and sisters in spite of their faults and not because of their virtues.
Crummell, once more a representative figure, takes the metaphor of family and literalizes it in these startling words: “Races, like families, are the organisms and ordinances of God; and race feeling, like family feeling, is of divine origin. The extinction of race feeling is just as possible as the extinction of family feeling. Indeed, a race is a family.”
It is the assimilation of “race feeling” to “family feeling” that makes intrinsic racism seem so much less objectionable than extrinsic. For this metaphorical identification reflects the fact that, in the modern world (unlike the nineteenth century), intrinsic racism is acknowledged almost exclusively as the basis of feelings of community. So that we can, surely, share a sense of what Crummell’s friend and fellow-worker Edward Blyden called “the poetry of politics” that is “the feeling of race,” the feeling of’ ‘people with whom we are connected.”
The racism here is the basis of acts of supererogation, the treatment of others better than we otherwise might, better than moral duty demands of us.
This is, I insist, a contingent fact. There is no logical impossibility in the idea of racialists whose moral beliefs lead them to feelings of hatred against other races while leaving no room for love of members of their own. Nevertheless, most racial hatred is in fact expressed through extrinsic racism: most people who have used race as the basis for harm to others have felt the need to see the others as independently morally flawed.
It is one thing to espouse fraternity without claiming that your brothers and sisters have any special qualities that deserve recognition, another to espouse hatred of others who have done nothing to deserve it. There is a story told—one of many in a heroic tradition of Jewish humor under duress—of an old Jewish man bullied by a pair of Nazis on the street in Berlin in the 1930s. “Who do you think is responsible for all our problems, Jew?” says one of the bullies. The old man pauses for a moment and replies “Me, I think it is the pretzel makers.” “Why the pretzel makers?” says the Nazi and the answer comes back: “Why the Jews?”
Any even vaguely objective observer in Germany under the Nazis would have been led to ask this question. But Hitler had a long answer to it—an extended, if absurd, list of accusations against the Jewish “race.”
Similarly, many Afrikaners—like many in the American South until recently— have a long list of extrinsic racist answers to the question why blacks should not have full civil rights. Extrinsic racism has usually been the basis for treating people worse than we otherwise might, for giving them less than their humanity entitles them to.
But this, too, is a contingent fact. Indeed, Crummell’s guarded respect for white people derived from a belief in the superior moral qualities of Anglo-Saxons. Intrinsic racism is, in my view, a moral error. Even if racialism were correct, thebare fact that someone was of another race would be no reason to treat them worse—or better—than someone of my race. In our public lives, people are owed treatmentindependently of their biological characters: if they are to be differently treated theremust be some morally relevant difference between them. In our private lives, we aremorally free to have “aesthetic” preferences between people, but once our treatmentof people raises moral issues, we may not make arbitrary distinctions. Using race initself as a morally relevant distinction strikes most of us as obviously arbitrary.
Without associated moral characteristics, why should race provide a better basis than hair color or height or timbre of voice? And if two people share all the properties morally relevant to some action we ought to do, it will be an error—a failure to apply the Kantian injunction to universalize our moral judgments—to use the bare facts of race as the basis for treating them differently. No one should deny that a common ancestry might, in particular cases, account for similarities in moral character. But then it would be the moral similarities that justified the different treatment.
It is presumably because most people—outside the South African Nationalist Party and the Ku Klux Klan—share this sense that intrinsic racism requires arbitrary distinctions that they are largely unwilling to express it in situations that invite moral criticism. But I do not know how I would argue with someone who was willing to announce an intrinsic racism as a basic moral idea.
It might be thought that such a view should be regarded not as an adherence to a (moral) proposition so much as the expression of a taste, analogous, say, to the food prejudice that makes most English people unwilling to eat horse meat and most Westerners unwilling to eat the insect grubs that the IKung people find so appetizing.
The analogy does at least this much for us, namely, to provide a model of the way that extrinsic racism can be a reflection of an underlying intrinsic prejudice. For, of course, in most cultures food prejudices are rationalized: Americans will say insects are unhygienic, and Asante people that cats must taste horrible. Yet a cooked insect is no more health-threatening than a cooked carrot, and the unpleasant taste of cat meat, far from justifying our prejudice against it, probably derives from that prejudice.
But there the usefulness of the analogy ends. For intrinsic racism, as I have defined it, is not simply a taste for the company of one’s “own kind” but a moral doctrine, a doctrine that is supposed to underlie differences in the treatment of people in contexts where moral evaluation is appropriate. And for moral distinctions we cannot accept that’ ‘de gustibus non disputandum.” We do not need the full apparatus of Kantian ethics to require that morality be constrained by reason.
