I was in America, visiting an African American church for a celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday. A storyteller wove a fascinating tale based on history. At one point she stopped and asked, “And where did it all begin?” A ten year-old girl waved her hand anxiously. When she was recognized, she responded proudly, “With Adam and Eve.”
The storyteller’s glare and frown said very loudly that she was not pleased with the girl’s answer. Staring the girl in the eyes in a way that let her know she was not to speak again, she roared, “Africa!” It all started in Africa!
Amongst modern writers, particularly those of African-American descent, there is a frequent claim that for years, historians made a deliberate effort to exclude everything having to do with Africa, expunging its history from the common consciousness[i]. There, one of the editors claims, “A large portion of the confusion stems from deliberate Eurocentric attempts to conceal what today would be called the racial and/or ethnic identity of the people of the Bible.” He seems to be saying that the Bible characters were all or mostly African, and that Bible teachers have deliberately tried to conceal that “fact”.
The editor also quotes Seaton as saying “Because these Hamites were an important people, attempts have been made to rob them of their proper place in the catalog of races.”[ii] He bemoans the fact that “the name ‘Africa’ is actually of Latin origin and was imposed on that great continent by European explorers.”[iii] However, he offers no alternative to the term. (Although later in the book, other authors give other names by which African was known. Most are also non-African, although one editor mentions the name “Akebu-Lan” (“Mother of mankind” as the oldest and most indigenous name we know of today by which Africans called themselves. He says this name was used by the Moors, Nubians, Numidians, Khart-Haddans (Carthagenians) and Ethopians, in other words, fairly widely throughout northern Africa. He does not say at what date this term was used. He also mentions other names by which at least parts of Africa were referred.
Another example of this thinking is revealed in the editor’s statement that “About the same time that the European academy coined the term Semitic, it also created the geographical designation called the Middle East—all in an effort to avoid talking about Africa! This academic racism sought to de-Africanize both the sacred story of the Bible and Western civilization.” [iv](Emphasis mine.) The editor calls this a “cycle of darkness” that must be broken.[v]
There is also a claim that although historians have emphasized European history and accomplishments, in reality all history goes back to Africa and begins there. There are frequent claims that Europeans and other cultures simply borrowed from the more advanced cultures of Africa.
There is a corresponding effort to rewrite historical accounts to show that Africa was the center of all things progressive. This movement, this effort , this concept is called afrocentrism. It is the idea that Africa was the cradle of humanity and that its earliest cultures developed there. It is the belief that everything authentic and good goes back to Africa. It is the idea that the telling of history should be centered around Africa. Ultimately, it is the assumption that African authenticity is the measure of all things.
How should Christians respond to this movement? To what degree should African-Americans and others of the African diaspora accept it and participate in it? Let us analyze this movement carefully.
History is a big subject—the sum total of all that has transpired in human experience. When historians write, it is necessarily a summary of events. It is natural that historians are influenced by their own perspective. All over the world, students study the history of their own country and region. There is not time in a school curriculum to study the history of every country and every culture in the world. Does this mean that schools who study local or national history despise or look down on others? Not necessarily. It may only mean that their own history is of special interest and significance to them.
When Europeans and Americans have written histories, is it not natural that they emphasized the history they knew best and that which was closest to them? Is this necessarily bad?
If we grant that this is not entirely evil, then of course, the same grace must be granted to those of African ancestry who desire to know more about their own history. Futhermore, since their history intertwined with that of other countries and cultures, does it not follow that everyone can benefit from learning more about African culture? Thus, to emphasize Africa in the study of history can have many benefits.
The question is, how far should we take this? This is an especially important question for Christians, who claim to have the highest authority, the Holy Scriptures, which stands a a judge of all culture everywhere.
The reasons I was confused were many. One, although it was certainly a blessing to be created by God, and although I knew Adam’s son Seth carried on the godly line, I had never thought of Eden as a blessing to me. Eden was a blessing to Adam and Eve before they fell into sin. Their son Seth never set foot in that place, nor did any of their descendants. So the connection with “Edenic man” seemed strained to me, to say the least.
Then also, geographically speaking, no one knows where Eden was, but our best guesses put it in the Middle East, since, for example, the Euphrates River is mentioned in Genesis 2:14. Some assume that this must correspond to the modern Euphrates, but no one knows for sure. For those who see Scriptural evidence that the Flood in Noah’s time was violent and worldwide, it seems doubtful that any part of the face of the earth could have remained the same after the Flood as it was before that event. So we have no clear assurance that Adam and his descendants prior to Abraham lived in Africa.
Second, we know where Abraham lived. He was called from Ur of the Chaldees, spent years in Haran, and lived a nomadic lifestyle in the Promised Land which is modern Israel. None of this is in Africa. It is true that Abram spent a short time in Egypt, fleeing there because of a famine in his homeland. However, did this brief sojourn in Egypt make him an African man? I didn’t see how.
