Senegal: Remembering Anta Diop the Great

By Baldeh, Ebrima | New African, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Senegal: Remembering Anta Diop the Great


Baldeh, Ebrima, New African


Nineteen years ago--on 7 February 1986--Africa lost one of its greatest sons, Dr Cheikh Anta Diop of Senegal (pictured below) who died quietly in his sleep in Dakar. A historian and political activist par excellence, Diop's work hugely affected the way Africa saw itself and how it was perceived by the rest of the world. Ebrima Baldeh traces the life and times of this great man who brought immense pride to a continent and people then maligned by Western historians.

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Perhaps Gambia's leading Kora musician, Jaliba Kuyateh, was right when he said in one of his pieces that when one dies, he is remembered for what he did and what he stood for.

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Dr Cheikh Anta Diop died 19 years ago this February, but when one considers what he did and what he stood for, he is still with us. Throughout his life, he devoted himself to debunking the theories and image that Western historians had created for Africa over many centuries.

A historian and author cum activist, Dr Diop was born in Diourbell, Senegal, on 29 December 1923. Some scholars believe that his birthplace had a long tradition of producing Muslim scholars and oral historians. Perhaps this is where his inspiration and interest in history, the humanities and social science from an African point of view, began.

In searching for knowledge to liberate Africans from the shackles of colonialism. Diop at age 23 journeyed to France to study physics. While there, he was drawn into deep study regarding the African origins of humanity and civilisation.

He was also an active member of the African student movement demanding the independence of French colonial possessions. He became convinced that only by re-examining and restoring Africas distorted, maligned and obscure place in world history could the physical and psychological shackles of colonialism be lifted from the motherland.

His book, Nations Negres et Culture, greatly disturbed, and is still disturbing, Western historians who claim to be authorities on African history and culture.

Diop's initial doctoral dissertation on Nations Negres et Culture, a groundbreaking research, was submitted to the University of Paris, Sorbonne, in 1951. It was based on the premise that Egypt of the pharaohs was an African civilisation, and that Greece, which laid the foundations of European civilisation, was educated by Ancient Egypt, and thus by Africans! No wonder the dissertation was rejected, but it did not dampen his research. Four years later, it was published by Presence Africaine and won him international acclaim.

Two additional attempts to have his doctorate granted were turned down until 1960 when he entered a so-called defence session with an array of sociologists, anthropologists and historians and successfully carried his argument. This won him a Docteur es lettres in 1960. The previous year, his book, Cultural Unity of Africa had been published. He followed it up in 1960 with Precolonial Black Africa.

Upon returning to Senegal, Dr Diop continued his research and established a radio carbon laboratory in Dakar. In 1966, the first Black Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Dakar, honoured him and Dr W.E.B Dubois as the scholars who had exerted the greatest influence on African thought in the 20th century.

As the London-based BIS Publications' 2005 calendar on "Great African Personalities" attests: "In 1974, Diop and his brilliant student and colleague, Theophile Obenga, attended a UNESCO-sponsored symposium in Cairo, Egypt, where they resoundedly reaffirmed the African origin of Pharaonic Egyptian civilisation once and for all, using irrefutable data. The culture of the rest of Africa was compared to that of the Nile Valley's, again to emphasise the cultural unity of Ancient Egypt and Africa. Finally Diop used sculptures and paintings to illustrate that physically the Ancient Egyptian resembled Africans found throughout the continent. …

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