The Continuing Relevance of Cheikh Anta Diop

The Daily Observer (Banjul), wrote on February 7, 2007:

“At the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966, Cheikh Anta Diop, with W.E.B. Dubois, was honoured as ‘the writer who had exerted the greatest influence on African people in the twentieth century’.

“The African continent's fight against colonialism engendered both the ‘warrior-nationalist’, demanding political independence, and the 'scholar-activist', retrieving the stolen 'family China'. And Diop's intellectual oeuvre establishes him as the ‘scholar-activist’ par excellence. He compared imperialism with the prehistoric hunter, who killed his prey spiritually and culturally, before eliminating it physically. And we see evidence of this insight in the way that European imperialism had walled up itself behind a facade of falsifications and misconceptions about African history, and then proceeded to devalue and disparage our cultural heritage. And relying on this intellectual sleight-of-hand, it concocted a self-serving hierarchy of cultures, which placed the European on top and the African at the bottom.

“It was against this background of cultural spoliation, that Cheikh Anta, and others, committed themselves to ‘the project of restitution of the authentic history of Africa and the reconciliation of African civilizations with history... in order to construct a body of modern human sciences, in order to renovate African culture.’

“He envisaged an Africa where Egypto-Ethiopian antiquity will play the same role that Greco-Latin antiquity plays in the west. Believing , as he did, that we can never have any profound understanding of modern African history, without a proper apprehension of Egyptian antiquity. And that this historical anchor of modern Africa gives it a cultural unity that can be the basis for a federated multinational state. An idea still struggling to be born.

“It was also mainly his work that exposed the immeasurable debt that Greek civilisation owed to Egypt, in the Sciences, Arts, Philosophy and Theology. So when we talk about the importation of foreign ideas into Africa, Diop would have immediately pointed out our category error, because these so-called foreign ideas are simply making their return journey home. ‘Modern technologies and sciences come from Europe/US, just as the sciences and technologies of antiquity streamed from the Nile Valley to the rest of the world, particularly to Greece.’

“His books were largely responsible for, at least, the partial re-orientation of attitudes about the place of African people in history, in scholarly circles around the world. The scientific rigour of his method made him temperamentally unsuited to the coy sensibilities of the Negritude movement; and ‘Negritudisms’ such as ‘emotion is Negro and reason Greek’ (Senghore) and ‘those who explored neither the seas nor the sky’ (Cesaire), were anathema to his ears.

“He was born in Diourbel, Senegal, in 1923, and died on this day, 7 February, in 1986. He was a true Prometheus of our time, and we've come to understand ourselves a bit better thanks to his books. May his inspiration carry us through the ‘crooked timbre’ of history.”