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3 The Pursuit of Africology

On the Creation and Sustaining of Black Studies

Molefi Kete Asante, Temple University

Without a doubt the Black Studies revolution of the late twentieth cen­tury has profoundly impacted the curricula of most institutions of high­er education in the United States. Taken together with the in­fu­sion of students of African origin and the presence of mul­ti­na­tion­al Af­ricans as faculty, the advancement in curricula at Amer­i­can colleges and uni­versities is a quantum leap from what it was at the end of the nineteenth cen­tu­ry. No traditional discipline, such as an­throp­ology, history, so­ciology, or literature, can be the same since the revolution that brought African American Studies into exist­ence. “Black Studies” is a term that grew out of the political and academic climate of the 1960s. When students at San Fran­cis­co State campaigned in l967 for courses that reflected the ex­peri­en­ces of African people, they called for “Black Studies” since so much of the curriculum was “White Stud­ies” parading as if it were uni­ver­sal.

The immediate academic aim was to create the opportunity for “a Black perspective” in the American academy in social sciences, arts, and hu­­manities. A number of names emerged to describe the course of study and group of subjects under the umbrella of “Black Stud­ies.” Among the more popular names were “Afro American Stud­ies,” as in the UCLA Center for Afro American Studies; “Afri­cana Studies,” as in the Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center; “African Amer­i­can Studies” and “Pan African Stud­ies,” as in the Temple Uni­ver­si­ty Department of African American Stud­ies; “Africa World Studies” as in the Miami University “Africa World Studies” program; “African Di­as­po­ra Studies” as in the PhD pro­gram at UC Berkeley; and “Af­ri­col­ogy,” as in the Department of Africology at the University of Wis­con­sin at Mil­waukee. A few de­part­ments, such as Ohio State University and Cal­i­fornia State Uni­versity, Long Beach, retain the title of “Black Stud­ies.” In­creas­ingly, and for critical reasons, I believe the term “Af­ri­col­ogy” should gain recognition as a name and objective of our intellec­tual pur­suit.

Setting the Agenda

During the early days of the campaign for Black Studies, the most critical need was for faculty guidance about the courses being pro­pos­ed. Students often developed syllabi, courses of study, and bib­li­og­ra­phies and presented these to the various deans as indic­a­tive of what could be the core of Black Studies. But the list of fac­ul­ty who could as­sist the students was limited. Eventually, this would lead to the issue of Black faculty to teach the courses. Most major universities had a few to­ken Blacks who had been on cam­pus for several years, but many of them did not relate to the inno­va­tions sought by the stu­dents.

When students completed their tomes of syllabi and bibliogra­phies, they would often march to the offices of the university lead­ers with their work in one hand and a list of demands in the other. They want­ed, among other things, additional Black faculty mem­bers, Black cul­tu­ral centers, lecture programs of outstanding Black scholars, and sen­si­tiv­i­ty classes for white faculty members. The in­sti­tutional leaders were quick to call the police to the cam­pus­es. Many African American stu­dents were arrested during that period and some were given un­fairly long sentences. They remain the heroes of the struggle for equal ed­u­ca­tion, and their legacies are in the thousands of students who have been taught in African Amer­i­can Studies, though those early pi­o­neers seem for­gotten.

A Search for Faculty

Another issue that faced the incipient movement was who would teach the courses and where the university would find pro­fes­sors. This proved to be a critical issue, one that has continued to shape, and in some senses, to distort the field. The terminal de­gree for most aca­dem­ic disciplines is the doctorate. While there were hundreds of Af­ri­can Americans with this degree in the 1960s, the overwhelming ma­jor­ity of them taught at pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black institutions in the South. The only other sources of Afri­can-de­scended doctorates were continental Af­ri­cans who had been edu­cated in the United States. African Americans en­tered pre­dom­i­nantly white institutions of high­er education in large num­bers in the late l960s, but it would be several years before Black Studies departments would have the ben­e­fit of their ed­u­ca­tion, and even then, there would be inherent the­o­ret­ical and philosophical is­sues. Eager to attract and hire Black pro­fes­sors, many universities hir­ed continental African professors. This prov­ed to be a challenging ac­tion both for the professors and the students who had cam­paign­ed for their hiring.