The key to understanding the author’s viewpoint was found later, where he says, “The ancient land of Canaan was but an extension of the African land mass.”[vii] The author is including what we commonly called the Middle East in Africa.
By this definition, then, all Middle Easterners must be considered Africans. He claims that when these two land areas were connected prior to the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, much of what we now call the Middle East was then called “northeast Africa.”[viii]
It is true that the definition of what land mass is included in Africa has varied through history. I knew that from previous study. However, I had never heard of extending it this far out, and I wondered what boundary around the Middle East would prevent one from extending that land mass concept out to include all of Asia and Europe. To do so, of course, would make the whole definition of Africa as a distinct place meaningless.
As I thought about it further, I realized that while one may dispute the exact boundaries which were considered to be African in the past by different cultures, when we say “Africa” today, we have in mind a pretty distinct geographical area, and that geographical area is distinct from the Middle East.
The editors of The Original African Heritage Study Bible claim that being from what they call Eden/Africa was a special blessing. They rather consistently confer the title Edenic/African on all the great heroes of the Bible. However, they neglect to point out that this same area also gave birth to many other peoples who were not godly at all.
Even in the line between Adam and Abraham, they speak of Seth’s godly line as being separated from the wickedness around them.[ix] Yet one might ask, were not those from which Seth and his descendants separated themselves also Edenic/African people (using the editors’ own terms and definitions)? Were not Noah and his family deemed by God to be the only godly people remaining on earth at the time of the great Flood? And were not the people who perished around them Edenic/African people as well as Noah’s family? Was not Abram called out of the Chaldees from an idolatrous culture, and one living in Eden/Africa? Were not the Canaanites Edenic/African people, yet God ordered that when their iniquity was full, they were to be destroyed?
If we include what is today called Middle Eastern or Near Eastern peoples in the African grouping on the basis that there was indeed a mixing of Semitic and Hamitic peoples in the times following Noah, we could call everyone from the area Edenic/African. However, this grouping would include many people who hated God and were estranged from His will and His plan. It would include the villains of the Bible as well as the heroes and heroines.
So then, if we want to discuss “Afrocentrism”, we first need to define what part of God’s earth and what groups of people we are talking about.
2. The term “afrocentrism” must first be defined.
One’s attitude toward the concept of Afrocentrism may depend largely on how one defines the term. However, sometimes the application of the term goes far beyond the published meaning a group gives it, so we need to consider not only the officially published definition of Afrocentrism, but we need also to look carefully at the way it is used by different groups.
An example of giving a widely acceptable definition but applying it in ways not so generally acceptable is found in the notes to The Original African Heritage Study Bible. In its Introduction, Afrocentricity is defined as “the idea that Africa and persons of African descent must be understood as making significant contributions to world civilization as proactive subjects within history,”[x] Not too many people will find much wrong with that definition.
Yet its application given by the editors is far, far wider than the definition they give. They even go so far as to try to make the case that Edenic/African people, to use their term, are objects of God’s special favor over other people groups. For example, the writer of the Introduction says “All who do not meet the criteria for salvation as defined by the ethnic or national “in-groups” are relegated to an inferior status” in the Bible.[xi]
In The Original African Heritage Study Bible, in its Introduction, gives the very basic definition of afrocentricity given in point 2, and in the same sentence goes on to assert that it is “The methodology with which (their work) endeavors to reappraise ancient biblical traditions….to interpret the Bible” in this light. Thus, for the editors of the notes in this Bible, afrocentrism is the base and the Bible must be interpreted in light of that idea.[xii]
The editors are not very consistent in their viewpoint. In the early pages of the Introduction, they talk about Adam and his son Seth and their descendants as if they were historical people, much as all, or at least most Evangelical Christians of all cultures would. However, later they appear to accept findings of modern theoretical evolutionary speculations: “Recent scientific evidence illustrates that not only are the remains of the most ancient ancestors of man to be found in Africa/Eden (that is, in what we commonly call the Middle East today), but also the oldest remains of what is called “modern man” have been discovered.”[xiii]
Later, a map is included showing the “Origin of Modern Humans” in eastern Africa in what is now Tanzania and spreading out from there. This is because some bones have been discovered at the Olduvai Gorge which by evolutionary interpretation are thought to be evidence of the earliest known humans.[xiv] Somehow this is supposed to substantiate the Biblical story of creation. The fact that evolutionary theory does away with any single set of parents for the human race is utterly ignored.
So, which is it? Did God create Adam and Eve as the Bible claims, or did we become human gradually through a long process of evolution? If God created Adam and Eve, how could there be “ancient ancestors of man”? It seems that the editor is attracted to the evolutionary theory simply because some ancient bones were found in Africa, thus making Africa the “Mother of all lands.” But it is evident that a choice must be made here, for if it is true that humanity descended from a single set of parents created directly by God, then we cannot also have evolved from lower forms of life, and vice versa. If one is true in a real, historical sense, the other cannot be true. We have to decide between the two.
