Time to Look Again
By Marc Stengel and Elaine Phillips
July 8, 1997: Tall and lanky, James Peebles creates the impression of moving in several directions at once. It appears all the more so now, perhaps, because his firm, Winston-Derek Publishers Group, is relocating this week from its well-known midtown location to larger headquarters in MetroCenter alongside the new Sankofa African Heritage Museum on French Landing Drive.
In conversation, Peebles is equally peripatetic, ranging with great and jovial enthusiasm over a wide array of topics. This Nashville native, whose rsum reaches from Pearl High School to the University of Madrid by way of Maine, Montreal, New York, and Africa, is plainly comfortable with his present role in the midst of African-American letters. Although he was motivated initially to write, his early experiences of rejection by established publishers introduced him to a vast reserve of homeless manuscripts by and for African-Americans. His resolve to bring these works to the light of day transformed him from writer and researcher into editor and publisher. In the process, his own treatise evolved into two popular mainstays, The Original African Heritage Study Bible and its companion, Encyclopedia Concordance. More fatefully, however, Peebles found himself at the threshold of a new spirit of inquiry destined to rattle and revise the status quo.
"It may have seemed, at one time, that we were religious publishers, but we have no religious affiliation whatsoever. I simply took manuscripts that I thought would be pretty well nonsectarian--books that people could use from all denominations.
"That's because Winston-Derek Publishers is dedicated to a recasting of African thought and universal concepts as they relate to the continent of Africa. Having said that, however, one of my fervent goals has been to make available to a wide audience the growing body of research documenting Africa's primary role in the establishment of the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
"So, yes, some of the themes that are coming out in our books definitely deal with the religious factor. For instance, we have opened to the world the findings that the very first Edenic Jews were people of color. They were not European Jews. The very first Edenic Jews, coming out of Ethiopia, started with Enoch, who was the seventh seed of Adam. He began the Jewish origin of people...and came out of the Garden of Eden. And he was about a thousand years before Abraham, you know.
"That's why I think that everybody should experience the African continent. I don't care what race you are, you have to call Africa `Father.' It has been proved by the Leakeys and everybody else that the oldest homo sapiens was in the Olduvai Gorge millions and millions of years ago. So we must go back and call Africa `Father.' I think we, the black descendants of Africa, need to go back to see our roots and what a great people we are and were. I think Europeans and their descendants need to go back to understand how and why it was possible to reduce a people without any thought of reparation."
It is a provocative and rare experience to follow the avenues of Peebles' professional curiosities. His gregarious charm mitigates the controversy inherent in many of his views. Indeed, his good-natured volubility intensifies the allure of contemporary inquiries into Africa's past and reinforces the assertion of this continent's primal, global influence.
"The recasting of the African-American mind developed primarily from 1985 to 1995, because of the arrival of a body of literature in which blacks could supply themselves with documented research. It indicated a growth in the self-confidence that we began to have in each other. Prior to that, it was always a European outlook, and unless our findings favored the European point of view, we doubted. Of everything that we and many other publishing houses have done, I feel most gratified that we've finally gotten blacks to respect black intelligentsia."
For a sampling of Peebles' general outlook, the following list includes some of what he considers the more influential works of the '80s and '90s: Molefi Kete Asante, The Afrocentric Idea; Ben-Jochan, Black Man of the Nile and His Family; Michael Bradley, The Iceman Inheritance; Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality; Mark Hyman, Blacks Who Died for Jesus; Shannon Jolly, Blinds: Distortions of Historical Facts; Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World; Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; J. A. Rogers and John Henrik Clarke, World's Great Men of Color; Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early Asia; Frances Cress Welsing, The Isis (Yssis) Papers: The Keys to the Colors; Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization.--Marc Stengel
Signs and events
Kitty Fawaz demonstrates and signs A Taste of the Good Life, 2 p.m. July 19 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.--Marc Stengel
The horror, the horrorOut of America; A Black Man Confronts Africa, by Keith B. Richburg (Basic Books: A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1997, $24) After reading Keith Richburg's daring and disturbing Out of America, one can understand the dynamics of the recent coup in the former Zaire and see only cause for despair. Richburg, the former Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post from 1991 to 1994, describes his experience covering the civil wars in Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda. But Out of America is more than a journalist's discussion of African politics and culture. It is also a very personal book; Richburg writes to purge himself of the disgust and anger he feels at having witnessed the cruelty, corruption, and waste of human life that pervade Africa.
