Romanian Model Composite

December 28, 2009

Black History Professor Rejects Afrocentrism

December 20, 2009

Clarence E. Walker. We Can't Go Home Again: an Argument about Afrocentrism

By Fred R. van Hartesveldt
Teaching History: A Journal of Methods
Fall, 2003

The factual flaws in much of the writing about Afrocentrism have been exposed in the past. Clarence Walker does so again in We Can't Go Home Again, and does so effectively. In this regard he focuses particularly on the Afrocentric assertion that Egyptians were black and the wellspring of Western civilization. He makes very clear that the modern concept of race as identity simply does not apply to the variegated population of Egypt and would not have been understood there. The importance of his book, however, does not lie in renewing and expanding the critique of the factual and analytical content of Afrocentric literature.

Walker refers to Afrocentrism as "therapeutic mythology" asserted as a way to promote the self-esteem of African Americans (a term he does not like) "by creating a past that never was." He understands it as black nationalism; in fact he argues that the origins of Afrocentrism lay in black nationalism of the Romantic era, but rejects it as history. Were Afrocentrism a means of creating African American community and thus empowering a minority, it would be comparable to such mythologies used by other minorities. Such mythologies, however, have been grounded in historical thought, while Afrocentrism is factually errant and theoretically flawed.

By urging black Americans to seek empowerment in a misconstructed Egyptian history, Afrocentrists not only mislead, opening their students to ridicule, but they also assert that culture is "transhistoric" — that is, it can be transferred through time and space intact. Culture, Walker asserts, is always changing and will be different as a result of any transfer, willing or unwilling, on the part of those living it. African Americans have created a culture of their own — a culture of which to be proud, but not an Egyptian or African culture. To Walker's way of thinking, Afrocentrism turns African Americans into helpless victims whose ancestors created a glorious culture and then for thousands of years accomplished little. They became the dupes and victims of Europeans, enslaved and exploited, and now their descendants must look to a mythical African past for purpose and meaning. Such a denigration of the African-American struggle, which Walker regards as a triumph, clearly angers him.

Given the popularity of Afrocentrism and its spread through the academic community and popular culture, anyone teaching history or otherwise interested in the nature of historical methodology should read Walker. The manipulation of history to create a particular attitude or support a political point of view is, as Walker acknowledges, sometimes a way of creating unity and gaining power. To deny a people the heritage they and their forefathers built is not acceptable. Walker shows that historians should help African-American students to appreciate their own real history and not pursue distortions of the past in the name of identity, especially since their actual past offers them an identity worthy of enormous pride.

Walker's prose conveys his ideas and passions effectively, despite a painful tendency to fall into the jargon of social science. His arguments are clear, thoughtful, and easy to read. His concern for the discipline and its practitioners comes through forcefully. Even those who disagree with his conclusions will be engaged and will find much to think about if they are sincerely interested in historical scholarship and how it influences those who study it.

The value of this book for courses in historiography and methodology is obvious. It offers useful examples of how historians analyze material, and historical knowledge can shape our understanding of contemporary culture. Its applications go beyond metahistory, however. Students of modern American society and education will find much to explore in its pages, and anyone investigating African-American history should examine Walker's conclusions. Walker will help such students understand not only one way African Americans have come to view themselves but also an element in their contemporary efforts at gaining a sense of identity within American culture. Thus, although the title might not suggest it, this book can be a valuable part of a variety of courses.


Old Comments Are Gone

December 16, 2009

HaloScan's free commenting service is being discontinued before the end of the year, and users have been given the option of upgrading to a new paid service or exporting their comments for use elsewhere. I've opted for the latter. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't provide any way of importing them. Maybe that'll change in the future, but for now I'm afraid they're gone. (You can download the archive I exported, but it's not very reader-friendly.) Even though I don't like what HaloScan is doing (and I'm not alone), in a way it's a relief because using Blogger's built-in commenting system will simplify things in the long run.

Another Feeble Attack on FORDISC

December 9, 2009

The FORDISC computer program used for classifying unknown human crania has been at the center of a debate about its reliability. In 2005 the program's creators responded to criticism, setting the record straight. Now a new study is launching yet another attack. The authors' conclusion, based on tests they conducted, makes the following two points:

FORDISC will only return a correct ancestry attribution when an unidentified specimen is more or less complete and belongs to one of the populations represented in the program's reference samples.

1) Of course a specimen has to be "more or less complete" to be correctly classified. That applies in forensic anthropology in general and has nothing to do with the efficacy of the FORDISC program. No program or anthropologist can be expected to accurately classify highly incomplete crania, which is what the authors have simulated in one of their tests by reducing the number of cranial metric variables from 56 to 10. This argument is the equivalent of faulting someone for not being able to identify the image on a puzzle that's missing 80% of its pieces.

2) Under Materials and Methods, the authors explain that they only consider an ancestry attribution "correct" if the specimen is assigned to its source population or one that they've selected as its "most closely related population". So for example, they match up Berg (Austria) with Norse (Norway), and if a Berg specimen clusters instead with, say, Zalavar (Hungary) — Austria's next-door neighbor — or Gizeh (Egypt), they'd consider it "misclassified", even though the program has correctly identified it as West Eurasian/Caucasoid. Limiting the criteria for correct classifications to exact matches with source populations or, in the absence of these, pre-selected populations of questionable equivalence, is setting the experiment up to fail.

Marina Elliott and Mark Collard (2009). FORDISC and the determination of ancestry from cranial measurements. Biol Lett., vol. 5 no. 6, pp. 849-852.