Tue, 7 September 2021
Molefi Kete Asante, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, has long been at the forefront of developing the academic discipline of Black studies and in founding the theory of Afrocentrism, “the centering of African people in their own stories.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Asante offers an insiders view of the growth of the Afrocentric paradigm, from the founding of the Journal of Black Studies a half century ago to the debates over critical race theory today.
“Afrocentricity,” Asante tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is a paradigm, an orientation toward data, a perspective, that says that African people are subjects, rather than objects, and that in order to understand narratives of African history, culture, social institutions, you must allow Africans to see themselves as actors rather than on the margins of Europe, or the margins of the Arab culture, or the margins of Asian culture.”
While that might seem a mild prescription, it’s one that has been often ignored. Asante offers the example that the waterfalls between Zimbabwe and Zambia had a name (Mosi-oa-Tunya for one) before European explorer David Livingstone arrived and dubbed them Victoria Falls.
“Livingstone is operating in the midst of hundreds of thousands of African people – kings and queens and royal people – yet the story of southern Africa turns on David Livingstone. The Afrocentrist says that’s nonsense; here's a white guy in the midst of Africa and that you turn the history of Southern Africa on him does not make any sense to us.”
Asante then details some of his own efforts in centering the stories of Africa and the African diaspora in their own narratives, including the founding of the first academic journal focused on doing so. He details how as a PhD student in 1969, he and Robert Singleton started the effort to create the Journal of Black Studies as a forum for the nascent academic discipline. (The story sees SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, and its founder Sara Miller McCune taking an important role as the one publisher that embraced Asante’s proposal in 1970.)
“The journal survives,” he explains 50 years later, “based on its relevance to contemporary as well as historical experiences.”
At the time the journal was founded, Asante directed the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Afro American Studies from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the Communication Department at State University of New York-Buffalo from 1973 to 1980. After two years training journalists in Zimbabwe, he became chair of the African American Studies Program at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D. Program in African American Studies in 1987. He has written prodigiously, publishing more than 75 books, ranging from poetry on Afrocentric themes to high school and university texts to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies.