The Burden of False History

July 08, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

The July-August issue of Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress, has a fascinating essay on the intellectual movement known as ''Afrocentrism.'' It is must reading for educators, policy-makers and anyone concerned about the direction of black America in the post-civil-rights era.

Writer Gerald Early presents a balanced, thoughtful account of the movement's genesis and basic tenets: That Africa was the birthplace of civilization as well of the human species; that African peoples have contributed significantly to world history and culture; and that their achievements have been systematically denigrated in order to rationalize the evils of slavery and the denial of political and social rights to the bondsmen's descendants.

Mr. Early also notes that ''Afrocentrism'' is largely a reaction to the long-prevailing view that African peoples had no real history to speak of. Since only human beings can live in history, denying that the African had a history was a way of denying the humanity of African peoples. The ''Afrocentric'' movement is an attempt to address this historic dehumanization by restoring to African peoples a sense of belonging in the common human enterprise.

The main criticism of ''Afrocentrism'' has been that, in attempting to correct the errors, omissions and distortions of mainstream ''Eurocentric'' history, it goes too far in the other direction.

''Many African-Americans are inclined to believe that any noted white with ambiguous ancestry must be black,'' Mr. Early writes.

This tendency to bask in the reflected glory of people whose ''African'' descent is tenuous at best can be taken to absurd lengths.

In discussing the desire among many blacks to see important historical figures portrayed by black actors, for example, Mr. Early observes that, ''the Afrocentrists will feel their triumph to be complete when black actors portray Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Warren G. Harding, Alexander Hamilton, Hannibal, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Cleopatra, Moses, Jesus Christ and Saint Augustine.''

It is easy to see such historical expropriations as merely the flip side of the ''Eurocentric'' propensity to view history's grand actors as variations on the theme of Charleton Heston and Rita Hayworth.

Did the historical Solomon and Sheba really look anything like Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida, who played the title roles in Hollywood's 1959 production of the ancient love story? Probably not, but it was important to many white Americans of the time to believe that they did. Why shouldn't African-Americans worship a black Jesus?

The inconsistencies of ''Afrocentrism'' derive from the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American racism rather than from the intellectual shortcomings of its advocates, Mr. Early argues. No people can prosper without a sense of the past that explains and enriches their present. That once was the function of myth.

Today, ''history'' occupies a similar place in the individual's psychological economy. A ''history'' that makes people feel bad about themselves is worse than useless.

But what about truth? Isn't it ultimately counterproductive to inculcate belief in a fictionalized past that, when exposed, inevitably leaves the believer feeling duped and betrayed?

The American experience, at least, shows that the burden of false history cuts both ways. White people can no more deny blacks' humanity without denying their own than they can deny blacks' history without denying their own. If our fates are ultimately intertwined it makes little sense to castigate ''Afrocentrism'' for its shortcomings while remaining blind to those of ''Eurocentrism.''

You believe Jesus walked on water. I believe he was black. Perhaps we are both right on some level simply because it is necessary for us to believe those things in order to believe in ourselves.

From a purely rational point of view, perhaps it would be better if one could get by without really having to believe anything at all. But the integrative function of myth seems to be something people have needed everywhere and at all times.

So long as that is true, criticizing ''Afrocentrists'' for believing Jesus was black is as misguided as criticizing white Christians for believing that he walked on water. Both may be wrong, but so what?

Mr. Early's argument implies without directly saying so that we may just have to tolerate a certain willing suspension of disbelief -- at least up to a point.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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