1. Something Old, Something New: Introducing Africana Philosophy

Posted on 1 April 2018

We kick off the new series by explaining the scope and meaning of "Africana philosophy."

Further Reading

• L.R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: 2000).

• L.R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge: 2008).

• C. Jeffers, “Do We Need African Canadian Philosophy?” Dialogue 51 (2012), 643-666.

• D.A. Masolo, “African Philosophers in the Greco-Roman Era,” in K. Wiredu (ed.), A Companion to African Philosophy (Malden: 2004), 50-65.

• L.T. Outlaw, “African, African American, Africana Philosophy,” Philosophical Forum 24 (1992), 63-93.

• K. Wiredu, “On Defining African Philosophy” in T. Serequeberhan (ed.), African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (New York: 1991), 87-110.


Ayot 13 February 2021

I think this series will one day be looked back on as an excellent example of American cultural neocolonialism.


The logo used sums it up perfectly : the "African-American flag", a flag created by some Americans who know nothing of Africa, superimposed on the entire African continent, a negation of Africa's cultural and racial diversity, as well as of its peoples' agency. Just as "Africana" is nothing more than an attempt from Americans to impose their racist and colonialist thinking on the world in general and Africa in particular.

Should we start with the false claim that we have used the "African American flag"? It's even worse if you know that the Pan-African flag was created by Marcus Garvey, because presumably in that case, the distinction between being Jamaican and American means nothing to you, making you the one who is unconcerned with diversity. If Ayot is your name, I wonder if you're Luo, and if so, I wonder if you're from Kenya... a country whose flag clearly uses the colours of the Pan-African flag! As does Malawi and - most recently - South Sudan. Or did you think the red black and green in those flags were meaningless and incidental? But perhaps you don't even think Kenya should be country and perhaps you don't think there should be any such thing as an African Union, given that you seem to think all forms of African unity are meaningless. Maybe you think it's wrong that Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya and Hastings Banda from Malawi attended the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, as we just discussed in episode 68. You can certainly have all these opinions. It's not our job as historians of philosophy to convince you to be a Pan-Africanist, or (if you're Kenyan) to believe in Kenya's unity, or (if you're Luo) even the unity of the Luo people. If you think people's diversity means it's wrong to discuss anything beyond a village, if that, as unified, that's fine.  

What's absolutely ridiculous, though, is treating a podcast concerned with Africa and the African diaspora as American neocolonialism, when you don't even know the difference between Americans and Canadians - or were you confused and under the impression that this series was planned out from an American perspective? Peter is American, it's true, and perhaps you think that makes it American neocolonialism that he chose to unify such diversity in his series on philosophy in the Islamic world. I'm not American and the ignorance of your comment is deeply annoying to me. 

Nevertheless, I hope you choose to listen to the podcast and learn from it. Maybe with humility, you will find out you can gain from learning about some of Africa's wonderfully diverse contributions to the history of thought.

What continent do you think Jamaica is in? Or Canada for that matter? I'll give you a hint: it's not Africa. The African-American flag (yes that's what it is, there is nothing African about it) was designed by a Jamaican and adopted by a pan-American organisation that is based in the United States. It is an American movement, by Americans for Americans, it has nothing to do with Africa. Americans can have all the political movements they want at home, but once they try to export them to a different continent, that is called colonialism. Kenya and others adopting those colours for their flags is a great example of that colonialism, it reminds me of old British colonies putting the Union Jack on their flags. And the flag is just highly symbolic of what is going on here, the name is probably as well: while I don't know what an "Africana" is, I can only assume it's a bastardisation of "Americana". The unity of African countries is another matter entirely, but it is one for Africans to deal with, not Americans. Africa has had quite enough of having its borders drawn by foreigners. 


On your strawmen about villages and the Islamic world: the Islamic world obviously has a commonality. Islam, for starters. What commonality does this "Africana" world have, an absurd transcontinental notion that is defined racially on one side of the ocean and as a continent on the other? What does a Jamaican or a black American have in common with a Kenyan, or with an Algerian, or with a Malagasy? Not culture, not language, not religion, not even race, absolutely nothing. Your pedantic distinction between the United States and Canada, which are culturally completely indistinguishable, is quite ridiculous when you're lumping the entire African continent together, not to mention together with a certain race of Americans. But I suppose you would like for Africa to be as slavishly downstream to US ideology as Canada already is, and sadly given the United States' willingness to use its hegemonic stranglehold on the world to evangelise everyone to its own culture and values, that certainly seems to be the way things are going. You are just a small and most likely (willingly) unaware cog in this vast colonial enterprise.

