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.

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.

"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.

At the request of Carolyn Adams, then the dean of arts and sciences, Asante resigned as chair in the fall of 1996. Joyce, a candidate from outside the university, was selected by the African American studies department on a 2-1 vote. Seven faculty members, including Asante, protested proceedings by abstaining.

Although Asante admits he should have removed himself from the Forbes reappointment process, he insists there was no plagiarism. Forbes, who is now a tenured associate professor in the department, spoke to me at length, but perhaps sensitive to the stigma in the Black community attached to the Black woman who conspires with the white man to bring down a high profile Black male, refused to talk about plagiarism of her manuscript.


Those close to Joyce say she too harbors such reluctance. But after four years of silence, during which she's been widely portrayed as the bogey "man" of Black studies, she is finally speaking out. By the fall of 1997, she'd authored three books of literary criticism and co-edited a major anthology of African American literature, The New Cavalcade. Along with her reputation as a productive scholar, Joyce, who came to Temple by way of Chicago State University, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Maryland, had long had a reputation as a rebellious one. Early on in her career, she bumped heads with another Black studies big man—Skip Gates, now of Harvard dream-team fame. She took him to task for his interpretation of the role of deconstruction and poststructural theory in African American literary criticism at a time when challenging him was considered academic suicide.

Interestingly enough, however, her clash with Asante wasn't an ideological one. Though Asante charged that she was "not an Afrocentrist" from the moment she arrived at Temple, their scholarly differences before that day had been almost nil. In fact, in his Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge, published in 1990, Asante praises Joyce as "a brilliant critic and theorist." Likewise, Joyce generously references Asante in her 1994 book Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-Centered Literary Criticism. Only recently has she begun publishing papers discussing ways Afrocentricity can expand—a conversation that's already been going on among African-centered scholars who see Afrocentricity as only a small part of the African-centered school of thought.

It doesn't take long in Joyce's presence to realize she doesn't suffer fools. And those who know her personally say she ran afoul of Asante not only because he didn't handpick her as his successor but because Joyce had a different model of administration. She began almost immediately to establish protocols not based on favoritism, instituting changes that Asante and his supporters, including some graduate students, perceived as attempts to destroy their department. More than that, Joyce was also an outsider who took the job that few nationally recognized African-centered scholars dared apply for. In doing so, they thought, she cast her lot with the university administration that ousted the department's fearless leader.

The anti-Joyce campaign swung into high gear. Skirmishes began on the ground at Temple. Asante led a demonstration in the middle of campus, complete with bullhorns and placards that proclaimed, "Joyce must go!" Temple's campus police seized a pin-stuck voodoo doll with a note attached that read, "Joyce must die!" It had been stuffed in Joyce's department mailbox. The keyhole in her office door was injected with Krazy Glue. Notes were scrawled on a bathroom's walls and mirror; in permanent black marker, they spelled out "Fuck Joyce."

An open-letter e-mail Asante wrote on "the Joyce Joyce affair" in the fall of 1997 was widely circulated via the Internet. "The appointment of Professor Joyce to the Chair of African American Studies was a racist act," wrote Asante in the dispatch. It "is an attack on African agency, an anti-African affair, and a deliberate, illegal, in-your-face assault on the Afrocentric paradigm."


The Joyce-is-the-problem spin on the trouble at Temple spread through Black studies departments across the country, mostly through word of mouth, as Asante and his supporters boldly attacked Joyce at academic conferences like the National Conference of Black Studies. For four years, Joyce has been cast as the source of all trouble.

"People do not invite me to conferences the way they used to," Joyce says of how her career suffered as a result. Of the scores of Black studies scholars interviewed for this story, regardless of the region in the country, all were familiar with what most saw as a power struggle typical of academia, albeit one that stooped lower than most with personal attacks. And given Asante's distinguished reputation in the field, until now he has been seen as a victim rather than the cause of his department's decline.

"One has to ask who benefits," says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, director of African American studies at Purdue University, of the verbal attacks on Joyce. "It immobilized a department that had reached national prominence and that was turning out Ph.D.'s who were doing interesting work."

Editor of the Black Feminist Reader, Sharpley-Whiting also stresses that sexism mustn't be ruled out as a factor: "Asante and Gates [when they bumped heads] could spar and keep it gentlemanly. The viciousness of the attacks on Joyce, the way in which it became amplified, the way it was never just a case of 'We simply differ ideologically,' I would argue that that's gender."

For his part, Asante maintains that the department's downfall was a university conspiracy.

"We believe that Joyce was going to be the instrument that was going to dismantle the Afrocentric idea," Asante told me.

As far as the efforts to have Joyce removed from the department, the issue is moot. Joyce has been invited to join the women's studies department at Temple. The university asked African American studies to choose its next chair from within the department. Realizing the high stakes, Asante nominated himself as a candidate. That stratagem failed, but Asante currently appears to be friendly with Nathaniel Norment Jr., a nine-year veteran of the department who was recently named. With Joyce out of the way and with one of the old guard Afrocentrists at the helm, perhaps Asante can finally get his groove back.

When asked what the future holds for his creation, Asante remains optimistic about the department and more importantly the future of his Afrocentric theory: "The future of Afrocentricity is that in order for those departments [such as Berkeley and Harvard] to be legitimate and justify their existence, they will eventually have to be Afrocentric. Because if you don't study African phenomena from the standpoint of Black people as agents, then from whose point of view are you studying them?"

Whether or not Temple's African American studies can make a comeback, those sharing the African-centered perspective are banking on its survival by distancing the message from the messenger.

"There is a future for Afrocentricity," says Joyce. "But not for that word. Some of the things that Asante proposes are very legitimate, but because the word has become so negative, because the word has become connected to him, and because he has manifested so much negative behavior, the word has lost all of its fervor, all of its sincerity, all of its power.'

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
New York Concert Tickets
Loading...