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.>

In Living Color & The Wayans Family Dynasty

In Living Color

When speaking of entertainment families and comedy powerhouses, it is virtually impossible not to mention the Wayans family. While each of the ten siblings in the first generation of Wayans is or was active in the entertainment industry, the most famous among them are: Keenen, Damon, Sr., Kim, Shawn, and Marlon. Although the subjects of race and sexuality were as sensitive in the 90s as ever, In Living Color managed to tackle these topics by way of humor while simultaneously making fun of and challenging prescribed ideas about black masculinity, all while attaining the adoration of television watchers. Beginning in 1990, In Living Color would be the start of the Wayans family’s dominance on both the big screen and the small screen, but they brought far more than just laughs to American viewers—they paved the way for some of television’s most well-known comics.

In 1988, Keenen Ivory Wayans wrote, directed, and starred in the blaxpoitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Following the film’s success, The Fox Broadcasting Company gave Wayans the opportunity to create his dream show, and thus, In Living Color was born.1 Anyone familiar with In Living Color is likely to have a favorite character or sketch, but a few characters who appear on nearly any favorites list are Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, hyper-feminine, gay men who share their opinions on various topics; Oswald Bates, the stereotypical, enlightened, black prison inmate; and Wanda Wayne, an outspoken, sexually charged, black woman played by Jamie Foxx in drag. Speaking on hypermasculinity among black men, Byron Hurt, director of the indie film Hip-Hop: Beyond the Beats and Rhymes, notes:

We’re in this box…in order to be in that box, you have to be strong, you have to be tough, you have to have a lot of girls, you gotta have money, you have to be a player or a pimp, know you gotta to be in control, you have to dominate other men, other people, you know if you are not any of those things, then you know people call you soft or weak or a pussy or a chump or a faggot and nobody wants to be any of those things. So everybody stays inside the box.2

Each of the aforementioned characters challenges the notion of a tough, womanizing, controlling, dominant black male. In Living Color brought the very real issue of black male identity into the average American’s home while making it palatable through comedy. Perhaps it is this willingly to transcend the boundaries of the “box” that allowed the show to become one of the greatest sketch comedies in American television history.

While In Living Color ended in 1994, much sooner than some had expected, it was only the first of many credits that would be added to the Wayans family filmography. In 1994, Keenen would go on to write, direct, and star in A Low Down Dirty Shame; Marlon and Shawn would write and star in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood—another parody foregrounding black stereotypes (1996); Damon would write and star in Blankman (1994) which would become a cult classic despite receiving lackluster critical reception; and Kim acted in several of the Wayans family projects including The Wayans Brothers (1995), a show which featured Marlon and Shawn in a family sitcom alongside John Witherspoon. In an interview with Ebony that opens a conversation with the second generation of talented Wayans, Damien Wayans stated, “My family was my college. I got the best training through my uncles as professors…We pride ourselves on being multihyphenated. If it weren’t for the fact that we wrote, produced, directed and starred in cur own material, I don’t think people would have seen as much of the Wayans family throughout the years.3Mara Johnson

  1. Herbert, Solomon J. “The Living Colors Of Keenen Ivory Wayans.” Black Collegian 21.1 (1990): 98. HTML File. Web. 29 Nov. 2015.
  2. “The Issues: Masculinity.” PBS. PBS. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/hiphop/masculinity.htm>.
  3. Christian, Margena A. “The First Family of Comedy.” Ebony 66.6 (2011): 90-91. PDF File.