Many differences in Bible interpretation may result when one takes an Afrocentric rather than a Bibliocentric point of view. The Bibliocentric point of view simply takes the Bible as it is, tries to set aside any preconceived notions, and simply ask what it says and what it means. The moment we adopt an Afrocentric point of view, however, we have already many a presupposition that we will and must find that the Bible centers around all things African. We have already decided what it must say before we ever look at the text, and the only task left for us is to interpret what we find in light of what we have already decided.
Nowhere is the difference in interpretation between the two viewpoints (Afrocentric and Bibliocentric) more pronounced and of greater consequence than in the interpretation of the creation of humankind. Afrocentric interpretation finds significance in humankind because they started in Africa, because they are “Edenic/African”. Bibliocentric interpretation finds significance in our humanity because we were created in the image of God, something that is unique, never said of any of the animals God created (Genesis 1:27).
In fact, it may have been the rise of evolutionary thought, which gives no innately special place to humanity, following the publication of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species in 1859 that gave rise to modern racism far more than the completion of the Suez Canal, which occurred ten years later. The subtitle of Darwin’s book was The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Many have pointed out that Darwin’s thinking gave rise to the whole concept of race and even the Eugenics movement which sought to create a more perfect race by controlling our own evolution through selective breeding and in some cases, selective killing, known today as ethnic cleansing.
One example of this was when Margaret Sanger, an avowed eugenicist and the founder of the organisation that later became Planned Parenthood, deliberately targeted African-American communities with clinics promoting birth control and abortion in a deliberate effort to reduce the African-American population, which she considered undesirable. She called them, amongst others, “human weeds”, and “a menace to civilization”.[xv] It was the theory of evolution, combined with Sanger’s discontented and hedonistic spirit, that gave rise to the organisation that has ended the lives of millions of babies of African heritage, yet due to the Afrocentric viewpoint, we not only do not see that, but our Bible interpreters have actually bought into the theory that caused this travesty, promoting it in our African Heritage Bible.
Beloved brothers and sisters of Africa, don’t we have things a bit twisted up here?
One could give many other examples of wholesale commitment to the concept of Afrocentricity actually working to harm rather than to help our people. No group is more strongly committed to Afrocentricity than is the Afrikania “Mission”. This group has consistently, on the basis of Afrocentricity, defended practices of shrine slavery most popularly called “trokosi” in modern-day Ghana, as well as in Togo and Benin. Their concept is that since the practice is an authentic expression of African culture, it should not be questioned.
The same line of thinking is used by those of us who defend female genital mutilation and all forms of African slavery, modern and ancient. We can decry the slavery that was done to us, but due to Afrocentric thinking, we are forced to defend!!! the slavery that we did to ourselves. The same line of thinking is used to diminish the historical reality of human sacrifice in Africa.
I was in a bookshop, browsing, as usual, the section on Africa. (See, I am Afrocentric after all!) I noticed a beautifully done book for children. It presented a young girl in ancient Dahomey (modern-day Benin), anxiously waiting “to see what happened”, if I remember the text correctly. Reading it, one might think she was waiting to see if she would be invited to a special feast, or if her parents would buy her a new dress, or if she would be approached by the man of her dreams. That is surely what the modern reader unfamiliar with the culture would have imagined. But she was waiting on the day of the annual office, and I knew what that meant. On the day of the annual office, human sacrifices were offered (by the hundreds in Dahomey) to renew the spiritual power of the king for another year. She was waiting to see if she would be beheaded! Yet the modern retelling was thoroughly cleansed of blood and terror.
This is what happens when we begin with the a priori assumption that all things African are good, true and beautiful. We then become unable to judge our own culture correctly. We force ourselves to continuously repeat every error our ancestors have ever made, and this stops our progress in Africa.
If only we could judge every part of our culture realistically! Then we could keep all the good and we would be free to discard the bad. Why should African culture be the only one on earth that denies itself the opportunity to learn from the past, to grow, to make progress?
So then, what is the appropriate starting point for Christians of any race, any culture, any land? The Holy Scriptures claim to be a God-given authority. If we accept the Scriptures as the base, we will look at everything else in the light of Biblical teaching. We will look at evidence from every field of study in the light of the Scriptures, interpreting what we seek and experience and discover in the light of what God says.
On the other hand, if we make any human culture the basis, we will look at Scripture in the light of what we have already decided according to our culture, and we will interpret even God’s own words in the light of our own human culture and that of our ancestors. We will probably come to dramatically different conclusions than do those who begin with the Scriptures as the unmovable base.