The continental Africans who had doctoral degrees were usu­ally trained by white professors who had very little appreciation of the his­to­ry of African Americans. This meant that the con­ti­nent­al Afri­cans had to be quick studies in the African American ex­per­i­ence in or­der to be successful as professors in Black Studies. They had to aban­don the at­titudes of some of their white pro­fes­sors and adopt a con­sciousness that was African Ameri­can. The scores of Af­ri­cans who did so were ex­cep­tionally brilliant in the class­rooms.

In some cases, the universities, desperate to find faculty, opted to employ African Americans who were degree-less or who did not have the terminal degree although they had other degrees. This meant that significant community activists could teach in their own fields of ex­pertise and achievement. Among the prominent in­di­viduals who came to lecture at universities under those circum­stan­ces were Sonia San­chez, Bayard Rustin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Ba­ra­ka, Margaret Walker, Charles Fuller, and num­e­rous others. Some ma­jor uni­versities, to gain Afri­can American pro­fes­sors, even raided the fac­ulties of pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black insti­tutions such as Howard, Fisk, Tus­ke­gee, and Hampton. Arna Bon­temps, nearly retired, left Fisk to join the fac­ul­ty at Yale University, for instance.

The General Revolution

There have been three movements for academic enrichment with­in the general revolution initiated by the Black Studies rev­o­lu­tion. Each movement was pegged to one of the terms for the con­cen­tration: Black Studies, Africana, and Africology. Further­more, each of these move­ments had as its political objective the freeing of the minds of the stu­dents so that they might reflect on a vast and diverse uni­verse of knowl­edge.

The Black Studies Movement

The Black Studies Movement did not arise out of a primordial nun, but rather from an organized group of ideas that formed a core phil­os­o­phy for use in confronting the status quo in edu­ca­tion. There was a pow­er­ful­ly raw energy to the creation of the Black Studies Move­ment. It was unlike any other transformation in the academy. Groups of stu­dents from various colleges, acting simul­taneously, almost as if they were collectively programmed, passed through the same proc­esses in order to establish Black Stud­ies on their campuses. First, it was ne­ces­sary to define the mis­sing links in the institutional chain of delivering in­for­mation: subsequently, the students would have to in­sist that those links could be supplied with information and schol­ar­ship, and finally the students would have to oversee the initiation of the program to as­sist the insti­tu­tion. All over the United States, from Bos­ton to San Fran­cis­co, from Detroit to Miami, the African American stu­dents projected their vision. It was often resisted, students were arrested, and many were at­tack­ed by police. In the end, when the dust had settled, African Amer­i­can students had opened most of the doors at major Ameri­can uni­ver­si­ties.

What constituted the Black Studies Movement? Like the Black Pow­er Movement and the Black Is Beautiful Campaign, the Black Stud­ies Move­ment was a move for self- definition, self-determina­tion, and men­tal liberation. In this regard, it was in line with the most rad­i­cal ele­ments of the contemporary objective of securing for Af­ri­can Amer­i­cans a more positive place in the curriculum. By its pro­jec­tion as “Black” the move­ment suggested its ethnic and cultural energy and by its use of the word “Studies” indicated its intellectual com­ponent. This was new and dif­fer­ent because never before had “Black” and “studies” been used in the same term.

