Anta Diop And Recovering African History
Diop was convinced that the history of Africa would remain in suspension and could not be written correctly until African historians connected it to the history of ancient Egypt.
[From The Archives: African Intellectual]
Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986) was the most daring African cultural nationalist historian, scientist, and nonapologetic Egyptologist of the twentieth century.
His scholarship on the reclaiming of black civilization produced an immense body of knowledge on ancient Egyptian civilization. His argument that ancient Egypt was essentially Negroid and that the origins of Hellenic civilization were to be found in black Africa challenged the prevailing Eurocentric view of the world.
The implications of Diop’s thought should be contextualized within the European imperialist dictum and black resistance movements of the time. He grew up in Senegal when France was consolidating its colonial rule in Africa, and he lived through the consequences of increasing neocolonialism, economic reforms, and militarization in Africa.
Born in a Muslim family on December 29, 1923, in Caytu, a small village near the town of Diourbel, Senegal, Diop attended the local Koranic school before enrolling in a French colonial school. In 1945 his interest in science and philosophy was consolidated when he earned his baccalaureate in mathematics and philosophy in Dakar, Senegal. Diop left Senegal for France in 1946.
He pursued graduate studies in France, and elected courses in science while studying philosophy under Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1948. In 1950 Diop was awarded a certificate in general chemistry and another in applied chemistry. He studied nuclear physics at the nuclear chemistry laboratory of the Collège de France under the supervision of Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1900–1958) and at the Institut Pierre and Marie Curie.
On January 9, 1960, Diop successfully defended his doctoral dissertation: “L’Afrique noire précoloniale et l’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire” (Precolonial Black Africa and the Cultural Unity of Black Africa).
Back in Senegal, Diop continued his studies on culture, history, and linguistics. He also became involved in politics and established an opposition party, the Rassemblement National Démocratique (National Democratic Rally), having earlier served as secretary-general of the students’ unit of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain. Appointed assistant with teaching duties at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire of the University of Dakar, he became director of the university’s radiocarbon laboratory.
In 1981 Abdou Diouf, president of Senegal from 1981 to 2000, appointed Diop professor in the department of history. Diop passed away in Dakar on February 7, 1986. The university and the street in front of it were later named after him.
Diop received a number of awards, including the prestigious African World Festival of Arts and Culture Prize for scholars who had “exerted the greatest influence on African peoples in the 20th century,” which he won jointly with W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) in 1966 (a posthumous award for Du Bois). Diop was also awarded the Gold Medal for African scientific research and the African Grand Prize of Merit from the National University of Zaire in 1980.
The journal and publishing house Présence Africaine, founded by Alioune Diop (1910–1980) in 1947 in Paris, published most of Cheikh Anta Diop’s classic works. These two were not related, but they were both from the Lebu ethnic group that speaks the Wolof language. Diop’s important publications include: Nations nègres et culture (Negro Nations and Culture, 1955); L’unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire (The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, 1959); Antériorité des civilisations nègres: Mythe ou realité (The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, 1967); Physique nucléaire et chronologie absolue (Nuclear Physics and Absolute Chronology, 1974); and Les fondements économiques et culturels d’un état fédéral d’Afrique noire (The Economic and Cultural Foundations of a Federated State of Black Africa, 1974).
In 1981, he published Civilisation ou barbarie: Anthropologie sans complaisance (Civilization or Barbarism: Anthropology without Complacency), a masterpiece on ancient Kemet (Egypt) and its influence on the Greek and Roman worlds. In 1991 this title was translated and published as Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology.
Diop took Africa seriously, and set it against the artificiality of colonialism. He was never a Marxist or a Pan- Africanist like Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), but a nationalist who emphasized the value of historical consciousness as an ideological foundation for building black federalism. His views on development included Africa’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities, industrialization, self-determination, and self-reliance.
Married to a white French woman (Marie-Louise) who was an important supporter of his scholarship, Diop abhorred racism. He was also critical of sexism, which he considered a product of foreign influences in Africa. He was, however, accused of being reductionist or essentialist because he insisted on a corrective scholarship. He never argued that black Africans were monolithic and genetically superior to other races. But based on his research on the Nile Valley region and West Africa, he concluded that the ancient Egyptians were bioculturally black.
Diop was convinced that the history of Africa would remain in suspension and could not be written correctly until African historians connected it to the history of ancient Egypt. However, despite cultural similarities and historical connections between various layers of African civilizations from the ancient period to the present, Diop did not prove how the study of Kemet semantics could be effectively used to examine the importance of the orality of African traditions.
It is unclear how the particularities of other African civilizations fit into Diop’s grand paradigm. Diop’s views have been revisited in various forms through the rise of Pan-African discourse in institutions of research and higher learning in Africa and among the African diaspora, especially in Brazil, the United States, and France. Furthermore, the promotion of scholarship on the African renaissance, both as a political concept articulated by well-known African political figures and the African Union and as an analytical and intellectual tool used by scholars to understand Africa, has also contributed to the revisitation of Diop.
Because of the serious and degrading socioeconomic and political conditions that paralyzed most African institutions and societies and demotivated researchers during and after the cold war, there has been an intellectual movement to investigate Diop’s sources, hypotheses, and arguments as part of a broader search for African solutions to global malaise. For instance, the promotion of indigenous knowledge systems as a new area of study in some African universities and research centers was inspired by Diop’s claims concerning the role of culture, history, linguistics, and science in socioeconomic and political progress.
