We live in a world that has been shaped and moulded within the crucibles of a violent, discriminatory and prejudiced history. A world that has seen certain members of the human race decreeing that others were inferior, the proverbial black sheep of the Homo sapiens, who needed civilizing. Africans became the primitives, the brutes and for centuries have found themselves captive to the ideologies of colonization, slavery, apartheid and segregation. The current political, monetary, economic and knowledge structures; for various and complex reasons lie within the domain of the west. It is within this context that the black race has had to find redemption, a scaffold from which to erect an identity for themselves that includes liberation. Molefi Asante’s thesis that blackness is an ethical trope is such an attempt and I will evaluate the merits of Asante’s arguments. I find that Molefi equivocates in the usage of the word blackness and cannot escape the idea of blackness as a taxon. In evaluating the meaning of concepts such as Afrocentricity, Afrocentrism and Africanity and distinguishing them from each other, I find that the differences between the terms are ultimately superficial and undermine Asante’s argument. I will also argue that Afrocentricity contradicts Asante’s concept of blackness which he bases his thesis on. However when viewed within the conceptual framework of black consciousness as advocated by Biko – blackness indeed can be viewed as an ethical trope or symbol. Biko argues black consciousness becomes necessary to restore what systemic racism has tried to brake – the humanity and dignity of black people.
Asante defines blackness not as a biological trait but as an ethical and moral identity. He says: “…it is clear that to be black is not merely a colour nor simply to use the language of black people, but to use it to express the most progressive political, cultural and ethical interests that, in a racist society, must always be for human liberation…” (Asante, 2012, p. 63). Blackness is not based on physical appearance, ancestral lineage, racial phenotype, Ebonics and language but is a moral identity. A trope is when a word is used not its literal sense but figuratively to convey a different meaning. Asante in arguing that blackness is an ethical trope – claims that blackness must be understood in purely ethical terms and not biological categories. Blackness represents a virtue that people can choose to identify with or not.
In order to fully appreciate Asante’s thesis we must understand it’s relation to Afrocentricity. Asante defines Afrocentricity as a “paradigmatic intellectual perspective that privileges African agency within context of African history and culture trans-continentally and trans-generationally” (Asante, 2007, p. 2). He defines Africanity as referring to traditions, customs and values of African people. He contrasts Afrocentricity with Afrocentrism as well, which was he defines as a broad, cultural movement with the aim that philosophical and political ideas must inform cultural and social aspects such as music and art in way that shows African personality (Asante, 2007). I find Asante to be obscure in giving a clear distinction of these terms. He says Afrocentricity is about African people being subjects in their own history; more self-conscious about their agency as African people. He emphasises Afrocentricity must include actions aimed towards mental liberation. However Afrocentrism’s aim is that social and cultural aspects of black people must be informed by their African personality- is this not a form of self-assertion and being self-conscious? Furthermore he quotes Mazama who says, “The Afrocentric idea rests on the assertion of the primacy of the African experience for African people” (Asante, 2007). Again how this is different from Africanity (which emphasises African values, customs and perspectives) and Afrocentrism is not made clear.
Furthermore he contradicts himself on what Afrocentricity is. He says in The Afrocentric Idea, Afrocentricity is governed by three paradigms: (1) Spiritual dimension –matter is an illusion; (2) Positivism is false; (3) Personalism – there is an activating energy within each person through libations and rituals (Asante, 1998). Afrocentricity then is about certain customs, values and beliefs. Also Asante assumes the African continent had a uniform view of the ontology of reality. If one is African and does not subscribe to these paradigms then according to Asante they are not Afrocentric.
Asante’s concept of Afrocentricity and blackness contradict one another. Asante wants to use the Afrocentric method as a basis to form a new identity for blacks that is not based on blackness as a race but a virtue. There seems to be an incoherence in this. Firstly he says blackness is an identity that is ethical and not racial however it is intended for people that are defined as black racially with a very particular history. His whole Afrocentricity concept is about African self-assertion and so this new identity he is articulating is for Africans. If this is the case then race and biology cannot be easily separated from blackness as he would like. He says blackness is not genetic but a choice and a European who adopts the ethics of fighting oppression is black. However this cannot be because blackness is an attempt to build a new identity for African people that involves their self-assertion. Thirdly by definition non-Africans can never be Afrocentric due to their location psychologically and historically– so how could they then be black? Clearly then blackness as a racial category cannot be escaped.
Asante argues that the confusion of seeing blackness viewed as a taxon or genetic trait and not a choice comes from Aristotle’s essentialism. He argues that essentialism, which is defining an object by listing its properties, was used to construct racial categories and from there infer superiority of one of the other. However Asante confounds a philosophical idea with racism. Firstly he himself is using essentialism to describe what properties blackness has. Secondly it is a universal feature of human beings to classify difference in peoples. African people through history have classified themselves as belonging to different ethnicities and tribes – would he classify this as racism as well?