You begin by confirming that you are the true eraser of diversity, because apparently the Americas is all culturally one thing in your eyes.

Secondly, you show you don't know the history of the UNIA, because how can an organization that had chapters in Africa have nothing to do with Africa? To be clear, though, the use of the Pan-African colours in our logo does not signify that we are acting here as Garveyites in a thick sense, aiming to perpetuate all his various views. The colours simply and clearly symbolize a Pan-African scope of concern - in the context of our work as historians of philosophy, they delineate a sphere of interest that we have demonstrated to be one that is historically grounded, rich with interconnection, and not arbitrary. Those who have listened to the podcast can judge the truth of that assertion for themselves.    

Thirdly, "Africana" is not a bastardization of anything. The English language has, among its word construction rules, the use of the suffix -ana to turn a proper noun into a mass noun. You really love making unjustified assumptions!  

I certainly won't dignify the trash of the insulting closing sentences of your last paragraph with a direct response. I'll simply say this. You are not Africa and you are not entitled to speak on behalf of a huge, diverse continent. You are a single person, entitled to your own opinions and entitled to ignore the continent's diverse intellectual history if you choose to do so. As for us, we'll continue celebrating it.  

I never said America is all the same (Canada and the US really are though), I said it is NOT AFRICA. I also never claimed to speak on behalf of "Africa", whatever that means, and obviously my opinions are my opinions, what's the point of resorting to such platitudes and putting words in my mouth? I'm not even denying you the right to talk about philosophy from Africa or from any other part of the world. What I'm saying is that just as "pan-" movements are usually a vehicle for imperialism from the most powerful country that groups itself in that category, "Africana" is obviously an imperialistic American project (or should I say just one facet of it). But while the Russian imperialism masked by "pan-Slavism" or the German imperialism masked by "pan-Germanism" at least were based on some ethnic commonality, and while even though "pan-Africanism" is already nonsense you could argue there is at least some very minor commonality there (although not really, Gaddafi's pan-Africanism for example was pure continuation of Arab colonialism), what makes this "Africana" concept so much worse is that it's a vehicle for imperialism from a country that has NOTHING to do with Africa, and a country with a colonial mentality to boot. The worst part being that while Americans (including "black" ones) generally know nothing of Africa, they all assume that they do, because they have their own "black" people and make the racist assumption that "blacks" must all be the same. Never mind that a huge part of Africa isn't even black, but the navelist world view created by Americans and their euphemisms like "African-American" won't allow for such subtleties. "Africana" is as if the Chinese made up some nonsense word that lumps China together with Africa and used it to exert dominion over the continent. The only reason why this would seem absurd to any sane person and "Africana" doesn't is deep-rooted racism. What makes this new colonialism so much more pernicious is that it's masked and it's a colonisation of the minds. I can only hope that Africans will start to see what is going on and won't allow themselves to be enslaved yet again by a Western power, tricked by the fact it uses "black" foremen to boss them around.


Oh and I just looked up the word's etymology, of course my intuition was right: 

"Surface analysis Africa +‎ -ana (“things (plural)”), analogous to Americana."

I am not convinced that pursuing this discussion further would be worthwhile, but I think it would be observing that one of the most frequent points we make in the first series of episodes, and stress many times, is that Africa is so culturally diverse that it is often problematic to generalize about "African philosophy" or such things as e.g. the "African theory of time." Also, the relation between Africa and diasporic cultures and figures is one of the central problematics of the whole series, and we have looked (and will continue to look) at any number of different historical views about how that relationship has been conceived, and even talked about the fact that some diasporic thinkers in the 19th century had imperialist aspects to their thought (the "let's return to Africa to civilize it" motif), while others were critical of this. So your accusations make me strongly suspect that you either haven't listened to the series you are criticizing, or that you listened to it with such strong assumptions about what we are doing that you didn't notice that we keep saying over and over the opposite of what you think we are going to say.