A proper analogy would be with someone who thought that we could continue to kill cattle for beef, even if cattle exercised all the complex cultural skills of human beings. I think it is obvious that creatures that share our capacity for understanding as well as our capacity for pain should not be treated the way we actually treat cattle; that “intrinsic speciesism” would be as wrong as racism. And the fact that most people think it worse to be cruel to dolphins than to frogs suggests that they may agree with me. The distinction in attitudes surely reflects a belief in the greater richness of the mental life of large mammals. Still, as I say, I do not know how I would argue against someone who could not see this; someone who continued to act on the contrary belief might, in the end, simply have to be locked up.
If, as I believe, intrinsic racism is a moral error, and extrinsic racism entails false beliefs, it is by no means obvious that racism is the worst error that our species has made in our time. What was wrong with the Nazi genocide was that it entailed the sadistic murder of innocent millions; that said, it would be perverse to focus too much attention on the fact that the alleged rationale for that murder was “race.” Stalin’s mass murders, or Pol Pot’s, derive little moral advantage from having been largely based on nonracial criteria.
Pan-Africanism inherited Crummell’s intrinsic racism. We cannot say it inherited it from Crummell, since in his day it was the common intellectual property of the West. We can see Crummell as emblematic of the influence of this racism on black intellectuals, an influence that is profoundly etched in the rhetoric of postwar African nationalism. It is striking how much of Crummell or Blyden we can hear, for example, in Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, as he reports, in the Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, a speech made in Liberia in 1952, nearly a century after the speech of Crummell’s with which I began:
I pointed out that it was providence that had preserved the Negroes during their years of trial in exile in the United States of America and the West Indes; that it was the same providence which took care of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt centuries before. “A greater exodus is coming in Africa today,” I declared, “and that exodus will be established when there is a united, free and independent West Africa. . . .” “Africa for the Africans!” I cried. . . . “A free and independent state in Africa. We want to be able to govern ourselves in this country of ours without outside interference.”
There is no difficulty in reading this last paragraph from Nkrumah as the epigraph to a discussion of Alexander Crummell. For Nkrumah, as for Crummell, African- Americans who came to Africa (as Du Bois came to Ghana at Nkrumah’s invitation) were going back—providentially—to their natural, racial, home.
If we are to escape from racism fully, and from the racialism it presupposes, we must seek other bases for Pan-African solidarity. In Chapter 3—on African literary criticism—I offer a number of suggestions for thinking about modern African writing, suggestions that attempt to elaborate an understanding of the ways in which African writers are formed in shared ways by the colonial and the postcolonial situation; African literature in the metropolitan languages, I shall argue, reflects in many subtle ways the historical encounter between Africa and the West.
Then, in Chapter 4, and more fully in Chapter 9,1 will argue that there are bases for common action in our shared situation: the Organization of African Unity can survive the demise of the Negro race.
The politics of race that I have described—one that derived from commonplaces of European nationalism—was central to Crummell’s ideology. But his nationalism differed from that of his European predecessors and contemporaries in important ways, which emerge if we explore the politics of language with which I began.
Crummell’s engagement with the issue of the transfer of English to the African Negro runs counter to a strong tradition of European nationalist philosophy. For Herder, prophet of German nationalism and founding philosopher of the modern ideology of nationhood, the spirit of a nation was expressed above all in its language, its Sprachgeist.
And, since, as Wilson Moses has observed, there is much of Herder in Crummell, we might expect to see Crummell struggling with an attempt to find in the traditional languages of Africa a source of identity. But Crummell’s adoption of this Herderian tenet was faced with insuperable obstacles, among them his knowledge of the variety of Africa’s languages. By Crummell’s day the nation had been fully racialized: granted his assumption that the Negro was a single race, he could not have sought in language the principle of Negro identity, just because there were too many languages. As I shall show in Chapter 3, in discussing African literary criticism, the politics of language has continued to exercise Africans, and there have, of course, been many writers, like Ngugi, who have had a deeper attachment to our mother tongues.
There is no evidence, however, that Crummell ever agonized over his rejection of Africa’s many “tongues and dialects,” and for this there is, I think, a simple explanation. For Crummell, as “The English Language in Liberia” makes clear, it is not English as the Sprachgeist of the Anglo-Saxons that matters; it is English as the vehicle of Christianity and—what he would have seen as much the same thing— civilization and progress.
