Uncivil War

Inside the Years-Long Battle Over the Future of Afrocentricity and Its Place in the Black Studies Renaissance

On a bright, Indian summer day in September 1997, after weeks of tension between her and the father of Afrocentricity, Molefi Asante, Joyce Ann Joyce, who had just been appointed to replace Asante as chair of Temple University's African American studies department, stumbled upon what she thought was an opportunity to keep a bitter feud from erupting into full-scale war. About 10 yards ahead of her, alone in the hallway of Gladfelter Hall, was the Afrocentrist par excellence. "Finally," she recalls thinking to herself, "maybe we can talk." With the murmur of classroom discussion bouncing around the long corridor, she carefully approached Asante, eager to see what could be done to make peace.

"Can't we sit down and talk, so we can come together on how to bring harmony to the department?" Joyce asked him, thinking about the race man she met on the pages of Asante's works.

"You're the problem here," Joyce says Asante retorted, raising his voice, getting up in her face, and launching into a diatribe that she would hear many times from Asante and his supporters over the next four years. "You're trying to destroy this department, and I will not allow you to destroy this department."

Former Temple University African American studies chair Joyce Ann Joyce: Attacks against her began when she was picked to replace Molefi Asante.
Photograph by Tara Engberg
Former Temple University African American studies chair Joyce Ann Joyce: Attacks against her began when she was picked to replace Molefi Asante.

"He got so loud and vehement," Joyce recalls, speaking out for the first time about her now infamous power struggle with Asante, "that another female professor, concerned about my safety, left her students and ran out of her workshop to see if I was OK."

Last Saturday, June 30, marked the end of Joyce's leadership of the department of African American studies at Temple, Asante's brainchild. As is widely known in Black studies circles, Joyce has been a thorn in Molefi Asante's Afrocentric side since she took the reins of the department. Stepping down after four years into a five-year appointment, Joyce had had enough of an intradepartmental war that effectively, and probably unfairly, cast her as Afrocentricity's villain. Her departure signals a chance for Asante to regain control of the department that made Afrocentricity the watchword among educators nationwide, and more important, to return to the center of the Black studies renaissance he sparked—but which has now all but eclipsed him.

In the 1980s, when "political correctness" came under attack by the far right, Molefi Asante was a loud voice among a new breed of scholars in women's, gay and lesbian, and Black studies, all of whom were calling for a more inclusive academy. His Afrocentric theory, an approach to Black studies that Asante has described as examining "African phenomena from the standpoint of African people being subjects of history or centered in history rather than objects in the Eurocentric frame of reference," was his calling card. His fearless, take-no-prisoners battles with Allan Bloom, Mary Lefkowitz, Arthur Schlesinger, and others became the stuff of academic legend by the early 1990s.

But Asante was more than simply a charismatic figurehead. In 1987, his African American studies department became the first such program in the country to award doctoral degrees. "I have 65 Ph.D. students who got their doctorates with me," Asante boasts of his circle of influence.

Afrocentricity's pro-Black fervor went beyond the academy, however, and crossed over into popular culture, helping to ignite a wave of pro-Black nationalist sentiment that this country hadn't seen on as wide a scale since the early 1970s.

"It manifests itself as a cultural style in everything from clothing to how people greet each other to how we think about family, community, and rituals," says Manning Marable, author of Dispatches From the Ebony Tower, about the popular version of Afrocentricity. "It has become popularized to the point of common sense within most predominantly Black communities."

Black studies departments and programs had been on the decline since the late 1970s and early 1980s, but with the rise of Afrocentricity, colleges and universities nationwide once again began to commit significant resources to building departments and programs. Many took alternative approaches to Black studies. Marable, for example, founded Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies in 1993. His program distinguishes itself by taking a socialist approach to Black studies. The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, directed by Henry Louis "Skip"

Gates Jr., adopts a more liberal, integrationist approach. Both Columbia and Harvard plan to offer Ph.D.'s in African American studies in the near future. Yale, Berkeley, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have recently done so.

"There was this response by people who were less radical, more conservative, or simply progressive, without wanting the African aspect to it," says Maulana Karenga, creator of the Kwanzaa holiday, director of Black studies at California State University, Long Beach, and one of Afrocentricity's foremost scholars. "They began to develop both a parallel and counter dialogue."

These varying approaches to Black studies, some scholars say, are now threatening to eclipse Afrocentricity, partly because the theory of Afrocentricity has come to be popularly associated with a feel-good, narrow-minded concept rather than an intellectual one. No longer can the far right be deemed solely responsible for this pigeonholing, however. Now, critics say, the father of Afrocentricity himself must shoulder some of the blame.

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