Reclaiming our Africanness in the disaporized context: the challenge of asserting a critical African personality.

Author:Sefa Dei, George J.


As African peoples we cannot speak of a critical Pan-African personality today without first appreciating what we mean by an African identity. In a forthcoming paper (Dei 2011) I have argued for reclaiming an authentic African identity in the so-called post-colonial contexts. Of course, I am fully aware of the dangers of claiming authentic knowledge. I speak of such authenticity beyond a sense of 'pure' and 'uncontaminated' past or present. I emphasize the importance of the African experience far beyond the experience and vestiges of European colonization and unending colonialisms. I speak of an authentic of African collective identity[ies] as informed by the Indigenous African cultural experiences, local cultural knowledges, and the histories of the politics of resistance that have shaped and continue to shape our existence as African beings. Such identities cannot be taken away from us in the seductive 'postmodern' discourses of "fluidity" and "messiness", "complexities" and "complications", often rattled as if Africans do not know who we are! After all, if one does not who s/he is how else can we expect others to know us? Long ago, Europeans knew who 'Africans' were and so they sailed long distances to capture and enslave African traders, fishermen and fisherwomen, farmers and local artisans.

I have argued that in claiming local cultural resource knowledge that herald issues of the past, culture, ancestral knowledge, history, heritage and language, the question of post-colonial identities becomes relevant for an important reason. A number of postcolonial writers (e.g., Gilroy 1993, 2000; Appiah 1992, 2005; Gates 1992, 2010; Hall 2005, 2007a, 2007b) have often criticized the evocation of the past as problematic in its claim of an "authentic" past. Hall (2005) in particular has rather been skeptical about any attempts to recover an "authentic" pre-colonial African identity, undamaged by the experience of colonial dominance and oppression, [as much as he recognizes that such attempts and its politics may serve as psychological resources for resistance]. He discusses the complexities involved in the negotiation and the re-invention of "postcolonial identities". I share such concerns to some extent. My point of departure is that the re-assertion of identities at any time in a people's history always recognizes the complexities of identity and the fact that all identities are metaphorically in constant flux. However, I am gesturing to the importance of claiming African identities as an exercise of Pan-African decolonization that recognizes the authenticity of the African voice and human experience. Such identity is in contrast to that identity which is often constructed within Euro-American hegemony and ideology. Thus, I bring a different meaning to 'authentic', which is not to be read as pure, unfettered or uncontaminated. How have the ideas of pioneer Indigenous African anti-colonial thinkers helped shaped the foregoing thoughts?

In the annals of African and Black peoples history, and particularly anti-colonial nationalist politics, Kwame Nkrumah remains in a unique position as a nationalist and anti-colonialist who pioneered a struggle for Independence for the first Black nation on the continent. Given the post-colonial challenges facing African peoples today, African intellectuals today have a responsibility to revisit some of his pioneering ideas as we seek to design our own futures.

To revisit Nkrumah is more than about a 'return to the source' i.e., Sankofa'. It is also about to return to the source to listen, learn, and hear what is 'Sankotie' and Sankowhe' (see Aikins 2010). This paper will borrow from the philosophy and ideas of Nkrumah as we rethink how African peoples can design their own futures in the area of schooling and education. I centre the possibilities of Pan-African spirituality as a base/sub structure on which rest the possibilities of community building. I focus on Pan-African spirituality as resistance to the disembodiment and dismemberment in Diasporic contexts. In so doing, I will also seek to draw connections of Afro-centricity and Pan-African struggles to highlight the challenge and promise of African agency.


One may ask: What is the African-centred imperative in revisiting Nkrumah and his ideas and philosophy? As Africans we must ask ourselves how much do we know of Nkrumah, his ideas, his politics and his philosophy? There is no denying Nkrumah's philosophy and its relevance for today. The concepts of African Personality, African Identity and African Unity, are at the cornerstone of Nkrumah's ideas, vision and philosophies. Nkrumah's politics of mass mobilization of the workers as vanguard of any political movement is a testament of his foresight and vision of revolutionary struggles in Africa. Among Nkrumah's memorable words, one can recall his stance on the eve of Ghana's Independence, March 6, 1957: To him there was a New African today, one capable of managing his or her own affairs. He further asserted that the Independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it is linked with total liberation of Africa. Nkrumah was for 'One Africa' and what some today have translated as a 'United States of Africa". To Nkrumah, Black Power can only materialize through African Unity. In fact, Nkrumah cautioned that national pride is important, but must not be at the expense of a Pan-Africanist vision of United Africa.

There is a need, at this time, for African scholars to have uncomfortable conversations sometimes about our history and what has happened to us long after some of these ideas of Nkrumah were expressed. Many of us are caught in the seduction of a "post-modern", "post-racial" world. We are busy seeking to make connections and relations while decentering questions of our Africanness, race and politics. But, what is this thing called 'post-racial'? I have never been there and have neither seen it. As African and peoples of African descent, do we truly understand our Blackness/Africanness? Where are we going? How can the politics of radical Black/African scholarship help us leave our mark on society? Do people know our contributions? How do we ensure that our contributions are not erased?

Dei and Asgharzadeh (2001) state, "within the colonized people's historiography, the historic past offers an important body of knowledge that can be a means of staking out an identity which is independent of the identity constructed through the Western ideology" (p. 299). Kwame Nkrumah and Cheikh Anta Diop's creative ideas on the African Personality anchored culture and identity.

The challenge for African scholars in the ensuing years has been to intervene with a more comprehensive concept of Pan-African Personality that reflects the distinct cultural character of African aspirations globally. The Pan-African personality embodies the historical memory, common sense, collective consciousness, artifacts, social institutions, innovations and creative visions of the composite African People.

The idea of 'Pan-African Personality' must also imply a critical understanding of African spirituality as a form of resistance. That is, to see African spirituality as a humanizing, theoretical and practical framework that can be marshalled to examine the everyday experiences of African bodies in North American contexts. In another context for example, I have examined how African spirituality becomes a theoretical framework for us to understand and resist the dismemberment and disembodiment of Euro-colonial schooling (see Dei, 2010a, b). In this paper, however, I focus on ways African communities, influenced by Afrocentric ideals, are advancing ideas and social systems to improve their own existence by designing their own futures. What is the relevance of Pan-Africanism and Nkrumanist ideas in speaking about Africa?

Let me offer some personal reflections. African peoples continue to live in a highly toxic and anti-African climate. There is the unending struggle to resist the internalized colonizing assumptions that continually divide us._Three quick examples: The first is the question: What is in the name 'African'? I have often wondered: What does it mean to say not all Africans are Blacks and neither are all Blacks Africans? Some of us take great pride in such assertions. I wonder how often do we hear the saying--"not all Europeans are White"? Show me an "African European"? to me is to say "African" is both a badge of honour and a call to action. A Second example is the case of the coloniality of Euro-American schooling and the continuing pathologies of the African-family. For...

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