In some parts of the African diaspora, this movement has led, contrary to Diop’s intellectual convictions, to the development of a cult of personality. Some have also begun to view as religious or mystical Diop’s teachings on the role of science in finding truth and the utilization of these truths as the basis for social progress. Diop himself, however, attempted in his works to separate sentiment and emotion from scientific logic, principles, and objectivity.
In his final book, Civilisation ou barbarie, which is considered his magnum opus, Diop expanded on, clarified, and synthesized his arguments from L’Afrique noire pré-coloniale (Precolonial Black Africa, 1960) and Antériorité des civilisations nègres: Mythe ou realité (The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, 1967). He emphasized the primacy of African culture by proving that ancient Egypt was a black society both in its historicity and in its cultural achievements, later claimed by Indo-Aryan cultures.
He strongly denounced the falsification of modern history as a major part of an agenda that has slowed world progress. Furthermore, he argued (more like an ethicist than a scientist) that humanity must break definitively from racism, genocide, and slavery and that such efforts should form the ultimate mission of the world in order to build a global civilization and avoid falling into barbarism. Diop believed in the need for a new ethics that could take into account scientific knowledge, which uniquely differentiates “modern” humans from “primitive” people. For Diop, science is a liberating, moralizing, and progress-oriented force; scientific studies on the centrality of the historicity of Africa and its contributions could humanize the world.
There are disagreements among scholars about how specifically Diop’s thought has inspired generations of African Americans, both academics and community leaders, and their institutions. Certainly his intellectual impact on them cannot be denied. For Diop, learning the true history of Africa, and of the world for that matter, is essentially a scientific endeavor. In most of his works, he insisted that such a science requires first the utilization of objective methods through which empirical facts can be tested.
This position may not distinguish him from other scientists, but the establishment of Africa as the birthplace of the human family is a unique knowledge that has been used differently by various cultures and peoples. For instance, one of the epistemological bases of his disagreement with Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), a cofounder of the Négritude movement and a member of the French Academy, was Diop’s view that Senghor was making historical claims about black cultures on the basis of speculation, imagination, and sentiment and not on scientific grounds. Diop tried to make
clear distinctions between science and belief systems or ideology.
For Diop, ideology played an important role only in instrumentalizing science. He believed that the use of truth could make the world better. Diop’s science can be used to actualize a worldview, an ideological position of humanizing the world. His perspectives tended to privilege social applications of science.
Diop’s thought inspired two main groups of American Afrocentrists: those who used Afrocentricity as an interdisciplinary research method with a focus on African history and culture in the academia, and those who used Diop’s racial centrality as an ideology of social reconstruction in the struggle for change in society at large.
In the academia, Diop’s work was consolidated with the expansion of black, Afro American, or Africana studies in the United States, where African Americans had been searching for an African cultural identity. However, with the rise of neo-integrationism in the United States and its tendency, with the support of opportunistic black scholars, to weaken “ethnicity” or “race,” Diop’s quest for Negroism has been marginalized and even trivialized in some institutions. In major American research universities, for instance, as they attempt to meet the rising demand for multiculturalism and diversity, his scholarship is perceived as advancing particularism and separatism.
Clearly, these new perspectives are ideological, rather than scientific, constructs. Thus they are strongly supported and promoted by neoconservative university and college administrators with the collaboration of some African American and African academics. Diop’s scholarship embodies a defensive epistemology, rejects a myopic determinism, and emphasizes the black cultural renaissance.
Based on Diop’s impressive multidisciplinary training, his research, and his philosophical claims on pluralistic methodologies, he is known as an anthropologist, Egyptologist, historian, linguist, mathematician, and physicist. However, his all-embracing disciplinary approach produced, at best, eclectic and binary analytical and intellectual perspectives (black-based paradigms versus white-based paradigms). These perspectives are difficult to assess clearly in terms of their effective collective quality and their impact on the study of specific African cultures and histories, especially those that developed independently of or parallel to the ancient Egyptian civilization.
Diop has been much criticized for being a jack of-all-trades and a master of none. His generalizations about African languages and their connection to ancient Egyptian languages through Wolof, a Senegalese language, were essentially deductive, imaginative, and ahistorical.
However, despite controversial hypotheses and conclusions associated with his interdisciplinary methodologies, Diop produced an important and unified referential body of knowledge on Egypto-centrism. His thought is philosophically complex and intellectually challenging, and it embodies an interactive methodological inquiry.
Diop’s work cannot be fully translated into a single mode of thinking and doing, as reflected in certain affirmative dimensions of much-simplified American Afrocentricity.
Alexander, E. Curtis, ed. 1984. Cheikh Anta Diop: An African Scientist, an Axiomatic Overview of his Teachings and Thoughts.
Pan African Internationalist Handbook: Book 1. New York:ECA.
Diagne, Pathé. 1997. Cheikh Anta Diop et l’Afrique dans l’histoire du monde. Dakar, Senegal: Sankoré; Paris: Harmattan.
Hommage à Cheikh Anta Diop. 1989. 1–2. Paris: Présence Africaine.
Professor Lumumba-Kasongo is Professor of Political Science at Wells College and Chair of the Department of International Studies; Visiting Scholar, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University; Adjunct Professor of Government, Department of Government at Suffolk University; Director of CEPARRED; Editor-in-Chief of African and Asian Studies; and Editor of African Journal of International Affairs.
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