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Africa Authenticity


Ideologies of authenticity within African thought are self-affirming and counterideological positions adopted by individuals, groups, and communities of resistance who have all had their identities traumatically impacted upon or disrupted by forces of imperialism and conquest—namely slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism. African authenticity is in this sense fundamentally an ongoing cultural, socioeconomic, and political process of self-definition. Particularly noteworthy are the theoretical and philosophical commonalities between these discourses, which enable their collective identification and characterization as movements seeking self-affirmation and self-legitimation as part of a vital project of self-rehabilitation.

The African oral tradition, a very significant part of African epistemology and knowledge production, has been vital to this project. One thinks immediately, for example, of the Jamaican-Caribbean–West Indian reggae group Culture, which, espousing the old "Back to Africa" philosophy and vision of Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887–1940), consistently critiques and confronts "the West," or Babylon (a historical and geographical referent for England and other imperial powers), in its music as a way of combating the dominance and hegemony of an ever-pervasive Western imperialism. The powerful and invigorating lyrics of Culture and the melodious spiritual chanting of Rastafari worldviews are deployed as a critical counterdiscursive ideology that continually reminds Africans and black people generally of the "agony and pain" of slavery, whose effects, as is constantly affirmed, are being felt even in the early twenty-first century.

Culture espouses an ideology of authenticity—nostalgically articulated around the idea of Africa as "home," or the homeland to which all black people must return one day. With this recurrent theme, the world-famous group not only connects Caribbean cultural identity with Africa but also blames the dispersal of Africans in the diaspora on an inhumane imperialist system, the oppressive entity of Babylon, which from the days of slavery until the present has bequeathed a debilitating legacy of brutal racist exploitation on Africans and peoples of African descent. As a sign that Africa (as against the Caribbean or the New World) remains the authentic home for Black people, the members of Culture indict the slave master and sing of "travelling from home to Jamaica" (in the track "Still Rest My Heart," of the album Three Sides to My Story) while yearning for liberation and affirming black humanity. African displacement and dispersal within the diaspora therefore become emblematic of a historical abnormality necessitating redress. Retribution is envisaged in the form of "fire," which the prophetic voice of lead vocalist Joseph Hill calls upon to "burn" Babylon or the West as a means of ensuring restitution.

African authenticity would also be unimaginable without Cheik Anta Diop's The African Origin of Civilization, a classic work with an interdisciplinary fusion of historical, anthropological, sociological, and linguistic material that, together with such accompanying texts as Precolonial Black Africa and Civilization or Barbarism, redefines the historical contribution of black people to world civilization by staking a claim for perceiving Ethiopia-Nubia and ancient Egypt as historical sources of present-day civilization. Diop's comprehensive assemblage of evidence on the black race contests the epistemological dominance of Western civilization in contemporary knowledge production by contending that European civilization, which posits itself as evolutionarily and universally superior and as a global model, is derived from Greek civilization, which in turn "stole," or borrowed, largely from black Egyptian and African civilization.

In literature, authenticity has found expression in Muntu and Two Thousand Seasons, two historical narratives by Ghanaians Joe de Graft (1924–1978), a playwright and theater practitioner, and Ayi Kwei Armah (b. 1939), a novelist and critic. Reconstructing precolonial African history, Muntu proposes that Africans inhabited a state of innocence devoid of materialistic greed, exploitation, and corruption before the advent of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. The nostalgic precolonial world of Two Thousand Seasons similarly narrativizes the vicissitudes of a pan-African community whose hospitality before the dawn of Arab and Western slavery and colonialism was encapsulated in a humane philosophy articulated simply as "the way." The gruesome images of imperialist gluttony and excess and the portrait of the corruption of precolonial traditional institutions of governance in Africa in both works also, however, encode a rhetorical idealism that has led to accusations of racial essentialism, a critical charge indiscriminately applied to other discourses of African authenticity.

Relevant in this regard is Negritude, the literary movement of the 1930s developed by French-educated African and Caribbean students and intellectuals in France and founded upon a politics of racial solidarity among mutually oppressed African, Caribbean, and other black people in response to the alienating and suffocating ambience of French colonialism and culture. Led by poets Aimé Césaire (b. 1913) of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) of Senegal, Negritude harked back to an old and authentic Africa whose identity Negritudinists identified with in the face of the inequalities they experienced within the failed French colonial policy of assimilation. Although the racialist discourse of Negritude was justifiable, it did not always state its case properly.

Similarly, Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, a work that claims to be exorcising African literature of domination by aesthetic and critical Eurocentrism, has come to be equated with a deeply conservative endeavor to retain a purist form of African identity in an impractical and regressive manner. In this polemical work of soul-searching that advocates a return to African sources within literature and cultural theory and clamors for deep immersion in African aesthetics as central to the project of reinventing an authentic African identity in the aftermath of colonialism, authors Chinweizu (b. 1943), Onwuchekwa Jemie (b. 1940), and Ihechukwu Madubuike (b. 1943) also present exoticized notions of African culture and African tradition, thereby diminishing the force of their argument. Critics have, however, never addressed the deeper question of Eurocentrism that Chinweizu and colleagues raise and have instead gleefully exploited the glaring simplification of African identity in Toward the Decolonization. However, the prevailing contradictions in no way invalidate the urgent need for a counterdiscursive and oppositional critique of the Western aesthetic and critical domination of African literature.

The ideological project of African authenticity is in the final event a critical counterculture that self-consciously contests all oppressive ideologies. Such a project informs I Write What I Like, the radical and defiant work by the famous political activist and black South African Steve Biko (1946–1977), whose resistance to the vicious and inhuman system of apartheid in South Africa led to his incarceration, brutalization, and subsequent murder. While Biko's text has been acclaimed as the definitive work of the black consciousness movement, which he founded and led, it is also an individuated work locatable outside the strict parameters and confines of the black consciousness movement.

Biko's quest for authentic liberation for black people was unique in contending that self-emancipation derived foremost from within a person's psychological makeup. Biko was the first singularly and vociferously to contend that liberation from the structures and strictures of apartheid could in no proper sense be spearheaded by, for example, the white liberal establishment in South Africa. Biko therefore encouraged black South Africans as an oppressed group to adopt a strategy of liberation in which their self-worth necessitated a calculated disavowal of the patronizing contribution of members of the oppressor group.

Reactionary and reductionist attempts to deny the historical realities that works of African authenticity speak about have often engendered some willfully gross misinterpretations and simplistic trivializations of what are essentially and in reality existentially rooted quests for freedom and liberation. While African authenticity is often misconceptualized as a puritanist discourse, it is an ambivalent creative process and a miscellaneous philosophy or approach to life that inevitably closely relate to other forms of African thought and practice. Thus one might, for instance, find the concept being expressed in different kinds of material artifacts that may simultaneously be referred to as African art, African culture, and so on.

Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jr.

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