The defining moment in the Black Studies Movement was the 1979 pub­lication of Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies.[1] When this book was published, the field had its first attempt to draw the boun­daries of a new area of study broad enough for the mul­ti­pli­ci­ty of pro­grams that emerged from strug­gle. What Ka­ren­ga did in In­tro­duc­tion was to state precisely how the field should be conceptualized, dis­cus­sed, and projected. One could no long­er as­sume that the field of study did not have pre­cur­sor ideas, a core of intellectuals, and ap­proach­es to phenomena that consti­tuted a whole new area of inquiry. This book was first pub­lished in l979 and immediately created a stir in the field be­cause until its appearance no one had conceived of Black Stud­ies in such a ho­lis­tic fashion. Karenga organized the field into seven key areas: history, mythology, motif, ethos, social organization, political or­ga­ni­zation, and economic organization. In l986, a sec­ond book, Intro­duction to Afro-American Studies, was published by Abdul Al­kal­i­mat and Ron Bailey with the objective of defining Afro-American Stud­ies as different from “mainstream” disciplines and with an em­ph­asis on social change.[2]

Africana Studies Movement

The National Council for Black Studies was the first pro­fes­sion­al or­ganization in the field, and it had increasingly referred to the field by the name “Africana,” so that by the mid-1980s there were a good num­ber of departments with that name. The aim was to make the field more academic and less political by changing the names of the de­part­ments around the nation. The Africana Studies Move­ment was in­i­ti­at­ed by members of the Cornell Uni­ver­sity faculty who were among the first to adopt the name Africana Stud­ies for their de­part­ment. The term was quickly adop­ted by other depart­ments in the Northeast part of the United States and soon spread to the Midwest because of the popularity of the professors from Cornell. Seeking to offset any crit­i­cism, the faculty who sub­scribed to the utility of the name “Africana” pre­sented two ar­gu­ments for its acceptance. First, “Africana” was meant to embrace the African world. Secondly, it was intended to de-politicize the study of Af­ri­can phenomena. As such “Africana” was meant to be a step away from confrontation, that is, Black versus White. To say “Af­ri­ca­na” was more than saying “African Ameri­can”: it was a statement about the nature of the African experience in the world. This meant that the scholar could embrace the Ca­rib­be­an, South Amer­i­ca, and the Af­ri­can continent as a part of the field of study. In­deed, Black Studies that had been limited to the Af­ri­can Amer­ican experience was now en­larg­ed to include African issues on the continent, polit­i­cal up­heavals in South America, literary develop­ments in Haiti, and nu­merous other is­sues. One could just as easily research and dis­cuss the Esie stones of Ni­geria as one could the mean­ing of eco­nom­ic liberation among Af­ri­can Americans in Stone Moun­tain, Geor­gia.

The Africological Movement

The Africological Movement, emerging in the mid-l980s, was trans-generational and transcontinental in scope. In my book, Af­ro­cen­tri­city, written initially in l980 and revised several times since, I had spoken of a discipline of “afrology.”[3] This term was re­fined to “Africology” by the Uni­versity of Wisconsin professor Win­ston Van Horne. I have since em­ploy­ed this term, using the def­i­ni­tion I once gave afrology, that is, “the Afro­centric study of Af­ri­can phenom­ena.” Temple Uni­versity’s doctoral pro­gram estab­lished in l987 quickly adopt­ed the new move­ment as a way to ad­vance a discipli­nary ap­proach to the area of study.

