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Idea of Africa

Origins Of The Name Africa, The Racialization Of Africa, Representational Discourses Of Africa, Geographical Conceptions Of Africa

The idea of "Africa" is an exceedingly complex one with multiple genealogies and meanings, which make any extrapolations of "African" identity in the singular or plural, any explorations of what makes Africa "Africa," quite difficult. Both Africans and non-Africans have conceived "Africa" differently in various historical and geographical contexts, especially in contemporary times. The descriptions, meanings, images, and discourses of Africa have changed over time as the continent's boundaries—geographical, historical, cultural, and representational—have shifted according to the prevailing conceptions and configurations of global racial identities and power, and African nationalism, including Pan-Africanism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the maps and meanings of "Africa" and "Africanness" are being reconfigured by both the processes of contemporary globalization and the projects of African integration.

Discourses about the "idea of Africa" can be framed in various ways. One common approach is to distinguish between Eurocentric and Afrocentric paradigms, between ideas and conceptions of what constitutes "Africa" derived from European as opposed to African perspectives. The difficulty with this method is that it assumes homogeneity within each paradigm and it inscribes an epistemic division between the two approaches that are otherwise deeply implicated with each other. There are other possible typological or taxonomic descriptions of Africa. One can think of religious, ecological, linguistic, and even ethnic taxonomies. This article has chosen four typologies that seem best able to capture a wide range of constructions of Africa: the racial, representational, geographic, and historical conceptions. As with the Eurocentric–Afrocentric dichotomy, there are no discursive Chinese walls separating the four typologies, nor do they exhaust other possible categorizations, but they do have heuristic value.

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