Uncivil War

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

A Voice investigation of African American studies at Temple revealed that the real problem may be the department itself, which operates as a nearly separatist entity within the university and which during Asante's regime was more a kingdom than an academic department. Enstooled as a traditional leader of a village in Ghana in 1993, Asante, some say, had already begun exhibiting an African-dictator-like persona in his leadership of Temple's African American studies department. The department was the catalyst for the rebirth of Black studies nationally, but at home it was known as a place where Asante rewarded only those faculty and students who were strictly and unquestioningly loyal to him and his interpretation of Afrocentricity. Those who strayed were not forgotten or forgiven. Asante, insiders say, punished those who he believed were disloyal—a tactic that may have ultimately undermined the department.

After 12 years as chair of the department he put on the map, Asante had become a strongman, buttressed by the power and prestige afforded him by the popularity of his Afrocentric theory. He created a program in which the department granted its own degrees—no one else in the university signed off on them. He directed dissertations in which he was the primary subject or authority. He oversaw a $1.3 million budget (including salaries, wages, supplies, and expenses)—far more generous resources than most Black studies departments and programs receive. And his notoriety skyrocketed—along with his sense of power over the 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.

"Within the department you knew that you didn't go against this Afrocentric thought and that paradigm. You even had the feeling that if professors were against it, they were in trouble," says Adonijah Bakari, a history professor at Middle Tennessee State University, who came through Asante's program in the early 1990s. "You didn't want to come down on the wrong side of Asante. It was something that was clearly stated and shown."

On various occasions in the early 1990s, professors and students clashed with Asante because, according to sources, Asante "did not want anyone in his department disloyal to him." Professors who disagreed with him were moved out of their offices at night. Graduate students who stepped out of bounds were relieved of their teaching assistantships. A chair of a tenure committee who hadn't voted as Asante wanted him to in 1994, sources add, was deemed by Asante to be his "enemy." Subsequently, several students removed that professor from their dissertation committees. His being on the wrong side of Asante, they feared, would slow down, if not derail, completion of their degrees.

Asante's African American studies department would have probably rolled right along basking in its glory had it not been for Asante's crossing a woman named Ella Forbes. In March 1992, at Asante's request, Forbes, then an assistant professor in African American studies at Temple, agreed to contribute a book to a series for which Asante would be editor. Forbes signed a contract with People's Publishing Group to this effect that December. In the summer of 1993, she turned in her manuscript, African American History, to Asante.

Later that same summer, the publisher sent out a mailing announcing Asante as coauthor of the Forbes book. Forbes met with Asante to discuss the "misunderstanding." They agreed to the coauthor arrangement.

By the spring of 1994, however, Forbes had become so disturbed by the way the editing was changing her approach to history that she removed herself from the process. That November, after sending out flyers for the book with Asante listed as the sole author, People's Publishing Group informed Forbes of its interest in renegotiating the previous agreements. It would take nearly five months before an agreement was reached in which Forbes would receive royalty payments in exchange for the publisher's partial use of her manuscript and removal of her name from a book that by then she didn't want to be associated with.

But during that five-month period, there were more unsettling events for Forbes. Her employment contract was up for review; as chair of African American studies, Asante was responsible for making the final recommendation to the dean. According to sources at Temple, Asante solicited a letter from People's Publishing Group stating that her manuscript was unacceptable and added it to the Forbes reappointment file. Further, he selected his wife, Welsh Asante, along with two professors seeking promotions, to serve on Forbes's review committee. Finally, Asante went against customary procedure by adding the chair's recommendation to Forbes's file before the committee reviewed it, rather than after. His recommendation was negative. Later when he faced a tied vote, he cast the decisive no, removing Forbes from the department.

In the spring of 1995, Forbes discovered that her contract with the university would not be renewed. She filed a grievance with the university, charging Asante with a conflict of interest and claiming that, because of the book dispute, he should not have participated in a decision about her employment. The university ultimately ruled in Forbes's favor, then took the implications of Asante's conflict of interest and abuse of power much further than Forbes probably had intended.

As the investigation unfolded, the question of plagiarism inevitably arose—and with that, Asante's leadership of the department went up in flames. In addition to using his power as chair to influence the outcome of Forbes's reappointment, the University Faculty Senate Personnel Committee found that Asante had "misappropriated" Forbes's work. Forbes's signature on a publisher's contract that gave him the right to do it didn't change that fact. Nor did Asante's continued work on the book after Forbes quit the project.

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