Africology as the Afrocentric study of African phenomena was more than an aggregation of courses about African people. One could find at a number of institutions a list of courses on African subjects, but it was only when there was a discipline, as defined by philosophy, meth­ods, and orientation to data, that one could speak of a discipline. Af­ri­col­o­gy was being used at Wisconsin and Temple to signal that there was no longer a field, but a discipline of study. It had become fashionable to speak of Black Studies or Africana Studies as a field of study with nu­mer­ous disciplines con­trib­uting to the study of African people. This was based on the old ethnic studies or area study model. For the Af­ri­col­o­gist, this was a dead-end model that would lead nei­ther to the growth of the study of African phenomena, nor to the ad­vance­ment of sci­en­tific methods. Africologists repeat the dictum that a department is not a discipline and a discipline does not con­sti­tute a de­part­ment. A department is an administrative, not an in­tel­lec­tu­al pro­ject. Al­though it takes intelligence to organize a department so that the administrative func­tions of the faculty members can be car­­ried out, the real in­tel­lec­tu­al discourse is around philosophical ori­en­­ta­tions and the­o­reti­cal em­pha­ses that create a discipline. It is clear­er today than ever before among scholars who articulate the Af­ri­­co­log­i­cal Movement position that there are numerous in­ter­ests, such as social work, social in­sti­tu­tions, literary studies, his­tor­i­cal experi­en­ces, psycho­log­i­cal questions, and linguistic issues, but only one dis­ci­pline.

Those who accept this view are growing in numbers as well as in influence. Fundamental to this project is the belief that Cheikh Anta Diop was correct to argue that until Africans dare to connect An­cient Egypt to the rest of Africa there could be no true in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Af­ri­can history.[4] Diop understood the sig­nif­i­cance of ex­am­in­ing the classical civilizations of Africa as a pre­lude to any dis­course on anything African. Separating the study of African culture or ci­v­i­li­za­tions by the Atlantic Ocean is a pe­­culiar saline demarcation that does not exist in any real sense. Thus, to speak of a Black At­lan­tic makes no real intellectual sense when you assume that Brazil, Vene­zuela, Nicaragua, Jamaica, and Panama do not have anything to do with Af­ri­cans in England or the United States. Indeed, all Africans on both sides of the Atlan­tic are in­ex­tric­ably joined by a common ex­per­ience and a com­mon cultural response, however tailored the re­sponse is to spe­cif­ic his­tories.

The Issues of Theory and Method

The challenge to Africologists in the postmodern era is to de­vise ways to explore African phenomena that avoid the worst pit­falls of Western theories and methods. This means that the source of the the­ories must be in the historical and lived ex­per­i­en­ces of the African people wherever they appear in the world. Congruent theories of Af­ri­can phenomena have symmetry to Afri­can life. This does not mean that we cannot learn from theories developed in other places, but rather that symmetry to one’s own phe­nom­en­o­­log­ical history is a better way to view reality. I think that the issues of method are similar.

To examine theory and method is to confront the problem of Western science’s attempt to bifurcate the study of human ex­per­i­ences. In most departments of Africology, we are faced with de­cid­ing whether we are in the social sciences or the humanities. Here we are at Eshu’s crossroads, presented with a choice. If we claim to be social scientists, studying the nature of human behavior, we won­der about our interests in the creations of human beings, in art, literature, and mu­sic. If we claim to be in the humanities, then we are left asking ques­tions about our interests in how African people survive under the pres­sures of racist brutality and discrimination. So we are caught be­tween the Lim­po­po and the Zambezi; if we cross the first we are leav­ing behind the Great Zimbabwe and if we cross the second, we also leave behind the Great Zimbabwe. The resolution of this issue can only come from our own cultural center. As we stand at the pinnacle of the Great Zim­bab­we, we must see our world going out to the va­ri­ous ends but not being de­­fined by one or the other.

All departments of Africology should have the ability to ar­tic­u­late both interests as a part of the philosophical project. In the first place the study of African phenomena for us does not sub­scribe to the West­ern division where you separate behavioral type studies from creative type studies. Our concentrations in Cultural Aesthet­ics or in Social Be­hav­ior­al are intended to suggest that what passes for social sci­en­ces in­cludes far more than psychology or so­ci­ology and what passes for arts and humanities includes far more than writ­ing and dancing.

