Africa is not a country. Neither is it a continent. Not really—not in a true sense. Continents are more a social idea than a true science. The continental frame you and I learn about in elementary school you know, Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America are not entirely made up, but they are imperfect intellectual constructs. They attempt to represent real patterns in the world, but only by referencing these patterns can we judge their efficacy. The current continental frame represents a narrow vision of the world. It leads us to assign categories to phenomena that they simply do not apply to.
Beyond geography, continents underpin how we see, think, and explain our experiences in the world. We speak of Asians or Europeans as distinct and often fixed categories. We use continents to map out Eastern from Western cultures, to separate the Occident from the Orient, the first, second and third world problems. Continents are used not just to explain geographies, but also to explain characters of people, human society, race, culture, nations, countries, or the emergence of civilizations – all of which are categories that they do not apply to.
The continental frame is reinforced and passed down through encyclopaedias, atlases, and Google Maps! Are continents even accurate ?Who named them, and what do they say and not say about the world?
Land is real, land masses are real, but Continents-those are ideas. How can you be from a whole continent? What are you doing with all that space!
From here down, the essay is broken into four parts. First we discuss two eras that defined the contemporary continental frame. We then discuss the invention of Africa, and conclude with considerations of what it means to be African if anything at all.
Indigenous people all over the world likely had a name, a set of names, and concepts to describe and understand the lands they lived on. No land that was discovered first by a foreigner before it was experienced by those who lived on it.
Secondly, the Greek continental scheme is not the only one that has existed. South Asians and others influenced by Indian religious beliefs used a system of continental divisions indigenous to them. Contemporary understanding of what constitutes a continent emerged from a Mediterranean tradition and has evolved over the centuries. This tradition began in Ancient Greece and continues to influence the continental schema used today.
The Greek continental scheme has been normalized and internationalized not because it is intellectually sound, but because it was inherited by Western Europe and exported as a by-product of European imperialism. Alternative systems of global division are essential for a richer understanding of global metageography.
This essay draws on the work of historians Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen. They lay out a brief history of the continents in their work, The Myth of Continents.
The following passage is a summary.
The original continental distinction was devised by ancient Greek sailors in the classical era. For the sailors, the name “Asia” essentially denoted the lands to their east, “Europe” referred to the lands to their west and north, and “Libya” those lands to the south. The interior water passage from the Aegean Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, and the Kerch Strait, before reaching the Sea of Azov, would come to define the early continental framework for Greek philosophers.
The term “Europe” was not standardized, but often used to describe western non-Greek people. Aristotle believed Hellenic people did not belong to a continent altogether, arguing “that the Greek character, like the Greek lands themselves, occupied a ‘middle position’ between that of Europe and Asia.” The Greek continental schema, for those who used it, did not extend much beyond the Aegean, eastern Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Libya was considered too small and arid to merit consideration.
By the 5th century B.C.E. Herodotus argued that instead of a theoretical understanding of physical landmasses, an “empirical cartography founded on exploration and travel” should be employed. He continues, “another thing that puzzles me is why three distinct women’s names should have been given to what is really a single landmass; and why, too, the Nile and the Phasis—or, according to some, the Maeotic Tanais and the Cimmerian Strait—should have been fixed upon for the boundaries. Nor have I been able to learn who it was that first marked the boundaries, or where they got their names from.”
The Romans adopted and employed this continental scheme both in scholarly discourse and as labels of their western and European stretches of their empire.
The tripartite Continental scheme would persist over two millennia and intersect with emerging Christian theology. This transposition created an abstract cosmographical model that abandoned all pretense of spatial accuracy. Medieval maps represented the Earth in the form of a cross. A theology developed by St. Jerome mapped out the three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham and Japeth, to, respectively, Asia, Africa, and Europe. This saw the rise of a theological frame that infused the Greek continental idea with religious meaning. This model would persist until the early modern period with little alteration.
The Carolingian era inherited the tripartite continental framework. In this era, the name “Europe” was used to refer less to physical geography and more to the emerging culture in Frankish Lands of Latin Christendom. The concept of Europe would go on to be adopted by the Ottonian Germans, and later by the Papacy to describe a cultural community not bound by geography. Asia often featured in the imagination of the emerging Europeans, but often as a faraway mystical land. Africa did not feature much in the cultural imaginations of Medieval Europe. It was dismissed for being small and deserted.