Richburg's experience as an African-American does not reveal any sense of kinship or celebration; indeed, his encounters with Africans confirm his sense of otherness, his American identity. Black is not beautiful in this account. When black Africans are not discriminating against each other in favor of white Africans or tourists, they are killing each other because of tribal rivalries. Richburg himself came close to death a few times because he was perceived as African, and therefore dispensable.
It would be easy to blame this African contempt for blackness on European colonial powers, but Richburg is not letting Africans or their apologists off easy. He argues persuasively that the black-on-black violence he witnesses stems from old tribal rivalries, which dictators cunningly exploit to maintain power. As long as Africans identify themselves by tribal and clan loyalties, they remain blind to their leaders' crimes. Furthermore, Richburg argues, as long as Africans believe that all their ills stem from centuries of European exploitation and racism, they will never see how they suffer at the hands of fellow Africans. This assumption, coupled with people's passivity and their acceptance of intolerable conditions, makes Richburg pessimistic about Africa's future. "Most Africans are not struggling," he writes, "they have been too violently suppressed for too long, so many now see no other way except waiting for a big white marine in combat gear to come and rescue them from repression."
Exasperation and anger, with an underlying resignation, are the predominant emotions in Richburg's book. He does not mince words, whether admitting to his own fear of black African violence, or expressing his contempt for African-American leaders' misplaced admiration of petty dictators. The same people who demanded immediate action to end racial discrimination in the United States and South Africa, writes Richburg, mumble abstractions about gradual evolution and African values when confronted with the realities of corruption and discrimination in African governments. As Richburg notes contemptuously, "It's as if repression comes only in white."
This is a gripping book. Filled with Richburg's rage at the waste of African life and resources, Out of America will educate readers about the mess called African politics. Some readers will agree with the author and thank their God that their ancestors survived the Middle Passage to the New World. Others will call him a race traitor, whose discomfort with his own blackness colors his view of Africans. White readers, in turn, will confront their own racism and their assumptions about Africa's poverty and chaos.
Out of America illustrates that it's truly ridiculous to tell disgruntled African-Americans to "go back to Africa." Black people have been in North America for over 300 years. Richburg understands that Afrocentrism is the nostalgia of a people who feel despised in a country they helped to create. Perhaps if Americans stop treating African-American history and culture as a footnote to a cavalcade of white thinkers and doers, African-Americans would not have to idealize Africa. If Americans finally saw the black experience as central to American history, if we finally acknowledged that black sweat, tears, music, and wit are at the core of our economy, history, and popular culture, then perhaps we could read Richburg's book without smugness or indignation.--Elaine Phillips
The dog-eared page"One night I dreamed I was locked in my Father's watch/With Ptolemy and twenty-one ruby stars/Mounted on spheres and the Primum Mobile/Coiled and gleaming to the end of space/And the notched spheres eating each other's rinds/To the last tooth of time, and the case closed."--John Ciardi, "My Father's Watch," from The Collected Poems of John Ciardi (U. of Arkansas Press, 1997)
"What is really lost when a civilization wearies and grows small is confidence, a confidence built on the order and balance that leisure makes possible."--Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Anchor Books, 1996)
"These reasonings do not cohere: I am richer than you, therefore I am better than you; I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better than you. On the contrary these rather cohere: I am richer than you, therefore my possessions are greater than yours; I am more eloquent than you, therefore my speech is superior to yours. But you are neither possession nor speech."--Epictetus, 55-135 AD, Enchiridion [The Manual], trans. from the Latin by George Long (Prometheus Books, 1991)
"So Dixon is sent out into Darkness variable as the Moon, thick with predators bestial and human, Indians upon missions forever secret from European eyes, all moving easily among this Community of Night, interrupted only by the odd unschedul'd Idiot."--Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt, 1997)
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