On African Heritage, Activist Intellectual Says Knowledge Is Nothing Without Action
Born and raised in Georgia’s most rural county, Molefi Kete Asante’s path has led him on a quest to discover the roots of African Americans and African people. He is now recognized as one of the foremost contemporary African American scholars.
Asante’s story begins with his name.
“The name that my parents gave me at the time – Arthur L. Smith – was not my name and it had nothing to do with my history or heritage. It was a slave name and it was a name that was given to African people by virtue of the condition of enslavement,” Asante says.
His most recent book, As I Run Toward Africa, recounts his search for connection to his heritage. Asante says the sense of dislocation he experiences is similar to the lost sense of place felt by Africans throughout the United States, South America, and the Caribbean.
His search for his name, his history, and his heritage led Asante to his prominent position in African Studies scholarship. His book The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony is taught to students of African Studies throughout the United States.
Asante says there are important lessons to gain from the study of African history. He places a special emphasis on the idea of maat, a concept originating in the Nile Valley Civilizations.
“Maat was harmony, balance, order, justice, truth, righteousness, reciprocity. [The] African concept is that the purpose we have in the world is to hold back chaos,” Asante says. “Even in situations that look like conflict, you’re really trying to find out what is the best way for us to move in a way that brings justice and order and balance.”
Through his research and writing on African history, the creation of academic conferences, and advocacy, Asante says that he strives to be an activist intellectual and works to inspire others to do the same.
“I think that to humanize a world you can know a lot, you can learn a lot, you can master many subjects and become an expert in many fields,” Asante says. “But if you do not act then it simply becomes knowledge, and that is not the kind of resource that I want to be.”
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Molefi Kete Asante, welcome to World Views.
ASANTE: Thank you very much. I'm really delighted to be on World Views.
GRILLOT: Well it's a real pleasure to have you here. You've had such an amazing career and have written so much. There are just so many things to say and talk about. I really wanted to start with your background and how you got to where you are today. Particularly from this location. You were born and raised in Georgia. You're one of sixteen children. And so tell us a little bit about that upbringing and how you ended up coming tot his point where you write about your experiences and the experiences of other African Americans in this country and the study of Africa. You've made such an impact on the study and what we know of the history of Africa.
ASANTE: Well, I come from a peasant background, actually. My family, as far as I can remember, started in a county called Dooly county in Georgia, which was at one time considered the most rural county in the United States. And migrated to Valdosta, Georgia, where I was born. I worked in the cotton fields and then the tobacco fields until I was around sixteen or seventeen, but I left Valdosta to go to one of the five African American boarding schools at that time. And I went to National Christian Institute and in fact finished there. But during the summers I would leave Nashville, Tennessee and go back to Georgia to work in the cotton fields. So I see myself as a child of that rural experience in Southern Georgia, but it is true - sometimes when I am at the University of Oklahoma, or sitting at the University of London, I wonder how could a person from Valdosta be in such places. And I think it probably had a lot to do with my own aspirations and the support that I received from my father and my mother. So I was quite energetic as a student and quite devoted to learning and ended up, actually, at Oklahoma Christian College.
GRILLOT: Now that's what I found particularly interesting, that you found your way to Oklahoma.
ASANTE: I'm really happy to be back in Oklahoma. I haven't been back here since 1964, actually. I left. I was the first African American to graduate from Oklahoma Christian. And then I left and I am now back in Oklahoma.
GRILLOT: Well it's great to have you back. You've written a memoir - As I Run Toward Africa. In this work you talk about dealing with the meaning of lost displacement and dislocation. Can you tell us about what you mean by that? And how your upbringing in the United States as an African American led you to try to study and really understand your roots, basically, and where you came from?
ASANTE: I think you really captured what I was trying to capture in the book and that is this question of lost, this question of dislocation. Even the name that my parents gave me at the time - which was Arthur L. Smith - the name was not my name and it had nothing to do with my history or heritage. It was basically a slave name and it was a name that was given to African people by virtue of the condition of enslavement. So part of the running toward Africa is really a running towards a centered-ness, a search for my own sense of heritage and agency that was apart from the dislocation that I had experienced. And millions of Africans in the United States, the Caribbean, and South America have experienced this same dislocation because we basically are not living on our own terms. So how do you regain a sense of place? A sense of orientation where you have at least a much greater chance of having some degree of an experience where you are a subject rather than an object? And for me that had to do with searching out the values, the customs, the traditions, the aesthetics, even, in a sense, the spiritual component of what it means to be an African in a world that for four or five-hundred years that had been dominated by Europe, and if not by Europe by the Arabs. So you have to come to some understanding of yourself. Knowledge of self was first for me. I thought that to run away from what I thought was, and I still believe, was an irrational situation towards rationality was to run towards Africa.