The 14th to 15th century was deeply consequential to the creation of the modern continental frame. This was the birth of the modern idea of Europe. The Papacy and Ottonians used it to refer to a place of public assembly and a cultural community. Over time it began to align with a geographic landmass. Christian conflicts with the Turkish caused the remaining Christian communities in Asia to retreat while Christian conversions and conquests in the north west led to Christianity emerging as the primary religion in the region.
The rise of humanist philosophy served to erode the cultural influence of the Catholic Church. Europe, in place of Christianity, began to emerge as the major cultural marker for the region. This was not the “end of history.” Conflicts in Europe between the Eastern and Western Christian traditions pulled southeastern Europe almost completely out of the orbit of the increasingly self-identified European civilization.
For Europeans, since the classical era, Earth comprised Asia, Africa, and Europe. European independence , improvements in seafaring technology and mapping technology would lead to exploration and discovery of “new worlds”. For them, the new world would not just have to be “discovered,” it would also have to be invented.
Martin and Wigen write, “Accepting the existence of a transatlantic landmass required more than simply adding a new piece to the existing continental model […] Reckoning with the existence of previously unknown lands required a fundamental restructuring of European cosmography. For in the old conception, Europe, Africa, and Asia had usually been envisioned as forming a single, interconnected “world island” The existence of another such “island” in the antipodes of the Southern Hemisphere […] constitute a world apart, inhabited, if at all, by sapient creatures of an entirely different species … ”
Between the 15th and 16th centuries, cartographers equipped with improved technology and the Greek continental frame would set out to map more of the world. The Nile and the Don River were perceived to be inadequate to separate these significant landmasses. A boundary separating the contiguous Asia from Europe had to be established. By the 18th century, Europe would be shown to be separated from Asia by a complex line running southward through the Urals, climbing in its southern extent to the Ural River, covering through some two-thirds the length of the Caspian Sea, and turning sharply to run northwestward along the crest of the Caucasus Mountains.
By this time, both the concept and the language used to think and talk about continents had deeply changed. “Continents”, a term described as the continuous nature of land by the classical Greeks, was now being used to describe what constituted a special separation of lands.
By the turn of the twentieth century The Oxford English Dictionary recounted the following:
Formerly two continents were reckoned, the Old and the New; the former comprising Europe, Asia, and Africa, which form one continuous mass of land; the latter, North and South America, forming another. These two continents are strictly islands, distinguished only by their extent. Now it is usual to reckon four or five continents, Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, North and South; the great island of Australia is sometimes reckoned as another.
Between the 18th and 19th century, debates emerged about the place of Australia and the pacific islands in global cartography. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Australia and the pacific island were portrayed as a distinct part of the world, and eventually would be recognized as Oceania. By the mid-20th century, American scholars would come to insist that North and South America deserved separate designations. This was also the period when Antarctica was added to the list, despite its lack of human inhabitants.
In 1905, during the heyday of geography’s “quantitative revolution,” the scheme received a new form of scientific legitimization from a scholar who set out to calculate, through rigorous mathematical equations, the exact number of the world’s continents.” The resulting seven-continent system quickly gained acceptance throughout the United States, world geography textbooks published in Britain and the United States almost invariably used the continental system as their organizing framework. North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania (Australia plus New Zealand), Africa, and Antarctica. Australia as a continent along with a series of isolated and continentally attached islands would replace Oceania as a scheme.
Despite the implicit European bias of the continental scheme, its more recent incarnations have been exported to the rest of the world without, so far as we are aware, provoking any major critical response or local modification.
To suggest there was one name Indigenous African people used to describe the entire continent, would be to argue that classical Khoisan, Mende, Igbo, Shona, Gikuyu, Luo, Ewe, Nuer and the multiplicity of cultural communities around the vast landmass, all had a unified metageographical concept, and that this concept was perfectly aligned with that of the classic Greeks.
Pan-Africanists and Afrocentricists who go looking for an indigenous name for Africa, still rely on the Greek continental frame that they have inherited through European imperialism. It is not enough to look for an indigenous name for Africa, one must also consider indigenous metageographical concepts and ideas to understand the landmass.
Through the late Classical Era, Africa was known by its “whole, or by its parts,” as Libya, Ethiopia, Nubia, Azania, and Alekbulan. Africa has also not always been considered a single geographic cultural unit. Those who we now describe as Egyptians or other North Africans were integrated into a Mediterranean culture whose political and social centre flowed through several millennia. Somalis and Ethiopians were deeply culturally connected to Oman, Yemen, and even India.
