This issue focuses on Frank Snowden and his views about Afro-centrism. We also have an article by Cecil Gutzmore defending Walter Rodney.
- Frank Snowden: the Egyptology of Skin Tones.
Frank Snowden launched a vitriolic attack on Afrocentrism. This piece looks at his work retrospectively and is astonished at his internalising of Western racism. What makes an African particularly what he might call ‘Black African’ is his skin tone. But this is how racist slavers saw Africans. He makes no enquiry as to whether political arrangements or cultural arrangements focussed on skin tone- i.e. whether the participants defined themselves by skin tone. Is being a member of the African family determined by skin tone? There are of course problems when Snowden has to deal with Indians darker than many Africans. Snowden’s reduction of African identity to skin tone is a violation of human dignity, due to Snowden’s internalised racism.
2. Frank Snowden: ‘blacks in the modern sense’
This article looks at just one sentence of Frank Snowden’s piece for Lefkowitz. Taking that one sentence and parsing it carefully to reveal it is full of misunderstandings and errors. Many of these errors are deeply embedded assumptions which one can reveal with a Wittgensteinian analysis of the usage of words and the application of Wittgenstein’s doctrine of family resemblances which was targeted at just such racialized thinking.
Snowden refers to the ‘modern’ terms and one assumes he means current in USA. However the terms and interpretations he uses are contradicted by everyday US laws and useages. He was a university professor at a ‘historical black’ College and so he knew the variety of skin tones of his students and that there was no skin tone test for minority status.
This article argues that what we ‘see ‘ is powerfully influenced by our cultural understanding. All Black people look surprising ‘Black’ to anyone from the US South. To an African with little experience of Europeans all Europeans look equally white. We see what we understand. This also influences how cameras work in auto-mode and what photographers consider ‘adequate exposure’. It is well known in photography that it is not possible to photograph an African and a European together without extreme lighting adaptations.
Human eyes perform extraordinary quick adaptations not available to cameras. Put the other way, adequately exposing African skin will render European skin into unreal tones. Snowden sees what his understanding tells him most of the time but his entrenched prejudices and internalised racism led to him to statements that violate his everyday experience.
Also the article addresses the issue that in Africa there are great variations in skin tone even within the same family. Some children being as light as ancient Egyptians and some typically very dark as a stereotypical ‘negro’.
This article proposes the ultimate test: if Akhenaten arrived in US fo Snowden’s day how would he be classified`?
`It may not be a coincidence that he may have left the classics dept at Howard with a history of anti-Afrocentrism and internalised racism that has alienated many potential students such that Howard is considering closing the department.
3. Cecil Gutzmore: In defence of Walter Rodney
I wrote a piece on Walter Rodney in the African Century blog. This caught the ire of Cecil Gutzmore. As a journal, we have chosen to be lenient as the article is somewhat long and intemperate but is important as it shows the strength of support for Walter Rodney. I knew Rodney and spoke to him not long after the publication of his work ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. I was not impressed at the time. It seemed to me that Rodney underestimated the range of issues and the importance of collective action. Like CLR James, I felt that Rodney believed all things were possible at all times. This was a dangerous myth and could lead younger generations into blind paths. Also at the time, I felt there was a veneration of Rodney that was misplaced. This veneration, in my opinion, tended to praise ‘protest’ above ‘effectiveness’ and was largely uncritical, as if implying that any criticism of Rodney was an attack on the spirit of liberation. I remember as a student distributing a journal produced by a grassroots group in London that included an attack on the African liberation movements for basing themselves outside of their countries. This was a militarily incoherent criticism made by those far from any gunfire. I was challenged by Soyinka for helping distribute such risible nonsense. My view at the time was that an element of freedom of speech was essential and that if one only engaged with what one agreed with not much would get done, but it was/is a judgment call. More specifically, it was one bad piece among many other articles. Gutzmore’s piece reminds me that a review of Rodney’s work more in-depth than a blog comment is due.