For Crummell inherited not only the received European conception of race but, as I have said, the received understanding both of the nature of civilization and of the African’s lack of it. Crummell’s use of the term civilization is characteristic of educated Victorian Englishmen or Americans. Sometimes he seems to have in mind only what anthropologists would now call “culture”: the body of moral, religious, political, and scientific theory, and the customary practices of a society.
In this sense, of course, it would have been proper, even for him, to speak of African civilizations.
But he also uses the term—as we ordinarily use the word culture—not descriptively, in this way, but evaluatively; what he valued was the body of true belief and right moral practice that he took to characterize Christianity—or, more precisely, his own form of Protestantism. This double use of the term is, of course, not accidental.
For a civilization—in the descriptive sense—would hardly be worthy of the name if it failed to acknowledge the “supernal truths”; our interest in culture, in the descriptive, anthropological sense, derives largely from our sense of its value. Crummell shared with his European and American contemporaries (those of them, at least, who had any view of the matter at all) an essentially negative sense of traditional culture in Africa as anarchic, unprincipled, ignorant, defined by the absence of all the positive traits of civilization as “savage”; and savages hardly have a culture at all.
Civilization entailed for Crummell precisely ‘ ‘the clarity of the mind from the dominion of false heathen ideas.” Only if there had been in traditional cultures anything Crummell thought worth saving might he have hoped, with Herder, to find it captured in the spirit of the languages of Africa.
It is tremendously important, I think, to insist on how natural Crummell’s view was, given his background and education. However much he hoped for Africa, however much he gave it of his life; he could not escape seeing it above all else as heathen and as savage. Every book with any authority he ever read about Africa would have confirmed this judgment. And we can see how inescapable these beliefs were when we reflect that every one of the ideas I have traced in Crummell can also be found in the writings of the same Edward W. Blyden I cited earlier, a man who was, with Africanus Horton (from the Old World) and Martin Robinson Delany (from the New) one of the three contemporaries of Crummell’s who could also lay claim to the title of “Father of Pan-Africanism.”
Like Crummell, Blyden was a native of the New World and a Liberian by adoption; like Crummell, he was a priest and a founder of the tradition of Pan-Africanism; for a while, they were friends and fellow workers in the beginnings of Liberia’s modern system of education. Blyden was a polyglot scholar: his essays include quotations in the original languages from Dante, Virgil, and Saint-Hilaire; he studied Arabic with a view “to its introduction into Liberia College,” where he was one of the first professors; and, when he became the Liberian ambassador to Queen Victoria, he came into “contact—epistolary or personal—with . . . Mr. Gladstone,. . . Charles Dickens [and] Charles Sumner.”
His views on race are Crummell’s—and, one might add, Queen Victoria’s, Gladstone’s, Dickens’ and Sumner’s: “Among the conclusions to which study and research are conducting philosophers, none is clearer than this—that each of the races of mankind has a specific character and specific work.’ ‘
For Blyden, as for Crummell, Africa was the proper home of the Negro, and the African-American was an exile who should “return to the land of his fathers . . . AND BE AT PEACE.”
Like Crummell, Blyden believed that “English is undoubtedly, the most suitable of the European languages for bridging over the numerous gulfs between the tribes caused by the great diversity of languages or dialects among them.”
It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that Blyden also largely shared Crummell’s extreme distaste for the traditional—or, as he would have said,’ ‘pagan”—cultures of Africa. Outside the areas where Islam had brought some measure of exogenous civilization, Blyden’s Africa is a place of “noisy terpischorean performances,” “Fetichism” and polygamy; it is, in short, in “a state of barbarism.”
Blyden argued, however, that “there is not a single mental or moral deficiency now existing among Africans—not a single practice now indulged in by them—to which we cannot find a parallel in the past history of Europe” ; and he had a great deal of respect for African Islam. But, in the end, his view, like Crummell’s, was that Africa’s religions and politics should give way to Christianity (or, at second best, Islam) and republicanism.
Literate people of my generation, both in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in the West, may find it hard to recover the overwhelmingly negative conception of Africans that inhabited the mainstream of European and American intellectual life by the first years of Europe’s African empires. As Blyden expressed the matter with commendable restraint in Fraser’s Magazine in 1875: “It is not too much to say that the popular literature of the Christian world, since the discovery of America, or, at least for the last two hundred years, has been anti-Negro.”
I could choose from thousands upon thousands of texts that Crummell and Blyden could have read to “remind” us of this; let me offer one emblematic proof text, whose words have a special irony.