The criterion for what peoples were considered “African,” if any, would have changed from one century to another. Contemporary understanding of Africa comes from contact with European imperialism in sub-saharan Africa. It was not enough for Africa to be discovered. Similar to the Americas, Africa had to be invented.
A series of ideas would have to be developed to understand sub-saharan Africans as distinct people as a result of their position in the continental frame. European anthropologists, missionaries, colonialists, and researchers constructed and communicated certain views to their European constituencies to understand and interpret the values, outlooks and practices of these peoples. Africans would also do the same. These “inventions” would intersect with the rise of European imperialism and global exploration, and would serve to further the goals of the Empire.
The invention of Africa would continue through the twentieth century, but this time through the eyes of new Africans. Professor V. Y. Mudimbe says “there are natural features, cultural characteristics, and probably values that contribute to the reality of Africa and its civilizations as constituting a totality different from those of say, Asia and Europe.”
Most African scholars constructed Africa as a region of great cultural unity with values that were communal, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and served to advance their own political priorities, of independence and nation formation. These formed the foundational underpinning of Pan-Africanism.
Pan-Africanism served as a political ideology, philosophy, and ethical system. It served to promote values that it claims to be the product of African civilisations and promoted the struggles against slavery, racism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism.
Pan-Africans built their anti-Eurocentric political philosophy on the fault lines of a deeply Eurocentric idea. In addition, they compounded their political philosophy on the frame of the nation-state they inherited and maintained Europeans style borders and continental frames.
On the unity of African people and cultures, Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “the common cultural features…do not amount to cultural unity… but they do not argue totally cultural diversity either…the notion of…common features leads in a direction of the coalescence of cultures and not in a direction towards absolute divergence. … The existence of common cultural features does not necessitate the creation of a (unified) cultural life.”
Afrocentrism is a diverse philosophy and, like any field of inquiry, there are divergent answers to any given question. The core concern of thinkers in this tradition is to illustrate the historicity of African peoples and polities.
Bernal’s Black Athena is one of the canonical texts in this field of inquiry. Over three volumes, he uses Greek poetry, mythology and texts to reconstruct the influences of Egypt and other Afro-Asiatic cultures in the construction of early Greek culture. This early Greek culture will go on to form the foundations of what becomes European civilization. He adds that during the Romantic era and the French revolution, Europeans made systematic efforts to erase the African contributions to Greek culture in an effort to reinforce European culture supremacy and legitimize terror on African peoples.
Black Athena, while exposing the racism of Romantic Europe, adopts the same faulty continental frame of Europeans. We have established early on in the essay that Aristotle and other classical Greek scholars did not consider Hellenic peoples to be European in addition, that Europe did not exist as a hegemonic concept in the era. More so, Africa did not exist as a concept in this era. The modern continental frame does not come into its maturation until the turn of the twentieth century. Did classical Egyptians consider themselves as Africans? Should this frame be used in understanding the history and politics of the Egyptian classical era?
Many classical Egyptians may have classified themselves with modern racialist terms, but racial attributes of different peoples were rarely considered significant in the classical era and were seldom employed as a measure of culture or civilization. Is it enough to consider Egypt as an African nation or solely as African,-considering that it functioned as a significant political and cultural player in a distinct Mediterranean region for millennia.
Some Afrocentrists have called for a race-based continental vision, ascribing an essentially African identity and character to all peoples who have resided in the continent, and that this virtue exclusively belongs to black-skinned Africans.
Others have argued that North African peoples are just as African as those who reside below the great dessert. This category will include those who migrated from other continents, and argues that, for example, the Arabs in North Africa should be considered in the same cultural category as the Mede, Zulu, or Xhosa. The notion of Northern and Southern African unity cannot be seriously maintained as any real cultural ties between both regions would have been severed since the 7th century. North Africans are linked more culturally to Romans than they are to the Xhosa peoples.
There is also a difficult case to make about a united, classical, Sub-Saharan African cultural zone. For example, the Khoisan people, who are the Indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, form a distinct cultural cluster, and differ greatly from Bantu regions. The history of the Ethiopian peoples and those of the horn of Africa have been linked deeply to Yemen and the Middle East for millennia and also to India in more recent history. The island nation of Madagascar was deeply and culturally connected to Oman and Southern Arabia. Martin and Wagger write, “Even the notion of a unified sub-Saharan cultural zone is difficult .. modern slave trade in some ways created Africa out of many, one would still have to limit this latter-day unified Africa to the area south of the Sahara.”