The actual background to the blog comment was some adulatory comments by a researcher at an ASWAD conference that claimed that Rodney’s theoretical position in ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ was a continuation of some ideas of CLR James. This was an incorrect piece of scholarship and I challenged the researcher who resiled from her position (Note 2). I have found among many activist groups an intolerance of critical debate. When that attitude infects academic debate I strongly object. Gutzmore implies that I was offended by being booed at a conference celebrating Rodney(not ASWAD!). My inclination at such incidents is more to follow Groucho Marx’s comment: ‘ I have been thrown out of better hotels!’ I mentioned the incident to show how strongly Rodney supporters reacted to the slightest hint of a critical attitude as if we were dealing with a saint.
Gutzmore attended several of my lectures in 1970’s. At one he challenged me when I attacked those who sought ‘immediate confrontation’ with the enemy and violent activity. At a later lecture where I outlined Fanon’s view of armed struggle and supported it, he loudly accused me of incoherence and inconsistency. I tried to explain to Gutzmore that there was an enormous difference between individual acts of violence and organised armed struggle. We never resolved our differences as the audience lost patience with his intransigence and quickly asked him to be quiet and allow my lecture to continue. (Gutzmore disputes this recollection Note 1) One can understand such individual acts of violence as symbolic actions of desperation. But they invite overwhelming counter force which then discredits resistance. Liberation movements understood the dilemma and the need for visible signs of resistance that reduce the sense of impotence and despair that often lead to individual acts of violence. We know today that individual acts of violence in support of Islam against Western imperialisms produce an overwhelming police and political response, a denunciation of ‘terrorism’ and an imposition on the Islamic community of draconian measures. This threatens to alienate rather than win support among their own communities. This was how I sought to portray the difference between Lenin and his brother. At a theoretical level one could refer to George Sorel and the idea that violence itself, acts of will, had a symbolic and spiritual significance. Gutzmore merges this or confuses this with ‘adventurism’ which is a specifically Marxist critique about taking actions not supported by the state of affairs at the time. In Marxist theory, actions that are ahead of their times risk provoking a devastating retaliatory response. In this view, Rodney would be guilty of adventurism if he took collective action at an inappropriate time, but this criticism is that Rodney believed he could make individual acts of resistance, acts of will, to positive effect. This is not the place to respond to Gutzmore’s detailed points and this is more a matter of putting context to his piece and clarifying what may be missing links in a conversation.
1. Gutzmore was particularly offended by the accusation in the blog of plagiarism directed at Walter Rodney. He requested an immediate retraction which was implausible, though I promised to revisit Rodney’s work in more detail. This was not enough. Eventually, Dr Wes Morris, one of our editors, wrote to Gutzmore and posed the following questions:
‘Lastly, and this may put the matter to bed for me on this point, are you saying you don’t believe Rodney ever read Frank’s short Monthly Review article? Or are you saying Rodney read the article and its theoretical model but already had the idea himself either self-generated or from another source altogether? ‘
Gutzmore’s immediate reply was unprintable. It appears he may have softened his position subsequently but for the time being this is as far as we can go here.
2. Gutzmore disputes my recollection of this particular instance and wrote: ‘That was not me. … I am not and have never been a ‘shouty’ Marxist ‘. This is a two-part defence: a) as a matter of fact it was not him, and b) he would never behave that way. This was rather undermined on 5 Feb 2022 at the UK Premiere of ‘African Redemption: the life and legacy of Marcus Garvey’. There was a panel discussion after the film showing chaired by Gus John. Gutzmore was on the panel. When I rose to ask a question he forcefully interrupted me as I began the question and before the Chair could restrain him. If he could do that as a panel member it is hard to believe he could not do that as a participant. In any case, I have witnesses confirming his similar conduct at a public lecture of mine at Riding House St during the late 1970s, shortly afterwards. It is 40+ years ago so I accept there might be a specific misidentification. I do not believe anything hangs on it. If I have misidentified Gutzmore from one event 40 years ago I apologise but frankly, I am uncertain. However, if I have misidentified him it is likely that it is because of the behaviour I remember of him. His shouting me down from the panel platform on 5 Feb 2022 while I attempted to ask a question does not lead me to believe that I have mischaracterised him in any way.