Afrocentricity: A Commentary

In our discussion of 90s Black experiences and cultural expressions, the concept of Sankofa is important to consider for both reflection and analysis. Sankofa is a Twi term from the Akan peoples of mainly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The word is a verb meaning “to go back and fetch:” to retrieve important items previously lost, forgotten or stolen. In the context of one’s culture, the idea of Sankofa requires one to both re-learn and adapt crucial skills, collective understandings and overall lessons from his or her ancestors. From this process, it is understood that the person who does the “fetching” receives the power from those “items” of knowledge. The ultimate goal of this retrieval is for one to then project themselves and their descendants into the future, working from informed positions of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-determination.

For African Americans, in-depth studies of both our historical and current experiences in this country reveal ongoing, consistent reenactments of this Sankofa concept. Documentation of developments in our music, education, fashion, social arenas, family practices – and more – prove our active revitalization and reincorporation of the ways of our ancestors: in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, South America…wherever people of African descent landed globally, by force or by choice.  Our cultural expressions reveal the agency exhibited in sampling, remixing or reinventing what we have learned for practical application in modern times.

From this position, I wanted to tackle the concept of Afrocentricity – which as a term became prominent in the 1980s and 90s. There are many conflicting interpretations of this term, and its often conflated with Afrocentrism, African-centered thought, “Afro-“ vs. “Afri-”, and so on. This happens to the point where the idea of someone being “Afrocentric” entails a host of stereotypical tropes, caricaturing and misunderstandings. This is particularly evident in popular media of this time, as well as public reaction in many Black communities. 90s film characters like “Ahmal” in Sister Act 2, Damon Wayans’ “Conscious Brother” in “In Living Color” episodes, the dreadlocked player on A Different World, and many other examples would depict a kufi-and/or-dashiki-wearing individual spouting random historic statements about “The Pyramids”, ”the white man” or “Shaka Zulu.” Dressed in kente, mismatched colors and military-like gear, this type character would often act in arrogant, misinformed behaviors, which would ultimately isolate them from the larger Black community.

These tropes are a testament to the simplified nature of discussions and expressions relating to what are considered Afrocentric theories and praxis. For some it’s wearing traditional African clothing, for others it’s adopting African names – or also re-identifying with an African ethnic group or spiritual system. For many, its academic scholarship: focusing on prioritized pre-colonial African historical periods deemed “classical” or “enlightened” – above any other cultural expressions or achievements of any other group of people in the world. Conversely, many researchers of African and African Diasporic value systems, knowledge bases and cultures have sought to identify common threads amongst these intricate systems, in an attempt to create blueprints for strategic unification, productive cultural alliances, and community building for liberation and ultimate sovereignty. All of the actions mentioned in this paragraph are interlinked, and are products of individuals making either informed or uninformed choices to change their lives in a way that reconnects them to a cultural source. At the same time, we need to continuously reevaluate our ideas, and challenge ourselves to avoid recreating limiting, dogmatic or one-dimensional systems of cultural expression – where one organization deems themselves “more African” or “more Afrocentric” than the next, based on attire, ideology, spiritual practices, how many visits to Africa they made or how many books they’ve read on Black history.

In looking at the long history of our people in this country, and in the African Diaspora, we have infinite examples of resistance to oppression, reapplication of cultural expressions and innovative methods of growth and renewal. Viewing them all as equally important to consider keeps us from developing an essentialist trait of prioritizing some experiences over others: resulting in an Afrocentric definition that may confine, stereotype and simplify. In the United States, the respect-based process of learning about our families, communities and their solution-building strategies has helped us to overcome all obstacles to survive and go forward. This empowers us to progress with the informed appreciation and application of our African retentions, forms of knowledge and practices. Kweku Vassall

RANT WARNING! lol: <I would also like to challenge this idea of one being “conscious,” a popular phrase in Black communities in relation to African-centered or Afrocentric thought. Conscious is often said as if all that needs to be learned has been learned – or that there’s this class of enlightened people who know-what-they-don’t-know-their-neighbor-also-knows, because one is so busy being “more informed”. Not to negate people coming to important realizations, BUT knowledge of oneself also deals with positive relationships with others, implementing practical solutions to problems, adapting in various environments and creating new knowledge to fit one’s current situation – all things Black people of all walks of life and ideologies have accomplished. This idea that a few are “awake” and the majority are “asleep” works within this larger misconception that up until recent years Black people were ignorant, chitlin-eatin (non-vegetarian) slaves who couldn’t observe their environments enough to notice oppression, or were disconnected from their ancestors and relatives to point where they had no appreciation for the family values and principles for survival passed down for their benefit. Our grandmothers and grandfathers may have experienced hell (in various class statuses and locations, obvious and hidden torments included), but at the same time, honoring our African ancestors teaches us that the experiences of our most recent African American relatives are valid and worthy or respect, honor and consideration. We should see them as active participants, not passive bystanders, in our history and cultural development. This is true especially considering the marginalization and oppression they faced, how they either thrived or psychologically crumbled as a result, and the sacrifices they all made for us to both be here AND have the privilege to operate in learning spaces to obtain further knowledge that was often hidden from them. It would behoove us to look back to the important information they knew, which can help us even more to face our current reality.>

The Reign of the Black Family on T.V.