Even in that monument of Enlightenment reasonableness, the Encyclopedic—a text that he would probably have stigmatized as the work of a cynical deism— Crummell could have read the following of the people of the Guinea coast:
The natives are idolaters, superstitious, and live most filthily; they are lazy, drunken rascals, without thought for the future, insensitive to any happening, happy or sad, which gives pleasure to or afflicts them; they have no sense of modesty or restraint in the pleasures of love, each sex plunging on the other like a brute from the earliest age.
If Crummell had opened the encyclopedia at the article on Humain espece, he would have read—in a passage whose original tone of condescension I will not try to translate—that “les Negres sont grands, gros, bien fails, mais niais & sans genie.”
We must struggle to remind ourselves that this is the same Encyclopedic, the same “Dictionnaire Raisonee des Sciences” that had condemned African slavery as ‘ ‘repugnant to reason” and had argued that to recognize the status of slave in Europe would be “to decide, in Cicero’s words, the laws of humanity by the civil law of the gutter.”
The racial prejudice that the nineteenth century acquired and developed from the Enlightenment did not derive simply from ill feeling toward Africans. And Crummell’s and Blyden’s desire to help Africans was no less genuine for their inability to see any virtue in our cultures and traditions.
Crummell did not need to read these words in the encyclopedia; his mind was formed by the culture that had produced them. Even after he had lived in Africa, he believed his experience confirmed these judgments.
Africa is the victim of her heterogeneous idolatries. Africa is wasting away beneath the accretions of moral and civil miseries. Darkness covers the land and gross darkness the people. Great social evils universally prevail. Confidence and security are destroyed. Licentiousness abounds everywhere. Moloch rules and reigns throughout the whole continent, and by the ordeal of Sassywood, Fetiches, human sacrifices and devil-worship, is devouring men, women, and little children.
Though Crummell’s vision of Africa thus differed little from that of the Encyclopedic about a century earlier, he had a different analysis of the problem:’”They have not the Gospel. They are living without God. The Cross has never met their gaze. . . . “
Crummell’s view of a “native religion” that consisted of “the ordeal of Sassywood, Fetiches, human sacrifices and devil-worship” in the African “darkness” was, as I say, less subtle than Blyden’s. Blyden wrote:
There is not a tribe on the continent of Africa, in spite of the almost universal opinion to the contrary, in spite of the fetishes and greegrees which many of them are supposed to worship—there is not, I say, a single tribe which does not stretch out its hands to the Great Creator. There is not one who does not recognize the Supreme Being, though imperfectly understanding His character—and who does perfectly understand his character? They believe that the heaven and the earth, the sun, moon, and stars, which they behold, were created by an Almighty personal Agent, who is also their Maker and Sovereign, and they render to Him such worship as their untutored intellects can conceive. . . . There are no atheists or agnostics among them.
But the differences here are largely differences of tone: for Crummell also wrote—in a passage Blyden quotes—of “the yearning of the native African for a higher religion.’ ‘ What these missionaries, who were also nationalists, stressed, time and time again, was the openness of Africans, once properly instructed, to monotheism; what impressed them both, despite the horrors of African paganism, was the Africans’ natural religiosity.
It is tempting to see this view as yet another imposition of the exile’s distorting vision; in the New World, Christianity had provided the major vehicle of cultural expression for the slaves. It could not be denied them in a Christian country—and it provided them with solace in their “vale of tears,” guiding them through “the valley of the shadow.” Once committed to racialist explanations, it was inevitable that the rich religious lives of New World blacks should be seen as flowing from the nature of the Negro—and thus projected onto the Negro in Africa. Yet there is some truth in this view that Crummell and Blyden shared: in a sense, there truly were “no atheists and agnostics in Africa.”
Unfortunately for the prospects of a Christian Africa, molded to Crummell’s or to Blyden’s ambitions, the religiosity of the African—as we shall see later—was something that it was easy for Western Christians to misunderstand.
In a marvelous poem, the Cape Verdian Onesima Silveira writes:
The people of the islands want a different poem
For the people of the islands;
A poem without exiles complaining
In the calm of their existence.
We can take this stanza as an emblem of the challenge the African Pan-Africanists of the postwar era posed to the attitude to Africa that is epitomized in Crummell. Raised in Africa, in cultures and traditions they knew and understood as insiders, they could not share a sense of Africa as a cultural vacuum.
