Position Statements

Intellectuals and the Future of Africa: Some Preliminary Observations

2003 September 21-22
Dr. Maulana Karenga
A New York Conference on the
Contribution of African Diasporan Intellectuals to the
African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development

Habari gani? Let me say first I am very honored to participate in this critical conference on "Intellectuals and the Future of Africa". And I'd like to offer words of thanks and appreciation to Mr. Amadou Bocoum, Consul General of Senegal and Mr. Howard Dodson, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for organizing the conference as well as to all their allies, assistants and workers who aided in pulling together this historic project of building and practicing pan-Africanism in this our time.

The central question of the role of African intellectuals in the conception and construction of the future of Africa at this critical juncture in our history is both unavoidable and urgent. It is a question with deep roots in the pan-African project. From the early 19th century thinkers who posed Africa as both an ancient cultural ideal and a modern source of allegiance and obligation to the pan-Africanists of today, we have all stressed the need for intellectuals, men and women of ideas, creativity, knowledge, skill and commitment, to reconstruct themselves and rebuild Africa and ultimately build the world we all want and deserve to live in. Maria Stewart, Martin Delaney, Sylvester Williams, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Sekou Toure, Amilcar Cabral and others have put forth this call and reaffirmed the compelling urgency of this commitment. This call and commitment are rooted in the self-conscious acceptance of our shared history as African people, a shared condition of oppression and a shared will to free ourselves wherever we are, to develop and harness our human and material resources and to use them to push our lives forward and live full and meaningful lives.

In order to do this, the intellectual must take upon him- or herself certain essential obligations. The first is to define our mission with the utmost clarity, to define correctly the historical juncture and moment in which we now live, its cultural, political and economic meaning and its meaning for us as African peoples and as a world African community. Here, I am reminded of Mary McLeod Bethune's statement that we intellectuals "must discover the dawn and share it with our children and the masses who need it most." Moreover, African intellectuals must mark off the field of action and then, as Maria Stewart says, we must enter this field of action as both an obligation and opportunity. And the opportunity here is not only to free ourselves, but also to expand the realm of human freedom and offer a new model of what it means to be human in the world. We must, Fanon says, "reconsider the question of humankind," its current condition and future prospects. Who are we if we are not the fathers and mothers of human civilization, who stood up first and spoke the first human truth and taught the world some of the basic disciplines of human knowledge in the Nile Valley-Jew, Gentile, Hittite, Hyksos, Greek, Roman, Persian and all others who came. And what will we become, if we do not stand up now, harness our human and material resources, improve and enrich our lives as African people, speak our own special cultural truth and make our own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history?

We must, then, concern ourselves not just with the future of Africa, but with the project and promise of Africa as the future, as the future of our people and the future of the world, without making chauvinist claims and without denying the great difficulties or minimizing the awesome responsibility involved. As Cabral says, we must "mask no difficulties, tell no lies and claim no easy victories." We have, as pan-Africanists, always wanted and sought to pose Africa at its best, as a moral ideal, a cultural ideal. Thus, the work of Molefi Asante, myself and others have been dedicated to lifting up this need for us to think in African-centered ways, to locate ourselves in our own culture, think new thoughts and to constantly bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.

Such a position and process of necessity leads us to the second requirement or obligation for the African intellectual-self-preparation. Even though we have posed the defining of the mission first, it is clear that in the final analysis, unless intellectuals properly prepare themselves for new forms of thought and practice, the conception and carrying out of the mission will be seriously compromised. Thus, Stewart, DuBois, Fanon, Cabral, Cruse, Frazier, Toure, Bethune and others stress the need for the intellectuals to make themselves worthy and capable of this awesome historical task. This means above all to free ourselves from the legacies of colonialism and racism, from national and ethnic chauvinism, from class elitism and from any and all commitments to sexual inequality in thought and practice and to invest ourselves in the health and wholeness of our people, in their liberation and their achievement of the good life they long for, work for and deserve. DuBois stated rightly that a central problem of education is the problem of developing people who are not only conscious and capable, but also committed. This is critical, for many intellectuals have various forms of knowledge, but do not use it wisely or commit themselves to use it in the service of the people. Indeed, instead of engaging in dignity-affirming and life-enhancing practices in the interest of the people, they often engage in dignity-denying and life-diminishing practices and processes of the dominant society.

