Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization

Apologies in advance: I finished this book a couple weeks ago and have long since returned it to the library.  Hence, no quotes, which in this case I think will do the book a disservice.

Cheikh Anta Diop is most well-known in the United States as the man who demonstrated–his critics would say “argued”–that the ancient Egyptians were Black.  This is true, he did make that argument, and I gather that this book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, is the work in English that made his reputation.  What is more important, though, about Diop’s work, is that he doesn’t simply demonstrate that the Egyptians were Black, he posits them as the cultural source of African civilization generally, as well as the source for many if not most of what are considered, in a standard Western Civ. course, ancient Greek innovations.

Depending on what company you’re in, you can just say the word, “Afrocentrism,” and get all kinds of reactions from white people that expose their unexamined racism.  When in that situation, it’s good to have a book or two of Diop’s under your belt, because he provides the science behind the argument that the Egyptians were Black.  It’s critical to remember that people still make a distinction between “white Africa” and “Black Africa,” even if they do it in the disguised form of “North Africa” and “Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Note the Wikipedia links that show up for those terms, automatically suggested to me as I write this by a Firefox plugin I use.  Anyone who dismisses how colonialist mainstream notions of Africa continue to be is kidding themselves.

Diop posits Africa as a whole, Black entity, which is one of his important points.  Again, apologies for not having direct quotes in this piece, because it would be important here.  I was pleased, reading the book, to see Diop use precisely the same language that I had on numerous occasions in the past.  Many times, when discussing this stuff with people, I have been confronted with the argument that the Egyptians did not have the same notions of race as those in the modern United States, and so calling them “Black” is ahistorical and therefore misleading.  I had often said to people that, yes, the Egyptians did not call themselves Negroes, but if you put them down in New York City, they’d live in Harlem.  Dammit, but Diop uses the same argument, verbatim, in The African Origin of Civilization.  I certainly felt a sense of gratification.

What is clear reading Diop is that all of this discussion is much more important for African people today, and by extension for the Black diaspora today, than it is for the Ancient Egyptians, who of course are long dead as physical beings.  He has an endearing quality to his writing, insofar as I get the sense of him as an obviously exceptional, accomplished individual, cheering on other Africans and Black people of less obvious accomplishments, saying, “see those pyramids?  That’s what you can do.”  At some level, that’s his point.  It shouldn’t need to be said, but with all the talk of “post-racial America” clearly needs to be, that that kind of discussion is still very, very important.  The cultural assault (not to mention economic and legal) that Black people endure on a daily basis in this country is profound.  Diop offers a way out.

Addendum, 1/18/11: great interview w/Diop on Youtube.  Dig it:


Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak!

My wife had raved about Edwidge Danticat‘s writing for years, and finally, on a couch on Maui, I read Krik? Krak! in a couple days. Again, I am confirmed in my decision not to do a doctorate: the freedom to read widely is a real help to my understanding of the world and one which I would not have were I a specialist. The book is a collection of short stories, most of which take place in Haiti, the country of Danticat’s birth. She emigrated to New York City (a city about which I have had numerous dreams recently, for some reason), and writes in English, interestingly. I had assumed, picking up the book, that I would read a translation.

All of Danticat’s subjects are working-class. I have a feeling–forgive the lack of citations: this piece is not that kind of project–that much of the critical response to this book in the United States viewed the stories in an essentially, if veiled, racialized view of the developing world and patterns of immigration. I myself have been guilty of seeing some fundamental unity among people in developing countries: somehow, before moving to Senegal, I had felt like “the Senegalese” was actually a meaningful concept. When I lived there, I came to realize that we had a) the Senegalese people, and b) the Senegalese elite, and possibly a c) Senegalese trying to enter the elite. I had never been in such a classist society, or at least not for a long enough time to really notice.

Danticat focuses to my memory (I finished the book nearly a month ago now) almost no attention on race, despite the fact, of which she is certainly aware, that her work in this country is categorized racially. I suppose this helps one understand the destructive absurdity of race in the United States. Almost entirely focused on class (and gender, one could suggest, though I wouldn’t), she inevitably is categorized racially. This isn’t to suggest that her book is not fundamentally reflective of a particular aspect of the Black diaspora–Haitian revolutionary consciousness plays a fairly significant role in at least one of the stories–but that white critical types tend to think that the Black diaspora is always about race.

The back cover stresses that Danticat’s protagonists tend to be woman, and in the last, longest story she covers one woman’s marriage, a rite of passage to be sure, from a sister’s perspective. All this is marketing. In my writing I tend toward male protagonists, and this is certainly a flaw. I do this because I’m male and in my life I live as a man. It’s not a surprise that I tend to write male characters. Danticat tends to write about women. None of this is to suggest that Danticat is not entirely conscious of the political implications of writing about women: she obviously is. That said, were I to point to a particular theme throughout the stories, their class analysis comes to the fore, not at the expense of anything else to be sure. I am sure, however, that Danticat gets very little attention for documenting the lives of working-class Haitians, and quite a lot for documenting the lives of Haitian women. The two of course are the same people, just complex as all people are.

There are two points. The first is that Danticat, because of who she is, cannot avoid in the market place the various labels that are inevitably applied to her. Given the context, I assume that she embraces them as well she should. A corollary to this point is that, just as sure as Danticat can’t avoid labels, they won’t be applied to me in terms of my identity. Rather, I am labeled by what I do: “singer-songwriter,” which is basically factual. That said, the second point: neither Danticat nor myself can avoid the political implications of who and what we write about. Writing about anything has political consequences, and the start to dealing with this well is to be conscious of it.

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