Commentary – African Diaspora Studies and the Lost Promise of Afrocentrism

“I am an Afrocentric,” Professor Sheila Walker declares in “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism: Some Reflections of an Afrocentric Anthropologist.” For Walker, Afrocentrism is not an exclusionary form of “ethnic absolutism” or a pureblooded claim to racial nationalism;¹ it is, instead, a form of “positive ethnocentrism” that affirms Black peoples’ complex, and often despised, African background. In the essay, Walker describes being one of a few Black scholars participating in an academic seminar on “Ending Ethnocentrism” (1991, 23). She no doubt horrified the predominantly white participants by affirming Afrocentrism as positive, while arguing that Eurocentrism “has arrogantly taken as its privilege the right to define and judge the majority of the people of the world.” This assertion rebuked attempts by scholars of the time to equate Eurocentrism with Afrocentrism.

But Walker’s essay, published in 1991, can also be read as a challenge to two important intellectual and political trends of the times: the growing academic backlash against the popular movements of Afrocentrism in the United States, and the then emerging trend in African Diaspora theorization informed by critiques of Afrocentrism and by a new attention to Cultural Studies, and to Black British Cultural Studies in particular, within Black Studies in the United States.

“I am an Afrocentric.” These words still give me pause—and, dare I say, make me almost uncomfortable—even though I agree and share solidarity with them. “I am an Afrocentric” is a rare affirmation these days. In the mid-1990s, it was a sentence that could not be said without drawing looks of disapproval and words of admonition from colleagues and instructors—at least where I was, a student in a program dedicated to the anthropological study of the African Diaspora.

Walker was the Director of UT Austin’s Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS) and the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Professor of Anthropology when I arrived in Austin, in the fall of 1996, to begin the African Diaspora Program in Anthropology. She was one of the first Black anthropologists that I had ever met. With a teaching assistantship funded by CAAAS, I was assigned office space in the Center. Being located in the Center meant that I had two different experiences of African Diaspora studies.

Our graduate seminars in the African Diaspora program were unequivocally informed by the scholarship emerging out of the United Kingdom and reflected what I often jokingly referred to as the “British Cultural Studies incursion in African Diaspora scholarship.” In our core seminar on African Diaspora theory, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) seemed to be our unofficial bible, supplemented by the scholarship of figures including Stuart Hall (1993a) and Kobena Mercer (1994). Our discussions on the Black Diaspora centered primarily on processes of identity formation and, at least from my vantage point, a clear celebration of (racial?) hybridity, as distinct from earlier models of the “syncretism” of diaspora culture. Part of the effort, of course, was to challenge the seeming stagnant view of cultural transformation in prominent discussions of Black culture and identity.

I learned about Afrocentrism as an intellectual movement by way of this intensive critique. Along with Black cultural nationalism, Afrocentrism was practically synonymous with the scholarship of the popular intellectual, Molefi Kete Asante. Asante was constantly castigated for his claims to an African cultural unity and for what was seen as a backward, retrograde “essentialism.”² Moreover, some Afrocentric scholarship was rightly criticized for perpetuating patriarchy and homophobia (Ransby 2000).³

But, as a graduate student, I was concerned that the critical disavowal of the totality of Afrocentrism by this new African Diaspora theorization simultaneously exhibited ambivalence about—if not dismissal of—“Africa” as a key part of the “Black Atlantic.” There was a lack of engagement with Africa as a real geopolitical space inhabited by actual living people racialized as Black. And the pressure to not be labeled “essentialist” for having interests in African continental affairs, for pointing out the specificity of racial Blackness (race, for me, could never be a “floating signifier” [Hall 1993b]) was most frustrating to a student like myself—a Haitian American Black woman interested in Africa and advocating the politics of Pan-Africanism.