The Cosby Show premiered in 1984 on NBC and quickly became a staple in television history. The show featured comedian Bill Cosby and based a lot of its episodes on Cosby’s personal life. Although the show, a sitcom featuring the Huxtable family, a prominent black family living in Brooklyn, New York, reached its end in 1992, it influenced not only television, but also the view of the black family in the 90s. Millions of people looked up to Cliff and Clair Huxtable. This fictional family was the epitome of black success. The Huxtables had respectable professions (obstetrician and lawyer) and reared five obedient, for the most part, children. The show portrayed a view of the black family that was rarely seen on T.V., an entirely positive aesthetic.

TV Guide said the show “was TV’s biggest hit in the 1980s and almost single-handedly revived the sitcom genre.”[i] No truer words were spoken. The Cosby Show broke the mold and went on to spawn other popular black family sitcoms in the 90s such as, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Both sitcoms featured loveable characters like Steve Urkle and Will Smith, but they also carried on the model of The Cosby Show. The families were middle to upper-middle class professionals, and the children had their faults, yet were, for the most part, model young adults. The children made mistakes, but learned from them. Both The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters proved to be positive influences of the black family in the 90s. The era of black consciousness made its mark on more than film, music, and literature. It permeated into mainstream television, too.

 

The New York Times credits The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with putting rap on the map and reinforcing the themes in raps’ biggest songs of the 90s in a different way. “We will start to deal with some of the same things as N.W. A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and artists with a much more radical way of communicating their life style. But we’ll do it Will’s way, rather than in their language.”[ii] The show addressed issues that plagued the black community, such as racial profiling and vigilante justice. Audiences were entertained by Carlton’s naiveté, Hiliary’s spending habits, and Will’s jokes, but they were also enlightened. The world could look on and experience the era of black consciousness in an unassuming way.

The Big 3 of Black sitcoms opened the door for black families on television, and the 90s saw an explosion of representation of black families. Shows like Hanging with Mr. CooperMoesha, and Smart Guy featured families that weren’t technically nuclear. Hanging with Mr. Cooper and Smart Guy featured families with single parents raising children to the best of their abilities with the help of the community around them. Though the titular Mr. Cooper had no children, he acted as a father figure and friend to  Nicole, the child of single mother, Georgia, and other kids in the neighborhood. Moesha and Smart Guy dealt the life after the death the family matriarch, and life after such a tragedy. These sitcoms presented different configurations of the Black family that were still positive and uplifting. 

However, after The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matter in 1998, the picture of the black family in America diminished. Television has evolved. Shows like Empire, Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Ball Wives, and The Real Housewives of (insert city) are the portrayals of black family seen today. The black family is seriously misrepresented. It is broken and dysfunctional at best. Black women on TV are unmarried and can’t find a man, and the men are untrustworthy players with multiple children. People can argue that “families” such as this exist in America, yet it’s not all that exists so it’s not all that should be portrayed (or the majority of what is portrayed). So what happened to empowering black women? Black men? Black children? The black family? Where’s the sense of black consciousness that infected the 90s? The Fresh Prince was raised by a single mother and barely knew his father, but he had a support system and family in uncle Phil, aunt Vivian, and his cousins. The show exposed the bad, but showed there can be good too.

With the black family’s downfall came the demise of the view of the ultimate black patriarch, Bill Cosby. Since 2000, Bill Cosby has faced sexual assault and abuse, rape, and drug allegations from over fifty women that he encountered before and during the pinnacle of his career. These allegations have rocked the black community and torn people apart, supporters and now naysayers of Cosby. During The Cosby Show’s reign, no one would have conceived that Bill Cosby, Mr. Huxtable, loveable father and doting husband would fall from grace. Yet, he has. No matter what one chooses to believe about him, he has fallen, hard. The beginning of Cosby’s assault allegations coincides with the end of the black family on TV.

The end of an era.

Symbolic or coincidental?

Both. B. Stewart

 


[i] “The Cosby Show.” TVGuide.com. CBS Interactive, Inc., 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

[ii] Rohter, Larry. “‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ Puts Rap in Mainstream.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Sept. 1990. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.