While doing research for a doctorate at UCLA, most of the literary investigation was done at their world renowned Research Library, the Music Library, the African Studies Library, and the African American Studies Library. The focus was on Afrikan world music and Afrikan world history. My first priority was to find as many works by scholars of Afrikan descent as possible.
Professor Kwabena Nketia, father of Afrikan music, was chair of my music committee. The late Dr. Boniface Obichere, one of the world’s leading Afrikan historians, and editor of The Journal of African History, was chair of my history committee; being a double major in all my graduate work. The doctoral committee was made up of Afrikans from the continent, the Caribbean and America. I wanted to be challenged to do Afrikan world research.
While gathering tons of books for months of research preparing to write, to my surprise and dismay, at least 85 percent of the books were written by scholars of European descent. This was disheartening. Some wrote from a colonial perspective, or an uninformed and/or biased view. As hard as it was to find works by scholars of Afrikan descent, the card catalogue (at that time) and computer searches were so disappointing.
That is when a strategy change was made. I was not going to allow the bulk of my work to come from Eurocentric sources. Instead of depending so heavily on literature, I conducted some 30 or more interviews to get the information from an Afrikan world perspective, advocating a methodology of using Afrikan sources first. This was before Dr. Molefi Kete Ashante popularized the term Afrocentricity, in the 1980s. Its earliest known use goes back to the 19th century, where American born Afrikans (American Afrikans) used Afrikan, instead of black. Titles of several churches, schools, shops, organizations, etc., had the word Afrikan in them, rather than black, or Afrikan American.
It is understood and applauded what Ashante was attempting to do. I am in total agreement that our history must be written by scholars of Afrikan descent; working from within rather than from without. No one can explain our history and culture better than we can. We have stories to pass down that no one knows but us. By the same token, and as a holistic historian, it is also understood that Europeans can write about their history better than anyone else. They have details no one else has. However, when it comes to the affects of what Europeans have done to Afrikans in the world, Afrikan scholars are best at that.
Having said that, it is not written in stone that scholars of European descent cannot do some credible work on the Afrikan world. There are a handful who do honest work, as much as possible. Although one’s intellectual senses have to be very sharp for those times when a colonial or better-than-thou attitude creeps into their scholarship.
Entering the discussion of Afrocentricity or accuracy is not difficult at all. Ivan Van Sertima, our seminal Afrikan world scholar, in explaining to young scholars beginning to do intellectual work, establishes a thesis for their efforts. “A word of caution, please do not accept everything. Do not assume that merely because someone is of your own race, everything they have to say about what Afrikans or people of Afrikan descent did is true. This revolution has to be built up responsibly, on a body of hard facts. You have to look very closely at evidence. You have to become self-critical. It’s important that you do.” (First Word Black Scholars Thinkers Warriors by Kwaku Person-Lynn) He also stated that we do not have to fabricate or makeup facts. The truth speaks for itself, though biased scholars will always attempt to turn the truth around.
Van Sertima gives us a clear example, as he talks about responses to his pioneering book. “What the reaction to They Came Before Columbus revealed to me, it does not matter how well documented, how well supported may be the new facts one presents to the world, the old habits of thinking about the Afrikan does not easily change.”
I tell students all the time that the most important thing in scholarship is to be accurate. It doesn’t matter how you slant it or who it comes from, especially if the facts are accurate, can be proven, cross-checked and verified. That really is the only important thing. One should always be prepared for one’s work to be challenged, which is the reason sources used should be sound and solid.
Along with that, if one intends on following the path of teaching, researching and writing, it is of ultra importance to stay on top of the literature. Check out new books, journals, articles, and even the Internet, if sources are cited. New research and findings are surfacing all the time.
Be careful about the Internet. Anyone can put something up. If it is major information you are seeking, and you find something that seems interesting, check to see if there is an author name, references or bibliography. If not, it is not recommended for use. It could be just an opinion piece.
If your work is not so-called Afrocentric, don’t fret. No one is going to accuse you of shabby scholarship if your philosophical premise is always centered on the most important concept in scholarship, being accurate.
– Dr. Kwaku’s next class, Afrikan World Civilizations (Part II), conducted on Friday evenings, 7-9pm at Kaos Studios in Leimert Park, will begin Feb. 22, 2008. For details go to: www.drkwaku.com.