Oh I absolutely haven't, also I'm not criticising the content, which I'm sure has many interesting things, but the way it is framed, and the very concept of "Africana".

Reminds me of a favorite line of mine from a Smothers Brothers comedy routine, which my folks used to play on vinyl when I was a kid (yes I am that old), in which one of the brothers refuses to go to a Broadway show: "I'm an American, I don't have to see something to know I don't like it!"

But seriously: if you are interested in the topic, then have a listen to the series. If you learn half as much as I have learned by working together on this with Chike, you will be much enriched by doing so.

Jennifer Nagel 15 February 2021

Hmm, I think this series will one day be looked back on as one of the keys to breaking the stranglehold that broadly European texts have had over the study of the history of philosophy in North America, the UK and Australia/New Zealand. I am so grateful to Chike and Peter for their hard work in introducing the texts and thinkers in this series to a larger audience over here, and for making it easier for us (as faculty) to start sharing a broader range of terrific ideas and perspectives with our students, to make the study of philosophy more global, and more interesting.  Thanks, guys!

I completely agree with this comment re. breaking the European stranglehold re. history of philosophy (and as elaborated nicely by Bryan van Norden on a recent episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast) and that Peter and Chike  provide an excellent example of why that should happen (as did Peter and Jonardan re. the series on Indian philosophy). But, and sorry if this is a little off topic, the coincidence re. Jennifer commenting and my having just watched her Epistemology series on Wi-Phi was too much to resist; I thought that series was really excellent (I can imagine what a challenge it must be to be so thorough, succinct, and clear all at the same time). So much great philosophy for we hoi polloi these days ! Deep gratitude to all concerned.

I once shared them (Jennifer's epistemology series on Wi-Phi) with my daughter who is 10 now and this is quite a few years ago... talk about accessible :)

Victor Gijsbers 8 March 2022

Aw, shucks. I could *really* use a 25 minute summary of Mind and World!

HOP Fan 17 April 2023

It looks as though the Africana series will be reaching a conclusion soon, so I'll begin listening to it again. As I was thinking about the podcast I remembered a debate in this thread, about what should count as African. Specifically that the North African countries might not be African.

Perhaps in an example of how football explains the world, Morroco got to the semi-final of the recent world cup and one of their players thanked all the Arab people for their support, to the regret of many non-Arab Africans, who were not thanked.

(Quoting from a BBC article called "African, Arab or Amazigh? Morocco's identity crisis") Moroccan winger Sofiane Boufal after their World Cup victory over Spain brought the debate about the country's continental identity to the fore. He thanked "all Moroccans all over the world for their support, to all Arab people, and to all Muslim people. This win belongs to you."

Asking around about this, it seems that Arab fans support the Arab teams when they play black sub-Saharan teams and the black sub-Saharan fans support the other black sub-Saharan teams when they play the Arab teams. Here, North Africa counts as Arab. Of course the plural of anecdote is not data. What was told to me may or may not be true.

Something else that was on my mind was Colonel Gaddafi. On a podcast series about him, they recounted how former US president Ronald Reagan talked about Gaddafi as this "mad dog of the Middle East". Note, not the mad dog of Africa, despite Libya very much being part of geographical Africa. It would be tempting to joke about Reagan not knowing where Libya was. More likely is that to him, and many other Americans, in their imaginations Libya felt and feels more like the Middle East than Africa. Both culturally and ethnically.

On the other hand, for the view that all Africa is connected, I posted in another thread on the site about Mansa Musa. When he went on pilgrimage, he passed through Egypt and brought so much gold with him that he destabilised the Egyptian economy for some time after. And in his later years, Gaddafi became a kind of pan-Africanist. Spent a lot of money in black sub-Saharan Africa and is still thought well of. It was Gaddafi that funded Nelson Mandela's election campaign after he was released from prison and Mandela refused to criticise Gaddafi.

Not sure how this relates to exactly what was discussed in the thread, haven't reread it. So it may be that this misses the mark over what was in contention. I thought it was worth mentioning.

Looking forward to rest of the Africana series. The podcasts are always thought-provoking and informative. Thank you for your efforts in making them :)

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