The problem is that Asante has labelled all things European as sinful and corrupt. Walker makes a similar observation as he says that “Afrocentricity sees Africa as the pinnacle of humanity…it commits racial romanticism…it divides the world into two categories Africa and non-Africa” (Walker, 1993, p. 540). I agree with this assessment for a number of reasons: Firstly Asante confounds many universal philosophical concepts such as rationality, objectivity with their usage in racist doctrines. Objectivity as a concept is no more Western than gravity is – the discoverers were European however they did not invent it, but elucidated it. Secondly he attacks a straw man of European thought by classifying it all as being based on empiricism and logical positivism and neglecting human actions, emotions and sentiments. However this is not fair because there has been a wide variety of thinkers in Western history: (romantics, rationalists, existentialists, Christians) such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, SØren Kierkegaard, Thomas Kuhn, Augustine who held opposing views to empiricism and logical positivism.
Asante claims blackness has no crimes against humanity, but whiteness does and therefore blackness would qualify to be an ethical trope. This is as Walker suggested “racial romanticism” (Walker, 1993). Firstly there were African people involved in kidnapping and selling other Africans during Atlantic Slave trade. Secondly even after independence: genocides, civil wars, oppressive regimes, dictators and coup de tats have all occurred amongst black people, how then can blackness not have crimes against humanity? It might not have crimes against whiteness but it certainly does have crimes against blackness. It is like the Apostle Paul said, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory”. Therefore blackness as an ethical trope would be disqualified on the same grounds that whiteness is.
If blackness is a virtue about fighting injustice and oppression, equality and liberating people then it is not new. Throughout history people have fought against tyranny in all shapes and sizes, and so the concept of justice has always been present. People like William Wilberforce fought for the abolition of slavery because it was unjust. Asante would claim Wilberforce was black and I do not think Wilberforce would object if being black means fighting injustice and oppression. However then blackness does not add anything new, it merely becomes an issue about semantics; giving old concepts new names and therefore Asante falls short of erecting a new identity for black people.
Although Asante falters on many grounds his idea of blackness as an ethical trope can be redeemed if located within the proper context, and for that I turn to Biko whose thoughts on black consciousness can guide us. Biko first diagnosed the need for black consciousness as an antidote to the prevailing idea endorsed by white society that blacks are inferior. In one instance Biko also defines black consciousness as being about a mental attitude but it is important to note for whom it is a mental attitude for. “Black consciousness,” says Biko, “is in essence the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their operation – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.” In another essay he locates the need for black consciousness stating that, “…the ‘Black Consciousness’ approach would be irrelevant in a colourless and non-exploitative egalitarian society” (Biko, 1978). The first point to note is that it is a psychological remedy for black people who find themselves dehumanized and constantly treated as sub-human and lacking dignity. If this sin had no existed – black consciousness would be irrelevant. It becomes irrelevant in a world where the police do not shoot you because you are simply black; where being black is considered to be identical to danger, violence and being a threat . Therefore blackness as an ethical trope should be considered conceptually identical to black consciousness – being applicable particularly to oppressed black people. Secondly then; blackness or black consciousness aims to eradicate the prevailing ideas and assumptions that black is inferior within society as a whole. It becomes an ethical trope to counter the prevailing historical narrative that black is inferior. It is also a quest then to recognise the intrinsic dignity and worth of black people; it seeks to ignite a passion within black people that their accumulated values, thoughts, knowledge and wisdom has much to teach and contribute to our common humanity. Chief amongst its aims is the eradication of inferiority within black people and the restoration of our pride. In that sense blackness become an ethical trope redeeming and building what racism, slavery and colonization has sought to destroy – the humanity of black people.
In conclusion blackness as an ethical trope as argued by Kete – falters on crucial grounds. Firstly it relies on Afrocentricity which is vague, ambiguous and incoherent. Asante does not distinguish it adequately from Afrocentrism and Africanity. Secondly Afrocentricity refutes a straw man of European thought, and does not take into account its diverse philosophies and ideas. Thirdly Afrocentricity commits racial romanticism and divides the world into black which is good and non-black which is bad, however history shows all of humanity has committed atrocities. Fourthly Asante’s thesis is incoherent – it is building a new identity specifically for black people (because of their history) which redefines being black as a virtue and not skin colour. However if black is not racially defined anymore , then whites can also be black which means it is no longer a new identity just for black people which undermines his aim. Rather blackness as an ethical trope should be conceptualised similarly to black consciousness as defined by Biko. Black consciousness although a mental attitude, it is particularly for black people who are oppressed and dehumanized, not for all people. It seeks to restore the humanity, dignity and worth of black people, unite them and ignite their passion and resolve to fight their oppression in whatever form it persists. If seen in that light blackness as an ethical trope becomes relevant to black people – instilling a pride for our values, thoughts, knowledge and wisdom and yet a humility that we each bring a unique thread to the rich tapestry of humanity.
Asante, M. K., 1998. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Asante, M. K., 2007. An Afrocentric Manifesto: Toward an African Reneissance. Cambridge: Polity.
Asante, M. K., 2012. Blackness as an Ethical Trope: Toward a Post- Western Manifesto. In: P. Mungwini, M. Koenane & E. Mkhwanazi, eds. Readings in Contemporary African Philosophy. Pretoria: University of Pretoria, pp. 62-75.
Biko, S. B., 1978. I Write What I Like. Johannesburg: Picador.
Walker, C. E., 1993. You Can’t Go Home Again: The Problem with Afrocentrism. Prospects, October, Volume 18, pp. 535-543.