Throughout my graduate studies, I would often point out the irony of having Africa marginalized in discussions of Black Diaspora identity formation. My personal experiences and academic research provided another narrative—that the academic formulation of the dichotomy of homeland and diaspora was starkly linear, grossly ahistorical, and analytically insufficient; that Africa was a modern and active space with the joint legacy of slavery and racial colonialism linking the experiences of those on the continent with those in diaspora; that we needed to appreciate the coevality of global Black experiences. I also often wondered why some critics seemed less forgiving of Afrocentrism’s shortcomings than they were of the structures of white supremacy. Nevertheless, the new trend of diaspora theorization in the early 1990s had a lasting impact on the field, spawning a mode of inquiry in diaspora studies focused primarily on routes instead of roots, as well as Black intra-community differences, misidentifications, antagonisms, and hegemonies. In the process, it also enabled the sedimentation of African alterity and the location of modern Blackness solely in the New World.

Outside these graduate seminar discussions, I experienced another African Diaspora. This was during my time at the Center for African and African American Studies, with Walker as Director. There, Africa and diaspora did not feel so rigidly disarticulated. Indeed, the essay “The Virtues of Positive Ethnocentrism” perfectly captures what I remember about Professor Walker’s approach to the African Diaspora: Africa was alive. The dynamic cultural impact of Africa’s presence among populations of African descent was unassailable—and unapologetic. While I did not have the opportunity to enroll in a graduate seminar with Professor Walker, I do remember that the cultural and intellectual programming at CAAAS centered on the ongoing relationship of Africa to its diaspora. For example, in the spring of 1996, right before I moved to Austin, CAAAS hosted “The African Diaspora and the Modern World,” commemorating the United Nations International Year for Tolerance. The conference proceedings were published five years later in a hefty volume, African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas (Walker 2001), which was as creative as it was expansive, with collaborations from scholars and artists from Africa and across the African Diaspora.⁴

This interpretation of the African Diaspora would be overshadowed—at least in prominent circles in the United States—by the excessive attention given to the viewpoint informed by Black British Cultural Studies. Indeed, Walker’s consistent celebration of the “African presence in the Americas” not only affirmed the ongoing work of African and Black Diaspora scholars and cultural practitioners (Harris 1993; Okpewho, Davies, and Mazrui 2001; Palmer 2001) but also carried forward both the Afrocentric legacies and vindicationist scholarship (Foster 1997) of the likes of Edward Blyden (1887); Carter G. Woodson (1910); W.E.B. Du Bois (2001), who actually coined the term “Afrocentric” in his proposed Encyclopedia Africana;⁵ Amy Jacques Garvey (1978); Shirley Graham DuBois (1970); Margaret Busby (1992); and others.

Reading Professor Walker’s affirmation of Afrocentrism today returns me to the bright-eyed wonder I felt witnessing the “ties that bind” (Magubane 1987) Africa to the African Diaspora and the experiences and legacies that helped forge my own interest in African Diaspora Studies. It also reminds me of how important popular Afrocentrism was for generations of young Black people in the 1980s and 1990s grappling with anti- Blackness and the horrid and ongoing legacies of global white supremacy. Many of us surely remember our college days where we heard about, and sometimes read the works of, Chancellor Williams, Chiekh Anta Diop, John Henrick Clarke, and Dr. Ben-Jochannan; I remember university and community study groups on Pan-Africanism, the celebrations and controversies around the reclamation of Egypt as an African civilization, and the increasing proliferation of Afrocentrism in popular culture, in churches, in schools, and in Black community cultural events. As a graduate student based at CAAAS, I also remember our excitement around Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior (1994) by anthropologist Marimba Ani (though that book was not taught in our African Diaspora theory seminar).⁶

In today’s political context, in the midst of a global movement for affirming Black lives, I am chagrined that I spent so much time and intellectual energy engaging and challenging that set of scholarship on the African Diaspora that, however inadvertently, contributed not only to the marginalization of Black populations of the African continent but also curtailed consistent investigations into the mutuality of African and diasporic sociohistorical and political experience. Importantly, Professor Walker does not engage with the strand of African Diaspora studies that eschewed the scholarship and politics of Afrocentrism. Instead, as we continually struggle against global anti-Blackness, Sheila Walker provides a clear definition of what it is to be human—that is, what it is, from one’s heritage and location, to be Black in the world.