African culture has a lot of good and a lot of beauty in it, a lot to be proud of, a lot to offer the world. But are we sure that any human culture, even our own, is an adequate base for judging and interpreting the Scriptures? Should not the position of a Christian be to hold to the Scriptures as the base by which everything, including culture, is judged? Are we really sure that the answer to Eurocentrism is Afrocentrism? Is not Bibliocentrism a much more secure base?
Isn’t that what the very first commandment given to our Edenic/African leader Moses said? “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Isn’t that what our Edenic/African Saviour Jesus meant when He said, “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33)?
4. Christians must decide how they will view and how they will treat others of varying cultures and varying views.
Neither Eurocentric or Afrocentric authors have been very kind to one another. An example of Afrocentric judgmentalism is found in the Preface to the Original African Heritage Study Bible. It speaks of seeking to save humanity from the “vials of idolatry known as ‘Whiteness’,” and claims that “White supremacy has become modern day Baal and all nations bow to this idol.”[xvi]
If the author had decried the white supremacy shown by some, I would certainly agree. However, he draws a very wide circle, one that includes, by his definition, all nations. Has he forgotten that white people worked diligently to end the slave trade with Africa? Has he never known anyone outside of those of African descent who showed love and kindness to people of African descent, and who accepted them as equals and as brothers and sisters? To condemn racist white supremacy is valid, but to foist it upon all nations? Is the author not as judgmental as those who have slighted people of African descent? Has he not only switched the terms around?
People of African descent in the diaspora have been deeply hurt by their experience of slavery, and, in many cases, of racist discrimination. Many have been put down and wounded in their soul. Others of African descent were hurt by their own people.
We cannot control many of the circumstances of our lives, but we can control our response to our circumstances. It is good to give ourselves courage by learning the positive aspects of our cultures, by learning about the many Africans in the Bible and the accomplishments of Africans through history. But we have to decide whether we are going to go beyond encouraging ourselves an appreciating our history and culture.
We have to decide—are we going to look at people of other groups as our enemies? In our appreciation of things African, are we going to consider others as our inferiors?
We want people to grant us grace. Are we going to give grace to other people groups, or are we always going to assume the worst motives of others?
For those of us who are Christian believers, the choice is clear and simple. When we speak of Africa and Africans, we can clearly define what we mean. We can give grace to others who call the land and the people by the names they were taught. (And probably we ourselves have called used the names “Africa” and “Africans” too, even though it came to us from the Latin.)
We can love and appreciate all that is good in our African culture without becoming Afrocentric in the extreme sense. We don’t need to buy into Eurocentrism or Americacentrism either.
As Africans Christians, we can choose to be Biblocentric, Christocentric. We can look at everything we learn and experience through the light of our Christian faith as expressed in the Holy Scriptures. We love being African, but ultimately, it is not being African but being God’s unique creatures, created in His image, that gives us dignity and purpose, as it does for all people, even those outside of Eden/Africa.
Finally, the Scriptures teach love, kindness and respect for everyone. The Scriptures ask us to share the life-giving Gospel with the whole world. If we have not been treated with love, kindness and respect, then remembering how hurtful it was to us, we must make sure we do not pass that hurt on to others.
Like the great African American leader Martin Luther King, Jr., we can choose to break the cycle of hurt and disrespect. We can choose to see others as valuable, loved and special creatures of God and to treat them accordingly.
Afrocentrism? How far should we take it?
Let’s learn to love our culture, but let’s love God and His Word more. Our Saviour came to pay the price of our sins to offer peace with God to all the people of the world who hated Him. Let’s become Christocentric first and Afrocentric a long ways done the line after that.
Jesus Christ our Saviour is the big circle around our lives, and our African identity and culture is a much smaller circle inside the big one. What about you?
Are you a Christian first and an African second? Would you like to be? If so, I challenge you to make a deliberate choice to make God and His Word the center of your life, and to judge everything by that standard. You may find that some things African don’t fit inside that circle at all, but there will be plenty that does. Having passed through the filter of God’s Word, you will be able to enjoy all the good aspects of your African heritage even more.
Peace to Africa!
Your CHRISTIAN sister, your African sister,
[i] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, James C. Winston Publishers, Nashville, TN, 1993, 1994. p. vii.
[ii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. vii, quoting a major work of Daniel P. Seaton, D.D., M.D., a prominent leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
[iii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. ix.
[iv] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. xv.
[v] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. xv.
[vi] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. vi.
[vii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. x.
[viii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. xi.
[ix] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. vi.
[x] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. v.
[xi] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. xii.
[xii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. v.
[xiii] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. xi.
[xiv] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. 107.
[xv] Killer Angel, A Short Biography of Planned Parenthood’s Founder, Margaret Sanger, by George Grant, Highland Books, Cumberland House, Nashville, TN, 1995, 2001, p. 85.
[xvi] The Original African Heritage Study Bible, p. 7.