GRILLOT: So looking for a connection to who you really were and where you came from. This led to a significant transformation in yourself - not only a change in name but a change in your ultimate goals and objectives and where you were going to head and go in your life in terms of becoming that educator to let other people know about Africa and where you and others came from.
ASANTE: Yes. Thank you, because fundamentally the experience of African Americans is one that is quite bizarre and quite odd. If a person, for example, of Chinese background, had a name like Arthur Smith, we would look at that and say, "Well that's kind of strange and rather odd but maybe there's an explanation." But for African Americans with a name like Arthur Smith, we assume that that's normal and that it's in fact not bizarre and not odd. But for me it was quite simply one of the oddest things that I could ever imagine. And the way it struck me was when I first went to Africa. I lived in Zimbabwe and I've traveled to Africa maybe eighty times - all over the continent. But when I was first in Ghana in 1972 I had written a book called The Rhetoric of Black Revolution and I asked the librarian at the University of Ghana if they had a copy of my book. At that time my name was still Arthur Smith. They said yes, but when the book came in we thought it was an Englishman. And it just struck me that - wow, this is kind of weird to have a name like Arthur Smith and be a black person. This is quite strange. So this was just one aspect of the problem. The other problem outside of the name was the loss of history that goes with the loss of names. This is why the work that is being done by many people now with DNA and trying to discover what are the roots. You remember Alex Haley's famous book on roots? This whole idea of trying to say "Who are we? Where do we come from? What's the background of African people? What did we call God before we came here? What religious practices did Africans have? What were the languages that were spoken? What music did people here? What colors did they appreciate?" It was a whole different search and quest. And this is a quest that is at the very core of most African people who live in the Western world, even if it is unspoken. And if a student sits in the classroom in elementary school, this question is in her mind. She's raising this question, but it is never asked of her or the answer is never given. So part of my search and my quest and my work - I have been on this quest. This is basically what I have been trying to do.
GRILLOT: Well, clearly you have made a significant contribution in this respect. You've written the book The History of Africa, which has been adopted by most high schools in the country, or many high schools in the country to try to teach these kids about that history. It's so important. But the subtitle of that book - I want to ask you about that. It's called the Quest for Eternal Harmony. So a history book about Africa that is then subtitled The Quest for Eternal Harmony. What were you trying to get at with that statement?
ASANTE: The most profound concept in ancient African philosophy was a concept called maat. And maat, according to the understanding of this concept, was at the very beginning of the Universe that maat was this - this is of course the mythical reality - is that when the Almighty created the universe, along with the almighty was maat. The only entity existing with the creator was maat. This was out of the Nile Valley civilizations. Maat was harmony, balance, order, justice, truth, righteousness, reciprocity. And the example of maat, or at least the symbol of maat was a woman with a feather, but who also was the one who was able to judge with the scales. So this notion of harmony, this quest for eternal harmony comes out of most African philosophy. Because African philosophy is different from what we have come to know from sort of a Hegelian or Marxist notion of -or even moral contemporary understanding in the Western World - of conflict. That is, that you have people in conflict and out of conflict, you get a synthesis, and you move on to another form of conflict. This is not an African concept. African concept is that the purpose that we have in the world is to hold back chaos. And to hold back chaos, you only search and you always search for harmony, for consensus. You're always searching, even in situations that look like conflict you're really trying to find out "what is the best way for us to move in a way that brings justice and order and balance?" So that's what I meant. The history of Africa, even where you would have conflict, would always be the idea that the Queen or the King is a person who has to be looking for this concept of eternal harmony.
GRILLOT: Well, along those lines and lastly, I just have to ask you about something that's been said about you and that is that you believe it is not enough to know, one must act to humanize the world. What is it that you mean by that? If that's your belief that it's not enough to know - you know these things about Africa, you're teaching others these things about Africa and about African history and African American experiences - what does it mean that we have to act to humanize the world?
ASANTE: Well I guess what I believe is that - and I've often said this - that I'm not a public intellectual. I'm an activist intellectual. Public intellectuals are normally made by the media, but activist intellectuals are people who do things -actually do. And not only do I do, but I try to create opportunities for others to do. SO whether that's creating institutions, whether it's creating journals, whether it's creating organizations, whether it's making it better for teachers to do their jobs in schools - I think that to humanize a world you can know a lot, you can learn a lot, you can master many subjects and you can become an expert in many fields, but if you do not act then it simply becomes knowledge, and that is not the kind of resource that I want to be.
GRILLOT: Well, Molefi, thank you so much for being here. Your fascinating story is really enlightening to us and I appreciate you sharing it.
ASANTE: It is my pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
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