However impressed they were by the power of western technology, they were also engaged with the worlds of their diverse traditions. Daily evidences in their upbringing—in medicine, in farming, in spirit possession, in dreams, in “witchcraft, oracles and magic”—of the existence around them of the rich spiritual ontology of ancestors and divinities could not so easily be dismissed as heathen nonsense.
The “exiles” of the New World could show their love of Africa by seeking to eliminate its indigenous cultures, but the heirs to Africa’s civilizations could not so easily dispose of their ancestors. Out of this situation grew an approach whose logic I shall describe in my discussion of Du Bois; the new Africans shared Crummell’s—and Europe’s—conception of themselves as united by their race, but they sought to celebrate and build upon its virtues, not to decry and replace its vices. The best-known manifestation of this logic is in negritude; but it also had its anglophone manifestations in, for example, Nkrumah’s cult of the “African personality” or J. B. Danquah’s celebration of his own religious traditions in The Akan Doctrine of God.
These celebrators of the African race may have spoken of the need to Christianize or Islamize Africa, to modernize, so to speak, its religion. But the conception they had of what this meant at the level of metaphysics was quite different from that of Crummell and the European missions. To trace out this difference is to follow one important element in the change in Pan-Africanism’s understanding of cultural politics that occurred after the Second World War, when it finally became an African movement.
And that, as I say, is an inquiry I shall return to later.
Though it thus became possible to value Africa’s traditions, the persistence of the category of race had important consequences. For part of the Crummellian conception of race is a conception of racial psychology, and this—which manifests itself sometimes as a belief in characteristically African ways of thinking—has also lead to a persistent assumption that there are characteristically African beliefs. The psychology of race has led, that is, not only to a belief in the existence of a peculiar African form of thinking but also to a belief in special African contents of thought.
The Beninois philosopher Paulin Hountondji has dubbed this view that Africa is culturally homogeneous—the belief that there is some central body of folk philosophy that is shared by black Africans quite generally—”unanimism.” He has had no difficulty in assembling a monstrous collection of African unanimist texts.
Yet nothing should be more striking for someone without preconceptions than the extraordinary diversity of Africa’s peoples and its cultures. I still vividly recall the overwhelming sense of difference that I experienced when I first traveled out of western to southern Africa. Driving through the semiarid countryside of Botswana into her capital, Gaborone, a day away by plane from the tropical vegetation of Asante, no landscape could have seemed more alien.
The material culture of the Botswana, too, struck me as quite radically different from that of Asante. In Gaborone, unlike Asante, all men dressed in shirts and trousers, most women in skirts and blouses, and most of these clothes were unpatterned, so that the streets lacked the color of the flowing Asante “cloth”; the idioms of carving, of weaving, of pottery, and of dance were all unfamiliar.
Inevitably, in such a setting, I wondered what, in Botswana, was supposed to follow from my being African. In conversations with Ghanaian doctors, judges, lawyers, and academics in Botswana—as well as in Zimbabwe and Nigeria—I have often heard echoes of the language of the colonizers in our discussions of the culture of the “natives.”
It is easy to see how history can make you, on the one hand, say, a citizen of Ivory Coast or of Botswana; or, on the other, say, anglophone or francophone. But what, given all the diversity of the precolonial histories of the peoples of Africa, and all the complexity of colonial experiences, does it mean to say that someone is African? In Chapter 4,I look at one answer that has been given to this important question: the answer of Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s leading playwright and man of letters, and, perhaps, the creative artist who has written most persuasively on the role of the intellectual and the artist in the life of the nations of contemporary Africa.
But Soyinka’s answer to the question “What is Africa?” is one among others. In Chapter 5 I explore the responses of some contemporary African philosophers. I argue that there remains in much of this work an important residue of the ideology represented by Du Bois—a residue that is translated, however, to what we can call a metaphysical level. Nevertheless, as we shall see, this work provides useful hints as to the directions in which we should move in answering this fundamental question.
Now I am confident in rejecting any homogenizing portrait of African intellectual life, because the ethnographies and the travel literature and the novels of parts of Africa other than my home are all replete with examples of ways of life and of thought that strike me as thoroughly pretheoretically different from life in Asante, where I grew up.