Living with Athens and Rome

Our confrontation with the social sciences and humanities oc­curs because the American academy was essentially defined with a Greek or Roman head at the beginning of all academic knowl­edge. Since Af­ri­can American Studies departments exist within American acade­mies, they are victims of the categories of Western society. Each of the West­ern liberal arts, comprising the core of the hu­man­ities, is accred­ited to ei­ther a Greek or Roman founder. Unfortunately, Africologists have of­ten bought into this system of thinking, which prevents them from ex­am­ining the records that exist before the Greeks and the Ro­mans. The ear­liest phil­os­o­phers in the world are African philoso­phers. The names and works of Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Kagemni, Amen­emhat, Amen­o­mope, Ak­he­naten, Merikare, and Duauf must be stud­ied in our de­part­ments in order to gain a clear conception of the ori­gin of even the West­ern ideas of liberal arts.[5]

When I created the first PhD program in African American Stud­ies in l987 at Temple University, I had to keep uppermost in my mind the fact that African intellectual traditions were not anti-people. In fact, the doctoral program in African American Studies had to be a peo­ple-affirming program. Writing and defending a program that was con­sidered to be far from the usual university de­velopment fare had its dis­appointments and rewards. I un­der­stood precisely what we were up against when the proposal went to the Graduate Committee of the Col­lege of Arts and Sciences. Not only were there people with Ne­an­der­thalian ideas, but some who did not want to see any challenge to the hegemony of Eur­o­pe­an education even if it meant that they would be less educated if they did not know the information. They were in bliss in their ig­no­rance. When the first thirty-five graduate students en­tered the uni­ver­sity in the fall of 1988, they changed forever the na­ture of ed­u­ca­tion at predominantly white institutions in America. But they changed something else as well: the intellectual basis for Af­ri­can American Stud­ies. The only way that I could justify the cre­a­tion of a doctoral program was that we were teaching something that was not being taught any­where else. This meant that those of us who work­ed in the department had to commit discipline suicide from our old doctorates and work fe­ver­ish­ly to flesh out this new disci­pline that was not African American history, not African American literature, not Wo­men’s Studies, not Af­ri­can American sociology, and not Studies in Racism.

We confronted the turf wars with other departments and won on the merits of what it was that we were doing. We found the energy and the time to write the texts and establish the se­quences that would dem­on­strate that we were as much a discipline as any other group of schol­ars. The process is not over; it has really only just begun. In Africology, it ought to be possible to point to texts, written by scholars in our field—not in literature, English, sociology, and history—as sig­nif­i­cant for our graduate students. We are doing more in this regard with the an­nual Cheikh Anta Diop Conference, the student conferences, the Nommo symposia, the publication of fundamental works such as African Intellectual Heritage, and the editing of numerous jour­nals. Fi­nal­ly, the pursuit of Africology is nearly completed but will not be truly ac­complished until contempora­ry Black Studies de­part­ments begin to re­furb­ish their faculties with PhDs who have completed the terminal de­gree in the field. When we have reach­ed the level of having more than half of our faculty mem­bers with degrees in African American Stud­ies, we can say that the dis­ci­pline is secure.



Asante, Molefi Kete. Afrocentricity. Revised and expanded ed. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001.

———. The Afrocentric Idea. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

———. The Egyptian Philosophers. Chicago: African American Images, 2000.

Asante, Molefi Kete, and Abu Abarry. The African Intellectual Heritage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Diop, Cheikh Anta. The African Origin of Civilization. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1976.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Philadelphia Negro. Introduction by Elijah Anderson. 1899. Reprint, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Karenga, Maulana. Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1993.

Keita, Maghan. Race and the Writing of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mazama, Ama. Langue et identité en Guadeloupe: Une perspective afrocentrique. Pointe-a-Pitre: Editions Jasor, 1997.

  1. Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1993).
  2. Abdul Alkalimat and Ron Bailey, eds., Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer, 6th ed. (Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books and Publications, 1986).
  3. Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity, revised and expanded ed. (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001).
  4. Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1976).
  5. Molefi Kete Asante, The Egyptian Philosophers (Chicago: African American Images, 2000).


The Pursuit of Africology Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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