Words in and of themselves have little significance. The same goes for names. So earlier this year when Dr. Molefi Asante, the chair of the African American studies department, argued for changing the name of the department to Africology, people like myself wanted to provide some context.
Asante said the name change reflects that the department will be for African people’s study of Africa’s many cultures from an “African worldview.”
“The department is changing directions, away from civic issues in American history to other areas,” Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Teresa Soufas told the The Temple News in March.
I’m a Black woman, an African American studies major and an activist. As such, I’m concerned that this is more about Asante and what he views as his legacy than advancing African American studies at Temple. Although there is some theoretical reasoning from Asante’s standpoint, in my eyes there is not enough to justify a name change. If Asante makes such a drastic change – thus establishing his as the only possible theoretical stance in the department – it will imply that he is the arbiter and final authority of what is African.
W.E.B. Du Bois first used the word “Afro-centrism.” For Du Bois it was connected to a method of studying the Black world. Du Bois sought ways to empower people stripped of their cultural dignity who are often left in a state of self-hate. He saw the term as part of his bigger efforts at creating social and human science.
In an interview earlier this week with The Temple News, however, Asante said his name change has “nothing to do with Du Bois.”
“[The field] was created after his death,” Asante said.
I and others have accused Asante of attempting to push Du Bois out of the African American studies department to create a department of “Asanteism,” a narrow and self serving enterprise.
Dr. Anthony Monteiro’s nonrenewal at Temple suggests exactly this. Monteiro’s classes focused heavily on Du Bois’ teachings. However, Soufas and Asante did not seem to think these classes were necessary. The department “is not going to hire someone else to teach W.E.B. Du Bois,” Soufas told The Temple News in a September interview. “That’s not something they need now.”
Since Asante assumed leadership over the department, more and more of his books have surfaced on undergraduate syllabi than my previous years in attendance at Temple. There is, therefore, a money-making component to Asante’s ideologies. Although Asante is hardly the only professor to require his own materials, it seems especially hypocritical to make money off of African American studies students in particular. Poverty as a result of capitalism is one of the biggest challenges the African American community faces, but it’s difficult for Asante to critique capitalism while aspiring to be a part of the capitalist class.
In addition, there is very little critical academic value to Asante’s version of Africology. Scholars in feminist, gender and queer studies, along with African American Studies scholars have long questioned the critical and academic validity of Asante’s theorizing, drawing attention to its misogyny and homophobia. In her book “Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice,” Patricia Hill Collins states, “Asante’s advice is especially odd, given that he makes little mention of gender in his volume despite his advise that it be taken seriously.”
Not only would Du Bois be phased out, but so would scholars like Collins, based merely on their stances on gender and sexuality. This would be done while Asante claims that “traditional Africa” rejected modern ideas of gender equality and certainly was anti-homosexual.
A fundamental aspect of traditional African culture is the institution of public critique. When students assembled to disagree with the administration on the matter of choosing the chair of the African American studies department, Asante originally agreed with our right to assemble.
It was only when students began to criticize Asante’s failure to renew Monteiro’s contract that he opposed the efforts of students to openly address and critique the actions of those in power.
In regards to a protest on Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue on May 8, Asante stated in a public Facebook post that “a poorer excuse for a demonstration has never been seen in the history of the Philadelphia African American community.”
Dr. Cornel West and Marc Lamont Hill, two renowned African American activists, headlined the event, which was attended by myself and many other African American studies students.
“[Marc and Hill] were either duped or willingly participated in an empty charade,” Asante said in the same post. “If they were duped, they are not as politically or socially intelligent as they have seemed. If they willingly participated in the event it was a vile and obscene demonstration of political underhandedness meant to muddy the waters surrounding the Monteiro affair.”
I find Asante’s opinions of student activism at Temple to be unacceptable and contradictory of African values. Attacking progressive voices like West and Hill implies that Asante wants to crush academic and intellectual dissent, freedom of thought and speech at Temple. The change of the department’s name would only embolden him in these authoritarian practices.
I chose to become an African American Studies major because it not only affirmed my experience as a Black person in America, but also because it challenged the academic norms that inherently led to the marginalization of my experience. The department, in my view, no longer cultivates critique – and that is tragic. As a department based in North Philadelphia, one can think of few places in the country where this critique is more necessary.
As of this month, the proposed name change is still being debated, Asante said. It is time that the university step in to rectify the rapidly deteriorating situation within the department and restore it to what we know it can be. I believe Black lives matter, that Black students matter, that African American studies matter and that Temple University matters. For this reason, I will continue to stand up to Asante.
Kashara White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org