E.W. Blyden and Afro-Modernity

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.

2 thoughts on “E.W. Blyden and Afro-Modernity

  1. Gulkira,

    I ran into your August 15, 2010 post and did not quite follow your Blyden comment which characerized him as petty:

    “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.”

    He wasn’t the only one disappointed with the Afro-colonial project in Liberia at the time. His suggestion about having America colonize the area was probably rooted in his perception of how crudely the country people/inhabitants were being dealt with by the Americo-Liberian settlers. Another disenchanted person in Monrovia, for example, was George L. Seymour, who published a letter in the Liberia Herald in 1850 when, I believe, Blyden was the editor.

    Ironically, Blyden may have believed that white colonialism was likely to be more benevolent than black colonialism. Or maybe he was also being sarcastic in some perverse way as a dig to the then black settler merchant elite of Liberia. Blyden’s intellectual skills may have surpassed his social skills. But isn’t that sometimes the nature of original thinkers? And look how things eventually turned out in 1980 at the hands of Samuel Doe………

    Ironically, Blyden may have believed that white colonialism was likely to be more benevolent than black colonialism. Or maybe he was also being sarcastic in some perverse way as a dig to the then black settler merchant elite of Liberia.

    I would be glad to forward a PDF of this to you if you like………..best wishes, Phillip (with two Ls)– I hate it when people spell it with one L….. { ;].

  2. Phillip, glad to meet someone else who has read Blyden.

    When I wrote this–and I must confess, it’s difficult to return to something I wrote over a year ago–I was deeply immersed in Blyden. The characterization as “petty” is uncontroversial in Hollis Lynch’s biography, in contemporary newspaper accounts from the U.S. and West Africa, and is evidenced in Blyden’s prose. Granted, the example may not have been the best, but this is, of course, a blog post, not a full-length article. Different demands on the genres, yes?

    There’s a long history to be traced of Blyden’s complicity with, shall we say, less than progressive forces, including the AMC and the KKK, which makes it difficult to claim him as an Afrocentric hero (as he has sometimes been claimed) or a black nationalist (another strange configuration). While I understand his conflicts with Americo-Liberians, it also seems very clear that his colorism was a West Indian inheritance carried over to Africa–it’s a strange diasporic translation. Glad to chat more about him over email.

    And, yes, do send whatever information you have on him. Very glad others are working on him. (kmacharia[at]gmail[dot]com)

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