3 minute read

Idea of Africa

Origins Of The Name Africa

The historical origins of the name Africa are in dispute. At least seven origins have been suggested: (1) it is a Roman name for what the Greeks called "Libya," itself perhaps a Latinization of the name of the Berber tribe Aourigha (perhaps pronounced "Afarika"); (2) it is derived from two Phoenician terms either referring to corn or fruit (pharika), meaning land of corn or fruit; (3) it comes from a Phoenician root faraqa, meaning separation or diaspora; a similar root is apparently found in some African languages such as Bambara; (4) it is drawn from the Latin adjective aprica (sunny) or the Greek aprikē (free from cold); (5) it might even stem from Sanskrit and Hindi in which the root Apara or Africa denotes that which, in geographical terms, comes "after"—to the west—in which case Africa is the western continent; (6) it is the name of a Yemenite chief named Africus who invaded North Africa in the second millennium B.C.E. and founded a town called Afrikyah; or (7) it springs from "Afer" who was a grandson of Abraham and a companion of Hercules (Ki-Zerbo; Spivak).

Clearly, there is little agreement on the sources and original meanings of the word Africa. The foreignness of the name once prompted Wole Soyinka to demand that it be dropped, and as an act of self-definition he proposed the adoption of terms for Africa and African rooted in an indigenous language, preferably Abibirim and Abibiman from Akan. It appears the term Africa was used widely from Roman times to refer initially to North Africa, originally called by the Greek or Egyptian word Libya, before it was extended to the whole continent from the end of the first century of the common era. The Arabic term Ifriqiya most probably represents a transliteration of the word Africa. In this sense, then, Africa was a European construct—as much as Europe itself was a construct inflicted by the idea of Africa (and Asia)—whose cartographic application was both gradual and contradictory in that as the name embraced the rest of the continent it increasingly came to be divorced from its original North African coding and became increasingly confined to the regions referred to in Eurocentric and sometimes Afrocentric conceptual mapping as "sub-Saharan Africa," seen as the pristine locus of the "real" Africa or what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) called "Africa proper."

The divorce of North Africa may have started with the Arab invasions of the region in the seventh century, but got its epistemic and ideological imprimatur with the emergence of Eurocentricism following the rise of modern Europe, which for Africa entailed, initially and destructively, the Atlantic slave trade, out of which came the forced migration—the largest in human history—of millions of Africans and the formation of African diasporas in the Americas, diasporas that appropriated and popularized the name Africa and through whom Africa became increasingly racialized. For example, the adoption of "black" as the preferred name of African-Americans from the 1960s, in place of "Negro," simply reinforced the relabeling of Africa as "black," a tag that simultaneously rejected and reinscribed the old pejorative appellation of the "dark continent." For the French, Afrique noire served to distinguish the west and central African colonies from the fictive overseas provinces of metropolitan France in North Africa, especially Algeria.

Far less clear is when the appropriation of Africa, as a self-defining identity, occurred in the various regions and among the innumerable societies that make up this vast continent, the second largest in the world. Such an archaeological project has not been undertaken, partly because it is a daunting task to untangle the interpellations and intersections of political and cultural identities for Africa's peoples—ethnic, national, continental, and global—and partly because African intellectuals, whether nationalist or postcolonial, have been preoccupied with denouncing or deconstructing Eurocentrism.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientIdea of Africa - Origins Of The Name Africa, The Racialization Of Africa, Representational Discourses Of Africa, Geographical Conceptions Of Africa