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Clarence Walker encourages black Americans to discard Afrocentrism

July, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
Enterprise staff writer

UC Davis History Professor Clarence E. Walker doesn't have any plans to visit Cal State Long Beach or Temple University in Philadelphia soon.

That's where two of the most vocal proponents of Afrocentrism (Ron Karenga and Molefi Asante, respectively) teach.

Walker doesn't think he'd get an especially warm reception on either campus because his most recent book, "We Can't Go Home Again: An Argument About Afrocentrism" (Oxford University Press, 2001), is devoted to knocking their theories about a black African cradle of civilization out of the ring.

According to Walker's book, Afrocentrism encourages black Americans to discard their recent history, with its inescapable white presence, and to embrace an empowering vision of their African (specifically Egyptian) ancestors as the source of Western civilization, a dubious claim to distant glory that fails to come to grips with complex modern problems.

Walker describes Afrocentrism as a form of totalitarian groupthink, devoid of historical accuracy.

"Afrocentrism is a mythology that is racist, reactionary, and essentially therapeutic," writes Walker. "It suggests that nothing important has happened in black history since the time of the pharaohs and thus trivializes the history of black Americans. Afrocentrism places an emphasis on Egypt that is, to put it bluntly, absurd.

"I've always been interested in critical history," said Walker in an interview at his on-campus office. He is finding his views at odds with those who don't want anything critical said about blacks.

Walker has been an American history professor at Davis for 16 years. He grew up in an integrated neighborhood in West Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School. He earned his Ph.D. from Cal in 1976.

He is especially interested in the history of race and racial ideas and will be teaching a class this winter on the novel as social history. He is impatient with people who don't think critically, and he doesn't care if those people are black or white.

"There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians were black as we understand that term today," he said.

"Afrocentrism essentializes history, caricatures Africa and holds out the past to be recaptured," he said. "It's not smart and it's not practical."

However, over the past 10 years it has achieved some academic currency, which upsets Walker.

"Black people are not the same today as they were in the past," he says. "We are of African descent, but we are not African."

He says Afrocentrism caricatures Africa by suggesting that that vast continent has one uniform culture.

"And glorifying history doesn't give us a great purchase on the contemporary world," he said. "In the post-industrial American society, no one should worry about whether Cleopatra was black or white," he added.

Walker said his parents came from southern Texas. He was born in Houston in 1941. His family then moved to California. He has never been to Africa and he has no desire to go there.

"The argument about origins misses the point," he said. "It's not your origins that are important but what you do with them. You have to take responsibility."

He understands that the Afrocentrist movement is designed in part to give blacks self-esteem and a sense of community.

Walker shrugs this off, too. "Fairy tales aren't going to get it."

"In terms of the education of black children, it hasn't done much," he said. "It may have given some kids a false sense of pride and that's not terribly useful."

Instead of promoting the mythology of Afrocentrism, Walker would like to see colleges and universities hire professors of African history who know what they're talking about.

At UCD, he'd like to see a professor of West African history who could teach classes on pre-colonial Africa and the slave trade.

"Students would learn that blacks in the United States didn't come out of a void; that there were complex societies in West Africa," he said.

"History is controversial," said Walker. "But how you read the past has all sorts of implications for the present." Walker suggests that there were many cradles of civilization including Egypt, the Nile Valley and China.

"I'm an old-fashioned intellectual critic," said Walker. "I don't like a lot of work being done in the field. No history should be presented as an exercise in celebration.

"What black people really need is a usable present, not a usable past," he added.

Walker said the publication of his book raised some eyebrows in black circles.

But he has not head from Molefi Asante.

"There's nothing to talk about with them," he said. "Just because you want to believe the world was created by black people doesn't make it so."

Walker can be reached at cewalker@ucdavis.edu.

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