In the later nineteenth century, Edward Wilmot Blyden (love the name Wilmot!) theorized two routes to Afro-modernity: one through Christianity and the other through Islam. He captured what others later in the century and early in the twentieth would describe as the great struggle for African souls. At that point, it was not clear whether Christianity or Islam would become dominant. While Christianity may have won the cultural war by dominating educational systems, Islam won hearts and minds. Admittedly, looking at the spreading Islamophobia in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, thanks, in part, to the U.S., this statement might be hyperbolic. I parrot Blyden.
Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, Blyden never converted to Islam, despite his detractors’ claims. And also despite being kicked out of the Church for his “polygamy hobby.” Many believed he converted because of the black intellectuals in the later nineteenth century, Blyden devoted the most time to studying Islamic modernity and its role in regenerating Africa. His Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race (1887) is the best exposition of the relationship between Christianity and Islam in the period—although it should be read alongside Joseph Harris, Edward Alpers, and Frederick Cooper for alternate perspectives.
According to Blyden, Islam offered what Kwame Appiah terms rooted cosmopolitanism as it forged imagined communities across West and North Africa. He was impressed that different ethnic communities could engage based not only on shared belief, but shared knowledge about the Qur’an. More, he relished that Islam did not (in his idealized view) debase blackness. And he pointed to Arabs intermarrying among the groups where they were missionaries as evidence of Islam’s advantage over Christianity.
In contrast, Christianity, based on the class-segregating logics of civilization and uplift, refused intimacy. Missionaries and their converts spread light and truth to the benighted. Though, as M.G. Vassanji suggests in The Book of Secrets and as archives confirm, many converts abused their positions to perform “mischief.”
Most controversially, Blyden claimed that Christian modernity from the Renaissance on eroded Africans’ self worth. As President of Liberia College (1880-1884), he designed a curriculum that began in the classical age and stopped at the end of the medieval period. While he appreciated the achievements of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, he argued that race thinking received its greatest impetus during the Renaissance and that knowledge from that period on would abrade Africans.
Whether or not we agree with this decision, it remains one of the most profound in the history of black education and intellectual activism.
Christian modernity came accompanied with aesthetic rules and histories that similarly negated Africans. And while Blyden lacks the grace and beauty of a Fanon, he anticipates Fanon’s discomfiture while watching a primitivist film in France.
I have yet to process this, but it’s possible to argue that Blyden pre-empts Du Bois’s double consciousness and offers an alternate trajectory.
To see this, though, we would have to stop universalizing Du Bois and taking double consciousness as an inevitable consequence of Afro-modernity. To adapt Irigaray, Afro-modernity is not one. I am not the first to say this. Kevin Gaines points out that Du Boisian double consciousness afflicted educated blacks. Arguably, it spread its tentacles with the rise of mass culture, but I cannot pursue that argument now.
Reading Blyden is difficult. He suggests possible trajectories for how things might have been, even as he is complicit in how things became. Despite his moments of insight—and the man was a fucking genius—he was also petty. So much so that he once approached the U.S. about colonizing Liberia, because he didn’t like the direction the country was headed.
It’s difficult to understand how someone who saw so clearly the possible trajectories of Afro-modernity could have supported European colonialism, but he did.
For now, I am luxuriating in his rich, dense, powerful, utopian writing.