What is required here is reaching back and reaffirming the ancient African epistemological understanding that our approach to knowledge must not be one of knowledge for knowledge sake, but rather knowledge for human sake. Thus, we must always ask ourselves how can we use our knowledge to improve the African and human condition and enhance the African and human future? This means that some of us must pass through three basic stages of development suggested by Fanon-parasitic assimilation and emulation, recovery of historical memory without progressively moving forward, and finally the development of generative ideas and emancipatory and creative practices that serve the interests of African people and humanity.

Many Africans educated in European schools out-European the Europeans, thus engaging in a parasitic assimilation and emulation that is both what Fanon calls an "obscene caricature of Europe" and a great loss to Africa and African people. Secondly, intellectuals, Fanon tells us, often go through a stage of defiantly recovering historical memory without a progressive and assertive move toward the future. I'm paraphrasing Fanon, but these are important categories here. You see to grasp historical memory and to stay there is to be an atavist, but to grasp the historical moment and memory and to use it as a foundation upon which we conceive and bring into being a new future, that is what our history and our struggle demand. Finally, intellectuals must move to develop generative ideas and practices, not simply become janitors of history, looking for stench and stain in everybody's life, but in fact move to imagine a new world and to lay the structural and philosophical basis for bringing that world into being. And at the heart of this we must teach the people that struggle is the path to the future.

Also, it is important for intellectuals to put forth critiques of the constraints on African and human freedom and human flourishing, i.e., ideas and practices of white supremacy, class domination, class interests over mass interests, all forms of sexism and similar ideas of domination that contradict and contravene the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense. Clearly, they must also make an ongoing critique of all suspect talk about the end of history, the self-congratulatory illusion that everything has been solved by Europe's triumphant move into the 21st century; that there are no major battles to be fought now that Europe and its offspring are exhausted. We must remind them that they are not the center of history, but that we and other peoples of the world are still in the process of shaping the world in a more human image and interest and that this world-shaping process is rooted in and reflective of ongoing struggles around issues of freedom, justice, power of people over their destiny and daily lives and peace in and for the world. Surely history is still moving forward through these ongoing struggles. For still the oppressed want freedom; the wronged and injured want justice; the people want power over their destiny and daily lives; and the world wants peace. And Africa must be a source and model, a paradigm of this human possibility, this promise which emerges in the context and crucible of struggle.

Moreover, African intellectuals-continental and diasporan-must offer correctives to the constraints on human freedom and human flourishing, correctives of both thought and practice which point toward freedom-freedom from want, toil and domination. And they must challenge us to take the ideas, inspiration and spirit of this conference and subsequent ones and turn them into a sustained process of motivation, organization, reflection and continued dialogue that result in sustained structures and practices directed toward our liberation and flourishing as a people. And above all, these ideas and practices must be rooted in those ancient African ethical pillars: respect for the dignity and rights of the human person; the well-being and flourishing of family and community; the integrity and value of the environment; and the reciprocal solidarity and cooperation for mutual benefit of humanity. The critical task then is to struggle to build and sustain free and empowered communities, just and good societies and a good and sustainable world.

Also, African intellectuals must be, above all, teachers, sustainers and servants of the people. They must teach the people the unlimited possibilities inherent in them. The ancient teachings of Egypt found in the Husia say "it is wrong to walk upside down in darkness, therefore, I will come forth and bring forth the truth which is in me; for surely it is within me." If it is not in African people, where will we find it? We must break through the catechism of impossibilities taught by oppressors and teach the people a new way to walk in the world-a dignity-affirming and self-developing way to understand and assert themselves. What the world needs most and what Africans certainly need now is a sense of possibility. The unity and development of Africa, the shaping of the African future and the shaping of Africa as the future depends both on the continent and the world African community. And this massive project can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, through their coming into consciousness, through their taking their destiny and daily lives in their own hands and shaping them in their own image and interests.

Our intellectuals must always engage the masses in revivifying exchange or as Aimé Césaire says, they must constantly be in revivifying contact with the masses to measure themselves and to know themselves. How do we know ourselves outside of our people? How do we monitor ourselves at the courts and among the courtiers of Europe except in relationship to our people? And how do we in fact build the world we want and deserve to live in as African people, if we do not involve the people themselves? We must create contexts and structures for them to assemble, to discuss, to propose, to contest, to receive these expansive ideas that we talk about and to let them respond to them and then go back and see if they can be put into practice. We must teach the masses, as Fanon says, that "everything depends on them, that if we stagnate, it is their responsibility, and if we go forward it is due to them." And central to this is their level of awareness of self, society and the world. Thus, everything must be directed toward the awareness and involvement of the people. As Fanon reminds us, "If the building of a bridge does not enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then, that bridge ought not to be built and the citizens can go on swimming across the river or going by boat."