Walker’s call to center Africa and her recognition of the deep imbrications of African and Diaspora experiences remain to be heeded. And the lost promise of Afrocentrism awaits its recovery.


1. Leith Mulling provides a broad definition of Afrocentrism as “a range of loosely integrated beliefs, practices, values, orientations, and behaviors. For some it merely signals a sense of continuity with Africa and loyalty to a community of African descent. For others Afrocentricity may be manifested in modes of dress, ritual practices, or other cultural activities. For still others Afrocentricity refers to recent attempts to systematize these orientations into a philosophical system of beliefs and practices.” Mullings also provides a great critique of the problematic deployment of the culture concept in some Afrocentric scholarship (2000, 210). Paul Gilroy defines “ethnic absolutism” as “a reductive, essentialist understanding of ethnic and national difference which operates through an absolute sense of culture so powerful that it is capable of separating people off from each other and diverting them into social and historical locations that are understood to be mutually impermeable and incommensurable.” Gilroy goes on to say that “ethnic absolutism” afflicts everyone and that “those who experience racism themselves may be particularly prone to its lure. They often seize its simple, self-evident truths as a way of rationalizing their subordination and comprehending their own particularity.” It is for this reason, he maintains, that scholars must argue against “the narrow practice of cultural nationalism whatever their source” (1990, 114).

2. As I would quickly learn, criticism of this variant of Afrocentrism (what I would later call “Asanteism”) and the theory of Afrocentricity (Asante 1988) was abundant and often extended beyond internal Black studies debates. By the late 1980s, white historians were forced to contend with scholarship loosely identified as Afrocentric. This was especially the case with the publication of Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, published in 1987. The backlash from white scholars was swift. But Bernal’s work actually followed that of influential Senegalese historian Chiekh Anta Diop (1974).

3. Though he has since changed positions (see “Asante interview,” the Blackstripe website, accessed July 11, 2020,, Asante himself claimed in Afrocentricity (1988) that homosexuality was not part of the African way of life; another popular figure, Frances Cress Welsing later argued that homosexuality was a byproduct of white supremacy (1991). Meanwhile, the “Africa” that some Afrocentrics evoked was often the product of a US imagination. See also Sweet, James. 2005. “Afrocentrism.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Accessed May 10, 2020.

4. Some of the contributors included the prolific Pan-African historian Joseph E. Harris, anthropologist Michael Blakey, former Director of the Schomburg Howard Dodson, economic historian Joseph Inikori, anthropologist and curator at the Smithsonian Museum’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Diana N’Diaye, Afro-Cuban filmmaker and screenwriter Gloria Rolando, AfroBrazilian historian João Jose Reis, among many others.

5. See Sweet (2005) in note 3.

6. What is regrettable is that prominent contemporary scholars of Afrocentrism did not develop an internal critique of the homophobia and sexism that stained some of its theorization while making it inhospitable to Black Queer scholarship.


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Asante, Molefi K. 1988. Afrocentricity. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

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Blyden, Edward W. 1887. Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. London: W.B. Whittingham & Co.

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Welsing, Frances Cress. 1991. The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors. Chicago: Third World Press.

Woodson, Carter G. 1936 [1910]. An African Background Outlined: Or, Handbook for the Study of the Negro. Washington, DC: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

About the Author

Jemima Pierre

Dr. Jemima Pierre is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research and teaching interests are located in the overlaps between African Studies and African Diaspora Studies and engage three broad areas: race, racial formation theory, and political economy; culture and the history of anthropological theory; and transnationalism, globalization and diaspora. Learn More