Author and Professor of History and Africana Studies at New York University Robin D.G. Kelley challenged the politics of multiculturalism in favor of a more fluid “polyculturalism” in a talk in ICC Auditorium on Tuesday.
Kelley preceded his talk with an appeal to the Georgetown community to develop an African Studies Department of its own, expressing astonishment that the University did not already have such a program.
“Programs like these are central to the intellectual life of all universities,” Kelley said. “Any significant Afro studies program takes on the world.”
According to Kelley, there are several versions of multiculturalism, most of which focus on immigrant culture and center on the notion of cultural pluralism. The modern form of multiculturalism emerged during the 1970’s and 1980’s in the U.S., largely as a result of racial crises on campuses during that period and inherited the emphasis of looking at differences, Kelley said.
“I propose a different term: polyculturalism. It treats people as products of metacultures,” Kelley said. Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, recognizes that there are problems with conflating race and culture simplistically, he said. “The cultural mixture runs so deep that we can never find the clear lines of boundaries for anything,” he said.
“Black life has always been polycultural,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a single African heritage. It doesn’t exist. When people were brought here in chains, they were not Africans yet.” The idea of an African identity was constructed out of a number of metacultures, Kelley said. “In more cases than we care to admit, the source of our cultures is more a product of imagination than of bloodlines,” he said.
The crucial role that non-western cultures played in building America and Western civilization in general, however, has been deliberately obscured by the West, according to Kelley. “This is how modern racism works.”
“What is treated as white culture is unspoken ? It is culture writ large, culture with a capital C,” he said. This view of culture ignores the constructed nature of Western civilization. “The western heritage is in itself an invention,” he said. “It is a way of whitening the modern world, it assumes that Europe made itself and spread around the world and that it is the heart of our intellectual heritage.” In fact, Kelley said, Europe has always been porous and permeable to the myriad cultures interacting with it.
“Now don’t get mad at me,” Kelley said, “but our modern concept of multiculturalism ? grows out of the process of inventing the West … For this invention to work it required other kinds of inventions, it required the invention of the Negro, it required the invention of the savage, and the Orient.”
“Europe stripped Africa of what is defined as civilization and reduced it and its progeny to beasts of burden.” As evidence of this phenomenon, Kelley noted that the West has generally considered African cultures as illiterate cultures, ignoring the large presence of Islam, a literate culture, in Africa. “Some cultures just don’t exist because they’re not within the lexicon of the western traditions,” he said.
He also pointed to the prevalent view of jazz as a fusion of the savageness of Africa with the ordered beauty of the West.
“Jazz was seen as unleashing civilized man’s savageness,” he said. “European harmony is seen as a cerebral process while African rhythm is seen as physical. The mental element of rhythm isn’t recognized.”
Regardless of the latent racism present in such interpretations of black culture, many of these images found their way into black expressive culture and were not necessarily seen as negative, according to Kelley. An example of these images is jungle music, famously mastered by Duke Ellington, Kelley said. Old album covers and the d?cor of jazz clubs expressed this element of primitiveness. Louis Armstrong wore a leopard-outfit in his performances. In 1950, artists like Sun Ra took these jazz themes further, borrowing the theme of space travel as a means of mass exodus from the racism they experienced.
“Look at all these different directions that people have gone,” he said. “Some of these people draw on heritages that are not identified as black heritage … For some people it’s a dangerous concept,” Kelley said. “Too many Europeans do not want to see the world as one tiny globe ? where people and cultures are always on the move.”
He called for the abandonment of civilization as a reference point for analyzing culture to understand cultures historically. This move away from multiculturalism towards polyculturalism, according to Kelley, will promote the understanding that human beings create their own culture.
“We are not only the inheritors of a culture, but its makers,” he said.