Compare Evans-Pritchard’s famous Zande oracles, with their simple questions and their straightforward answers, with the fabulous richness of Yoruba oracles, whose interpretation requires great skill in the hermeneutics of the complex corpus of verses of If a; or our own Asante monarchy, a confederation in which the king is primus inter pares, his elders and paramount chiefs guiding him in council, with the more absolute power of Mutesa the First in nineteenth-century Buganda; or the enclosed horizons of a traditional Hausa wife, forever barred from contact with men other than her husband, with the open spaces of the women traders of southern Nigeria; or the art of Benin—its massive bronzes—with the tiny elegant goldweight figures of the Akan. Face the warrior horsemen of the Fulani jihads with Shaka’s Zulu impis; taste the bland foods of Botswana after the spices of Fanti cooking; try understanding Kikuyu or Yoruba or Fulfulde with a Twi dictionary.
Surely differences in religious ontology and ritual, in the organization of politics and the family, in relations between the sexes and in art, in styles of warfare and cuisine, in language— surely all these are fundamental kinds of difference?
As Edward Blyden—who for all his sentimentality of race, was a shrewder observer than Crummell—once wrote:
There are Negroes and Negroes. The numerous tribes inhabiting the vast continent of Africa can no more be regarded as in every respect equal than the numerous peoples of Asia or Europe can be so regarded. There are the same tribal or family varieties among Africans as among Europeans . . . there are the Foulahs inhabiting the region of the Upper Niger, the Housas, the Bornous of Senegambia, the Nubas of the Nile region, of Darfoor and Kordofan, the Ashantees, Fantees, Dahomians, Yorubas, and that whole class of tribes occupying the eastern and middle and western portions of the continent north of the equator. Then there are the tribes of Lower Guinea and Angola . . . all these differing in original bent and traditional instincts. . . . Now it should be evident that no short description can include all these people, no single definition, however comprehensive, can embrace them all. Yet writers are fond of selecting the prominent traits of single tribes with which they are best acquainted, and applying them to the whole race.
But we shall have ample opportunity in later chapters to look at evidence of Africa’s cultural diversity.
Whatever Africans share, we do not have a common traditional culture, common languages, a common religious or conceptual vocabulary. As I shall argue in Chapter 2, we do not even belong to a common race; and since this is so, unanimism is not entitled to what is, in my view, its fundamental presupposition. These essentially negative claims will occupy much of the argument of the next few essays.
But in the final essays of this book I shall move in a positive direction. I shall try to articulate an understanding of the present state of African intellectual life that does not share even at a metaphysical level these assumptions that have been with us since early Pan-Africanism. Africans share too many problems and projects to be distracted by a bogus basis for solidarity.
There is a familiar tale of a peasant who is stopped by a traveler in a large car and asked the way to the capital. ” Well,” she replies, after pondering the matter a while, ” if I were you, I wouldn’ t start from here.” In many intellectual projects I have often felt sympathy with this sentiment. It seems to me that the message of the first four chapters in this book is that we must provide an understanding of Africa’s cultural work that does not “start from here.”
And so, in hopes of finding a different, more productive, starting point, I turn, at the end of Chapter 5, to the recent work of some African philosophers who have begun to develop an understanding of the situation of the intellectual in neocolonial culture—an understanding that is not predicated on a racial vision.
Finally, beginning in Chapter 6,1 sketch my own view of Africa’s current cultural position. I shall argue for a different account of what is common to the situation of contemporary African intellectuals—an account that indicates why, though I do not believe in a homogeneous Africa, I do believe that Africans can learn from each other, as, of course, we can learn from all of humankind.
And I want to insist from the start that this task is thus not one for African intellectuals alone. In the United States, a nation that has long understood itself through a concept of pluralism, it can too easily seem unproblematic to claim that the nations of Africa—even Africa itself—could be united not in spite of differences but through a celebration of them.
Yet American pluralism, too, seems to be theorized in part through a discourse of races. In his important book, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture, Werner Sollors has developed an analysis of the current American climate in terms of an analytical dualism of descent (the bonds of blood) and consent (the liberating unities of culture).
The heart of the matter is that in the present climate consent-conscious Americans are willing to perceive ethnic distinctions—differentiations which they seemingly base exclusively on descent, no matter how far removed and how artificially selected and constructed—as powerful and crucial; and that writers and critics pander to that expectation . . . and even the smallest symbols of ethnic differentiation. . . are exaggerated out of proportion to represent major cultural differences, differences that are believed to defy comparison or scrutiny.
Like Africans, Americans need, I believe, to escape from some of the misunderstandings in modern discourse about descent and consent epitomized in the racialism of Alexander Crummell. American by descent, African by consent, Alexander Crummell has something to teach his heirs on both continents. Indeed, because the intellectual projects of our one world are essentially everywhere interconnected, because the world’s cultures are bound together now through institutions, through histories, through writings, he has something to teach the one race to which we all belong.