In addition, African intellectuals must constantly dialogue with African culture. The recovery and reconstruction of Africa as a continent and world community depends on the recovery and reconstruction of African culture and our using it as a foundation and framework to improve our current condition and to enhance our future. Sekou Toure has given us a focal category of engagement, saying that our efforts must be directed "towards full re-Africanization." And in order to do this, in order that we not come to Europe and ask for answers even when we say we're being independent, we must do intellectual archaeology and current critical analysis within the context of our own culture. That is what Molefi Asante means when he talks about location, about centering ourselves in the rich, ancient and modern context of our culture. Where do we stand when we are talking about Africa? Do we stand on the edge of it, or do we stand at the center of what it means to be African in the world? To stand at the center, we must constantly dialogue with Africa and African culture. By dialoguing with Africa or African culture, I mean continuously asking it questions and seeking from it answers to the fundamental questions of humankind. How do we build the world we want and deserve to live in? How do we build strong families and strong male and female relationships? How do we establish and sustain a right relationship with the environment? How do we create a development program that is people-focused and ecologically sensitive? How do we honor our elders and ancestors in these times, cherish and challenge our children, care for the poor and vulnerable, and build the free and empowered communities, the just and good societies and the good and sustainable world we all want and deserve to live in? Only by re-Africanization, by doing this kind of intellectual archaeology, recovering and reconstructing African values and bringing forth the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense can we do this. Then we can do what Cheikh Anta Diop asks us to do: to use this recovered and reconstructed data to (1) reconcile African history with human history; (2) build a new body of human sciences; and (3) renew African culture.

Finally, our role and responsibility as intellectuals must be informed and undergirded by ethical commitment and practice, a self-conscious commitment, to speak truth, do justice, be people-focused, and constantly bring good into the world. The Odu Ifa (78:1) of ancient Yorubaland says that if we are to build a good world, there are five fundamental requirements. And with these I'd like to conclude. The first is "wisdom adequate to govern the world." The very word akoso, to govern, in Yoruba means to gather people together for good purposes. So we must gather our people together for good purposes. And we must have the wisdom to do that. Wisdom (ogbon) here refers to depthful insight, critical and right judgment based on a broad range of knowledge, experience and resultant understanding. And the wisdom, in an African context, is always ethical and moral wisdom, not simply political, economic, scientific or technological wisdom, but rather a wisdom which privileges and promotes the Good. People can be very grounded in economics, politics, science or technology, but that doesn't mean that they have the interest of the masses. Indeed, they could confuse class interests with mass interests, personal interest with collective interests and thus act against the interests of the masses.

The second requirement is sacrifice. We must teach our intellectuals and our people to sacrifice for the greater good. I know people suffer all the time, but I'm talking about new sacrifice, a sacrifice for a greater vision, a sacrifice to end sacrificing uselessly and needlessly; an end to being rich in material and poor in possibilities of using it; an end to having unlimited talent and not being able to develop it because poverty often strips people of their will. We say in my philosophy, Kawaida, "people don't live by bread alone, but they can only come to that conclusion after they've eaten." So we must build the material basis for people to sit down and think and imagine new ways of being human in the world and we as intellectuals and a people cannot do that, if we don't sacrifice for the greater and common good.

Thirdly character is required. As intellectuals, we must be men and women of character as well as men and women of culture, In fact, by definition, a man and woman of culture, in the African sense, is a man and woman of character. Fourthly, the love of doing good, especially for those who need it most is also required. It is essential that intellectuals love to do good for African people, not just do it because it's profitable, not just do it because we're obligated or because people are watching us, but because that's how we understand ourselves as an African in the world. Indeed, it is in pursuit of our purpose that we understand ourselves, develop ourselves, and confirm ourselves as African people. And finally, the Odu says that the fifth requirement for creating a good world is "the eagerness and struggle to bring good into the world and not let any good be lost." Let us go forth then as African people, conscious of our dignity and destiny and confident that we can achieve it and leave a legacy for those who come after us worthy of the name African.