Some Afrocentrists are not concerned with the vast cultural, social, and historical diversity that exists in different regions of Africa, and argue for a racial unity amongst Black Africa. They argue that race is not just a way of being, but also a way of thinking. To them, races constitute discrete subspecies of the human family and are characterized by inherently different modes of life and patterns of thinking. One is black or white not merely in skin tone, but in one’s very essence and each race has a manifest destiny !
“Cheikh Anta Diop argues for the existence of two fundamental races, the black and the white, each associated with a distinct portion of the earth, the South and the North. Each of these human subspecies, in turn, owes its fundamental character to the environment in which it developed. The Black race, encompassing both Africans and other southern peoples (such as the Dravidians of India), originated in a realm of abundance and agricultural productivity, which engendered “a gentle, idealistic, peaceful nature, endowed with a spirit of justice and gaiety.”
He continues, “The ferocity of nature in the Eurasian steppes, the barrenness of those regions, the overall circumstances of the material conditions, were to create instincts necessary for survival in such an environment. . . . In the unrewarding activity that the physical environment imposed on man, there was already implied materialism, anthropomorphism, . . . and the secular spirit. . . . Man in those regions long remained a nomad. He was cruel.”This is not a mainstream representation of Afrocentrism, Afrocentrism is not an innovative response to Eurocentrism; it is merely an inverted one.
Afrocentrism is a wide and diverse field, and it does not have the historical and institutional power of Eurocentrism, but it is because we take this discourse seriously that we seek to critique it.
It adopts faulty models of geographical reasoning and in place of Europeans, priorities Africans with faulty considerations for the constitution of this category. It inherits the idea that continents are both physically and culturally constituted geographical units. It constitutes that the configuration of landmasses, this time Africa, must correspond to the distribution of cultural traits and social forms. This is a slippage of categories.
What is consistent in science is that cultural connections vary across human landscapes. Racial characteristics are biologically superficial, and do not challenge the fundamental biological unity of humankind. “Pure” races have never existed in isolation, and each racial characteristic has its own geographic distributional pattern. The 1963 Encyclopedia Britannica: “The global map of skin color, for example, bears little resemblance to the map of hair form or to the map of head shape. One can thus map races only if one selects one particular trait as more essential than others.”
There is nothing particularly distinct about the Eurocentric worldview. Ethnic groups will prioritize themselves in the mapping of their worldview. Contemporary maps have given both cultural and visual priority to European culture and civilization. Much of how we understand Asia is through a Chinese-centric lens. Afrocentrism forms an opposition to a radical Eurocentric hegemonic worldview but in doing so, adopts the same faulty modes of geographic reasoning.
The continental frame misleads us into making faulty associations between human cultural groupings, and perpetuates a covert form of environmental determinism. Both Pan-Africanism and Afrocentrism fall victim to this.
We assume the continent itself, through some unspecified process (maybe time, maybe history) imparts an essence to its human inhabitants and can ultimately shape human and cultural groups.
The result of this process leads us to assume there is something “Asian” about Asians, and this must be a distinct category from Africans because, surely, there is something uniquely “African” about Africans. With this idea comes a racialist idea of geographic spaces.
This notion of Africans as Black people, Asians as Yellow people, Europeans as White, and Americans as Red are deeply embedded in vocabulary . For Africans, it often means not acknowledging North Africans, or Dutch, or Indian, or Yemeni or Lebanese settlers as fully African. It also means Africans in Europe and the Americas are categorized as second-class citizens constantly chastised to “go back to where they came from.” These racialist categories have deeply consequential and political implications to the rights and freedoms of these groups whose communities have existed on the continents for generations.
Benevolent thinkers argue that a divine intelligence created each people group as distinct and formed them to serve a special function. Racial supremacists argue that one group, by virtue of their skin and continental/cultural supremacy, deserves world dominance. This geographical determinism has its origins in Anglo-American academy, in the early 21st century. It says, “Temperate climates alone produced vigorous minds, and progressive societies, while tropical heat produced races marked by laziness and stupefaction.” Henry Thomas Buckle in his massively influential History of Civilization in England also writes that the “feebleness” of nature in Europe allowed for the development of “thought. Asia and Africa were often viewed as continents of climatic rigor and physio-graphic uniformity, which put them on a divergent development trajectory from Europe.
Buckle neglects continents having significant variance in climate, geography, fauna and flora. “The fauna of northern Africa is more closely allied to that of northern Eurasia than it is to the “Ethiopian” fauna of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Arabia.” Geologically, continents are temporary landmasses that will grow, divide, and reform over time.
