This time two decades ago, I was already a bit desperate for work. In transferring from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon, I’d left myself without any financial coverage for the summer of ’93 (see my post “The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style” from June ’12). I had applied for several fellowships, summer teaching gigs, even some nonprofit work. But as of the middle of that May, nothing had come through. I’d already spent $200 on a root canal that occurred on the same day as my written PhD comps at CMU (see my post “Facing the Tooth” from May ’12).
Even before my comps and my surprise root canal, I had talked with my friend Marc about writing a joint article about the false litmus test of Blackness that Afrocentricity had come to represent in our minds. Between Molefi Asante’s students at Temple — not to mention the overtly Afrocentric turn of both the Black Action Society and the Black Studies department (which had changed its name to Africana Studies) in the previous eighteen months — both of us felt we needed to provide an alternate perspective.
On that third Saturday in May (and the day after my comps and root canal surgery), we worked for five hours in putting together what amounted to a 1,200-word opinion piece against the belief system and authenticity test that Afrocentricity (and Afrocentric education) had become. By some folks’ definition, we realized that jazz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane would fail the authentically Black test of a Molefi Asante’s wonderful Afrocentric Idea (1987) and of Maulana Karenga as well.Now I’m pretty sure why Marc had problems with Afrocentricity. As a Christian and a jazz aficionado, Marc likely saw Afrocentricity as something somewhere between a misguided way of thinking about Blackness and complete and utter bull crap. His goal was to “add to the debate” and “educate” those who weren’t Asante or Karenga apostles and disciples. A laudable — if somewhat naive about the politics of academia and race — goal.
As for me, beyond the academic superficiality of having a litmus test on what is and isn’t Black, I had at least two unconscious reasons for writing my first crossover piece. One had to do with my sense that too many young folks were all too interested in doing the cool thing and not the right thing. Afrocentricity was cool, just like all rap and hip-hop was cool, just like giving libations to ancestors was cool.
Being cool had always meant following a crowd and seldom saying anything that would dig more than a nanometer beyond the surface. Or saying a critical thing about the cool thing that everyone in the same crowd otherwise takes in without a critical thought. I went to a high school full of people like that, and loathed being around people like that when I’d been a part of the Black Action Society at Pitt.
Unconscious reason number two had something to do with my Hebrew-Israelite days. Again, I gave this zero direct thought during my grad school days. But the given the trauma I’d suffered through during my three years of kufi-dom, it had to affect my thinking about Afrocentricity. The Black folk I knew who were part of the Hebrew-Israelite religion were much more obvious about what they did and didn’t consider Black or kosher. Yet, it was so obvious that they constantly contradicted themselves, in terms of food or music, how they treated their wives or children. Most important for me, though, was the fact that they tried to live separate and apart from other Blacks, yet seemed no more different beyond the kufis, veils and kosher meats from other Blacks (or Jews, for that matter).
I saw Afrocentricity as bullshit, and still see the fact that so many folks who get caught up in this sense of authenticity around Blackness as folks falling for bullshit. If I hadn’t lived as a Hebrew-Israelite between the ages of eleven and fifteen, perhaps I wouldn’t see Afrocentricity this way. If I hadn’t been around the “Party All The Time” folks in high school and the “Black Panther Party” posers at Pitt, maybe Afrocentricity would’ve been more appealing to me.
But at twenty-three years old, I was already tired of the pursuit of coolness and authenticity. That hasn’t changed in the past two decades. I’m sure the letters that called Marc and I “Uncle Toms” after our piece was published in Black Issues in Higher Education were from folks who thought we weren’t cool, and thought they had the answers to life itself.
I wonder how those folks back then would see the academics who believe that hip-hop can explain everything in the social sciences and humanities who are prominent today. Perhaps some of these people today were the Afrocentric followers of twenty years ago. Perhaps not. All I know is, I haven’t stopped writing since that cloudy day in mid-May.