Secondly, Europe as we have established is contiguous with Asia. If continents truly are uniform and shape the cultural formations of its inhabitants, what must be true in one should also be true in another. This discredits the notion of the bonds of geographical concordance.
On the question of racial categories, a global mapping of global genetic patterns by L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paulo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazzas concludes that racial categories are genetically meaningless. The authors conclude that “while one can identify ‘clusters of populations’ exhibiting genetic similarities, such clusters simply cannot be ‘identified with races.’” Their mapping shows “the northern Chinese are shown to be more closely related to northern Europeans than they are to southern Chinese and Africans, far from forming a uniform race, actually show more genetic diversity than do all of the world’s non-African peoples put together.” Racial categories are deeply consequential in societies and cultures, but they fail as a legitimate category on biogeographical grounds.
In place of a continental scheme, it is more efficacious to think of world regional aggregations. These regions are not bound internationally by the borders of nation states, or externally by environmental or geographic traits. Regions prioritise historical process over geographical land masses.
This framework is particularly useful for African states, as political boundaries in the region were created through colonization. Using the frame of regions, multiple parts of a country can exist in cultural regions, along with people across a vast body of water.
Countries like Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and Kazakhstan, all of which overlap the conventional continental frame, operate much better within the regional framework. They are not forced to sit neatly in any single continent, but we understand that they more so function as hybrid regions in their own right.
There is no singular African culture. Neither is there truly a coalition of “African” peoples. The issue is not with culture, or people, but with Africa. It is not useful to think of Africa as a unique geographical zone, but a region that is constituted by a myriad of sub-regional cultural zones. These cultural zones are not restricted by nation-state borders or landmasses. They emerge through the forced and natural migratory patterns over millennia and historical processes.
The conceptual priority is not the geographic land mass but the people, communities and societies. There are people and societies who live in overlapping spatial and cultural silhouettes, which over millennia and centuries, form assemblages of ideas, practices, and social institutions that give their communities distinction and coherence. The expressions are not bound by metageographical landmasses and are not distinct to any one group or region. They emerge out of sheer human expression.
Professor Kwame Gyeke writes, “To identify an idea or value as part of the cultural tradition of a people does not imply that it was necessarily originated by those people, neither does it imply that a particular set of ideas or values is distinctive of a people, that it uniquely belongs to the tradition of that people” or place.
In this regional frame, there is no single Africa, no “giant of Africa”, no Afrocentrism, and a different type of Pan-Africanism. Here, a United States of Africa is a political decision that emerges from a geographically bound community of interest. It will not reflect an “African way” or “African Philosophy,” or an “African Spirit” but a choice between neighbours and/or strategic political decision by a community of interest
No matter how faulty the meaning of Africa is, it is a powerful meaning. And like other regions of the world, it did not name itself. The fault is not with the name, but the idea behind the name.
The impacts of European industrial human trafficking, and foreign military and political occupation in sub-Saharan Africa have caused a coalescence not of culture or cultural life, but of history. The impacts of this violence and historical disruption have engendered the need for a new social reality and created a new public square, an idea to express a people whose day has been interrupted. Africa. The experiences differ vastly from Algeria, to Uganda, to South Africa, but the pain and the memory linger.
Africa is not a fixed geography, it is a social idea. African Latin America, the West Indies and Caribbean islands, African Americans, Siddi, Sri Lanka Kaffirs—all constitute non continental hybrid cultural regions that are equally African, and equally non-African cultures. There are also distinct regions on the continent that form hybrid regions between the Mediterranean, and South West Asia. And also zones that combine and overlap with varied settler populations. European imperialism has been the ultimate historical and cultural force that has aggregated the sub-Saharan region.
It is not useful or empirical to replace a faulty Eurocentric frame with an equally faulty Afrocentric frame only to rid one of a name. It is also important to remember that industrialized human trafficking, colonization, and political occupation is not unique to African peoples. To varying degrees, these forces have shaped human history of various peoples around the world over millennia, and political and cultural occupations are ongoing to this day.
Western European colonization has transformed the way we see the world. What their maps have shown us is impossible to unsee. A clearer vision of the world requires new maps and new ways of understanding geography. What we require are not just Afrocentric maps, but unearthing the metaphors of oceans, mountains and skies, and learning from such concepts. We must develop a richer appreciation of the land as unique sights of knowledge and its material and non-material components.
Until then, what we have is a name that we did not choose and all its problems and we must respond to this name with problems of our own. Ultimately, it does not just matter what name you are called, but what name you respond to.